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BY FPJ STAFF

Save our spuds

Comment: Nationwide Produce MD Tim O'Malley outlines a critical moment for British potato exports and urges the industry to fight its corner

Save our spuds

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Let’s start with the facts. The UK imports 67 per cent of all its fresh produce, almost six million tonnes, from over 95 countries, with a third coming from the EU. Fruit and veg is the highest category of imports of all unprocessed food, worth over £5bn and rising. By comparison we export around £250m of fresh fruit and veg – a mere fraction of the import value. 

The one shining success story on our otherwise bleak export landscape is potatoes to, of all places, Ireland! The Irish (and Northern Irish) love our spuds, particularly varieties such as Piper and Markies grown on the fertile black soil of the Fens which produce superb-quality chips.

Britain currently exports around 100,000 tonnes of ware potatoes to the Republic of Ireland per year. On top of this, Britain exports around 40,000t to Northern Ireland. That’s around 2,800t or 112 full lorry loads per week. And it is the one and only example of a product that our industry exports week in, week out, all year round.

We’ve built this market over decades by offering quality, consistency and excellent brand marketing. It is an export success story that we, as a nation, as an industry, can be rightly proud of. And yet, as things stand, on 1 January 2021, it is a market that will cease to exist. 

Potatoes fall into the “high priority plants” category. There’s been a lot of confusion in the industry with many presuming that this means spuds will have to have a phyto certificate for export to Ireland. Not true. There’s also been confusion surrounding exports to Northern Ireland. It’s part of the UK so surely we can continue to send our spuds there? I’m afraid not. The island of Ireland is a single epidemiological unit and therefore NI will be treated the same way as any EU country when it comes to plant health measures.

Unless ware potatoes are granted something called “third-country equivalence” by the EU, then the trade of potatoes between the EU and Ireland and NI will effectively cease on 1 January 2021. The only exception to this may be that supermarkets are allowed to import potatoes into NI as they’ve been given wholly unjustified, preferential treatment by the government of a three-month grace period - don’t get me started on that one!

However, even the supermarkets are unclear as to whether they will be allowed to sell British spuds at their NI outlets from 1 Jan without third-country equivalence. It’s such a mess! Despite the glaring imbalance between the huge amount of produce we import from the EU compared to the pitiful amount we export, we appear unable to negotiate a pass or even a stay of execution for potato exports to Ireland and NI. 

And it gets worse. The UK government sees ware potatoes as “food supply chain critical, which impacts retail and consumers if supply is restricted”. Therefore, the UK government has agreed to continue to allow ware potatoes from EU to be imported into the UK. So, just to be clear, as things stand, from 1 January 2021 we will no longer be allowed to export our spuds to EU or even or our own Northern Ireland, but we will be allowed to continue to import potatoes from EU. It’s a deplorable failure of politics.

All this comes at a time when the potato market is on its knees suffering from poor demand caused by the pandemic. The slump in foodservice orders has hit the industry hard. Spot prices for spuds are well below the cost of production. Taking away a lucrative, established 140,000t/yr export market overnight will put further downward pressure on prices. Once there is a break in this trade, our competitors, most likely the Dutch, Belgians and French, will rush in to fill the gap. I can’t emphasise enough the long-term, irreparable damage this will wreak on one of our countries few export success stories for fruit and veg. 

So, what’s being done about it? I’ve been talking to/emailing government departments, trade bodies and government ministers on this urgent matter. Right up to yesterday I was told the EU Commission has prepared a draft Regulation but “it still has to be voted on by EU Member States”. 

I fear the longer the Frost/Barnier negotiations continue, the more the humble spud will slip down the agenda, particularly if we end up with no deal. I’ve written to George Eustice (george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk) who has direct responsibility for DEFRA and Victoria Prentis (Victoria.prentis.mp@parliament.uk) who has responsibility for Brexit readiness. I would urge you to do the same. It’s late in the day but any assistance you can offer to help us save our industry’s one, true exporting success story would be greatly appreciated.  

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