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One winner amid the food crisis: the spud

By Linda McKee

As global wheat and rice prices surge, the rise of the humble potato could be on the cards.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation has been promoting the spud as a more efficient crop that could improve food security in developing countries, organising knowledge-boosting events to mark the International Year of the Potato.

A massive 80% of the potato crop can be used for human consumption and farmers can also produce much more crop on a piece of land than if they were growing cereals, it is claimed.

And notwithstanding a long- term decline in spud production in Northern Ireland, potato processors here are poised to take advantage if people begin to switch to the old staples.

The Ulster Farmers Union says there is plenty of potential for potato growers to increase their crop in Northern Ireland. Although the number of hectares in production declined from 8,800 in 1996 to 4,800 in 2007, the reason was the low price they were fetching, according to UFU spokesman Joe McDonald.

Rocketing global grain prices have not only hit the price of bread but have had knock-on effects on other foods such as dairy and meat that are fuelled by animal feed.

The high prices have been spurred by a combination of poor global harvests, rising demand for western diets in India and China and diversion of land into energy crops in the US.

"It's fuel, feed and fertiliser, all of which have gone up dramatically in cost," Mr McDonald said.

"We saw this coming first as it came through in the cost of feeding livestock but now it's finally filtering through to customers. We have been warning that the cost of food would have to rise as the cost of producing food has risen so dramatically.

"Overall we see this correction in food prices as a reality check for consumers - over the last decade the public became very accustomed to very low prices which haven't kept pace with inflation.

"Maybe food prices are getting realistic and reflecting more accurately the cost of producing the food in the first place."

Celebrity chef Nick Price says barely a day goes by without notification of a new price increase for some foodstuff.

"Flour prices have gone up - it's quite frightening how much," he said.

"Certainly, the wheat thing would be a big issue because of the knock-on effect on other things... I don't think people realise and I think we are all in for a big shock."

Angus Wilson, chief executive of potato processor Wilson's Country, said: " We don't see any direct change as yet.

"However, we would anticipate that when people are reviewing their household budget they are more likely to buy fresh potatoes for their value and versatility, rather than expensive ready meals.

"When you buy a 5kg bag there's a lot of nourishment in that for very little money."

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