November/December 2009
Potatoes in China

Chinese potato growers do much of their work by hand, on small plots with rudimentary tools. While the size of fields varies, the average farm totals between two and five acres.

When it is considered that China has been reported to have more than 9.88 million acres of potatoes planted, it amounts to a lot of hand labor. The majority of potatoes produced there are hand-tended and are being watered.

The 2004 World Potato Conference in Kunming, Yunnan, China, highlighted the current state of the Chinese potato industry and addressed the potential role that the potato will play in feeding the huge market.

The huge difference in yield between modern potato growing regions and China are accounted for by differences in growing practices and conditions.

The average potato yield in China in 2003 was 6.57 tons per acre, according to statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But yield varies from region to region and depends greatly on the quality of seed and the diseases present, according to speakers from the Vegetable Research Institute, Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences, in Jinan, China.

China’s potato yields are about one-third of those in the U.S., where grower’s averaged 18 tons per acre in 2002.

The country has four growing regions. In the northern region potatoes are grown in the summer and in the southern region potatoes are double cropped. These two regions account for 90 percent of the total crop for the country.

Growth in potato demand could ride on the changing diets of consumers in the world’s largest nations. If China and India, two traditionally rice-eating countries in Asia, continue to expand their diet to include the potato, consumption could jump as much as 40 percent worldwide by 2020.

Signs have shown that people in the two countries have been diversifying their diets with more potatoes, said Hubert Zandstra, director general of the Peru-based International Potato Center (CIP) at the Fifth World Potato Congress (WPC) held in southwest China. China occupies 25 percent of the global planting area of potatoes and approximately 60 percent of the Asian planting area for potatoes.

China is the second largest potato producer in the world, and it is estimated that the potato consumption could grow by at least 5 percent in the coming years since the government has been investing more in the domestic potato industry, Zandstra said.

In the water-poor country, the potato plays a huge role. Zandstra said that potato has a harvest index of 75 to 85 percent. That means that less than one-fourth of the plant material produced by sunlight, water, nutrients labor and other inputs are wasted.

That is an astounding figure more than 50 percent greater than for cereal crops, Zandstra said.

The potato industry is an important channel for Chinese farmers to improve their situation, said Qu Dongyu, director of the China Potato Committee. Du said that the potato was also a good crop for the country’s resources. While 60 percent of China’s farmland is arid lands, potato farmers earn a higher profit growing potatoes compared with wheat, corn, paddy rice and beans, Qu said.

In the Lijang Region of Yunnan potato sales account for just 3 percent of total rural economic income, said Tang Ke-ren, with the Agricultural Department of Yunnan Province. But in subsections of the province potatoes have given some growers middle-income status, with potatoes responsible for as much as 84 percent of their income, Tang said. The challenges faced by the average grower in this region include transportation of product to market, lack of technology knowledge and lack of merchant investment.

Statistics have shown that acreage sown with paddy rice, wheat and corn in China has decreased over the past few years, while the land for potato acreage increased at an annual rate of 4.5 percent. In 2003,China planted more than 4.7 million hectares (11.609 million acres) of potatoes a quarter of the world’s total, and the production topped 75 million tons, about one-fifth of the world’s total, CIP statistics show. U.S. potato growers planted 1.3 million acres of potatoes in 2002.

But despite their huge production, China still lags behind the developed world in developing new varieties and potato processing. This doesn’t mean that potatoes aren’t a profitable crop. In the Yunnan Province of China, where the congress was held, farmers have recognized potatoes as a valuable cash crop.

Potato processing

Simplot established the first production line for french fries in China in Beijing in 1992. Today, the plant has a reported capacity of 20,000 tons per year.

Since Simplot’s arrival, other french fry companies have emerged in China, but most of the french fries served at McDonald’s and KFC are imported.

Presenters on the potato processing industry in China reported that there is a rapidly developing processing industry there, but it faces several challenges. Presenters from the Institute of Vegetables and Flowers, Beijing, China, reported that two main problems remain with the nation’s processing efforts: the low rate of commercial production and the low quality of potatoes for processing.

There are more than 10 starch processing factories, 20 potato-chipping factories, two potato flake factories and one french fry processing facility. The facilities’ total consumption of raw potatoes totals 1.26 million tons.

When it comes to french fries, there is a general lack of potato varieties grown. In addition, speakers said, traditional growers have little knowledge of french frying varieties. To combat this problem, the researcher s said that a number of advanced clones were being considered for China’s growing conditions.

In addition, authorities are reportedly preparing national standards for processing potatoes, with standards for chipping and french fry potatoes to be issued the earliest.

International companies are currently in the process of building potato processing factories while others are planning to invest on processing ventures already there. Researchers estimate that the potato processing facilities and their capacity will continue to expand in coming years, greatly expanding the need for processing potatoes.

Specifically in Kunming, Yunnan Province, there are five potato-processing companies in operation with 11 different product lines. Their products include chips, french-fries, potato cakes and mashed potatoes. The annual processing capacity reaches 145,000 tons, according to figures provided at the WPC.

Seed potato production

Seed certification in China has a long way to go, according to researchers there. Researchers from the Institute of Vegetables and Flowers reported that in general the seed production system in China is still in disorder with no authorities that are actually in charge of the organization, supervision and coordination of the issue.

The quality of seed potatoes varies from year to year and company to company because there is no registration for the seed potato growers. Anyone can grow seed potatoes in China at this time.

But the researchers predicted that the quality of potato seed and the certification would continue to improve as the market for seed has more buyers.

Production of virus-free seed potatoes is a high priority in China, according to Ting Yun, president of Zhengfeng Potato Seed Group, Inner Mongolia, China. The country has invested heavily in improving seed production techniques, but has yet to reach its goal.

The work toward reliable production of virus-free seed potatoes is not complete in Inner Mongolia, Ting told the WPC attendees. Problems exist in the sourcing, breeding, technical cultivation, quality management and the monitoring of seed-potatoes. Due to these challenges, improving the quality of Chinese seed will be difficult but not impossible.

Other provinces have done quite well, Zandstra said.

“China is well on its way to implementing effective, clean seed systems in many of its major production regions, extending the potato success they have had in nearly a million hectare (2.47 million acres) of virus free sweet potato in Shandong and neighboring provinces,” he said. “Close cooperation with the private sector can contribute much to this development.”

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