4.9.5S
MEETING POTATO MARKET REQUIREMENTS

TJ DIXON

Beesons Group Ltd, Melton Constable, Norfolk NR24 2BU, UK

Standards in today's potato markets are becoming tighter. What was once valued almost as a commodity market is now highly sophisticated, competitive and highly specified. Potato production in Great Britain is relatively static (ca 6 m tonnes per year) all of which is aimed for human consumption and geared to meet the demands of different market segments. The proportion of potatoes sold as fresh produce has decreased dramatically. More than 30% of consumption is processed as French fries or crisps, and 15% are eaten out of the home. These market sectors are likely to increase.

Marketing organizations (such as Beesons and MBM) play a large part in interpreting market needs on behalf of the growers and linking consistent supply to marketing outlets. We're told customers expect good-looking, good-tasting, cheap, plentiful, varied and safe food, but the standards are unlikely to be set directly by the consumer, and are more often led by the marketing sector. Caterers, processors and supermarket buyers have individual views and are responsible for setting their own demands and market standards.

Growers have always had their own set of concerns, but these are increasingly taking a back seat. Initiatives such as the Assured Produce Scheme, supermarket protocols, processors' hazard awareness scheme and detailed specifications demand that justification is made for decisions at every step of the production and the storage chain. Quality assurance is, after all, good farming practice, but is relatively new to many growers. Now its focus has gone beyond agrochemical usage to energy, water and packaging. Have market demands gone too far? Can growers continue to produce a consistent supply of potatoes to all these quality and safety standards and overcome the constraints of site and season? Certain quality ideals will always be difficult to achieve consistently without the use of agrochemicals. Future production will be a compromise between yield, crop inputs, careful variety choice and selected use of chemicals.

Biotechnology has a major role to play in reconciling some of these trade offs, in particular the environmental issues. Ultimate success will depend on how it compares with agrochemicals in the eyes of the consumer.

What part will organic production play in meeting market requirements? The scale of organic production is unlikely to ever match conventional production and will probably remain a fairly narrow, targeted market for a limited number of enthusiastic producers.

Strategies for future potato production will lie somewhere between organic and conventional methods, with continued efforts to reduce chemical inputs and integration of new technology, for example, genetic manipulation.