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Published June 11, 2012, 07:41 AM

Spud 'congress'

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Potatoes have eyes, but it takes a world of people to see how a crop that came to Europe in 1536 (and the United States in 1719) will be environmentally and economically prosperous so it can help feed a hungry world in 2012 and beyond.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Potatoes have eyes, but it takes a world of people to see how a crop that came to Europe in 1536 (and the United States in 1719) will be environmentally and economically prosperous so it can help feed a hungry world in 2012 and beyond.

Agweek took the opportunity to look in on the 8th World Potato Congress May 27 to 30, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The event drew more than 800 industry leaders from nearly 50 countries to the unique, craggy, grand city of stone, with its culture of bagpipes and kilts.

Two days of discussion focused on how producers, processors and marketers must adjust to a changing climate, shifting sensibilities about health and nutrition and sustainability, rising input costs and tough competitors. The final day of the event offered an array of industry commercial tours.

The Northern Plains was represented at the event by world-class potato leaders. Gregg Halverson of Grand Forks, N.D., president and chief executive of Black Gold Farms, known for chipping potatoes, fresh potatoes and other services, attended. Neil Gudmestad, a plant pathologist from North Dakota State University in Fargo, spoke for the third time, on the threat of “zebra chip,” a disease of potatoes that threatens commercial production throughout the world, including the southern and west-central United States.

Halverson, who leads a rapidly growing table stock potato venture, as well as sweet potatoes and a seed farm that feeds other potato farms, clearly enjoyed reconnecting with counterparts throughout the world. After hearing discussions about sustainability, Halverson said the potato industry has to make sure it doesn’t “oversell what we do, particularly when it comes to sustainability.” Any claims must be data-based, he added.

There was no shortage of data in Edinburgh.

Climate change

John Beddington, United Kingdom chief scientific adviser, kicked off the event, underlining the sobering challenge the world is facing with the realities of a rising population and urbanization, but also the double-edged issue of increased income and resource use.

Beddington noted that Africa is expected to add 500 million to its 1 billion people in 13 years, and Asia will add 500 million to its 4 billion. Increased income creates increased use and competition for resources. He says farmers will have to produce more food on less land and using less water.

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the fresh water use in the world. Some of the water used for irrigation in India and the United States is “several hundred years old” and sustainability is “a real challenge.” He noted that 40 percent of the world potato crop is lost due to pests and disease, and he said genetic modification “can help” cope with problems, such as potato blight.

And what if agriculture fails to provide food at affordable prices? The world can expect more political and civil unrest, he said.

Climate change is beyond debate, Beddington contended. It is “extraordinary that there are still groups who do not believe that climate change is happening,” he said, but pointed beyond academics to “hard-bitten” insurance company analysts who have figured the financial implications climate change will have on their bottom lines because of the availability of water and the distribution of crop pests and diseases. He said there is strong evidence that people are having an impact on the climate, despite what some in the United States think.

Allan Clark, president of World Potato Congress Inc., who lives in Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada and farms in a 4,000-acre Russian potato partnership, believes the climate has changed.

“For us, down on the farm, the thing that sticks out the most and has impacted our business the most is that the autumn harvest season now has been extended by two to three weeks compared to where we started 15 years ago,” Clark said. Late falls have been good for harvest, but have been accompanied by periods of extreme hot, dry weather. In 2010, for example, his part of Russia endured nine weeks without rain and with daytime highs that ranged from 95 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit, while dealing with periods of “seemingly endless rain.”

Unlikely GMO praise

Mark Lynas, a U.K.-based environmentalist and best-selling author (including The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, 2011) offered unexpected praise for the potential of genetically modified potatoes.

Modern agriculture may have environmental issues, but is “seriously underrated” for its productivity. “Should we try to increase the land we’re sharing with wildlife, or should we be as intensively productive as we can on a small space and leave the rest for pristine nature?” Lynas said. “The land sparing argument is in the lead at the moment.”

Lynas argued that organic farming could “only ever be a tiny niche market,” because the “nitrogen has to come from somewhere, essentially.” Organic farming would take more land than conventional farming with fertilizer. That would reduce biodiversity. “If we were to turn the world organic we’d probably end up plowing up most of the world’s rainforests within about 10 or 20 years,” he said.

The number of people in the world living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 in daily income) was 43 percent in 1990 and now is 22 percent. In China alone, 500 million people were raised out of poverty in a quarter-century, primarily through rapid economic growth. Population growth has leveled to 2.5 children per family, which is just above the 2.1 natural replacement level. Population is growing, however, mostly because of a decline in infant mortality.

The potato is more water-efficient and land-efficient than other crops, and Lynas suggested the crop would be logical as a candidate for genetic modification. Blight control can involve 15 or more sprays a season. “I think getting a blight-resistant GM potato is an environmental imperative,” he said. “I can’t understand why there’s so much opposition to this idea. Potatoes don’t cross-pollinate in any conventional sense like other crops do.”

Lynas said the challenge of doubling food production by 2050 shouldn’t be something approached with dread, but as a “colossal business opportunity.”

Scotland has a historical role in fostering knowledge and reason, so it’s ironic the country’s ban on GM potatoes is instead based on “ignorance and superstition,” he said, drawing applause. “This GM-free policy must go if Scotland is to be a leader in the future,” he said.

Sell spuds by variety

U.K. potato retailing is generally more advanced than United States in fresh potato retailing, which increasingly is done more by type than individual variety.

