The press recently relayed the concerns of residents about the construction of a potato processing plant in Frameries by the company Clarebout, as well as the considerations of the Minister Di Antonio on the development of potato farms in Wallonia and its impact on the environment. Fiwap (the interprofessional organization of the entire sector in Wallonia), FWA (the Agricultural Federation of Wallonia) and Belgapom (the Belgian potato trade and processing) remind us of the reality of the sector and the issues related to the production and promotion of the potato in Belgium.
The potato is an economic sector in its own right
Potato crops currently cover 43,500 ha in Wallonia, and nearly 100,000 ha in Belgium (sources: regional statements PAC), spread among more than 3,500 producers, for a value estimated between 350 and 550 million euros [394 and 619 million USD] for the past 5 years (source: Fiwap). Belgium has a very open economy with, for the most part, sectors of activity, exports of manufactured products of (relatively) high added value. The same goes (for over 25 years) for the potato production, with one goal which is to meet the needs of the local population.
The soils and climate of northwestern Europe give some of the highest potato yields in the world. A natural advantage, coupled with a professionalism of the sector which allowed for the development of a successful processing industry in Belgium. Belgian finished products (mainly frozen fries) are exported to more than 150 countries worldwide (source: Belgapom) and provide a net trade balance of more than 1,75 billion euros [1.97 billion USD] per year (source: Eurostat). The low cereal prices in recent years and the sharp decline in the cultivation of sugar beets have made the potato one of the pillars of the Walloon agriculture. Its processing alone is responsible for about 5,000 direct jobs (source: Belgapom), and thousands of indirect jobs. Investments in factories exceeded 300 million euros [338 million USD] in 2018 (source: Belgapom), in addition to the permanent investments (storage warehouses, machines and equipment…) by the producing farms. All this, as well as the business related to production (purchase of inputs…), transportation and promotion (intermediary trade). The expertise and the investments all along the chain make the sector extremely efficient.
Potatoes and sustainability
Among field crops, the potato is often singled out for its impact on soils, air and landscape. The sector is well aware of its responsibilities in terms of the environment. Concrete steps are being taken all the time to reduce the use of products to protect the plants, such as the treatment warning systems and the drift reduction techniques during spraying. Variety selection is strongly oriented towards the creation of varieties less susceptible to diseases and pests, and the sector is waiting for Belgian regions to come to an agreement on the potential use of newly created varieties, which would contribute greatly to the reduction of the use of products to protect the plants. In this context, a common reflection on crop rotation will be the primary focus of the next interprofessional discussions. In terms of combating erosion and runoff, several research and development projects led to the almost universal use of interlocking partitions to reduce the mudflow as much as possible. The Belgian sector is also pioneer in the use of satellite images for the online monitoring of the crops via the Watch It Grow program. Finally, methods related to precision farming are being studied to reduce inputs without affecting production yield or quality. There is therefore no shortage of initiatives, and the sector is working on improving the collaborations between all the players.
The development of potato processing in Belgium will continue to meet the global demand in finished products, but the additional supply will come mainly from France and Germany. In Belgium, Fiwap, FWA and Belgapom are demanding a real partnership between the private operators (of production and processing) and the authorities (regional and federal) for a sustainable growth, environmentally, but also socially and economically, while preserving the export vocation of the sector and a healthy and frank dialogue between agriculture and society, with mutual respect and understanding.
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