Chips with everything: science helps the humble potato take its rightful place on the organic shelf

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The humble, non-organic British carrot costs 90p a kilo, a good 30p less than its organic cousin and the bog-standard onion fetches £1 a kilo, against an eye-watering £1.50 for the unfertilised variety. But when it comes to the price differentials that deter millions of people from buying organic food, no product has suffered quite like the potato.

The humble, non-organic British carrot costs 90p a kilo, a good 30p less than its organic cousin and the bog-standard onion fetches £1 a kilo, against an eye-watering £1.50 for the unfertilised variety. But when it comes to the price differentials that deter millions of people from buying organic food, no product has suffered quite like the potato.

The humble spud has been blighted by virulent strains of fungi for centuries and has proved one of the most difficult vegetables to convert to organic production. One of the organic industry's most expensive and poorest performing products, it retails at twice the price of non-organic, compared with the 30 per cent premium on organic carrots.

But salvation arrives today with news of a scientific breakthrough that promises to bring a much better range of British organic varieties to supermarket shelves. After months of work, Newcastle University academics and the Soil Association have established at least 10 varieties of potato which may be nurtured without the traditional assistance of copper oxychloride sprays - a deterrent against one of the most virulent forms of blight.

The university's Nafferton Ecological Farming Group has undertaken breeding programmes to develop varieties which are resistant to "late light blight" - the bane of the potato industry. This strikes after wet, humid weather and was the cause of the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. It continues to plague crops in the later stages of their development.

In an agronomic project involving 13 partner nations across the EU, "designer composts" were also created to speed the growth of plants, making them stronger and more immune by the time the near-inevitable blight strikes.

The result is a completely new set of potato varieties. They have names like Eve Balfour and Lady Balfour and they can be cultivated without copper and should boost the meagre four per cent of shoppers who currently buy organic vegetables. Other varieties of the "super tatties" - as they are inevitably already known among some Scottish agronomists - were developed more than 40 years ago on a family farm in Hungary and it is only now that scientists have investigated them. Tubers of the Sarpo Mira, Sarpo Axonia and Sarpo Tominia varieties, as they are called, have already been snapped up by Scottish growers.

Sales of organic food rose by more than 10 per cent last year - twice the rate of the ordinary grocery market, according to figures released in November by the Soil Association. The value of the industry in the UK is estimated to be around £1.12bn.

Many consumers buy organic produce for its perceived health benefits, the latest of which was reported by scientists in California who said yesterday that organic varieties of tomato ketchup contained up to three times more of the cancer-fighting chemical lycopene than non-organic brands.

But while local provenance is an important factor for many consumers, a fifth of organic meat sold in the UK remains imported and potatoes are imported even when in season here.

Consumers are also concerned about prices. Research last year by market research company Mintel showed that while 72 per cent of people in the 45 to 54 age range had gone organic, supermarkets and producers still had to convince the under-35s. And 35 per cent of those surveyed across all age ranges said organic foods are far too expensive.

Another study, for Morgan Stanley, found organic foods can cost up to 63 per cent more. The analysis found a 56 per cent mark-up in London, 31 per cent in Bristol and Birmingham and 63 per cent in Southampton.

Professor Carlo Leifert, leader of the Newcastle University team, said he believed the new varieties of potato had the potential to make more people go organic. "It's taken a lot of investigation to get this far," he said. "This project has ensured that organic potatoes of the future will be more widely available."

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said: "Organic potato-growing can be technically challenging and we hope that these blight-resistant varieties will reduce our reliance on imports."

Now all the farmers have to do is persuade the supermarkets to stock the new varieties. "Supermarkets are notoriously conservative," said Professor Leifert. "It can take a long time to persuade them about the merits of new products."

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