Wisconsin researchers lead SCRI grant
University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Paul Bethke and A.J. Bussan are overseeing a team of 23 researchers in a two-year, $3.7 million Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) grant sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
The SCRI grant, titled "Improved breeding and variety evaluation methods to reduct acrylamide content and increase quality potato products," was announced in October and represents a national effort by potato researchers and the industry to reduce acrylamide content in process potatoes. The stated goal is to reduce acrylamide levels in both potato chips and french fries through the development of new potato varieties. The research also could lead to unanticipated gains for other sectors of the industry, Bethke said.
Bethke and Bussan are faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the Department of Horticulture. Bethke also is a research plant physiologist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service.
Bethke, the project director for the grant, described the grant as possibly the largest concentration of potato researchers working on a single project and common goal. The grant also represents industry-wide research and Extension effort toward commercialization of improved potato varieties with focus on enhanced end-product value.
Bethke described his role as the point person for the research community and Bussan as the point person for communication with growers, processors and end users.
The project actually began in 2010 with funding provided by the U.S. Potato Board and chip processors for National Chip Processing Trials (NCPT). The SCRI funded activities begin in 2012 and are integrated with NCPT and National Fry Processing Trials (NFPT).
The entire process is scheduled for four years, and the grant will receive an additional $4 million for the final two years as long as the researchers meet their goals and file progress reports.
"The whole goal of this project is to get more involvement from every level of the industry sooner to really make sure all the voices that should be heard have an opportunity to be heard," Bethke said.
The SCRI Acrylamide Research Advisory Committee wanted to avoid repeating the experiences learned from Premier Russet where consumer attributes limited utilization for an otherwise outstanding variety.
"Premier Russet is this fantastic potato that didn't meet end-user expectations," Bethke said.
"It's very easy for a breeding program to assess things like color of a fried product or sugars of a raw product or disease resistance. Premier was exceptional in many ways," Bethke said, "but then you get to consumer attributes like taste and texture ... that are really dependent on the commercial scale processing line and the needs of the individual company. Those are things that we as a research community have a very hard time assessing."
That's why the research community across the country welcomes the involvement of the process industry toward commercialization of new chip and fry varieties.
There are many challenges during the course of these trials, but one of the biggest challenges is the compressed four-year time frame, Bussan said.
"We have very ambitious seed production goals that are part of these variety development and commercialization process," Bussan said.
"We're hoping that the grant provides us with an opportunity to address some of the challenges that we faced in the recent past with viruses and other issues in breeder seed and in the selection process," he said.
"That said, we have to make our decisions on lines we want to move forward right now so that we can produce seed, so that we have enough clean seed for field production in 2013. That's probably the biggest challenge," Bussan said.
"It's terribly compressed," said Bethke about the time frame. "I look at it as a terrific opportunity to see how much we can get done in a short time."
Bethke expressed confidence that the coordinated efforts of the researchers and industry partners will not only make inroads on the acrylamide issue but that their research will develop solutions for other problems.
"I'm quite confident we're going to make progress on the acrylamide problem," Bethke said. "How can we not? We've got a fantastic research team and a terrific advisory committee. We can also set a precedent for how we tackle some other big problems that show up in the future."