Ireland’s potato sector is in trouble because of its dependency for seed potatoes on the UK, which is refusing to comply with EU plant health regulations.
The EU has blocked the importation of potato seeds from the UK because of this.
That leaves Ireland with enough seed for 2021, but no-one knows the supply situation next year or going forward.
Ireland has been importing approximately 6,000t of seed potatoes from the UK each year, with 60% of the certified seed that is planted in Ireland coming from Scotland.
Ireland has only about 230 hectares of seed potato crops, and it would be hard to expand this, mainly because of the increasing demand for land for dairying.
During a potato seed webinar hosted by Teagasc, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue said he was keen to see seed potato growing “develop and progress”.
He highlighted the potato industry’s resilience “through the many challenges it faced through the years”.
“Brexit of course has been a further challenge, particularly in the context of seed potatoes, and there have been continuous exchanges with our colleagues in the UK and in the EU in relation to all of this,” he added.
“I’m firmly of the view that, in this post-Brexit scenario, there are very significant opportunities to increase the supply of Irish grown seed potatoes, to replace UK imports."
Barry Delaney, Chief Plant Health Officer at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) said the EU won’t allow seed potatoes from outside the EU (meaning the UK).
“There has been no move by the UK to align themselves with that,” he added.
“They want to diverge on things like importing oranges from South America and South Africa, and want to increase measures on certain plants and trees.”
He explained that Ireland can therefore no longer access Scottish or Great Britain seed potatoes, and there is no clarity for 2022 or 2023.
The webinar heard that in 2016, Ireland was producing 253ha of seed potatoes; by 2020 this dropped back to 229ha.
“We are not producing what is needed for native production; we are seeing on average just over 2,000t each year, and that will further decline in 2021,” Mr Delaney said.
“60% of the certified seed that is planted in Ireland comes from Scotland and Ireland has imported 6,000t over the last two years, the majority of which has come from Scotland and Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent England.
“Ireland is relying heavily on the UK for seed potatoes.
Mr Delaney said there are issues with getting seed of some varieties this year, but planting for 2021 is well covered in the main.
“There have been ongoing imports from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Northern Ireland, but supply is low at the moment.
“That may change next year, depending on native production, which does take time. It is a three to five-year process in order to have enough for commercial sale.”
Minister of State Pippa Hackett said she would meet with the Horticulture Industry Forum this week to discuss the matter further.
“An import substitution is something that we need to look at: Irish grown seed for Irish grown potatoes would be something that I would support.”
Dr Denis Griffin, seed potato breeder at Teagasc, Oakpark, said seed potatoes can be produced in all areas in the country.
“Regions have different advantages and disadvantages, and one of the key ones is in the north east and north west of the country, where there are cooler temperatures.
“These regions have a significant advantage in terms of virus spread.
“The south of Ireland is generally drier and a little bit warmer and has an advantage there in terms of earlier harvest dates.
He said Ireland in theory has a high bank of virginal and good quality land for seed potato production.
“Obviously, through expansion in dairying, the move towards farm shares, and long-term leasing, a lot of that land has become unavailable.
“Land selection for seed potato growing is something that needs to be right from the start.
“Access to land that has had relatively few potato crops is probably key to ensuring a good-quality potato crop.”
Mr Griffin explained that soil borne diseases such as powdery scab are particularly evident in land that has seen a lot of potato crops in the past.
Meanwhile, advances in technology have made it easier to detect viruses which could damage a seed potato crop.
And, funding for potato growing has become available in the latest tranche of TAMS, which opened last Friday for applications.