Belgapom Chief: “A New Lockdown Could Be Devastating for the Industry!”
In this exclusive interview, Secretary General of Belgapom, Romain Cools, talked to me about the current situation of potato consumption and trade in Belgium, on the background of the pandemic. We also discussed the future of the Belgian potato, from farm to fork and the impact that foodservice industry closure has had so far on the overall potato business.
Please discuss the current situation of the potato industry in Belgium and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have noticed, based on GfK and Nielsen figures that the potato consumption (fresh and frozen) has increased since the outbreak of the Coronavirus crisis. Fresh markets still have a surplus up to 50% and frozen products up to 20%. This is logical, as home consumption has replaced out of home eating. As soon as foodservice will be starting up again, this will have an effect on consumption patterns. However, the distancing rules and the reluctance for consumers to go out for lunch or dinner will still influence the figures. The call urging Belgians to eat an extra portion of fries has got a lot of media attention, even worldwide, and resulted in a campaign launched by the NGO against food losses Too Good To Go. With the slogan ‘SOS Patat’ (www.sospatat.be), they ask Belgian consumers to purchase more frozen potato products, allowing processors more rotation in their freezers and as such process more potatoes of the old crop.
How much has the overall potato sector been affected by the pandemic?
It’s hard to say. A lot depends on the availability of vaccination and the prevention of a ‘second wave’ of the virus. We have decided to have our international potato event Interpom taken place in November, especially as the industry have insisted to do so. The need for personal contacts in the potato value chain is high. We also hope that the World Potato Congress in Dublin Ireland (end of May) can take place, for the same reason. The expected shortages of rice and other cereals in the world have again illustrated the need to set up local potato production.
Let’s talk solutions that can aid the industry, what has so far been done in this regard?
Belpotato.be, the new Belgian potato branch organization tries to set up a sustainable solution for the surplus of potatoes in Belgium: feed (food banks, exports), animal feed and finally, green energy (biomethanisation) is the three-step approach currently being followed. On the other hand, the drought in Europe has inspired farmers to keep their storages closed, hoping for shortages in July, to get better prices. I wonder whether they are aware of the surplus of processed potatoes in the freezers?
What have authorities done so far?
We hope farmers will be supported by the authorities because of the unusual situation. However, apart from the Netherlands (50m Euro), no other Member States have taken action to help potato farmers. And the EU has just activated some crisis measures allowing branch organizations to withdraw potatoes from the market, but without providing any financing tools. The EU potato industry has engaged itself to honor the contracts, or at least find a negotiated solution.
What should be the first step towards returning to normality?
The industry hopes that foodservice can reopen again asap in most countries. This is crucial because the majority of the processed potatoes are consumed out of home. However, we believe that it will take some time until we can talk about a process of a large scale of vaccination, before things can go back to normal. On the other hand, a new lockdown could be devastating for the industry!
How much of the exports have been affected and what can you say about the planting season and the farmers’ contractual obligations?
Exports have suffered a lot, first because of a lack of reefer containers, then because of the global lockdown. Bit by bit, reopening of the foodservice industry could help a lot, though at a smaller volume, because of the distancing rules. Everybody is looking for the vaccination to happen, in order to create more confidence in politics and society. As for the current season, most of the planting was taking place or was scheduled when the crisis broke out, thus only a limited number of contracts have been renegotiated. We are afraid that a high yield for the new crop and the ware crop for next season could harm the industry longer than expected. Northern America, where planting takes place later, was luckier to take prevention measures.