E Green Global, an agricultural biotech company, has scored the world’s first-ever success in commercialising the Microtuber Technology, allowing for the fast production of cheap, disease-free seed potatoes, and bringing hopes of resolving global food insecurity.
Estimated to be worth around $140 billion in the global market, potatoes are one of the most important food crops worldwide, acting as a major staple for billions. Over the last decade, potatoes have become a critical food-security crop needed to accommodate the rising demand for food due to population growth. However, boosting potato production is far from a simple task. In fact, the humble potato is surprisingly difficult to cultivate, especially on a commercial scale.
According to an analysis by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the productivity for potatoes over the past 50 years rose considerably less compared to its staple counterparts like wheat, corn, and rice. Even with technological advancements, scientists have noted the great challenge of boosting potato yield due to the threat of disease and other limitations in current production methods.
In theory, cultivating potatoes is simple: take a bundle of potatoes, let them sprout, and plant them in the ground. This method follows vegetative propagation, whereby farmers can propagate genetically identical tubers from parent potatoes. But this approach can be highly problematic when scaled up in large farms since potatoes are susceptible to over 30 diseases, many of which are viral and can be inherited. Therefore, one compromised potato could easily lead to generations of failed, infected crops.
To prevent such a scenario, commercial potato farmers have begun to adopt the greenhouse system to produce seed potatoes, some in the form of Minitubers. Seed potatoes are grown under special lab conditions so that they can be guaranteed to be virus-free. However, only a few countries with advanced agricultural industries have been able to adopt this system due to difficulties in implementation and its lengthy process. With the Minituber technology, it still takes about five to six years to grow certificated seed potatoes.
Taking note of these limitations, Keejoon Shin and his team at E Green Global (EGG), an agricultural biotech company that he co-founded in 2009, began exploring ways to improve traditional potato production. EGG has since found a way to speed up and standardise seed potato production in a closed lab environment to deliver virus-free seed potatoes at low cost with their new Microtuber Technology.
At EGG, scientists focus on producing Microtuber seed potatoes, weighing about 1 gram, instead of Minitubers, which weigh around 5 to 30 grams. They first take the apical meristems of potatoes and multiply the stems before growing them in a dark environment to mimic the underground settings in which potatoes are usually grown. By doing so, the stems can be stimulated to grow and in three months, tubers begin to form. Because the Microtuber system produces seed potatoes in a highly controlled lab environment without the need for soils, which may harbour disease-carrying insects, there is a low risk of viral infections.
Besides being disease-free, EGG’s novel innovation is also significantly simpler, faster, and cheaper compared to conventional production systems. Normally, farmers can only harvest potatoes once or twice a year. In terms of quality, even with the latest Minituber technology, the resulting seed potatoes often suffer high loss rates due to storage difficulties and low germination and seedling emergence rates.
Fortunately, EGG’s Microtuber Technology has succeeded where many have failed. The initial six-year wait needed to bring Minitubers to farms can now be brought down to less than two years with Microtubers. This is possible because the Microtuber Technology can accelerate production cycles by drastically reducing the proliferation steps usually required to produce certified seed potatoes. Additionally, EGG boasts the additional advantage of producing Microtubers with distinctly tough skin and high dry matter content of over 30 per cent, which would benefit farmers with simpler storage and lower transport costs as compared to conventional seed potatoes.
In terms of cost, the Microtuber Technology is also considerably cheaper. The seed potatoes produced by EGG can be sold at economical prices because they can be produced throughout the entire year and sowed directly without additional seedling processes. Furthermore, their new approach has been determined to be highly versatile and able to work with any potato variety. Therefore, EGG can also produce seeds for rare local varieties on demand, and potentially help local farmers to preserve native potato varieties. In future, they also hope to innovate more than just potatoes and expand its Microtuber Technology to other crops like sweet potato, cassava, onion, and garlic.
At present, EGG is working to spread their technique to various countries including the US, China, Canada, and Korea. They also plan to delve deeper into technologies related to biological resources, like Artificial Intelligence and SmartFarm, to apply them to agricultural research. With an aim to use their technology to provide better, faster, cheaper, and more crops to the world, EGG hopes to aid food crises and relieve world hunger all while maintaining sustainability and profitability for farmers and consumers worldwide.