Burger with small fries? A scorching summer reduces the potato harvest in Europe






Europe’s extremely hot summer is expected to bring the smallest potato harvest in years, threatening further price hikes for popular foods such as French fries as consumers face runaway inflation.

Potatoes, a household staple whether purchased fresh or in the form of prepared items such as fries or crisps, are among the summer crops that have suffered this year from record high temperatures and of the worst drought in Europe for 500 years.

Drought conditions in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium – the northwest belt which accounts for most of the European Union’s potato production – could push EU production to its lowest level on record, below that seen in 2018, also hit by drought, according to analysts World Potato Markets.

Soaring energy and food prices fueled a sharp rise in inflation, which reached 9% in the eurozone, levels not seen in half a century.

European growers warn that crop estimates are tentative ahead of the start of the main harvest in September, and that rain showers and recent cooler temperatures could bring belated relief. But on some farms, there is little hope.

In Juelich in western Germany, grower Erich Gussen says up to half the crop could be lost due to drought and any rain would now come too late. “Nothing will keep growing here,” he said, surveying a shrunken field.

Germany’s agriculture ministry did not give a harvest forecast in an August 26 harvest report, but said the outlook for the potato crop had “deteriorated significantly”.

The EU’s crop monitoring service this week slashed its monthly potato yield forecast by 2.5%, although its revised outlook is in line with the average of the past five years.

France is likely to be hard hit. Yields could be at least 20% lower than the 20-year average, according to French grower group UNPT, based on the latest field surveys.

Irrigation made it possible to limit the effect of the drought on the equipped farms, but the plants also withered during the successive heat waves.

“While we can manage water stress, we can’t do anything with heat stress,” said Geoffroy d’Evry, a winemaker north of Paris and head of the UNPT. “We’ve had heat waves before, but in terms of temperature spikes and their duration, we’ve never seen this.”

Heat is considered a risk for both yields and quality, as the shape and color of the tubers are altered by high temperatures.

This could pose headaches for potato processors, where contracts stipulate criteria such as the length of fries.

MORE EXPENSIVE FRIES

“It will cost more for the industry, more for the consumer, but the highest cost will be for the farmers,” said Christophe Vermeulen, managing director of Belgian industrial group Belgapom, estimating that the country’s harvest could fall by as much as 30 %.

Pascal Willaert, co-manager of Maison Antoine, one of Brussels’ most famous stalls selling the famous Belgian fries, says less availability of quality potatoes is likely to drive prices up even further.

“It’s too early to say how much, but what’s for sure is that we’re not going for cheaper prices,” he said.

His store has already raised prices by about 10% this year due to energy costs, which can outweigh potato prices in the cost of making French fries.

International food companies like McDonald’s have also hiked prices this year in response to rising commodity costs, with fries among items rising in Britain this summer.

Neither McDonald’s nor McCain Foods, a major producer of frozen French fries in Europe for McDonald’s and its own retail brands, responded to requests for comment on the possible impact of the European harvest.

In 2018, French farmers had to renegotiate contracts with buyers like McCain to allow shorter fries after the drought that year. Bernard Ouillon, chief executive of French potato industry body GIPT, said there could be similar issues this year.

On the EEX exchange, the most active European potato futures, for delivery in April 2023, are up almost 50% so far this year, after peaking earlier this month. august.

Any rise in retail prices is unlikely to reduce demand for affordable staples like frozen fries, despite inflationary pressure on households, Ouillon added.

In Brussels, customers of Maison Antoine, like IT service worker Helain Schoonjans, said they were unlikely to be deterred by the prices of what is an occasional restaurant treat.

But in the supply chain, farms and businesses may have to work hard for the harvest, unlike two years ago when coronavirus lockdowns left potato stocks piling up in the northern Europe.

“People are going to give it their all,” d’Evry said.

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