In the past few years, China has experienced exceptional weather conditions, implemented strict coronavirus measures, and held political elections. HZPC has been operating in China since the early 2000’s, but as with potato cropping seasons in the Netherlands, each season in China is unique.
Ton Frijters has represented HZPC in China for many years, visiting numerous potato growers and experiencing the challenges of strict coronavirus measures in the country recently. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic about the future and is looking forward with enthusiasm to 2023. “The demand for HZPC varieties in China is continuously growing,” Ton affirms.
China is an enormous country, spanning around 4,000 linear kilometres in length and breadth. While the images we often see of China depict its large cities, such as during events like the Olympics, there is also a thriving potato industry in the country’s inland areas.
For the past 15 years, Ton Frijters has been working to establish HZPC’s presence in China, although “pioneering” is no longer an accurate description.
“HZPC is becoming a household name in China, thanks largely to the quality of its varieties,” Ton explains. “Initially in the fries industry with the Innovator and later the Ivory Russet, but now also in the fresh market with varieties such as Colomba and Lucinda.”
Popularity of the Ivory Russet variety
According to Ton, “HZPC was the first foreign breeder to make a real investment in China.” This investment began in 2007 when major fast-food chains started applying their global quality standards in China. As Chinese consumers are accustomed to white-fleshed potatoes, demand is growing for the Ivory Russet as a replacement for the Russet Burbank, which is unsuitable due to China’s shorter growing season.
Although the Ivory Russet initially faced challenges, its value became evident when it was grown under specific conditions in larger fields. Over time, the Shepody and Russet Burbank varieties are being phased out in favor of the Innovator and Ivory Russet. Currently, most of the potatoes used by the fast-food industry in China are Innovator, with the Ivory Russet increasingly gaining popularity.
The growing fries industry in China
Although the fries industry in China is expanding rapidly, it is still relatively small compared to the fresh food market, which makes up 99% of the market. Inland, small restaurants are significant players in the industry as Chinese consumers tend to eat out more often than at home.
Potatoes are traded on large wholesale markets where demand is shifting, with traders looking for ways to stand out. Appearance is becoming increasingly important, and washed potatoes such as Lucinda and Colomba are popular due to their appealing appearance. Traders sometimes employ clever tricks to make older potatoes look fresher, such as washing them in southern red earth to make them more attractive to consumers who prefer winter crop potatoes from the south.
Despite the growing opportunities in the fries industry in China, there are also challenges. Nevertheless, with the right varieties and marketing strategies, HZPC is poised to take advantage of this growing market.
Promoting potatoes as an essential food source
The Chinese government is promoting potatoes as an essential food source due to their high nutrient yield per square meter of land and lower water requirements compared to crops like wheat or rice. However, in China, potatoes are not traditionally viewed as a staple food item, as they are in Europe. Instead, they are commonly considered vegetables and incorporated into dishes in various ways.
To encourage the Chinese population to consume more potatoes, people often “hide” them in dishes, such as wok dishes with noodles or by using potato flakes, according to Ton Frijters. Despite these cultural perceptions, the Chinese government’s promotion of potatoes as a sustainable and nutritious food source presents an opportunity for companies like HZPC to introduce new varieties and expand their presence in the Chinese market.
Impact of corona virus measures on the potato industry in China
The small restaurant market in China has taken a significant hit due to coronavirus measures, resulting in many closures. However, Ton Frijters believes that these restaurants will soon be up and running again, now that corona measures have been relaxed. Despite the importance of potatoes in China, shipments were stopped at domestic border crossings for fear of contamination.
Ton Frijters has also faced difficulties due to the Chinese government’s zero-tolerance policy, resulting in fewer visits to China during the pandemic. However, he remains optimistic about the growth potential of the Chinese market.
Looking ahead: Challenges and opportunities for potato production in China
As people in China demand a relaxation of COVID-19 measures, Ton Frijters is already looking ahead to the future of potato production in the country. He predicts that the demand for more robust potato varieties will increase due to their higher yields and resistance to various weather conditions. This is particularly important following last season’s challenging weather conditions, which resulted in 20-30% lower yields in northern growing areas.
However, the future of potato production in China will largely depend on the new frameworks set by the government, which will be turned into government policy in 2023. Once these policies are clear, HZPC and its partners will work to re-establish new import lines and provide Chinese growers with top quality disease-free plants, as seed potatoes cannot be imported.
Cover image: Credit and courtesy HZPC