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Asia faces fries shortage due to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak has exposed supply chain vulnerabilities in Asia for the world's biggest staple crops, rice and wheat, but the chances of the regional potato industry plugging some of the shortfall is being blighted by a number of hurdles.

According to data from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), in 2018 the total potato production worldwide stood at 368 million tonnes, of which almost 189 million tonnes were produced in Asia.

With rice prices and supply facing uncertainty due to lockdowns and high, panicked demand especially in the APAC region after the COVID-19 outbreak, it might be expected that potatoes would be able to benefit somewhat here -but in reality, there have been multiple factors hindering this opportunity, according to International Potato Center Asia Regional Director Samarendu Mohanty.

"The potato supply chain is very unique - this is due to the existence of two very different types of potatoes for different purposes," Mohanty told FoodNavigator-Asia.

"The first is the type that we are more familiar with in Asia, the table potato, which we can buy in supermarkets and use to make curries or other dishes. The other one is the processing variety used to make fries and wedges, and this is much more common in the West especially in the foodservice industry."

In Asia, some 95% of potato consumption is 'fresh' - meaning the table potato is directly cut up and used without any processing. It is an important staple especially in South Asian countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, especially varieties that are mid-sized and round-shaped.

The processing potato is mostly used in the West, where it takes up some 70% of consumption. This is commonly much larger, about half a kilogramme or so.

It is important to note that processing potatoes are not interchangeable with table potatoes due to differences in quality and texture, yet despite the very different consumption patterns for both, the demand for one closely affects the other.

Asia is almost wholly dependent on the West for processed potato products, so prolonged lockdowns may very likely result.

'Just about all of Asia's fries and wedges are imported from Europe, Canada and the United States, and if this situation drags on for another four to five months, supply is going to drop, so after food services in the West are allowed to reopen, there won't be enough supply for export" said Mohanty. 'What we are looking at is a possible shortage of fries in Asia."

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