$18-m project to cut need for imported Irish potato seeds

BY JAVENE SKYERS Observer staff reporter skyersj@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, January 26, 2017

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THE Government has pumped more than $18 million into the establishment of an in vitro propagation of Irish potato seeds programme in a bid to reduce the country’s dependence on imported seeds.


The Government is also hoping that the programme will increase the yields of Irish potato farmers across the island.


The project, which is a component of the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries’ National Irish Potato Development Programme, will be implemented with the assistance of the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF), the Scientific Research Council (SRC), and the Northern Caribbean University (NCU).


Under the project, three laboratories at the SRC, the Government-operated Bodles Research Station and the Northern Caribbean University will be propagating first-generation Irish potato seeds through tissue culture. This is a method of biological research in which fragments of tissue from an animal or plant are transferred to an artificial, sterile environment to grow. Once the seedlings have been nurtured to a particular level, they will then be handed over to farmers.


"Jamaica spends more than US$4 million annually to import approximately 90 per cent of Irish potato seeds… these seeds are five to six years old and are sometimes carrying diseases that are not visible, resulting in poor yields for our farmers...," JSIF Managing Director Omar Sweeney said in his remarks at the signing of a memorandum of understanding for the project held on Wednesday at the ministry’s offices in New Kingston.


He noted that a crucial part of the project was the contracting of a microbiologist from Belgium, who assessed the laboratories and reported that the three labs are best suited for the project.


Sweeney added that the labs have the capacity to produce 800,000 plantlets in one year, which will in turn be capable of producing 4.8 million micro-tubers.


"So the facilities are ready, we have a modern laboratory, equipment and personnel, so we are ready to go. Getting this project off, it has a lot of significance... when it comes to helping out, especially the farmers… because they do depend upon potatoes, and so to have propagated Irish potato seeds will give the best quality and we’ll rely less on imports," Associate vice-president for graduate studies and research at NCU, Paul Gyles, told the Jamaica Observer.


Gyles’ colleague Vincent Wright, who is an associate professor at the tertiary institution, highlighted that over the years the tuber has become very susceptible to various diseases, and in vitro propagation is one of the best ways to circumvent diseases which can affect the more than 2,000 local Irish potato farmers. He added that NCU plans to work directly with the farmers to improve their current conditions under the project.


Meanwhile, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Karl Samuda, in his address, welcomed the initiative, as it will help to boost the production rate of Irish potatoes and set the country on a path to being self-sufficient when it comes to the provision of the crop.


Samuda also highlighted that the focus now must be towards increasing the acreage of irrigable lands so as to not only supply the local market, but also international markets including the European market, which he said "has taste buds that align with Jamaica as they love what we produce".


The minister explained that he does not want anyone to believe that his ministry is satisfied with where the sector is now, as there is still more to be done.


"I examine the numbers… I am not happy with the level of achievement we have made so far. I am comforted by the fact that we are growing, our trajectory is pointing in the right direction, but it is not moving fast enough; the volumes being produced are not large enough," Samuda said.


He added that he does not see agriculture as only aiding the growth of the country internally, but also externally through the earning of foreign exchange, creating more jobs and introducing technology, which he said will keep the momentum going as it is only through technology that the path of growth will be sustained.


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