In the final part of Farmers Guardian’s exports series, Alex Black and Ewan Pate look at businesses adding value to arable products in global markets.
Global arable markets often focused on commodity trading of products including wheat, barley, oilseed rape and maize, but British exporters are taking advantage of markets for premium added value products.
Scotch whisky has been the standout performer as the number one export for Scotland and the UK.
But there was also demand for other added value products, with an international taste for British ale and wheat products.
In 2018, £4.8 billion worth of whisky was exported from the UK, with most of this coming from Scotland.
In the beer industry, sales dropped 7 per cent last year, but still stood firm at £489.2 million.
Wheat-based products were also in demand. According to the Food and Drink Federation, wheat and wheat-based goods accounted for about 10 per cent of overall UK food and drink exports, with sweet biscuits and cereals the top products.
And while Scotland may be leading the way for whisky, seed potato exports were also vital for its potato industry.
Seed potato exports face uncertainty over Brexit
EXPORTS were an important part of the Scottish seed potato industry, with consignments dispatched to 26 countries around the world.
But Brexit was putting a cloud of uncertainty over the industry’s export success story.
Destinations in the 2018-19 season were as diverse as Indonesia and Brazil. However, the market was traditionally focused on North Africa. It first took off in the 1970s, supplying Desiree to Algeria.
But the sector became over-reliant on this market and when it stopped suddenly due to political reasons in the 2000s, it was a shock to the system.
Egypt then emerged as a key destination, particularly for the processing variety Hermes, with the country buying about 60,000 tonnes annually at one point.
However, the trade has settled at about 40,000t in recent years, with competition from Dutch exporters remaining fierce.
Morrocco was the next most important destination, taking 11,348t last year, and Algeria was also back in the market, but only for a limited quantity, taking only 250t last year. Israel was another important market for about 4,000t annually.
Many varieties were grown especially for overseas markets, with others, such as Cara, equally popular here in the UK. Buyers have been attracted by the Scottish seed potato certification scheme and its high standards of crop and tuber inspections, supervised by Government body Science and Advice to Scottish Agriculture (SASA).
Scotland also has a climatic and geographic bonus. Its northerly latitude was an advantage in minimizing aphid-borne virus disease, and it benefited by being surrounded by sea on three sides.
While EU law does not permit an import ban on seed potatoes from elsewhere in the bloc, a voluntary ban was universally supported, as was the AHDB’s Safe Haven Scheme.
But Brexit brought challenges for the sector.
Exporters gathered at last week’s (August 8) Potatoes in Practice field event near Dundee were adopting a ‘business as usual approach’ in the lack of any certainty about what will happen after October 31.
The export season would start in September with the Far East, with North African consignments dispatched from October to December.
There were concerns about how containers would be labelled and documentation but most of the traders seemed to draw comfort from the fact there was demand and importing authorities would be accommodating.
Trade with continental Europe, which amounts to about 26,000t annually, was traditionally conducted in early spring. But deal or no deal, this raised a problem with the EU not allowing any imports of potatoes from third countries. Switzerland was the only exception to this rule.
Robert Doig, a Perthshire-based grower and director of exporting and breeding company Caithness Potatoes, said he was looking forward to supplying Mediterranean and North African markets and expected a price boost from sterling devaluation, which could help offset some Brexit-related costs.
Valor was the main Caithnessbred variety exported, with new, and as yet unnamed selections, on trial.
He said: “Our breeding programme is concentrated on processing varieties and disease resistance.
“Hermes continues to be the most popular variety for Egypt, with the resulting crop used for processing. We are also keen to breed a Desiree type with better disease resistance.
“Israel and Morocco are important markets for us, but we are also sending more to Spain and Portugal.”
He added for these in the EU they did not know what status they would have and they needed third country status confirmed ‘in days and weeks, rather than months or we will be in trouble’.
“We also grow one particular variety to satisfy a 400t market in Sweden. There is no market for it elsewhere, so we need decisions made quickly,” he added.
“About 65 per cent of Caithness seed is exported. The premium is about 10 per cent over domestic UK trade, but these are not markets which could easily be replaced.”
Archie Gibson, managing director of Agrico in Scotland, said he would be looking at exporting seed to Spain and the Canary Islands before the October 31 Brexit deadline if possible.
“Fortunately there is no lack of confidence in Scottish production and SASA is well regarded,” he said.
“Seed producers, of which there are about 250, are well tooled up to do the job, but they should not be taken for granted.
“I am also keen to see some new entrants to the sector.”