Belgium needs international backup in its campaign to munch through a daunting mountain of unexported potatoes that has built up during the coronavirus pandemic.
Belgium’s potato industry has urged patriots to take a high-calorie hit for the team by heading down to their local friteries twice a week to help reduce the spud surplus, but it’s increasingly clear that 11 million Belgians won’t be able to handle the deep-fried mission alone.
Belgium, the North Sea homeland of Moules-frites and mayonnaise, is the world’s biggest exporter of frozen fries, but it has been hammered by the trade slowdown during the pandemic. The Belgian potato industry has warned that more than 750,000 tons of potatoes could be thrown away — more than 40 percent of the harvest.
Frozen fries account for about 75 percent of the nation’s potato processing, and the sector has been especially hit hard now that restaurants and bars are in lockdown all over the world. The sector fears the worst as the restaurants and bars will be the last to reopen as restrictions are lifted, and large summer events such as festivals and sports matches are being canceled — usually big frite-eating occasions.
“Our entire sector is facing a big crisis. We don’t just invite all Belgians to eat more fries, but the entire world,” said Ward Claerbout from Agristo, a potato processing company in the west of Belgium.
“We are a sector with low margins and rely on large volumes. If volumes don’t go up, the entire sector is in trouble” — Ward Claerbout from potato processing company Agristo
Before the pandemic hit, 90 percent of Belgian potato products were exported. For Agristo, it’s even more than 98 percent.
“When one part of the market collapses, that is normally compensated elsewhere. Now, the out-of-home market has completely collapsed worldwide … We are a sector with low margins and rely on large volumes. If volumes don’t go up, the entire sector is in trouble.”
The potato industry is looking into alternatives to avoid food waste. Potatoes that can’t be processed are being sent to food banks and the sector is also exploring whether part of the stock can be used as animal feed or processed through fermentation. And in an effort to boost sales, it was potato industry association Belgapom that this week called upon Belgians to eat fries at least twice a week.
The government is doing its part. At the beginning of the lockdown in mid-March, Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block assured Belgians that friteries would remain open. “We can’t all starve,” she said. The Flemish government, which is responsible for agriculture, also has been providing extra promotion for local and seasonal products, including fries, via commercials, YouTube and a website.
The problem is that Belgians are a bit too fond of salad these days.
“Ironically, the consumption of frozen fries in Belgium is fairly low in comparison with other countries,” said Romain Cools, who leads Belgapom. “We’re now looking into a promotional campaign to get Belgians to eat more of them. That would free up space in our freezers and help us to avoid food waste,” he added.
The industry is also knocking on Europe’s door for support.
Cools stressed that it’s the first time the sector has had to go cap in hand to the EU. “We are proud of our independence, but this situation is exceptional — 70 percent of our consumption happens in restaurants, which are all closed,” he said. “If we can’t process those 750,000 tons, our farmers risk losing over €125 million. So we asked our politicians to push this issue on the European level.”
Hilde Crevits, agriculture minister in Flanders, the northern Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, confirmed to POLITICO that the country has been asking for European help.
“Since the end of March, we have been asking the European Commission to look for a solution on a European level, because this is a problem for the internal market. A first step is now being taken by giving the sector a number of exceptions to the rules of competition, but this will not solve the financial loss of the sector,” Crevits said. “That is why we continue to urge Europe to provide them with the necessary financial resources.”
In the meanwhile, Crevits added, she’s eating some extra fries to help the cause.