Following a fifth year of record sales, U.K. potato seed exports are booming with Egypt absorbing 58% of the market. Ahead of next week's potato industry event in London, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Potato Council's head of seed and exports Robert Burns speaks with www.freshfruitportal.com about alternative deals to mitigate a risky over-reliance on the Egyptian market, particularly at a time of such instability.
Scotland accounts for 80% of U.K. seed potato exports and is worth an estimated £80-100 million (US$122 million), and continues to grow with a significant jump in Egyptian market share recently.
Some of the reasons behind Scotland's boom is the fact that Britain is free from several plant health diseases including Dickeya, Brown Rot, Ring Rot, whereas sporadic cases do occur on the European continent.
Importers tend to favor British seed because of its positive plant health status and like the fact the Scottish sector is also part of a ring fenced system, the Safe Haven Scheme, that dictates collaborations between certain companies and organizations.
It also operates a flush-through system with a maximum seven generations of seed multiplication.
'Being disease-free is something our EU competitors can't claim, but we can, thanks to our island status, cooler climate and continuing efforts to remain so," Burns said.
"There is a real buzz in the seed export market right now and Egypt particularly likes British material, and specifically Scottish material because they believe the seed we produce in Scotland is more vigorous compared with other parts of Europe.
"This is something to do with the climate because our material is grown in very cool conditions and when you take it out to Egypt where it is put it into very warm soil, it just jumps. Being part of the Safe Haven Scheme also brings in an extra guarantees about the quality of the seed and freedom from various plants diseases."
Whilst he is pleased about such a high Egyptian take-up, Burns is mindful of the dangers associated with 'keeping all your eggs in one basket', and stresses the need to find alternative markets capable of absorbing large quantities.
"We are very conscious that if something goes wrong, for any particular reason, with one single huge client like Egypt, then we are left with an awful lots of potatoes with nowhere to send them."
For this reason, AHDB Potatoes is actively looking for new global markets to take the same kind of tubers as the Egyptians.
"There's a mixture of things at the moment as potato production in Egypt is escalating year on year, but at some point they will be in a position where it will plateau, we just dont know when that is going to happen.
"We've had oversupply into Egypt over the last couple of years and material has actually been dumped in some cases because they have imported too much. Yes, there is political instability in the region and there are also currency restrictions in place by the Egyptian government making it difficult for people to pay."
Last month Burns visited India, alongside a Scottish government representative, to begin trade talks exploring the possibility of opening a new market.
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 the national requirements allow seed tuber importers, standards applied by India's Central Potato Research Institute stipulate a quarantine period of two growth seasons to check health and uniformity.
"It's early days because at the moment there is a complicated set up where the national plant quarantine regulations would allow the import but the license authority that brings material in is a separate entity.
"It's a matter of negotiations around this, but India is a huge market if we can get in there."
Meanwhile, AHDB is also focusing on other countries including Cuba and Vietnam.
"The Vietnam market has been open for a while now and it's a good alternative market to Thailand because it has slightly fewer plant health requirements.
"If there was a situation where export material was going to Thailand and was ejected for any reason, it could be re-shipped to Vietnam. It's a good secondary market for the Far East."
At the event BP2015 Harrogate on November 12-13, there will be three inward seed buying delegations from India, Cuba and Morocco in a bid to reinvigorate a declining market share.