Europe’s great potato crisis – The chips are down

Europe’s great potato crisis – The chips are down

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EUROPE faces a potato crisis. Around 53m tonnes of spuds are harvested in the EU each year. Germany, the biggest producer, usually digs up 10m-12m tonnes. But thanks to a dry summer, the tubers have come a cropper.

On September 26th Germany’s agriculture ministry announced a harvest 25% smaller than usual. This year’s spuds are littler and denser than normal. Belgians are feeling less than chipper over rumours that their beloved frites may now be one-third shorter as a result. But these fears are small fry compared with the wider implications.

Climate change is at the root of the problem. “Farmers noticed that wet and dry periods are getting closer together,” says Katja Börgermann of the German Farmers’ Association. In 2003 Europe experienced a “once in a century” drought. Fifteen years later it has endured another. It is hard for farmers to adapt fast enough. They could develop better irrigation systems, and new crop strains could be bred to resist drought. But such things take time.

Carb-lovers may have to pay more for their mash. This has happened before. In 1976 potato production fell by roughly 40% as temperatures soared. Prices soared with them—by Christmas, potatoes in Britain cost six times their normal price. These days consumers have more choice, and other starchy options such as pasta and noodles have reduced demand for the humble spud. But bad weather has also caused wheat yields to fall in Europe this year, and previous reductions in the acreage devoted to growing potatoes mean there were fewer tubers to go round in the first place. Already, potato prices have risen in Spain. McCain Foods, a potato-processor, has raised its prices by 20%. Consumers who know their onions are cheesed off.

A quick fix could be found through trade. Already, potato trading between EU countries is common, but most of the rice eaten in Europe is imported, whereas only a small proportion of potatoes come from outside the EU. Some say that more open markets would ensure that if the harvest fails in one country, appetites could still be met. But try telling that to the guardians of the common agricultural policy in Brussels. They see any market opening as the thin end of the wedge.



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