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BP2015: Driving new export markets

Publication Date: 
28 October 2015

BP2015: Driving new export markets

Seed potato exports are booming with big strides being made to open even more new markets

Seed exports are a good news story for the potato sector, with a fifth year of record sales last year and all the stops being pulled out to exploit a host of global opportunities, as visitors to AHDB Potatoes’ BP2015 event in Harrogate will witness on November 12-13.  

In 2014-2015 seed exports beyond the EU were up 15.5% on the previous year, to a highest-ever total of 90,000t. In Scotland, which accounts for around 80% of UK seed potato exports, the sector is estimated to be worth £80-100 million, and growing. 

“There is a distinct buzz in the seed export market, which is doing really well, trading on our positive position on plant health, with freedom from Dickeya, brown rot and ring rot,” says Rob Clayton, Strategy Director at AHDB Potatoes. “So it is really all about staying on top of that, through diligence and attention to detail.”

Most of the growth came from a market share jump in Egypt, which now accounts for 58% of all GB seed exports. “We spend a lot of time there talking to plant health officials about the quality, vigour and very positive plant health status of our seed,” says Robert Burns, Head of Seed & Export at AHDB Potatoes’ Edinburgh office. 

Indeed, GB seed’s freedom from bacterial diseases Dickeya, brown rot and ring rot has now pushed Dutch seed off the top spot. “It is something our EU competitors can’t claim, but we can, thanks to our island status, cooler climate and continuing efforts to remain disease free. Our flush-through system, with a maximum of seven generations of seed multiplication, the Safe Haven certification scheme, no seed imported into Scotland, and no stock taken from the bottom of the process to the top through clonal selection, all contribute to this.”

But the sales surge in Egypt is a two-edged sword. “It’s a lot of eggs in one basket, and one variety, Hermes,” says Mr Burns. “It is a huge risk if there was ever a problem.” So, efforts are being made to develop new markets, to spread risk and make the most of new varietal requirements and differences in climates/seasons.

High health, high quality

“Seed potatoes from Britain are known world-wide for their high health, high quality status, and we want to ensure importing countries fully understand what is available, and ensure any barriers to trade are addressed,” he says.

Destination countries often have much stricter seed import standards than the EU, so

AHDB Potatoes is working with Science & Advice for Scottish Agriculture to:

  • build relationships and understanding with foreign officials and seed buyers,
  • promote the quality benefits of the rigorous classification, testing, handling and inspection of GB seed potatoes,
  • forge partnerships, often through bilateral agreements, to meet the needs of all involved.

There is usually good scope for finding a way forward, says Dr Triona Davey, acting head of SASA’s potato branch. “It can take time, but the unique selling point of GB seed is that it is free of diseases that can pose a real risk in warmer climates.”

Cuba, India and Vietnam are just three of the 50-plus countries AHDB Potatoes is focussing on, with support from SASA.

India is the world’s second largest producer of ware potatoes, after China, and looks a good prospect. Seed potatoes were recently exempted from import restrictions, but whilst national regulations permit seed tuber imports, standards applied by India’s Central Potato Research Institute stipulate a quarantine period of two growth seasons, to check health and uniformity.

“Importing countries often have their way of doing things, which is understandable,” notes Dr Davey. “By discussing what is required, and demonstrating the robustness of our certification scheme, we hope we can forge a partnership that will result in a bilateral agreement for GB seed.”

An open-door policy fosters confidence. “We are very open about what we do, and encourage officials to come over to see our seed production system, and we also provide training for their field and tuber inspectors,” Dr Davey adds.

Adopting a dual approach, at an inter-governmental level between Scotland and India, and also at a commercial level, by encouraging demand from companies within India, is most likely to bring success, Mr Burns adds. “That has worked well in other countries.”

Cuba is a prime example. The Caribbean nation once grew potatoes for much of South and Central America, importing 30,000t of seed, but problems with invasive weed marabou decimated production. Now that has been controlled output is rising, with a favourable bilateral trade deal struck after Cuban officials visited Scotland to see its high quality, high health seed capabilities. An initial 3,000t of commercial GB seed was sent last year and rapid growth is expected.

