Post-Brexit issue creates catch-22 for Irish potato growers

Revitalise Irish seed production or risk importing potato diseases from Continent

Paddy Reynolds, of Pat Reynolds and Sons Farm, in front of a storage bay holding chipping potatoes in Co Meath. Photograph: Alan Betson

Paddy Reynolds, of Pat Reynolds and Sons Farm, in front of a storage bay holding chipping potatoes in Co Meath. Photograph: Alan Betson

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The UK’s departure from the European Union has created a catch-22 for some Irish farmers who can no longer import British seed potatoes but the move could revitalise the domestic trade in the product.

The import ban has the potential to cause headaches for farmers growing potatoes for consumers and for the snack industry, with a switch to seed potato from the Continent bringing increased transport costs and the prospect of importing diseases.

Before the Brexit trade deal there was concern over a threat to the traditional “chipper chip” as it was unclear if the British potatoes traditionally used in Irish fish and chip shops could still be imported. The pre-Christmas trade agreement between the EU and UK resolved that issue and British “table” potatoes continue to cross the Irish Sea.

However, seed potatoes – from which farmers grow their crop – can no longer make the same journey as EU-UK phytosanitary regulations are now not aligned.

The Department of Agriculture warned Irish farmers of the issue last year given their reliance on seed potatoes from Britain, particularly Scotland. Most stocked up before the end of the Brexit transition period so they could plant their crops this spring.

Thomas McKeown, chairman of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) potato committee, said the production of potatoes would be unaffected this year as most had planned ahead. However, he warned that the ban could present “a huge problem” next year and beyond.

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Crisp manufacturer Tayto Snacks moved – along with its suppliers – to take early delivery of its stock of seed potatoes from Britain and the EU ahead of the Brexit deadline. Despite the uncertainty, it sought to reassure consumers that it would take “appropriate steps” to maintain supplies in the years ahead.

Mr McKeown said there is still hope that a deal can be reached between the UK and EU allowing the seed potato trade to resume. But in the absence of a deal, most Irish farmers are going to have to source seed potatoes from the Continent while waiting for the indigenous industry to ramp up. Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue is understood to be exploring how to re-establish and develop a national seed programme.

Mr McKeown said this presents “a great opportunity” but he cautioned that it could take years to achieve. He said importers are looking in the short-term at France and Poland as possible alternative sources of seed potatoes.

Diseases

There is concern among Irish farmers that bringing in more continental seed potatoes increases the risk of importing diseases such as brown rot, present in the Netherlands and some other countries.

Co Meath farmer Paddy Reynolds, who supplies Tayto and also sells to supermarkets, stocked up on the seed potatoes he needs for the year in December. That move avoided a potential crisis, but led to extra storage costs.

He said it is “imperative” that the native seed industry gets back up and running. Without an EU-UK deal, he would have to “bite the bullet” and get potatoes from elsewhere in Europe. However, he warned that a grower could end up out of business if an imported disease such as brown rot struck their crop.

Asked about efforts to reach a deal on seed potatoes, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it understands the importance of the product to UK exporters and “we continue to engage” with the European Commission “with the aim of finding a resolution soon”.

The commission would not be drawn on the issue, with a spokesman saying the export of seed potatoes from Britain to the EU “is no longer possible as the UK has decided to no longer align itself to EU phytosanitary rules”.

The Department of Agriculture said the UK’s request for a derogation for seed potato exports will be examined by the commission and EU member states.

Mr McKeown said boosting the indigenous seed potato industry would take significant investment, but “ the opportunity is there if we have the will to take it”. He said he does not know if Ireland will ever get back to being fully self-sufficient in this regard but “by God we can put a fair dent in it with the backing of all sectors in the industry”.