Europe’s sweltering summer is forecast to result in the smallest potato crop in years, threatening further price hikes for popular foods like chips while consumers grapple with rising inflation.
Potatoes, a household staple, whether bought fresh or as convenience foods such as fries or chips, are among the summer crops that have suffered this year from record temperatures and Europe’s worst drought in 500 years.
Parched conditions in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium — the north-western belt that accounts for most of the European Union’s potato production — could push EU production to its lowest level on record, below those similarly drought-hit Year 2018, according to analysts at World Potato Markets.
Soaring energy and food prices have fueled a surge in inflation, which has risen to 9% in the euro zone, a level not seen in half a century.
European growers are warning that harvest estimates are preliminary ahead of the main harvest in September and that rain showers and recent cooler temperatures could bring late relief. But on some farms there is little hope.
In Jülich in western Germany, Erich Gussen says up to half the harvest could be lost due to drought and that rain would now come too late. “Nothing will grow here anymore,” he said, examining a shriveled plot of land.
Germany’s agriculture ministry gave no crop forecast in an August 26 crop report, but said prospects for the potato crop had “deteriorated drastically.”
The EU’s crop monitoring service cut its monthly potato yield forecast by 2.5% this week, even though its revised forecast was in line with the average over the past five years.
France could be hit hard. According to French producer group UNPT, yields there can be at least 20% below the 20-year average, based on the latest field studies.
Irrigation has mitigated the effects of drought on equipped farms, but crops have also withered in successive heat waves.
“While we can deal with water stress, we can’t deal with heat stress,” said Geoffroy d’Evry, a breeder north of Paris and head of the UNPT. “We’ve had hot spells before, but in terms of temperature spikes and how long they last, we’ve never seen that.”
Heat is seen as a risk to yield and quality, as high temperatures alter the shape and color of the tubers.
That could be a headache for processing potatoes, for which contracts dictate criteria such as the length of french fries.
More expensive fries
“It will cost more for industry, more for the consumer, but the biggest cost will be for farmers,” said Christophe Vermeulen, chief executive of Belgian industrial group Belgapom, estimating the country’s harvest could fall by up to 30% .
Pascal Willaert, co-manager of Maison Antoine, one of the most famous stalls in Brussels selling the famous Belgian fries, says reduced availability of quality potatoes is likely to drive prices up further.
“It’s too early to say how much, but what’s certain is that we’re not moving towards cheaper prices,” he said.
His store has already increased prices by around 10% this year due to energy costs, which can weigh more than potato prices in the cost of making fries.
International food companies such as McDonald’s have also hiked prices this year in response to rising commodity prices, with chips rising among items this summer in the UK.
Neither McDonald’s nor McCain Foods, a major producer of frozen fries in Europe for McDonald’s and its own retail brands, have responded to requests for comment on the potential impact of the European crop.
French farmers had to renegotiate deals with buyers like McCain in 2018 to allow for shorter fries after that year’s drought. Bernard Ouillon, executive director of the French potato sector organization GIPT, said there could be similar problems this year.
On the EEX exchange, the most active European potato futures for delivery in April 2023 are up nearly 50% so far this year after hitting a contract high in early August.
Rising retail prices are unlikely to hurt demand for affordable staples like frozen fries, despite the inflationary burden on households, Ouillon added.
In Brussels, Maison Antoine customers like IT services worker Helain Schoonjans said they probably wouldn’t be put off by the prices for the occasional dining out.
But in the supply chain, farms and companies may have to work hard for the harvest, unlike two years ago when potato stocks in northern Europe were piling up due to the coronavirus lockdown.
“People will challenge to the last bit,” said d’Evry.
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/agri-business/agri-food/burger-with-small-fries-scorching-summer-shrinks-europes-potato-crop-41939801.html Burger with small fries? The scorching summer is shrinking Europe’s potato harvest