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Why a super potato could save British fish and chip shops

‘All the scientists are telling us that we’re going to have drier and warmer summers – we definitely need potato varieties that can cope with that’.

They may provide one of Britain’s favourite takeaways, but fish and chip shops are facing a battle to survive.

There are fears as many as a third of the UK’s 10,500 chippies could be forced to close. They have been hit by soaring prices for energy, white fish and cooking oil. And if all that wasn’t enough, the cost of chips is also about to go through the roof.

But now hopes are growing that new, specially bred, super potatoes might help them see off the latest threat.

Andrew Crook, president of National Federation of Fish Friers, says the average price of a sack of potatoes is now around £8.50 to £9 but could soon rise to £20.

Good quality potatoes need a mixture of sunshine and rain to grow to size. But Britain’s dry summer means the potato yield is smaller and poorer in quality this year, which puts more pressure on supplies and hikes the cost. The average fish and chip shop uses up to 40 sacks of potatoes a week and so could be forking out more than £400 extra a week for them.

“It is going to be an expensive year, probably the most expensive in the last 20 years, I think, from what everyone’s telling us,” Mr Crook, who runs his own chippy near Chorley in Lancashire, tells i.

And it is likely to be a long-term problem as climate change worsens UK potato growing conditions.

The James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie – which is researching varieties that will grow in warmer conditions – warns that when temperatures climb above 25°C, potatoes shift from growing to reducing heat stress. Prof Lesley Torrance, the institute’s executive director of science, this week told BBC Scotland that by 2030 there could be 60 such “heat stress days” during the growing season: “That’s two months, and so that will have major impacts.”

“Potatoes are a cool-climate crop,” she said. “And of course climate change predictions are that we’re going to have hotter and drier summers. So that’s a big problem.”

One new variety, the Lady Jane, being trialled in the UK has been specifically crossbred to keep the qualities needed for good chips – crisp on the outside, fluffy inside – and to be tolerant to drought. Mr Crook thinks it could be a “good solution” for fish and chip shops.

“We are going to see strong prices this year due to the growing conditions and next year many growers are likely to switch to different crops that can be more profitable,” he said.

“All the scientists are telling us that we’re going to have drier and warmer summers – we definitely need varieties that can cope with that. So it’s one piece of the puzzle that will help the industry.”

Professor John Hammond, a crop science expert at University of Reading, says the reduction in water needed by the Lady Jane compared to other varieties – like the Maris Piper traditionally favoured by chippies – would be a benefit.

“A significant proportion of the potatoes in the UK are irrigated and that represents a cost to the environment,” he says. “And there’s the financial cost every time a grower switches on an irrigation system, there’s energy being used there and they’re having to pay for that water extraction.

“So, if it means they have to do that less, and the crop can grow with reduced water, then that’s a financial and environmental benefit to the grower and ultimately the consumer.”

The initial outlay may be higher: 1,000kg of Lady Jane seed potatoes are likely to retail for around £480 compared to £375 to £400 for the same quantity of Maris Pipers seeds.

But Meijer, the Netherlands-based company behind the new variety, says financial benefits are expected it will give farmers more from a single seed, needs less chemicals, and is more likely to survive.

Trials this year across the UK showed the Lady Jane had coped well with the hotter summer and it could be released onto the mass market in the next “one or two years”.

Not everyone is convinced. Andrew Skea, a Perthshire-based organic seed potato grower and supplier, says many breeders are trying to find the “next Maris Piper”, but he doubts there is a “miracle wonder variety from any breeder that’s miles better”.

But Mr Crook is clear something needs to change to allow chippies to continue providing the UK with it’s traditional takeaway staple.

“We have a meal that’s got a special place for the nation and we’ve got the heritage,” he says. “But there’s some huge challenges that we’ve never faced before.

“Potatoes are going to be one of those factors this year and next year. So with the climate, we’ve got to be planning for the future.”


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