By Brian Henderson

While Potatoes in Practice – the tattie sector’s big annual shindig which took place last week – might have been a slightly less colourful place this year without China’s charismatic self-styled King of Potato, Liaing Xisen, there was still plenty going on.

For an enterprise where profitability is always balanced on a knife edge – and likely to fall hard one way or the other depending entirely on the dynamics of the supply and demand equation – there was an all-too-rare hint that there might be some good news for the sector in the post-Brexit period.

With the UK’s exit from the single market now looking inevitable sooner post Brexit rather than later, it was revealed that the tattie boys might be one of the few areas of farming likely to benefit from what AHDB economics guru, David Swales, described as ‘a bit of friction’ in trade.

For a while the fresh market for spuds was pretty much dominated by home production, a lot of the processed stuff which marks the value-added part of the chain is currently imported from the continent. Any disruption to that free flow of trade would be likely to hinder this stuff coming in and allowing growers into this country to provide a deal of import substitution.

Of course, as always, there was a bit of a downside – and in Scotland where the emphasis is on seed production, trade could suffer a bit of a knock.

While dealings with the rest of Europe might get a bit of a dunt, the real worry seemed to lie with the trading arrangement with many of the countries elsewhere which we currently access through deals struck as members of the EU.

Without a continued deal, countries such as Morocco are likely to slap a 40% tariff on seed exports into their country, effectively making the market non-viable.

But while I’m no expert in the potato field, I’m always impressed with this event – and the apparent degree of integration and discourse which seems to prevail between the scientists and research facilities on one side and the growers on the other.

I get the feeling that this is much more of a two-way relationship, with a good deal of listening on both parts – whereas cereal events always come over a bit more preachy, with the researchers passing down information which somehow goes in one ear and out the other of the grain boys standing round the plots.

The potato growing sector is obviously a smaller community, so communications and relationships might be easier to establish and maintain but one example of the two sides seeming to work closely together was obvious in the control of a new strain of blight – the so-called EU 37 A2.

This has appeared in Europe and is resistant to fluazinam, one of the most widely used control measures.

In order to stop this blight strain running riot through the UK crop, a monitoring programme was launched by the industry – and while it was confirmed that this resistant strain of the disease had been found in Kent this year, this wasn’t viewed as a reason to panic.

With local agronomists warned, a robust anti-resistance strategy using other actives in the sprays has seen the outbreak brought under control – and although it might have cost the growers in the area a bit more, it saved turning a drama into a crisis.

In the longer term, research is being focused on breeding varieties which will be more resistant to the effects of global warming on the potato as a crop.

With the humble spud preferring relatively cool and damp conditions, the susceptibility of current varieties to changing climate could result in yield losses of 30% by 2050 under the most likely warming scenarios – with this effect being exacerbated by the lack of drought resistance in the crop.

So those attending the event heard that this would be one of the major targets for future breeding programmes – along with attempts to reduce the huge wastage brought about by potato’s propensity to green.

With an estimated £60m lost though this on the supermarket shelf – and a further £37m in field losses – researchers believed that nigh on £100m could be saved by selecting new varieties from genetic stock which was less prone to greening.

The industry was also warned that it needed to indulge in some self help if it wanted to reduce the problems being encountered with potato cyst nematode. While the bulk of land remains free of PCN, some areas around Angus/Fife and Lothians/Border have seen a huge increase in eelworm numbers, with a swing from the yellow species which could be controlled to pallida – a change which could render land unusable for tatties for 15 years or more.

Biosecurity is the answer as these pests can be transferred not only by potato equipment moving from field to field but also by any other machines – and even small amounts of soil on tyres or working parts could spread the difficult to control pallida spps.

But, of course, the biggest challenge to the industry probably remains getting co-operation amongst growers on production levels. With it taking little in the way of increased acreage to tip the balance from a slight undersupply – which resulted in reasonable prices last year – to even a marginal overproduction, it will inevitably result in a price slump.

While no firm prediction for this year’s crop was being made, earlier estimates had indicated a 4% increase in plantings – and the kind of growing year we’ve had could see production rise by considerably more than this, enough to have a significant effect on the market.

To finish up back at China, though, while the King of Potato wasn’t present at the event himself, his chief scientist, the wonderfully named Dr Hu (say it out loud for best effect) was in attendance with a companion to thrash out the details of a proposed £3m laboratory which would see Scottish researchers from James Hutton Institute collaborate and help build the potato sector in Asia’s biggest market.

The Chinese government had taken the decision to boost potato production and consumption last year in order to increase food production in more northern areas of the country and to ensure a plentiful food supply as the population of 1.3bn continued to grow.

Although one of the few crops to be regularly irrigated in the UK, pound for pound, potatoes require 30% less water than China’s traditional staple of rice, while providing more minerals and vitamins.

Who knows, Scottish know-how could soon see tatties vying with rice and noodles for a place on the Chinese dinner bowl.