The fields in the Dutch town of Rutten are empty – but Stefan Reijntjens’ large root cellar is bulging: The farmer stores his potatoes in boxes one and a half meters high, and these containers are stacked up all the way to the ceiling, seven meters from the ground. But not every potato in Reijntjens’ storage is the same: “This, for instance, is the variety ‘Musica’,” he explains, taking a dark yellow tuber from one of the numerous boxes. “It’s a waxy kind, suitable for jacket potatoes or casseroles, for example.” Musica is one of around 4,000 different kinds of potatoes cultivated worldwide. The features of the tubers are as varied as the corresponding recipes.
The different needs of cooks and consumers, however, also require full flexibility on part of the farmer: “That’s why our farmers have to plan beforehand whether their potatoes should be used rather for seeds, for fresh potatoes or go into food processing after being harvested,” says Albert Schirring, Global Crop Manager at Bayer. Many farmers therefore conclude agreements with companies in their area: Players in the processing industry, for instance, will thus receive their preferred varieties if they can guarantee a certain purchase quantity at a certain price in return. “Farmers growing seed potatoes even have to anticipate two years in advance what the desires of the potato processers will be in future,” explains Schirring. Because table potatoes will make it onto our plates as jacket potatoes or into convenience products – cut-up, fried or mashed. The smaller seed potatoes, however, are used as seeds to grow new table potatoes in the next season.
Different kinds of potatoes are cultivated worldwide. As of 2017, according to World Atlas and the FAO, after wheat and rice, potatoes are the most important staple crop, containing hardly any fat, but lots of starch, vitamins and minerals. It is because of these qualities that the FAO aims to promote potato production, cultivation and research.
Source: International Potato Center
Awareness for a Healthy Diet
But no matter which kind – the versatile tuber is inexorably conquering the world: In India, for instance, the crop also plays an important part. In 2014, together with China, the country produces almost more than one third of global yields. “Potatoes are a very important crop for our farmers, which is being grown especially in North, Central and East India on a total surface of around two million hectares,” says Amit Sharma, Regional Crop Manager at Bayer in South Asia at Bayer India. The farmers plant the crop in the winter months from November to February. This helps to fully exploit the time between two rice harvests. But helping to achieve highest possible yields is not enough in most countries.
The sustainable cultivation of high-quality potatoes as well as suitable transport and processing chains are needed to meet the challenges of food security. The awareness for a healthy diet is also on the rise – and with it the demand for high-quality vegetables. That’s why Bayer promotes sustainability along the value chain between potato growers, dealers and processers. With Food Chain Partnerships, the company supports farmers worldwide in producing products of premium quality. In cooperation with the multinational food company PepsiCo, Bayer, for instance, trains potato suppliers in South America in sustainable agriculture. The program started in Columbia, Argentina, Ecuador and Chile and has meanwhile been expanded to other countries.
Water consumption for production of one kilogram
High Quality Standards
But the top quality of potatoes is being jeopardized by different diseases and pests. Nothing new to Stefan Reijntjens: He has specialized in the production of seed potatoes and gets around 45 tons per hectare out of the earth per year. Only with the utmost care is he able to fulfill the high quality standards required from his seed potatoes. The benchmarks are even higher than those for table potatoes. Because the seed potatoes have to be absolutely perfect in order to yield high-quality table potatoes in the next season. But only effective protection can build the foundation for healthy and productive potato varieties. “And it even starts before the potatoes are put into the earth with the so-called dressing,” says Albert Schirring. During this process, the seed potatoes are being evenly coated with an active ingredient serving as a protective shield against fungi or insects. This is an effective treatment: “The fungicide finishes off with dreaded fungal diseases such as Rhizoctonia solani or silver scurf using a completely new mode of action,” explains potato expert Schirring.
Only effective protection can build the foundation for healthy and productive potato varieties.
The Global Tuber
Potato producers around the world
In addition, the substance gives the tubers a successful kick-start in the soil: The plants germinate earlier and grow faster than untreated counterparts. “This does not only entail healthier plants for the farmers, but also higher yields – with low application rates,” explains Roland Gallow, Segment Manager for Potatoes at Bayer. But also after the harvest, the potatoes are still in danger – threatened for instance by storage fungi which want to make themselves at home on the tubers during the months of storage. “Dressings therefore have to keep up their protective shield even after the harvest,” says Gallow. Because only a fresh and healthy potato can make it from the field onto the plate and will really contribute to food security.
“We see rising interest in potato varieties”
In what ways has the potato industry changed over the last 20 years?
We have observed dramatic consolidation, with more to come. The customers that the potato industry sells to have gotten larger and fewer, and the industry itself has contracted in response. Also, the competition increased vastly, both within the produce arena and beyond. For example the average produce department in a retail store today carries various items, and foodservice menus offer plenty of vegetable and starch options. Yet the consumption of vegetables has not risen dramatically, meaning that potatoes are fighting to maintain their share of consumption and volume.
How has the convenience market changed?
The stores are filled with new food products, all of which potatoes have not played much of a part in. The convenience sector for fresh potatoes in retail is still small, although making steady progress. In the U.S., potatoes are included in 30 percent of in-home dinners, equal to poultry’s frequency. These two items are the most frequently consumed dinner items for two years in a row. Potatoes are chosen three to two over rice as a side dish, served at 23 percent of in-home dinners.
What future trends do you expect?
We have already seen rising interest in potato varieties, both at retail and in the foodservice sector in the U.K. And there have been indications that U.S. retailers are starting to move in this direction. As Americans continue to focus more on eating healthier, consumers increasingly recognize the nutritional benefits of potatoes. But the innovation in varieties and product forms need to step up to this opportunity to fully realize the potential of this trend. Potatoes fit perfectly with a consumer who is trying to eat better while stretching their food dollars further, and we will see the industry benefit from this trend.
Data sources: US Potato Board Consumer U&A 2016