SOS: Save Our Spuds

19 June 2024

Potato harvesting

Potato growers are calling for political action to save the great British spud, with the future of the homegrown crop coming under increasing pressure.

The past three years have seen potato growers facing drought, floods and months of heavy rain this season, culminating in a perfect storm for the great British potato. Hard working growers have reported significant delays in the lifting of the 2023 crop and a further delay in planting the 2024 crop.

At the same time, costs of key inputs like fertiliser and energy for storing potatoes have remained unsustainably high, with the compound cost of production in the sector increasing by 28% over the past two years1.

British potatoes are usually available for people to buy all year round – a firm favourite on family dinner tables and the essential ingredient in the nation’s favourite; fish and chips. But consecutive years of extreme, volatile weather and soaring costs have taken their toll on family businesses, leading to a tightening supply of this household staple.

NFU potato policy group vice chair Alastair Heath said: “The potato is versatile, nutritious and affordable, making it not only a national favourite but a staple part of most people’s diets. Yet the future of British potatoes is at risk.

“A number of growers have made the difficult choice to reduce production to minimise losses, and the relentless wet weather has put many more growers weeks behind schedule. For some, profits have been all but wiped out. Business confidence is low and investment has become a far-away concept, which is putting pressure on British potato supplies in the short-term.

“While it’s unlikely to lead to empty shelves this year, this pressure on the homegrown crop is an indication that we need urgent action to prevent the situation getting worse. I believe we can and should be self-sufficient in potatoes.”

To help reduce the impact on shoppers, supply chains have been working with growers to be flexible with specifications to use as much of the British crop as possible, and more imports are also being used so the public aren’t faced with empty shelves. 

However, for such a staple British crop, the NFU is warning that the UK cannot rely on imports as a backup plan, as doing so comes with its own risks. For example, across the EU, potato supplies are also tight due to a widespread shortage of seed potatoes and similarly poor 2023 harvests and planting conditions2.

Mr Heath added: “War is raging in both Europe and the Middle East. Climate change is wreaking havoc on food production across the world. We can no longer assume that we will always have access to food imports to plug gaps in our own market. Given the volatile global environment we find ourselves operating in, this is not an effective contingency plan for our food security.

“Our next government – whoever may lead it – must focus on building resilience, confidence and profitability on farms at home, so products like the great British potato can continue to grace family dinner tables long into the future.

“As political parties vie for votes, I urge them to recognise this example of why policies to boost homegrown food production must be a priority – because it is for voters.”

With the average person in the UK eating around 33kg of potatoes every year, the NFU is urging the future government to put practical policies in place to protect and boost British potato production – and other homegrown foods. It is asking for:

  • A plan for a proactive management of our watercourses to reduce the risk of flooding and enable access to water in times of drought, with potatoes a thirsty crop.
  • With growers facing increasing resistance to pests and diseases, the next government should deliver a plan for the use and availability of plant protection products. 
  • Deliver an agricultural budget of £5.5 billion for England and Wales that underpins business resilience. This should include schemes to support potato growers to drive productivity and adapt to climate change, particularly through funding for new and existing reservoirs and cold storage facilities, alongside enabling planning policies.

The NFU would also like supermarkets to continue to support suppliers by maintaining the relaxation of supermarket specifications of potatoes to ensure that quality potatoes aren’t going to waste.

More information

  1. Read more results from the NFU-commissioned Promar report which looked at the impact of increased production costs on a range of fruit and vegetables.
  2. There is a concerning shortage of seed potatoes which threatens to disrupt the EU potato supplies. Without a steady supply of high-quality seed potatoes, which pre-Brexit were historically imported from Scotland, it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure the future supply of ware potatoes. A resumption of reciprocal trade of seed potatoes between the EU and GB would help to address the current shortage in seed potatoes.