This Europe: Bugs and blight threaten potato harvest in Russia

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The Independent Online

Maria Patrikeyeva gingerly picks a black-and-yellow striped beetle off a potato plant, carries it to the edge of the field and stomps on it.

Maria Patrikeyeva gingerly picks a black-and-yellow striped beetle off a potato plant, carries it to the edge of the field and stomps on it.

The Colorado beetle has no friends in Russia, where its appetite for potato leaves is threatening to devastate one of the country's food staples.

The damage inflicted by the fingernail-sized beetle and the late blight fungus – both unwittingly imported with humanitarian food aid in Soviet times – has sparked fears of blight to rival the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, which killed 1 million.

"We could have a mass migration. It could destabilise the entire region," said K V Raman, a professor from Cornell University who visited Russia last month as part of a team trying to avert such a crisis.

The problem is not yet on that scale, but Ms Patrikeyeva, a potato expert at St Petersburg's Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, said Russia was losing half of its potato crop to disease and insects.

Scientists from Cornell believe they have found a solution to one of the main culprits, potato late blight. The fungus thrives in European Russia's moist climate and its spores can travel airborne for several miles. They scientists have given a disease-resistant, conventionally bred potato to a Russian seed company, which promised to market it quickly.

The Colorado beetle may be a tougher challenge. The most promising solution is a genetically modified potato but, in a country steeped in traditional ways,persuading people to plant and eat it will be hard. The Russian government also must give its approval, and crossing that bureaucratic hurdle is still years away.

Russia trails only China in production of potatoes, which are known as the "second bread" and feature in most meals. (AP)

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