Potato growers in Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan's second-largest spud-producing region, are pinning their hopes on a new disease-resistant variety to avoid another crop shortage of the kind that halted sales of chips and other snack products this year.
The prefecture plans to expand the cultivation of the tasty new variety, suitable for chips and other processed products, as it expects strong demand driven by popular takeaway items such as fries and croquettes.
According to the Japan Snack Cereal Foods Association, the volume of potato chip shipments in Japan rose by over 30 percent between 2004 and 2016. That compares to a 10 percent decline in the shipment of potatoes over the 2005-2015 period, according to the farm ministry.
Demand had already outstripped supply. The situation was further aggravated by a poor harvest last year in Hokkaido, Japan's leading potato region, due to low temperatures and typhoons that buffeted the northernmost prefecture. As a result, major potato chip makers had to suspend the sales of some of their products earlier this year, prompting cries of a "potato chip crisis" among the media and consumers.
With potato imports heavily regulated under the plant protection law, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries aims to increase the area used to grow potatoes for processing by requesting 3 billion yen ($27.8 million) in the budget for fiscal 2018.
For their part, some potato chip makers have started to shift areas from which they source potatoes. Snack maker Koike-ya Inc. used to rely on Hokkaido heavily for its products but now plans to diversify its sources.
Riding on the trend, Nagasaki Prefecture is pinning its hope on one of its new varieties, "Nagasaki Kogane" (Nagasaki Gold), which it filed for registration in 2015.
Currently, the disease-resistant and high-yielding variety is grown in a 1-hectare field in the southwestern Japan prefecture. Producers are selling the crops online or through wholesalers at the price of about 4,000 yen for 10 kilograms nationwide.
Potato chips using another variety developed by Nagasaki Prefecture in recent years were snapped up quickly after they went on sale in May. Labeling the chips as "red chips," potato chip maker Kikusuido in Yashio, Saitama Prefecture, sold 3,000 bags of them online in just six hours. The variety has red skin because it contains the red pigment anthocyanin.
Masataka Chaya, who has been involved in the development of the "Nagasaki Kogane" variety at the prefecture's Nagasaki Agricultural and Forestry Technical Development Center, says the challenge now is making the variety more widely recognized.
Masataka Chaya, Nagasaki Agricultural and Forestry Technical Development Center:
"I would like to spread the name of Nagasaki as a producer (of potatoes) throughout the country."