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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beetle Nipping at Potato Profits

APA Colorado beetle feasting on a potato plant leaf on a farm north of Moscow.
ROGACHEVO, Central Russia -- Maria Patrikeyeva gingerly picks a black-and-yellow striped beetle off a potato plant, carries the bug to the edge of the field and stomps on it.

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

The growing damage inflicted by the fingernail-sized beetle and the late blight fungus -- both unwittingly imported with humanitarian food aid during Soviet times -- has sparked fears of an epidemic to rival the Irish potato blight in the mid-1800s, which caused a famine that killed 1 million and forced a mass migration.

"If there was a catastrophe, it could have a devastating effect on the economy, on people's nutrition," said K.V. Raman, a professor from Cornell University in the United States who visited Russia in August as part of a team trying to avert such a crisis. "We could have a mass migration of people. It could destabilize the entire region."

The problem is not yet approaching that scale, said Patrikeyeva, a potato expert at St. Petersburg's Vaotato seed company.

The Colorado beetle may be a tougher challenge. The most promising solution is a genetically modified potato, but in a country steeped in traditional agriculture methods where pesticide use is often frowned upon, persuading Russians to plant and eat it will be hard. The government also must give its approval, and crossing that hurdle is still years away.

"There is a psychological obstacle that is not so easy to overcome," said Patrikeyeva, who has studied potatoes for 40 years. "Most Russians want to stick as close to nature as possible."

Russia trails only China in production of potatoes. The industry is dominated by so-called dacha farmers, who harvest their crop on small plots that make up nearly 93 percent of the country's nearly 3.2 million hectares of potato fields and produce about 31.6 million tons of potatoes annually.

These farmers may be astute business people -- earning a small profit from roadside sales that fetch about 30 cents a kilogram -- but many lack the space and the money to make big investments in protective pesticides.

They are also afraid.

Nina Prokhorova scraped the charcoal-colored evidence of disease from a white-skinned Nevsky potato and said excitedly that "of course" she would be interested in disease-resistant potatoes. Told that the potatoes would be genetically engineered to kill the beetle's appetite, she frowned. She also gaped at the proposed price of 30 cents for a kilogram of genetically modified seed, but said she might consider planting an experimental patch.

Allan Parker, executive vice president of Dokagene Technologies, a Canadian-Russian joint venture that specializes in producing pathogen-free potato seed in Russia, refused to be discouraged.

Dokagene recently won permission from the government to test plant some genetically modified potatoes on its farm here, and Parker sees a market and a need: "When it comes down to the people who need to produce enough food in their garden, who are depending on this garden but are facing the Colorado beetle ... and a solution becomes available, they'll choose it."