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The Challenges of the Potato Industry: Interview with Marc Van Herreweghe, CEO of Mydibel and New Chairman of Belgapom

Marc Van Herreweghe, the new Chairman of Belgapom and CEO of Mydibel

In this exclusive interview with Marc Van Herreweghe, the new Chairman of Belgapom and CEO of Mydibel, we discuss the role and challenges that the Association faces going forward, as well as sustainability issues and problems related to recent weather conditions in Belgium and elsewhere, amongst other topics.

What are the main objectives in your agenda, as Chairman of Belgapom?

I intend to continue all the great work that has been done so far and make sure we deliver some tangible value by completing several projects which have been initiated during the last time period. A couple of examples: we are currently facing a difficult period with the Belgian and EU potato processing industry due to the extraordinary weather conditions.

Although we have to take short term actions we have guarantee to continue the growth of the Belgian potato value chain in a sustainable way.

The Belgian potato value chain is looking at the possibilities, together with our Agrofront partners to launch a Branch Organization (BO) in our country.

One of the objectives of the BO is to become the platform to gather all interest partners and to work out a common action plan, involving also the Belgian authorities allowing us to achieve a sustainable value creation for all those concerned.

Belgapom has taken the initiative - together with some research institutes - to start up WatchITgrow, a tool to follow up the potato crop with remote sensing (satellite). In the future this tool could also enable the Belgian potato value chain to make use of big data and artificial intelligence to make our sector more performant & sustainable.

What is the current status of the association and what actions should be taken in order to expand it?

Belgapom has been defending the Belgian potato industry and Belgapom is the voice of the Belgian potato trade and processing industry.

Thanks to a number of initiatives (weekly quotation, promotion, communication, internal and external stakeholder management, R&D coordination, Interpom Primeurs, etc.) it has become also the instrument for collaboration in the chain - within the limitations of the competition rules.

Thanks to the collaboration with other organizations to set up a common and competent back office for the secretariat, our members have received support in the best possible way.

In the future, the European and global network will become more important. Belgapom has to play its role in relation to this jigsaw of organizations, taking into consideration the specific approach of multinational organized companies. The Belgian and European potato processing industry is a young and dynamic sector and its voice needs to be heard at all levels, in Belgium, in Europe as well as Globally.

What are Belgapom’s most pressing issues and how does it best represent its members?

Currently and related to this special season: the relationship with our main suppliers – the farmers – will be the most pressing issue. How can we settle the contracts and how will we evolve in the future? How do we see our market organization? And how will the main clients (retail & food service) react on this season.

In the meantime, Belgapom already worked out a number of initiatives allowing its members to maximize the deployment of the current crop and minimize the waste levels. Going forward we have a number of important issues:

  • Trade (Brexit, anti-dumping clauses)
  • Health (contaminants, plant protection products)
  • Sustainability (long term vision, further reduction of food waste)
  • Environment
  • Plant diseases.

Not to forget innovation in the framework of the 4th industrial revolution: we have an opportunity to change not only what we do but also how we do things in our industry.

A number of opportunities will only be achieved if we look outside of our current ECO systems and involve the right partners to make sure we don’t reinvent the wheel, we need to make sure that we continue to look at the whole value chain.

What are the current challenges associated with technology and its uses, in order to ensure better coordination in the entire potato chain?

Food and plant safety, environment and sustainability are main issues on the agenda and technology can play a huge roll in this to enable a functional platform accessible for farmers, trade and processors. Traceability, documents, training … all of these elements have to be set up in a modern and interactive way in order to be successful at the level of all links in the value chain.

The use of Data is going to be very different going forward, on the one hand we have to make sure we will be able to handle all these Data, as well as we have to make sure we connect all the data whilst maintaining one version of the truth. We have to enable that we can turn these Data into information across the whole industry, ideally in an integrated way.

How much has this year’s weather affected the potato sector in Belgium and how will this, in turn, be noticed in the near future?

For sure the weather conditions had and will have an impact on the yield of this year’s crop. We see that the impact can be very different across the EU region and several organizations and interest groups have been trying to predict the yield. We will be able to define the exact impact when the harvesting has been completed and we are also concerned about the quality of the product. As mentioned Belgapom together with his members have already put several initiatives in please to make the best use of the current crop.

What steps should all those involved in the potato chain, growers and processors alike, take, in order to adapt to recent weather patterns?

The need for new varieties which are adapted to this new climate evolution is clearly a priority. Taking in consideration the fact of ‘risk spread’, the fact that water for irrigation is not evident everywhere and the pressure on the usage and residues of plant protection products it is high time that plant breeders have access (also in Europe) to new plant breeding techniques such as CRISPR and cisgene applications.

We have to take these circumstances into account to set up instruments for better knowledge and communication. Also, the contract policy needs to be potentially reviewed and a weather assurance needs the support from the authorities.

Please comment on the issue of sustainability and its effects on potato processing and growing.

A couple of years ago Belgapom has launched a campaign with the slogan ‘together for sustainable growth’. We have noticed that recently the 3 basic elements of sustainability have been joined by a fourth one: ‘innovation’.

This element is key to achieve the goals set out for ‘people, planet and profit’. Sustainably growing potatoes in Belgium has been the basis of our quality scheme ‘Vegaplan’, which is exchangeable with the Dutch VVAk and the German Q&S and has obtained the golden status of SAI. In the same time the trade and processing industry is evolving more and more towards a circular economy, reusing water and energy sources and reducing food waste. I believe we are on the right track to achieve these goals.

How do you see the current economic situation worldwide, especially concerning potato trade?

This is a topic on its own and not a simple question, there are many challenges but if I concentrate on two observations only:

  1. The world economy is doing well: 10 years after the Global Financial Crisis, the recovery is underway and output levels have surpassed pre-crisis levels in most economies.
  2. The escalation in the ongoing potential trade war between different countries will for all of us some headwind and will slow us down.

Free trade is for our industry one of the most important economic principles so we want to continue to operate in a fair and honest way.

We are proud of our Belgium product we know that we deliver the best quality and we want to make sure everybody around the globe can continue to enjoy our potato products!