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Prices soar as Europe potato farms bake in searing heat

Record-breaking heatwave and lack of rain across Europe have hurt potato crops

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With potatoes thriving in wetter climates, the UK harvest will probably drop by at least 8 per cent when it starts this month, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.

London

WHETHER you call them chips, frites or French fries, it's shaping up to be a bad year for potato lovers.

The record-breaking heatwave and lack of rain across Europe has hurt potato crops, with prices tripling in the UK in August from a year earlier.

That has forced fish and chip shops to charge more for a portion of fries that form one half of the traditional British staple.

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Further price hikes loom, said Andrew Crook, president of the National Federation of Fish Friers who also runs his own shop in the village Euxton in north-west England.

"It's going to be a disaster for us this year," said Mr Crook, who started helping in the family fish and chip business at the age of nine. "I've never seen prices of potatoes be that high at this time of the year. We are getting squeezed."

In the UK, a tonne of fresh potatoes surged to £300 (S$538) last month, the third-highest on records going back to the 1950s, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

Processing potato futures for delivery in April have doubled this year in Leipzig, Germany. With Europe accounting for eight of the 10 biggest potato eating nations, there's likely to be fierce competition for the starchy tubers this season.

While the ninth-ranked British can't match the appetite of Belorussians, they still chomp through more than a 100 kilograms a year of chips, crisps, roast potatoes and mash.

With potatoes thriving in wetter climates, the UK harvest will probably drop by at least 8 per cent when it starts this month, according to the AHDB. Crops will be even worse in continental Europe, where the UK sources top-up imports, triggering the prospect of a scramble for supplies.

"We will be fighting for potatoes with Europe," said Mr Crook, president of the federation representing more than 10,000 fish and chip shops across the country.

"There are not enough potatoes to go around, and everything is quite small."

Britain's £1.5 billion fish-and-chip-shop industry is more vulnerable to short-term price swings because it doesn't hold the longer-term contracts favored by supermarkets and large manufacturers.

A 12-ounce portion of chips now costs an average of £2 to £2.20, up from £1.70 to £1.80 at the start of the summer, Mr Crook said.

Growers in northern Europe expect yields to shrink and German processors are warning of shortages of large potatoes, prized for making French fries.

"Potatoes may be smaller, scabbier than in the previous years," said Rob Clayton, strategy director for potatoes at the AHDB in Stoneleigh, England. "Suppliers and manufacturers will have to make more of what they have got." BLOOMBERG

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