By Shelley Wright
PRICE gaps of up to 265% between what farmers are paid for potatoes and what retailers charge have been revealed.
Potatoes, people and pollution, a report by the SAFE (sustainable agriculture, food and environment) Alliance, was published this week.
In a survey of four London supermarkets in February, report author Chris Emerson of the SAFE Alliance found an average retail price of 34p/kg, compared with the farm-gate price of 7.8p/kg.
The report also criticised supermarkets for encouraging demand for foreign varieties. A 14% rise in imports in the past 10 years not only increased air pollution from the extra freight, but meant the market was less secure for UK growers.
In addition, increasing imports of early or new varieties before and during the UK peak season also meant lost markets and lower profits for domestic producers, as well as a loss of seasonality for shoppers.
A spokesman for the British Potato Council confirmed the farm-gate to retail price gap was about right. But he pointed out that packers returns and distribution costs had to be taken account of within that equation.
As for the criticism of imports, the spokesman said British growers also exported potatoes. It was a two-way trade and imports were inevitable when there was demand for out-of-season earlies.
“But the BPC is encouraging the technology that will help extend the UK season and meet demand for speciality potatoes, such as salad varieties,” he said.
Mr Emerson pointed out that 80 varieties of potatoes could be grown legally in the UK, yet only a handful were grown commercially. He suggested the high profits that could be made from processed potato products meant varieties were chosen to suit processing requirements rather than for environmental or nutritional reasons.
But the BPC spokesman said growers responded to market demand. Supermarkets had lists of varieties that consumers preferred, and growers responded accordingly.
The SAFE Alliance report continued its criticism, attacking the “vast quantities of pesticides and acids” sprayed in the field and post-harvest. But the BPC insisted that most research now was based on integrated crop management and on optimising the use of inputs. “No farmer wants to put anything but what is absolutely necessary on crops,” the spokesman said.
For this and other stories, see Farmers Weekly, 20-26 March, 1998