There is another blight facing the potato industry in the European Union and that is legislation which threatens the dwindling number of potato farmers.
The potato has had its ups and downs since it first came to Europe in the 16th century. The French aristocracy would seek its blossom flowers as the hottest fashion accessory, while Ireland suffered the most notorious famine in Europe's history due to an onslaught of disease. For astronauts, it was worthy enough to grow in space stations. And for the Food and Agriculture Agency of the United Nations, it is the vegetable of the year: 2008 is all about potatoes.
Nonetheless, European potato production will soon face one more obstacle. Legislation is being discussed in Brussels that may remove, in the worst case scenario, up to 80 per cent of pesticides currently used from the market.
It is not easy for Philip Huxtable, director of a farming business in Yorkshire, to imagine the consequences of that scenario.
"It sounds unreal", he explains, "but one thing is certain: without pesticides there will be no large scale production of potatoes in the UK. If we lose up to 85 per cent of pesticides, a lot of people will be getting hungry."
Potatoes Cosmetic Appeal
Growers are more conscious than ever of the quality of potatoes, knowing that people will not buy their produce if they have even the slightest blemishes.
Huxtable has been in the potato business enough time to experience this shift in consumer demand. "In 1976 when I first started, whatever you grew, the market would take it. Today the product specifications are very, very tight. If you do not comply, you do not sell your potatoes."
Because of new trends in the way we eat, the market for potatoes has rapidly diversified, meeting demand for ready to eat meals and processed potato products, such as crisps and frozen chips. The British Food Standard Agency states that each food retail outlet must satisfy specific quality criteria, ‘including: variety, size, appearance, dry matter, fry colour, absence of sprouting, diseases, pest damage or disorders'.
But the risk of losing quality, and quantity, is present at every stage of the growing process.
"It is not that potatoes are difficult to grow, but it is very easy to get it wrong" adds the Yorkshire farmer, "We need to control and minimise the risk of losing our yields from the very beginning."
Modern Business Challenges
Potato farmers have a long list of pressures on their shoulders: unpredictable weather patterns, intense rains, a rise in farm labour costs, high consumer expectations, and the threat of the fungus ‘blight' that is capable of destroying entire fields in 24 hours.
As a result, the number of growers in the UK has decreased significantly over the years. The British Potato Council data shows a 70 per cent decrease in registered potato farmers since 1997. Reducing the number of pesticides in the market will represent one more major obstacle for potato growers.
"This legislation will leave farmers with nearly no solutions to protect their crops from pests and diseases. The use of fungicides by potato farmers is already strictly regulated. Further reductions of available fungicides, or imposed use limitations, may result in devastating losses. This is a serious threat," commented Friedhelm Schmider, Director General of the European Crop Protection Association, ECPA.
In March, Huxtable's farms have just delivered the potatoes used for crisp production. The production process involved storage in a dark room for six months, closely monitored for fungi and the sprouts that appear if exposed to light.
"This type of potato", said Mr. Huxtable, "is only suitable for the crisp market. If the factories do not find them good enough, there is no other place where we can sell them. They are not appropriate to sell in supermarkets. You could boil them for half an hour and they would still be hard as a rock. We need fungicides and sprout suppressants. We just need them."
Potatoes are one of the main staples in Europe's diet, to the extent that each European consumes about 93 kg per year; specifically in the UK, each person consumes 114 kg of potatoes per year.
Because of this important role, independent experts from the British Pesticide Safety Directory monitor potatoes, with samples taken from processors, wholesalers, packers, farms and pots to test traces of residues. None of the 2006 results were above the Maximum Residues Limits.
"Consumers can eat potatoes without worrying. If only they knew the attention to detail and safety that goes into growing them," adds Huxtable.
Last Line of Defence
The company Huxtable runs is already implementing ‘integrated pest management' techniques that combine the use of pesticides with biological solutions. Potato fields are in a rotational planning schedule, grown in a field only one year out of six to maintain good soil conditions and hygiene. Close attention is paid to seeds' health to decrease the need for pesticide treatment in the long run.
"We decide on pesticide applications on a field by field basis. We, as farmers and agronomists, are qualified to make this judgement and we decide very carefully. Pesticides are not cheap and the profit margins in potato growing are slim. But if we ought to do the job right, we need to use them, sparingly", adds Huxtable.
Europe, alongside Asia, is the world's major potato producer with a harvested area of 18,383,460 hectares. What will the upcoming legislation represent for the future of potato farming in Europe, in a world where demand for food is increasing in line with population growth, markets are diversifying and consumption is going global?
In the short term, consumers are likely to see consequences in their shopping basket. Data from the British Potato Council shows a strong linkage between price and production levels. Their findings indicate that a one per cent increase in production tends to a five per cent drop in price. On the contrary, high price years occur when production decreases. According to Nomisma, an Italian research Institute, in the worst case scenario, should the proposed legislation go through, European potato production will decline by 33 per cent in 2020. Will Europeans be willing to pay more for European-grown potatoes? The laws of supply and demand will place EU farmers at a disadvantage to compete with cheaper imported potatoes.
According to FAO, "the potato's positive attributes, its high nutritional value and potential to boost incomes have not received the attention they deserve from governments. National and international stakeholders need to place potato higher on the development agenda".
That is not happening in the heart of the EU. With European legislators poised to add one more obstacle to potato farming, people like Huxtable, committed to the crop despite the many challenges, may be part of a dying breed.
Taking up the Cause
Commenting on the issue, Roman Cools of the European Potato Processors' Association said a letter had been sent on behalf of the associatiuon (formerly the UEITP) to all European MPs and members of the Environment Commission.
He said: "This exercise by the European Parliament could result into a serious drop in potato yields (and the unability to grow other crops in the EU), which would, of course, seriously affect the trade position of the European potato processing industry on the world market.
"Where the EU potato processing sector has seen a strengthened position during the latest years, this would rapidly turn into a negative trade balance.
"Food safety and the safety of the environment are absolute priorities for the European potato processing industry. Quality systems, including full registrations of the agricultural activities, warning systems to reduce the use of pesticides, integrated pest management and sampling schemes to control the raw material are all tools to assure the final product. "But all these arguments seem to have been ignored by the MPs."
In the letter, the EPPA said it was alarmed at the results of then impact assessment carried out by the UK Pesticides Safety Directorate which considers the impact on UK agriculture of the so-called cut-off criteria for active substances. The cut-off criteria is a provision from the revision proposal which foresees to eliminate substances exclusively on the basis of their toxicological properties rather than judging the risk associated with actual use.
"It does NOT take account of the fact that a large number of substances which would be affected have passed the strict risk assessments currently in place and hence were considered safe for consumer, operator and the environment in both their original field safety trials and again by EFSA during their re-evaluation since 2000," the EPPA wrote.
Banning these substances would, the EPPA wrote, have a ‘devastating impact'. The EPPA represents the interests of the EU's potato processing industries. Last season, the European potato processing industry processed 11,9million tonnes of potatoes and had a turnover of €10,663m. Approximately 25,800 people are directly employed in this sector.