Covid-19: UK potato farmers face crisis as fish and chip shops close
- The closure of takeaways and restaurants has left UK farmers with millions of unwanted potatoes.
- Boris Johnson's government closed down the hospitality industry as part of the coronavirus lockdown.
- The closure of fish and chip shops has put chipping potato farmers in a nightmare situation.
- In a best-case scenario, there are expected to be 95,000 tonnes of surplus chipping potatoes in July.
- Farmers are struggling to work out what to do with them, with limited options available.
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Britain's farmers are struggling to work out what to do with tens of thousands of tonnes of spare potatoes when their season ends this summer after the closure of fish and chip shops during the lockdown triggered a collapse in demand.
The UK government's decision in March to close large parts of the economy to contain the spread of the coronavirus halted the hospitality industry, with restaurants, some takeaways, pubs, cafes, and bars all forced to shut their doors.
That caused a sharp drop in demand for several foods produced in Britain. That demand has not yet picked back up, with many out-of-home businesses not selling food, and others are operating at a significantly reduced capacity.
The closure of fish and chip shops - a traditional British business - has been acutely felt by UK potato farmers.
The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) estimates that in a best-case scenario, there will be 95,000 tonnes of spare chipping potatoes piled up in stores across Britain at the end of this farming season.
Growers face a major dilemma in figuring out how to deal with this huge surplus of chipping potatoes.
The stores must be empty in time for July, when growers begin work on next season's produce. They are currently full of unwanted potatoes, with very few ways of getting rid of them available to growers.
Growers plan to donate part of the supply to food banks and charities. Some of the potatoes will become cattle feed where possible, and small amounts will be broken down using an industrial process called anaerobic digestion.
However, those measures combined will probably only have a limited impact, the ADHB's Robert Clayton told Business Insider.
"It won't get rid of the surplus, but it will help," he said. "It's a real head-scratcher."
The financial impact is also set to be significant. The average cost of producing a single tonne is R3,352, Clayton said.
The National Farmers Union's Alex Godfrey said, "the closure of fish and chip shops and fast food outlets at the end of March deprived hundreds of thousands of tonnes of potatoes already in store of their planned routes to market."
Godfrey, a potato grower who chairs the NFU's Potato Forum, told Business Insider: "Longer-term impacts on the industry are hard to judge, but good, solid businesses have been rocked. I hope they don't tip over."
It's not just growers of chipping potatoes who are struggling. The closure of fast food outlets in response to the Covid-19 outbreak has left farmers with similarly large piles of spare processed potatoes used to make fries.
A spokesperson for the Potato Processors' Association told Business Insider: "We have seen volumes of chilled and frozen products, which were intended for food service, fall dramatically. Out-of-home sales have completely stopped.
"Whilst some product can be repurposed or repackaged, the increase in retail sales cannot compensate for the loss of the food service channels and this has led to a reduction in demand for processing raw materials."
British farmers fear European potatoes could cross the channel
Potatoes are among several foods that are currently in oversupply in Britain.
Brits are being urged to eat more steak after the closure of the hospitality industry led to a collapse in demand for beef. There is also a surplus of milk and wheat, the Food and Drink Federation told Business Insider.
The impact of lockdown measures on potato farmers is being felt in mainland Europe too.
In Belgium, farmers are urging people to eat fries twice a week, the BBC reported, with around 750,000 tonnes of potatoes sat in warehouses across the country due to a sharp drop in demand.
Farmers in the UK fear producers in Belgium and elsewhere will attempt to export their surplus potatoes to Britain.
"The problem is much worse in mainland Europe," the AHDB's Clayton told Business Insider.
"What that means is there is the potential for millions of tons of frozen potatoes to come over the channel and bleed out into the British market at a cost so low that it would totally undermine British producers.
"It's making the whole situation a lot more frightening."
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told Business Insider: "We are working closely with our potato growers both to support them through this year's planting season.
"We have relaxed competition rules so our farmers can help to feed the nation during these unprecedented circumstances and we are supporting them to sell their produce to different markets as well as being ready to supply restaurants when they reopen."
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