Ronnie Bartlett, managing director of U.K.-based Albert Bartlett, told how his company in 2005 used television advertising to promote the “Rooster” brand for a variety of potatoes. The red-skinned, creamy-fleshed potato is for baking, mashing, roasting and steaming. They’ve hired Hollywood redheaded actress Marcia Cross (“Desperate Housewives”) for a number of the ads, to infuse glamour and humor.

Established in 1948, Albert Bartlett is the U.K.’s leading supplier of potatoes, supplying more than 500,000 tons of fresh potatoes every year, or about 20 percent. The company in 2012 established a sales office in Denver, Colo., to bring its branded varieties to the U.S. market. Rooster is being grown at nine locations from Florida to northern climes, including Minnesota. Seed replication is being arranged in Prince Edward Island in Canada for seed bound for the U.S. market. The brand will be launched in Walmart stores in October, pending volume availability. Albert Bartlett works with Whole Foods in the U.K. and is hoping to take their relationship into the U.S.

On the same panel was Nick Vermont, regional CEO for McCain Foods in the U.K., who said agriculture and the world must deal with realities and capitalize on perceptions. “Eating nothing isn’t very healthy and not having demand for a product isn’t very economically sustainable either,” he said.

McCain is about 55 years old and is a privately held company based in Canada. It is the largest potato processor in the world, producing about a third of the world’s French fries. Vermont says the key to his company’s success has been listening to consumers and “identifying the unmet needs.” He talked about how food scares involving pre-prepared foods in 2005 led to 20 percent in processed potato sales declines in January 2006. The company responded with a message that they simply “peel, cut, lightly prepare in sunflower oil and freeze.”

Before launching a public relations campaign in September 2006, the company made some ingredient shifts. They shifted all products to sunflower oil because it cut saturated fat by 70 percent, and because customers perceive it as the healthiest. In advance of an informational campaign, the company revised its ingredient list to “things you normally could find in a kitchen cupboard.” Perception is key, he said.

Vermont said the industry has a lot of education to do.

While children and other consumers often are unaware of their food source, McCain’s did a survey amongst chefs in the catering industry, and “there was a frighteningly large number there that didn’t realize French fries came from fresh potatoes.” Another speaker said up to 25 percent of young chefs surveyed didn’t know the origin of French fries.

Price of spuds

David Wilkinson, senior director of European Agriculture for PepsiCo Europe, one of the largest buyers of potatoes and corn for Lays, Walkers, Doritos and other brands, said input costs are outstripping what consumers are willing to pay for products, which calls for “transformational” changes in the supply chain. His talk title implied he’d reveal what spud prices will be in 2020, but he stuck to the facts.

For now, he said, potato crisps (chips) are pretty cheap compared to other snack options in the U.K. for now, but Wilkinson warned that “If we don’t find ways of offsetting these increases, we will all do less well,” he said.

Wilkinson pointed to a hopeful horizon. Some new varieties use 50 percent less nitrogen to produce potatoes, which is one of the promising, developments. He said 80 percent of the potato chips will be made by these new varieties by 2017. Almost 10 percent of the company’s crop is intensively studied for its water use, using probes that determine whether the crop truly needed irrigation.

“We’re learning to grow potatoes even better than we did five years ago,” Wilkinson said. There were 740 acres of trials across the U.K., using 40 percent less water under drip irrigation, with significantly less disease.

The company also is involved in a “Fifty in Five” program, in which it is working to reduce the carbon footprint of producing potatoes by 50 percent in five years. The company is working on different sources of fertilizer, and different ways of applying it.

Addressing obesity

Even as the industry works to grow and market more potatoes, and feed the world, it grapples with how to fit potatoes into a healthy diet.

Maureen Storey, president and CEO of the Alliance for Potato Research and Education, says that there has been a decline in total fruit and vegetable consumption in the U.S., which is led by a decline in starchy vegetables.

A nutritionist by training, Storey says it was unfortunate that last year a U.S. Department of Agriculture interim rule told the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman Infants and Children that they would not be allowed to buy fresh potatoes in super markets, but could only buy spuds if they got them at a farmers’ market. USDA also cut the use of starchy vegetables in federal school breakfast programs. She says studies show that students consume potatoes more “happily” than other vegetables and that if the government dictates switches to other more expensive vegetables, they may see “quite expensive vegetables in the garbage can.”

Storey cited a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey with data from 2005/2006 combined with data from 2007/2008 that showed that French fried potatoes account for 1 to 1.5 percent of calories for small children and teenagers, with positives including delivering blood pressure-friendly potassium and dietary fiber. Meanwhile, grain-based desserts are the No. 1 source of calories, and with dairy-based desserts and candy make up more than 11 percent of calories. Yeast-based breads, chicken-mixed dishes and soft drinks are also significant, accounting for 5 percent of the total calories, compared to 2.5 percent from fried potatoes, and 3 percent including all potato categories.

Farmers and others who attended the conference seemed universally pleased with its results.

Dick Okray, who works with sales at Okray Farms of Plover, Wis., says the information exchange is the No. 1 benefit of the congress. “You get such a diverse group of abstracts that are out there that come to you,” Okray said. It’s important to have connections and relationships with numbers of potato people around the world.

“It doesn’t matter where potato growers come from. You share a similar set of goals, values and manias with respect to what we do.”