In Vietnam a rising middle class has stimulated demand for crisping and chipping potatoes, and with GB seed already heading to Indonesia and Thailand it made sense to strike a bilateral trade deal, which AHDB and SASA recently facilitated.

One thing Dr Davey would like to see in future is closer collaborative involvement from seed exporters in seed missions. “The Dutch do it very well, and whilst their industry is much bigger than ours, their approach is much more cohesive and their exporting companies invest in the development of overseas markets.”

BP2015 in Harrogate on 12 and 13 November 2015 will see three inward seed buying missions/delegations – from India and Cuba to meet exporting companies; and from Morocco in a bid to reinvigorate a declining market share. A dedicated stand in the seed area will highlight all GB seed has to offer.

Indeed, the event provides the whole industry with an opportunity to meet seed customers, discuss innovations and talk to suppliers. Admission is free if pre-registered at www.bp2015.co.uk

AHDB Potatoes also attends international trade events, like Potato Europe in Belgium, where this year’s newly-branded stand provided a high-profile marketing and networking platform for GB seed exporters and related science organisations, showcasing varieties and expertise from organisations such as Greenvale, Cygnet PEP, Skea Organics, Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research, James Hutton Ltd, Scottish Government, IPM Potatoes and Cullen Allen.

Visitors enjoyed freshly cooked samples of GB varieties, including Emily, Highland Burgundy Red, Jester, Majestic and Salad Blue. Details of all GB-certified varieties can be found on the Potato Variety Database: potato.org.uk/varieties

Next February’s Fruit Logistica in Berlin (3-5 February 2016) will see AHDB Potatoes and AHDB Horticulture, alongside leading GB potato and horticulture organisations, occupy a stand twice the size of usual, giving GB exports even more impact at this key event.

Clearly, the prospects for seed exports are good – a visit to BP2015 could ensure you make the most of them.

GB seed supply

Despite the late start to planting there should be sufficient GB seed of all varieties to meet demand. Cool seasons favour seed sized tubers, so output is expected to be ok, with no weather issues to affect health.

Communications

Ware growers and seed suppliers need to communicate better, says AHDB Potatoes’ Robert Burns. “There seems to be a disconnect between what is wanted and what is possible, with a perception amongst ware growers that seed should look good, whereas it only needs to provide the next generation, and it doesn’t have to look pretty to do that.” Scabby seed, for example, can cause complaints, even though any scab will not infect the following crop.

Commercial view

The need to diversify export markets is endorsed by Alasdair MacLennan, director of Cygnet PEP, a joint venture company set up with potato export specialist Pan European Potatoes three years ago to focus on seed exports, as part of Alexander Harley Seeds, owner of  Britain’s largest potato breeder, Cygnet PB, and one of the largest seed potato growers in the country.

“We do need to develop other markets, Egypt isn’t all a bed of roses,” he says. “We also need to look at the whole picture, and not measure success just in terms of tonnes shipped. Egypt was exceptionally difficult last season, and it still is, with a lot of price deflation. Being over-reliant on one market is very dangerous.”

AHDB’s ability to promote seed exports, especially via governmental contacts, is very welcome, he says. But price is critical and Sterling’s move from €1.15 to €1.2 to €1.39 over recent years poses a huge challenge.  “Plant health is important, but very often pound signs are what it comes down to.”

Introducing controlled varieties to the 30-plus countries Cygnet PEP is already active in is his goal. “It is a slow process. Our growers have the expertise to produce what we want, when we want it, so the key is developing the right varieties for the market, establishing the right commercial partners overseas, and ensuring official inspections here synchronise well with the importer’s standards.”

AHDB’s exhibition stands at international events certainly facilitate trade, he adds. “Potato Europe and Fruit Logistica both work very well for us.”

Land management

A specific challenge at production level is land management, economics having driven a much closer balance between seed and ware crops in key production areas, notes Mr Clayton. That is putting pressure on available land, especially with new PCN regulations coming in. AHDB Potatoes is investing in new research to manage PCN, and blackleg in seed too, and using social science concepts to speed the uptake of best practices. 

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