Following a fifth year of record sales last year and all the stops being pulled out to exploit a host of global opportunities, as visitors to AHDB Potatoes’ BP2015 (bp2015.co.uk) event in Harrogate will witness on November 12-13.
In 2014-2015 seed exports beyond the EU were up 15.5% on the previous year, to a highest-ever total of 90,000t. In Scotland, which accounts for around 80% of UK seed potato exports, the sector is estimated to be worth £80-100 million, and growing.
“There is a distinct buzz in the seed export market, which is doing really well, trading on our positive position on plant health, with freedom from Dickeya, brown rot and ring rot,” says Robert Burns, Head of Seed & Export at AHDB Potatoes’ Edinburgh office. “So it is really all about staying on top of that, through diligence and attention to detail.”
Most of the growth came from a market share jump in Egypt, which now accounts for 58% of all GB seed exports. “We spend a lot of time there talking to plant health officials about the quality, vigour and very positive plant health status of our seed,” he says.
Indeed, GB seed’s freedom from bacterial diseases Dickeya, brown rot and ring rot has now pushed Dutch seed off the top spot. “It is something our EU competitors can’t claim, but we can, thanks to our island status, cooler climate and continuing efforts to remain disease free. Our flush-through system, with a maximum of seven generations of seed multiplication, the Safe Haven certification scheme, no seed imported into Scotland, and no stock taken from the bottom of the process to the top through clonal selection, all contribute to this.”
But the sales surge in Egypt is a two-edged sword. “It’s a lot of eggs in one basket, and one variety, Hermes,” says Mr Burns. “It is a huge risk if there was ever a problem.” So, efforts are being made to develop new markets, to spread risk and make the most of new varietal requirements and differences in climates/seasons.
High health, high quality
Destination countries often have much stricter seed import standards than the EU, so AHDB Potatoes is working with Science & Advice for Scottish Agriculture to: build relationships and understanding with foreign officials and seed buyers; promote the quality benefits of the rigorous classification, testing, handling and inspection of GB seed potatoes; forge partnerships, often through bilateral agreements, to meet the needs of all involved.
There is usually good scope for finding a way forward, says Dr Triona Davey, acting head of SASA’s potato branch. “It can take time, but the unique selling point of GB seed is that it is free of diseases that can pose a real risk in warmer climates.”
Cuba, India and Vietnam are just three of the 50-plus countries AHDB Potatoes is focussing on, with support from SASA.
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 national regulations permit seed tuber imports, standards applied by India’s Central Potato Research Institute stipulate a quarantine period of two growth seasons, to check health and uniformity.
“Importing countries often have their way of doing things, which is understandable,” notes Dr Davey. “By discussing what is required, and demonstrating the robustness of our certification scheme, we hope we can forge a partnership that will result in a bilateral agreement for GB seed.”
An open-door policy fosters confidence. “We are very open about what we do, and encourage officials to come over to see our seed production system, and we also provide training for their field and tuber inspectors,” Dr Davey adds.
BP2015 in Harrogate on 12 and 13 November 2015 will see three inward seed buying missions/delegations – from India and Cuba to meet exporting companies; and from Morocco in a bid to reinvigorate a declining market share. A dedicated stand in the seed area will highlight all GB seed has to offer.
Indeed, the event provides the whole industry with an opportunity to meet seed customers, discuss innovations and talk to suppliers. Admission is free if pre-registered at www.bp2015.co.uk
The need to diversify export markets is endorsed by Alasdair MacLennan, director of Cygnet PEP, a joint venture company set up with potato export specialist Pan European Potatoes three years ago to focus on seed exports, as part of Alexander Harley Seeds, owner of Britain’s largest potato breeder, Cygnet PB, and one of the largest seed potato growers in the country.
“We do need to develop other markets, Egypt isn’t all a bed of roses,” he says. “We also need to look at the whole picture, and not measure success just in terms of tonnes shipped. Egypt was exceptionally difficult last season, and it still is, with a lot of price deflation. Being over-reliant on one market is very dangerous.”
AHDB’s ability to promote seed exports, especially via governmental contacts, is very welcome, he says. But price is critical and Sterling’s move from €1.15 to €1.2 to €1.39 over recent years poses a huge challenge. “Plant health is important, but very often pound signs are what it comes down to.”
Introducing controlled varieties to the 30-plus countries Cygnet PEP is already active in is his goal. “It is a slow process. Our growers have the expertise to produce what we want, when we want it, so the key is developing the right varieties for the market, establishing the right commercial partners overseas, and ensuring official inspections here synchronise well with the importer’s standards.”