Report warns of challenges to Scottish seed potato sector

Researchers have highlighted the significance of the potato sector to Scotland’s rural economy
Researchers have highlighted the significance of the potato sector to Scotland’s rural economy

A new report has demonstrated the economic importance of the Scottish seed potato sector amid growing concerns over the impact of Brexit, diseases and climate change.

The report highlights a 71% reduction in the demand for fresh potatoes in the UK since the 1970s, with consumers switching to alternatives such as rice and pasta.

And more recently, the loss of access to export markets for seed potatoes following Brexit represents another loss of demand, researchers at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) warn.

This is particularly true for Scotland, where seed production is more important due to its disease-free growing conditions and associated ‘high health’ status.

Overall, the report found the potato market was more stable in Scotland than at a UK level, representing nearly a quarter of the overall potato production from farms.

The farm gate production of potatoes in Scotland – including seed and ware potatoes – had a value of around £245 million between 2018-2020.

This represented 6 percent of Scottish agricultural output and 22 percent of UK potato production.

While the UK is now importing more potato products - including processed products - than it is exporting, it is still a net exporter of seed potatoes, of which Scotland accounts for 75% of the area grown in Britain.

Importantly, the contribution of potato production is greater than its farm gate value, with chilled, frozen, dried and cooked processed products representing further economic activity, in addition to the supply chain which has evolved around the industry.

Overall, the Scottish potato sector had an on-farm and upstream economic contribution of £507 million output and accounted for 2,880 full-time jobs.

But report author Steven Thomson, who is a senior agricultural economist at SRUC, said there were growing concerns over the sector's future.

He said: "The work on assessing the economic contribution of the Scottish seed and ware potato sectors is a timely reminder of how complex agri-food supply chains are.

"Scotland has an international reputation for growing high-health seed potatoes, yet the economic contribution of the seed sector was often only reported as the farmgate value.

"With growing concerns about the impacts of potato cyst nematodes (PCN), and other diseases, this provides evidence of the importance of the sector that can help justify Scottish government support for research and development, knowledge exchange and wider policy measures for the sector.”

Chief Plant Health Officer for Scotland, Gerry Saddler welcomed the report, but he warned that potato production was under 'constant threat' from pests and the changing climate.

“This report highlights the significance of the potato sector to Scotland’s rural economy," he said.

"In particular, it throws a spotlight on how important our seed potato production is for the potato supply chain in the UK but also for many other countries around the world.

"This report gives a clear indication of what could potentially be lost if the potato sector, working in partnership with government, fails to maintain the high production standards built over many years in Scotland.”