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As Covid-19 threatens global food security, fresh potatoes are back on tables

COVID-19 is driving demand for fresh potatoes in supermarkets and grocery stores across the globe as people stock up on inexpensive food. Fresh potato has become a favorite during the lockdown, along with rice, wheat flour, bread and pasta, the International Potato Center (CIP) says in a recently published report. The report was prepared by Samarendu Mohanty, Regional Director for Asia at the International Potato Center.

Mohanty confirms in the report that in the West, where processed products constitute the bulk of potato consumption, demand for fresh potatoes has skyrocketed during these times we live in. The lockdown has also increased demand for fresh potatoes in the developing world. Even in the traditionally non-potato-consuming southern states of India, potato has become popular, in part due to its long shelf life vis-à-vis other vegetables.

It is not surprising then to see the importance of potato rise during this pandemic Mohanty writes. It is, after all, the third most important food crop behind rice and wheat and a staple for 1.3 billion people across the globe. Despite its significance as a staple for so many poor, it is rarely mentioned in the same breath as rice and wheat when assessing food security. Not much attention has been devoted to the humble potato, which has been silently doing its part to ensure food security during this crisis.

The pandemic has affected the supply chains of different food products, but its impact on potato has been unique. The closure of restaurants and other food service establishments has significantly reduced the demand for processed potato products. In the West, where most potatoes are bought by food businesses, this has been much more severe. The sudden fall in demand has created a glut in local markets in this sector, with millions of tons of processing potatoes now in cold storage and it has created an oversupply of processed potato products in many countries.

But, at the same time, demand for fresh table potatoes in supermarkets and grocery stores has risen substantially during this time.

Quite a bit of uncertainty still exists with regards to the recovery of demand for processed potato products, as food service establishments may not open immediately after lockdowns end. And after they open, it may still take a long time to regain pre-COVID-19 business levels, due to decreased demand and the effect of social distancing. It is likely that demand for processed potato products will be weaker in the coming months, Mohanty writes.

Increased demand for fresh potatoes and reduced demand for processed products definitely creates problems for farmers in North America and Europe, where most production is of varieties used for processing. Faced with uncertainty regarding the recovery of demand for processed products and the quantity of potato stocks languishing in cold storage, food companies in the United States and Canada are already cutting contract farmer agreements for this season.

Many farmers in North America and elsewhere are left with the difficult decision of whether to plant the capital-intensive potato processing crop (cost of cultivation around USD 4,000 per acre) at their own risk, and also of which variety to will grow.

Potato farmers across the Atlantic face the same dilemma. The prices of European potato futures have crashed in response to the large surplus of processing potatoes across the continent. It is almost certain that the total area dedicated to processing potato production will decline this season.

The world should be prepared to guarantee availability of food at affordable prices over the next 12?18 months, or even longer, to effectively overcome the effects of the pandemic.

Potato has a key role to play in ensuring global food security. More water efficient and able to produce more calories per hectare than rice or wheat, potato can play an important role in improving the livelihoods of farmers and the sustainability of farming systems.

Read the full, original report on the CIP website here

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Lukie Pieterse, Editor and Publisher

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