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UK seed potato exports show signs of recovery

Publication Date: 
27 January 2017

Amber Cottingham, Analyst, amber.cottingham@ahdb.org.uk , 02476 478698

So far this season, total seed exports are up 14% year-on-year, helped by a rebound in sales to Egypt compared to 2015/16.

What’s there to recover from?

The 2015/16 season saw a 24% year-on-year decline in seed potato exports, according to data from HM Revenue & Customs. Countries such as Spain and the Netherlands decreased the amount of seed potato they imported from the UK (by 53% and 16% respectively). Egypt is the largest single recipient of exported seed potatoes from the UK, taking up to 70% of all seed exports each year. In 2014/15 Egypt imported over 59,000 tonnes of UK seed potatoes, this fell to around 49,500 tonnes in 2015/16. Their Government’s decision to reduce the size specification for imported seed from a maximum size of 60mm, to 55mm in August 2015 meant that many UK growers who were growing seed for the Egyptian market had a much larger proportion of “tops” than normal.

Figure 1 above shows how seed exports to Egypt had several years of consecutive increases until 2015/16. Other countries also decreased the amount of seed they imported from the UK last year.

The main variety typically exported to Egypt is Hermes and many GB seed potato farmers grow it specifically for the Egyptian market. Had growers known earlier on in the season that the size band was being changed they could have taken action in advance to ensure they had enough of the right size crop to fulfil requirements. However the announcement came in August, too late in the season for the size of seed crops to be restricted.

Meanwhile, supplies in other markets were tight last season and so much of this excess found a home elsewhere. In real terms, the reduction in UK seed exports to Egypt amounted to over 9,500 tonnes compared to the previous season, an amount which equates to approximately 10% of last season’s total seed exports.

Seed exports rebound to multi-year highs

Driven mainly by a rebound of 18% in the volume of seed exports to Egypt so far this season, total seed exports are up 14% year-on-year. Season to date exports are up nearly 6,000 tonnes year on year, with November’s exports, at almost 43,300 tonnes, the highest for the month of November in five years. Figure 2 below shows cumulative seed potato exports so far this year compared to the trend for the last 5 years.

What’s still to come this year?

As you can see from Figure 2 above there is still seven months’ worth of data for the season left to come. While exports to Egypt typically peak in November, most exports to European countries start in earnest from December onwards. Within Europe there are concerns this year about seed availability following on from relatively low production and quality issues. Both the Netherlands and Belgium have reportedly had to adjust specifications for some varieties so that tubers with growth cracks less than 15mm in size can still be used as seed.

Many processors on the continent are also hoping for an increased planted area this year to meet growing processing capacity demands. However, there are concerns that growers will not be able to source enough seed to fulfil requirements. With seed prices already reported to be the highest for many years, and some varieties fetching upwards of €1,000/tonne, there could be opportunities for GB to increase exports in the coming months. Although this option may not appeal to some when transport costs are taken into account, especially with prices for ware potatoes as high as they are. It's been reported that some GB growers have been happy to sell their seed crop as ware potatoes this year. Additionally, with total potato stocks currently sitting at a four year low and drawdown of stocks at similar levels to recent - higher production years - the availability of supplies will also dictate future export pace.

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