Potato production hits lowest level since 2012, but Healthy Outlook for Spud Eaters

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

British potato farmers were hit by drought in 2018, leaving the total volume of spuds harvested at the lowest level since 2012, and the fourth smallest since 1960.

[Tom Macfarlane was speaking to One Show presenter Chris Bavin]

The British potato harvest is 13% down on the five-year average of 5.6m tonnes at 4.9m tonnes, according to our annual estimate.

The relatively low production figure is a result of an estimated 4.4% drop in planted area, and a 12% drop in average yield.

This means we’re seeing smaller spuds on our plates, as supermarkets work with farmers to maintain supply, but new research confirms they are a vital part of a healthy diet.

Potato grower Tom Macfarlane appeared on BBC’s The One Show on Tuesday 11 December), to explain to consumers that when they pick up their spuds for Christmas dinner it is likely to be a ‘mixed bag’.

“Lack of water was the issue this summer, that and the extreme heat. Potatoes need water to grow to the size we’re used to seeing, and to get the nice shiny skin consumers like” he said.

“The good news is, taste and nutrition levels will be completely unaffected – the UK gets 14% of its vitamin C and 12% of its fibre from potatoes, and we’ve been working hard to ensure they’ll still be on your plate this Christmas.”

AHDB figures show that only half of GB potato land has access to irrigation, and Mr Macfarlane agreed this was the key issue.

“The potatoes from fields with access to water will look good, but those from unirrigated fields will be smaller with more blemishes on the skin” he said.

Scotland was the one area of Great Britain where potato growers avoided the effects of the summer heatwave, as farmers north of the border enjoyed a 3% increase in yield against the previous season. This was a result of a slightly damper Scottish summer, in comparison to their English neighbours – though it was still one of driest on record.

Average yields in England were 40.1t/ha, a 20% decrease from the 49.9t/ha seen last season.

Meanwhile, two major Universities have completed research into the nutritional benefits of the potato in recent months and have underlined their value to our health.

A recent University of Guilford study reported that: ‘Potatoes are an important source of micronutrients, such as vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, folate, and iron and contribute a significant amount of fibre to the diet.’

This vitamin content and that the fact they keep you fuller for longer, means the may be more effective for weight control than other carbohydrates said the researchers.

This follows a study by the James Hutton Institute, from 2017 that drew similar positive conclusions on potato health benefits.

Even more pleasing for potato growers like Mr Macfarlane is the news that British shoppers are beginning to increase the amount of potatoes they buy, after a significant period of decline.

Figures from Kantar Worldpanel, who report data collated from British shoppers, show an increase in 3% in the volume of fresh potatoes bought at retail over the last 4 years.

Dr Rob Clayton is Strategy Director at AHDB Potatoes, whose potato marketing campaign ‘Potatoes: More than a Bit on the Side’ has been successful in landing the nutrition message with young female shoppers.

“Firstly – we won’t run out of potatoes, we didn’t in 2012, and we won’t in 2018.

“Moreover, these retail figures will be welcome news to farmers who have long been worried about falling sales” he said. “We hope they show that the work we have put into spreading all the good nutritional news about potatoes – like the fact that they are fat free, gluten free and low in sugar – is beginning to take hold.

“We have also invested in social media influencers, so that shoppers can see their peers cooking with potatoes in ways that fit their lifestyle. Health is important, but enjoyment is the main reason that we buy food. Potatoes are tasty, convenient and affordable so it’s no surprise we’ve had a good reaction to the campaign.”

Independent analysis of AHDB’s campaign, which has generated of 5m web views and nearly a 100m reach on social media, shows that those who have seen it are more likely to see potatoes as a healthy, essential part of the diet.

“Christmas time is peak season for potatoes, but perhaps these nutrition studies, and retail figures show that they will feature in more January diets in 2019” said Dr Clayton.