The New Zealand Seed Potato Certification Scheme was established in 1948 and has been running continuously since then. Like many schemes around the world, it was established to improve the quality of seed potatoes and to provide commercial growers assurance that seed lines meet a series of minimum standards for disease freedom and trueness to type. The scheme is administered by the New Zealand Seed Potato Certification Authority which is a sub-committee reporting to the Potatoes New Zealand (PNZ) Board. In 2021, PNZ embarked on a significant initiative to enhance the quality and traceability of certified seed. PNZ has successfully improved the seed industry’s efficiency, reliability, and quality. In this article, we delve into the important changes that have been made to improve the Seed Certification Scheme and the dedicated team behind it.
Certified Seed: The Foundation of Potato Production
Certified seed is the cornerstone of the potato industry, providing the processed, fresh market, and export sectors with the highest quality planting material. It serves as the starting point for all potato production, making it a vital component of the industry’s success. PNZ’s Seed Certification Scheme plays a pivotal role in ensuring that this essential foundation meets rigorous quality standards.
Geographic Concentration of Seed Production
Approximately 95% of New Zealand’s seed potato production occurs in the Canterbury region. For the remaining 5%, which is grown in the North Island PNZ relies on a network of dedicated contractors who report their activities to ensure quality and compliance.
The Dedicated PNZ Team
The day-to-day management of the Seed Certification Scheme used to be contracted out but in 2021 PNZ took on this role internally and today it carried out by a team of four dedicated PNZ staff members. Among them are Iain Kirkwood who has over 40 years’ experience in the global potato industry, who serves as the key contact point for the program, Tristan Hickman, with 13 years of industry experience, Cyril Hickman with an impressive 27-year industry tenure, and Paula Lleras, an agronomist from Argentina who joined PNZ in 2019, bringing her valuable background in potatoes to the team.
Seed Certification Program: Field and Tuber Inspections
The Seed Certification Program covers two main areas: field inspection and tuber inspection. These inspections are conducted meticulously to maintain the highest standards throughout the seed production process.
Field inspections are carried out annually from November to March and consist of two inspections per crop per season. Field inspectors focus on ensuring that the cultivar is true to type, checking for signs of disease, maintaining crop hygiene, and ensuring crop segregation.
Tuber inspections, on the other hand, take place from April to October and culminate in the issuance of certification labels, marking the completion of the certification process for each line of seed.
Role of the Seed Potato Certification Authority
The NZ Seed Potato Certification Authority is a pivotal regulatory body responsible for overseeing and managing the Seed Certification Scheme for potatoes. Established in 1948, this authority plays a crucial role in upholding the highest quality and disease-free standards in the nation’s seed potato production. It ensures that certified seed potatoes meet stringent criteria for trueness to type and disease freedom, assuring commercial growers of the quality of the planting material. Under the guidance of the PNZ Board, the Seed Certification Authority has taken on the responsibility of administering and continuously improving the program. This includes in-house management, dedicated data management, and the PNZ Seed Team conducting rigorous field and tuber inspections.
Unique In-House Approach
The move to handle the Seed Certification Scheme in-house is unique within the primary sector. Previously contracted out, this shift has enabled PNZ to enhance traceability and data management while improving overall program efficiency.
Also, in 2021 PNZ established a dedicated database in order to improve the recording of seed certification activities and as well as improving the traceability of seed lines.
Challenges Faced by the Industry
The potato industry, like many others, faces various challenges. These include the continuous need for vigilance against new diseases and emergent biosecurity risks, rising seed prices, increased production costs, and heightened end-user expectations.
Establishing a new potato variety in New Zealand is a patient process spanning multiple plant generations, taking years before it’s market-ready. This journey involves planting seeds, selecting the best performers, and maintaining quality standards.
Many new potato varieties are introduced from around the world, and evaluating their suitability for the local climate and market is a trial-and-error process. This process has for many years been carried out by the seed merchants, and is often undervalued service provided to the potato industry.
Dedicated Team Challenges
The Seed Certification team at PNZ often faces demanding conditions, when conducting inspections in the field. Weather conditions, especially during peak times, can put pressure on inspections, but the team remains committed to supporting growers.
The potato cultivation landscape is rapidly changing, with an increasing number of potato cultivars being introduced each year. Cyril recalls a time when there were only a dozen potato cultivars to work with. Today, the team faces the daunting task of managing up to 110 different varieties, presenting unique challenges.
One significant challenge is comprehending the nuances of each potato variety. Some are bred to combat scab or potato cyst nematode (PCN), while others serve different purposes. Staying updated on these traits is crucial for growers’ success.
Despite its challenges, Cyril emphasises that the seed potato industry is rewarding. The industry’s adaptability and commitment to quality reflect its resilience and potential for the future. It is the industry’s very ability to navigate these challenges that underscores its strength and promise.
Looking ahead, PNZ’s team aims to continuously improve its support to the seed industry and provide additional services to all sectors of the potato industry. They continuously invest in training to stay updated on biosecurity, food safety, and health and safety practices, demonstrating their commitment to industry growth and improvement.
Despite the many challenges it faces, the New Zealand seed potato industry thrives due to the dedication of organisations like Potatoes New Zealand and the hardworking individuals, growers and companies that form the seed potato industry. The commitment to quality, innovation, and continuous improvement ensures that New Zealand remains a strong player in the global potato industry.