In 2006, Carlos Chuquillanqui traveled from Lima, Peru to Pyongyang, North Korea. Chuquillanqui — a virologist from the International Potato Center (CIP) who is specialized in the production and management of basic potato tuber seed — was invited to train his North Korean counterparts on how to identify potato viruses in tuber seeds. Before he arrived in the Asian country, Chuquillanqui had no idea that he, too, would pick up some valuable knowledge — two weeks later he returned to Lima with “soil-less” technology that would increase potato seed production fivefold.
“When I arrived in North Korea, I saw that indeed some of their potato tuber seeds were infected. But as I looked around further, I was dumbfounded – they had a highly-advanced aeroponic system that grew seeds suspended in the air,” recalls the Peruvian virologist.
“It was very impressive and contradictory at the same time – they had this amazing, sophisticated technology but just lacked a little training on how to keep their seeds clean,” he added.
Chuquillanqui returned to his office at CIP’s headquarters in Lima where he has been employed since 1977, and immediately began developing aeroponics to grow potato tuber seeds free of virus. Six years later, CIP has transferred this aeroponic technology to ten countries across four continents – Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru and Uzbekistan.
Following is an interview with Carlos Chuquillanqui who gets to the root — or in this case, the “tuber” — of aeroponic seed production:
Q: What are the advantages of an aeroponic system for growing potato tuber seed?
Chuquillanqui: To begin with, this new technology offers higher yields per plant, and, in the long-term, at a significantly lower cost. Aeroponic systems require much less water and fewer fertilizers than conventional systems; however, the initial set-up cost to install the system is higher.
Another advantage is that since the potato seed roots are suspended in the air in closed containers, the plants are free from pathogens (disease). Also, the aeroponic system promotes excellent circulation of air which strengthens the roots.
The environment benefits, too, since no damaging chemicals are used to disinfect potentially disease-ridden soil or moss as used in other systems. The aeroponic seeds grow roots hanging in complete darkness (in dark plastic bags) and are nourished by a spray system. They are free from infectious disease and produce up to five times more seeds than conventional techniques.
Furthermore, the seeds can be harvested at any seed size – from 5 to 30 grams – since the fertilizing sprays that are applied to the roots allow the plant to grow without interrupting its vegetative cycle of up to 180 days. Again, this is not possible with conventional techniques.
The seed is the first step for a successful potato harvest – without quality seed it is impossible to have quality production. In Peru, we have tested this method of production in the highlands with three improved potato seed varieties – Perricholi, Canchan and Yungay. In all three cases, the aeroponic system yielded from 5 to 10 times more seeds than traditional potted systems.
Q: Are there any disadvantages?
Chuquillanqui: As I just mentioned, the initial set-up costs are much higher than conventional systems. Also, one must be very careful in managing the nutrition component of the system since the spray is the only source of plant nourishment. If the nutrients are not balanced, production loss could be high. Strict hygiene standards are also imperative to ensure the roots do not get bacteria or fungus.
Q: Is this system ideal for urban areas in developing countries?
Chuquillanqui: Absolutely. As there is a considerable decrease of agricultural soils in the world, the “soil-less method” will be an important production alternative in urban and peri-urban areas, and particularly in developing countries affected by climate change since this method is adaptable to any climate.
Q: Would you consider this system to be “Climate-smart”?
Chuquillanqui: Aeroponics yield higher production using fewer natural resources and no harmful chemicals compared to conventional methods; this efficiency is win-win for the environment and producers.
To know more:
A study conducted from 2008 to 2010 in Peru found that in the Coastal environment mini-tubers of ten potato cultivars established under an aeroponic system showed more significant increases in vegetative cycles, height, and dry weight than in the Andean Highland environment. The different response was determined to be linked with the genotype effect. (Mateus, 2010).
Another study, from 2010 to 2012, evaluated the effect of pruning for controlling etiolation and the response in the yield; and sought to determine whether the type of starting material influences the response to the pruning. Rooted cuttings were found to favor an increase in the total weight of tubers in both varieties and both types of pruning. Pruning was positive, reducing the size of the plant without significantly reducing the number of mini-tubers. The harvest index was linked with type of material and genotype. (Barona, 2012).