23 March 2021
Serious planting decisions
SEED potato growers are having to make serious decisions on what and how much to plant for the coming season.
Although discussions are continuing between the UK and the EU on equivalence measures for seed potatoes it is very unlikely that any Scottish seed potatoes will be exported into Europe this season. Growers are having to make serious decisions on what and how much to plant for the coming season.
Scottish growers exported around 20,000 tonnes of seed potatoes for a value of £4.5 - £5 million before they were excluded from the free-trade list on 1st January 2021.
Robert Doig from Caledonia Potatoes said in a recent interview with Fresh Plaza that it was no surprise to him, but he was nevertheless disappointed by the decision.
“Some people in the industry thought it would be a mere formality, but that was not the case. The EU is simply applying the same rules to the UK as they do to other third-party countries. What I would expect is at least a reciprocal agreement which would give Scottish – and all GB seed producers a level playing field. If we can’t export to EU then European growers shouldn’t be able to export to the UK, it’s just logical.
“GB seed growers, with a few tweaks, could supply the whole UK demand for seed potatoes. Some growers are planting varieties in the hope that exports to Europe will be allowed at some point this year, but we, and other growers are not. This will mean a significant reduction in the amount of seed potatoes planted this year.
“Brexit has been on the cards for 4-5 years now so growers who do not have varieties for the UK seed market should really have planned better.”
GB growers do export to other markets such as Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Thailand but the volumes exported there remain unchanged.
“The fact is that all seed potato businesses who export to the EU are losing tonnes of production and income. It is not the case that growers have not tried to develop new markets; it being done but it doesn’t make up for the losses. A lot of producers are small to medium sized business and some will be more impacted by this than others..
“While the imported volumes from the EU don’t show signs of decreasing yet, we have no choice but to try and compete with seed imports. The difficulties in importing from and to the EU with border controls have led to a lot of haulage companies refusing to make the journeys and the increased cost of doing so may help in us that respect. There is a sense in the UK that companies who are reliant on imported seed are quite interested to find out how they would replace that. It may become the case that they eventually have to. We are not gambling on the EU market opening up, but we are expanding production of varieties which could replace imported ones. The other side of the coin is that our exports to Israel go through Holland and are trans-shipped to Israel, this will likely have to change and will become more complicated and costly.”
According to Robert there is one possible compromise: to get a tissue culture and preferably a mini-tuber protocol. “This would allow us to move non-field grown material between the two entities. If these can get entered into UK certification schemes, trade would be less disturbed also some agreement on the movement of progressive genetics so that we move things from the UK to Europe and vice versa to get them into our seed schemes and are not cutting ourselves off from a dynamic improvement of variety choice. This should be easily achievable as it already happens with other third-party countries.”
It has also been a tough year on the market for consumption potatoes, much is due to normal fluctuation – too much production led to low prices. This situation was exacerbated by the repeated shut down of the hospitality sector.
“Fixed contracts with retailers and such like were fine but the free trade price has been very bad. The only way to ensure a good price is to agree contracts with retailers, the rest is just a gamble. The free trade saw prices from £30 - £300 a ton. In general though the price for potatoes has not changed much in all the time I’ve been in the trade. In order to survive growers have had to expand in order to make a profit, there are far, far fewer growers now that there were in the 70’s.