27 October 1995

Enormous potential in supplying seed to East

DUTCH seed potato suppliers are looking east with more hope than fear. Potential sales are huge and the risk of exports back to the EU are considered small.

But several currency-strapped countries are keen to develop their own seed industry rather than spend cash on imported seed.

Those were the key messages to emerge from a special "Focus on the East" conference organised by Dutch seed development organization NIVAA.

Gerd Lodewijk, president of the Union of Potato Traders, urged the seed trade to look east. Over 8m hectares (20m acres) of potatoes grown in eastern Europe were as close to Holland as Athens, he said. That offered a potential market of 20m tonnes of seed. "Even if we only get 100,000t we would be happy," he said.

Average yield in the area is just 13.5t/ha (5.4t/acre) compared with the EUs 32.9t/ha (13.3t/acre). Much of the shortfall is down to poor quality seed. But even if seed improved, exports of ware or processed product were unlikely, argued Diet Coumou, director of the NIVAA. Domestic demand, indifferent soils, poor storage and inadequate equipment would override the desire for hard currency, he maintained.

Dutch seed sales amount to 58,900t already, mainly as elite seed, almost half going to former Yugoslavia. Mr Lodewijk said the industry target was 125,000t of early generation seed within five years.

That would be secured on merit, not through subsidies, he stressed, adding that Dutch seed companies were competing for the business rather than presenting a united bid. "Our seed is the best for health, so we will succeed."

One fly in the ointment is Russia, which accounts for 6.17m hectares (15.2m acres) of crop and over the easts seed demand.

It is investing heavily in its own seed breeding and multiplication industry, with 13 mini-tuber facilities achieving western standards of seed health, explained Ivan Sheglov, Russian agricultural counsellor to the Netherlands.

The aim is to produce 200,000t of the early generation seed for further multiplication within four years. And despite western experts views that poor infrastructure and price conscious growers will see seed wasted, he insisted growers were prepared to pay for the benefits. They also get a 20% subsidy from the government.

The Czech Republic is taking an alternative tack, hoping to establish itself as a "stepping stone" for multiplying western seed for sale further east. "We already have good seed regulations and 7900ha of certified seed production," explained Bohumil Votoupal, president of the Czech Potato Growers Union.

Evidence that the threat to western markets is small came from Poland, which already produces more potatoes than Germany, France, the UK and the Netherlands combined. A typical yield is just 13t/ha (5.2t/acre), a result of poor, acidic soils with no irrigation.

Kazimiera Zgozska of the Institute for Potato Research in Poland, said the crop was favoured by small farms where manure provided much of the nutrition. When farms enlarged and improved husbandry the crop becomes less attractive, she added.

Quality is poor, with just 2.8m tonnes sold for human consumption and 2.6m tonnes eaten on the farm. The rest is for industrial use or stock feed. Despite the arrival of several large processing companies those were unlikely to meet domestic demand, she suggested.

Charles Abel