The potato sector is undergoing a boom with the main packaging companies investing in technology and extending their facilities. What is behind this? Reaching Europe.
Fruit Today euromagazine talked to Alfonso Sáenz de Cámara, chairman of the potato sector in Fepex and also chairman of the Iberian Potato Club.
What are the challenges being faced by the Spanish potato sector?
We have two key challenges in view: one involves responding to consumer demands, who are willing to pay for quality local produce (understood here as national produce). The other challenge is that it would be a good idea to reverse the highly deficient potato situation, meaning that we have to depend on a large amount of imports. Changing this trend is one of our goals as we could supply Europe with new potatoes in spring and summer. We still have a long way to go on this point.
This would be a perfect model if the profitability for farmers were guaranteed.
I believe that the perception of potatoes held by farmers has changed. Technologically, we have moved forward and a single farmer can have holdings of 20 or 30 hectares. Additionally, another psychologically significant tool is the fact that there is a commitment to sign contracts, not only by the industry, but also in the marketing sector, which means security in terms of the prices.
Furthermore, the uncertainty of the beet sector indirectly benefits us. If we were able to give these farmers the right tools to make them take a chance on our crop, we would have gained a great deal.
Nobody is interested in farmers losing money and, fortunately, farmers are beginning to be valued as they truly deserve. This health crisis, although it is strongly focused on the doctors, also has its stronghold in the producing sector. We recently heard one of the top executives from an important distribution chain indicate that great care should be taken of the entire food supply chain. This is a message that 10 years ago would have been highly unusual, but that is becoming increasingly normal.
Will the change in European regulations regarding the ban on using chlorpropham help?
Obviously, this ban may be negative for the sector, but it could be positive for Spanish production, particularly for the crops harvested before the month of July. It will represent a handicap for the large European potato conserving companies, and this is a point where the Spanish production might be able to enter the market.
In Spain, we want to maintain the frying quality of potatoes as best as possible, and this is at odds with dropping temperatures a great deal in the cold rooms. Anti-germinating agents such as chlorpropham are used to make this possible and it has been banned this year.
In any event, don’t you believe that the sector should be self-critical regarding its current situation and the reason we have become so completely dependent on foreign potatoes?
Of course; self-criticism is always constructive. We have not done everything we should have with respect to new potatoes. New potatoes should be able to last more than 2 or 3 days on the supermarket shelves if we want to compete with conservation potatoes and, to do this, we must offer a product at the optimal point of ripeness. Although we have moved forward on this point, there is still a long way to go, using everything at our disposal and, above all, relying on technology.
At times, we fall into the simplicity that early productions are entitled to belong in the stores at this moment and that French or German operators should not be selling. We don’t realise that there are no borders: if the potatoes are good, but they don’t last, they won’t be purchased. There are opportunities, but we must work hard on them, because there is a great deal of competition. I think that this point is self-criticism enough.