Potato chips are America’s classic snack: crunchy, salty, greasy and tasting of potato or flavored with sour cream, vinegar, BBQ, maple bacon or Cajun dill.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Americans eat more potato chips than any other nation; more than four pounds a person a year, according to Potatoes USA. About 22 percent of the U.S. potato crop—nearly 7,500 million pounds annually—are made into chips. Consumers spend more than $7 billion dollars buying potato chips at retailers. And USDA’s Agricultural Research Service helps ensure that the country always has the perfect potato for frying into chips.
ARS’ potato breeding program has already produced some major winners in the potato chip category. One is Atlantic, a variety ARS developed and released in 1976, that remains the number two chipping variety in the United States.
But potato producers have been ready for an Atlantic replacement for years. Atlantic is vulnerable to internal heat necrosis, where darker spots or flecks form in the flesh of the potato particularly in sandy soils during warm, dry seasons. It is also susceptible to Hollow Heart, a condition in which a hollow depression forms in the center of the potato when moisture levels are very uneven while the potatoes are growing.
"But diseases and pests keep evolving, so we need to keep breeding new varieties to stay ahead of them," explained Research Geneticist Richard Novy, with the Small Grains and Potato Germplasm Research Unit in Aberdeen, Idaho.
Every year, scientists in the ARS potato breeding program make thousands of chipping potato crosses with an eye to improving not only disease and pest resistance, but also achieving perfect potato chip color and proper sugar levels, good storage ability and a whole host of superior agronomic traits such as yield, time to harvest and tuber size.
Novy has a very promising new chipping potato in the pipeline at Aberdeen, known right now as A13125-3C, which is showing much potential in Idaho and in the National Chip Processing Trial. ARS participates alongside universities and industry in the NCPT, which is run through Potatoes USA, to test potatoes simultaneously at sites all over the country.
A13125-3C won’t get a catchy variety name until after it successfully completes several years of trials and then goes through a tissue culture process to remove any viruses and bacteria to allow the production of certified seed for producers.
"By sharing access to germplasm and testing nationally, you can more quickly identify candidates having variety potential for the chipping industry," Novy said. "Such a program helps regional chip companies to identify promising new potato varieties for their production of chips."
Across the country from the Aberdeen lab, ARS Plant Research Geneticist Paul Collins in Orono, Maine, is concentrating on breeding chipping potatoes with better disease resistance for eastern potato growers. One major focus is potatoes that can better withstand Late Blight, a fungal disease that causes an annual loss of $210 million.
"Most diseases we are working on can affect the farmer’s ability to produce a potato crop and they can have a staggering economic impact," Collins said. "Potato Virus Y, for example, causes annual losses of $103 million in yield and tuber quality.
While ARS scientists are breeding potatoes to fight diseases, most consumers do not have to worry about their snack being affected by any of these viruses. The chipping varieties for the snack aisle, usually Atlantic, Snowden and Lamoka, are not found in the grocery store’s produce bins.
"Our goal is to breed potato varieties which are resistant to these diseases, and with other agronomic traits that are important to farmers while also having quality traits like color, shape and size that are important to consumers and processors," Collins said.