Why we must rethink the potato for a sustainable use of resources


We must change how we handle our resources. A rapidly growing population, increased demand for produce and the threat of climate change bring with them risks to the food supply chain, and new approaches must be looked at to enable a sustainable future.

Perhaps often overlooked within the food crisis though is the potato, which has long been a popular staple of westernized diets and is now rising to prominence within new, emerging markets. Burgeoning demand is good for producers and processors, but is this increase from consumers feasible and stable with the current global state?

A growing demand

A huge part of society’s diet for the last 400 years, the popularity of potato shows no sign of slowing down. According to the latest figures, it’s estimated that 388,191,000 tonnes of potatoes are produced annually, with China and India combined accounting for a third of all harvested potatoes. The total value of the products is close to $100bn.

However, this current trend shows how the potato market has changed over recent years. In the early 1990s, the majority of potatoes were grown and consumed across European and North American markets. Since then however, there has been a huge rise in production within markets such South America, Africa and Asia.

Emerging markets are repositioning the potato as an alternative to rice and wheat, thanks to its nutritional value and being more sustainable to grow – China, in particular, is doing this to help feed the world’s largest population due to the pressures of growing less water-intensive crops. Studies suggest that growing potatoes requires 30 per cent less water than rice, and also returns a higher yield per hectare.

The range of uses for potatoes has also instigated its rise in popularity – especially processed potato products. The likes of frozen French fries and potato chips are increasingly becoming consumed more, with 15-20 per cent of the total crop harvested in China alone being used for processed potato goods; a figure which is increasing year-on-year.

An ever-increasing population, partnered with diets of developing markets changing, has also fueled the rise in demand for potatoes over the last decade.

Problematic production impacting yields

Although the increase in demand is a positive sign for the industry, it can also create challenges in terms of ensuring there is an availability of harvests.

Climate change is a huge global concern, touching all industries and sectors, and comes as a massive threat to the quality and overall yield of potatoes. The unpredictability of weather conditions can impact how, where and when crops can be grown, due to the changes in which are caused to the land and climate. In a time when optimized yields are integral to meeting demand, we need to be more reactive in the field to find new ways to manage production in a destabilized environment.

A recent example of where climate change impacted potato yields was during the summer of 2018, when large droughts hit Europe. Potato production in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom dropped due to the unusually extreme heat and lack of rain, with the harvest dropping by around 30 per cent on average.

However, in contrast, other markets have seen such bumper harvests in recent times that they haven’t been able to handle the sheer amount of produce. In 2017, India’s largest potato production region saw such a harvest than producers and farmers couldn’t handle the crop, leaving large amounts wasted due to limited infrastructure.

In both instances, there has to be a change in the behavior of the supply chain to deal with potential circumstances and optimize yields as much as possible. Dynamic technology-based solutions must be implemented to ensure any harvest is grown as sustainably as possible to meet both the growing demand for potatoes from an ever-increasing population.

Meeting the customer requirements

Consumers are the biggest drivers of change within all sectors and industries – and the potato industry is no exception. There will always be a want for high quality produce, but a change in consumer trends, behavior and preferences is helping the industry’s supply chain to re-evaluate its production process – it must become more flexible and agile to meet the characteristics desired by the customer.

Take the potato chip as an example. Brands have stringent requirements on the potatoes they will use, based on knowing what the customer wants. For potato chips, they must be round or oval, be no more than 75mm in length, and have less than a quarter dry matter to make the potato chip look more appealing to the customer.

French fry brands have requirements too. To ensure there is no darkened end once fried, which can be undesirable to the consumer, there must be a reduced sugar content of 0.25 per cent. 

The answer to meeting these requirements is through technology. By adopting innovative potato sorting machines utilizing optical technology, areas such as toxins, defects and the overall size of the produce can be detected early in the supply chain and allow the customer to get the type of potato desired. This, in turn, helps reduce the pressure on producers, as they can both optimize yields and deliver high quality through harnessing the power of sorting systems.

Combating waste through efficient grading and repurposing

Within potato production, sustainability is key. To protect resources, we must ensure that yields are optimized, and waste is reduced as much as possible.

Customer demands, expectations and requirements mean potato sorting and grading machines become an integral part of the supply chain and help allow for any potential defected produce to be repurposed. Especially with processed potato goods, where the market is seeing new products being released, finding alternative uses for a potato which doesn’t make the grade for one use can be done efficiently. Grading technologies such as Near Infrared (NIR) can help supply chain select specific potatoes for certain uses at any stage based on the suitability.

In a working example, a potato may be graded by the sorting machine and be deemed unsuitable for using as a French fry due to a defect. This doesn’t mean it has to be totally removed from the supply chain, but an alternative purpose can be found.

Once the defect has been removed, the potato can be ‘scaled down’ from its use as a French fry to, if quality allows, a hash brown or novelty children’s potato product. Any potatoes which were once graded as waste can now be used to support a producer’s ‘bottom line’, which not only cuts back on food loss, but also improves sustainability of the supply chain.

At TOMRA, our innovative potato sorting machines are designed with making the most out of a harvest in mind and guarantee the removal of discoloration, defects, bruises and rot. Our sorting solutions can sort by defects, biological characteristics, shape and size, structure, color, density and foreign materials, to help producers increase yields and quality of produce for customers.

A new era in sustainable potato production

The planet is facing challenges. The ever-growing population and climate change will pose questions on how we grow, produce and process resources – and the potato industry is no exception to this.

With a global increase in demand, potato production must adapt to maximize its value, optimize yields and increase the quality of produce through the use of technology solutions.