29-04-2020 11:44 | Door: Emma Rotman

The COVID-19 crisis holds a tight grip on the potato industry. Worldwide, hospitality businesses are closed, leading to a significant drop in the consumption of fries. 1 million tons of Dutch potatoes are at risk of not finding an outlet. How can the sector prevent these potatoes from being wasted?

The business of fries producer Lamb Weston/ Meijer has been seriously impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. The business is selling significantly lower volumes compared to pre-crisis levels. “We had to partially shutdown our plants, because our storages are reaching capacity. If the demand for fries picks up again, we will be able to ramp up production quickly. The production of dried potato flakes continues because of solid demand, but the production capacity is limited”, said the company. 

The COVID-19 crisis has also had a huge impact on potato growers. Some of them still have their warehouses full with 2019’s harvest, and in a couple of months it will be time to harvest again. There is no use for a large part of the volume and the value it holds today is minimal. In the meantime, Dutch minister of Agriculture, Carola Schouten, announced to partially compensate growers for the potatoes that cannot be processed into fries this season. 

1 million tons of potatoes

“The decrease in sales is a cause for concern. But I am also deeply disturbed about the waste of 1 million tons of potatoes in the Netherlands alone”, said Jolanda Soons, sustainability leader at Lamb Weston / Meijer. “We are looking for ways to ideally process these potatoes into food, but the pile is so high, that it also requires big solutions.”

'The pile is so high, this requires big solutions'

Therefore, the potato industry is looking into alternative outlets, such as cattle feed made from potatoes that cannot be used for fries, flakes or specialities. Another option would be anaerobic digestion, processing the potatoes into energy. “Obviously, this our last resort, because all nutrients are lost this way”, said Soons.

Front runner against food waste

In the battle against food waste, Lamb Weston /Meijer is a frontrunner in the potato industry. Its 2020 target was to produce 10 percent more fries and flakes from the quantity of potatoes, compared to 2008. The company even introduced a special KPI for this goal: potato utilisation. “When we optimize the utilization of each potato into products for human consumption, waste and losses decline”, explained Soons. “The next step is to maximize the valorisation of by-products and waste streams such as steam peels and potato starch.”

In England, where another plant of Lamb Weston / Meijer is located, the company was the first food producer to set up a so-called ‘whole chain food waste reduction plan’,  together with retail and food service Fullers Foods and supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. The initiative takes a holistic approach to tackling food waste across the entire supply chain, facilitated by the Waste Resource Action Programme (WRAP) in the United Kingdom. From growers to supermarket shelves, Lamb Weston / Meijer and partners mapped out where food losses occur and identified opportunities to cut back on waste.

In the Netherlands, Lamb Weston / Meijer is building a new plant, where it will process potato flakes and native potato starch into food products for human consumption. The potato starch is removed from the wash water after the potatoes are cut into fries. The starch is currently used as a resource for the production of biobased technical materials such as wallpaper glue. But in the near future it will serve as a circular ingredient for the food products that Lamb Weston / Meijer produces.

The company usually takes big steps to deliver incremental change, reducing waste by fractions. But because of the crisis they are now looking at waste levels of double digits. “In the Netherlands, about 4 million ton of potatoes are used in the production of food products such as fries. 25 percent of this volume will be potentially wasted”, said Soons.

New alternatives

Toine Timmermans, director of the Dutch foundation Samen Tegen Voedselverspilling (together against food waste), also fears that it will be impossible to find an outlet in the food chain for all these potatoes. He hopes that the provided clarity on government compensation during the crisis will prompt growers and food producers to investigate alternatives together. “You could sell your harvest to cattle feed producers, use it for anaerobic digestion, or spread the waste on the land. The last two options are essentially food waste. However, I hope that there will be entrepreneurial growers that will look for new ways to produce marketable products.”

'I hope that there will be entrepreneurial growers that will look for new ways to produce marketable products'

One idea is to use some of the potatoes for the production of hand alcohol. Lamb Weston / Meijer has amongst other companies been invited by Timmermans to take part in the project. Under usual circumstances, products that are suitable for human consumption are not used for low value products such a hand gel. But in corona times everything is different. “We could turn all potatoes into starch, but that would disrupt a steady market. Therefore you need to target different markets. And the demand for hand alcohol has surged since the corona crisis.”

Make an effort

A successful outcome depends on the efforts that companies are prepared to make to avoid food waste. First, the potato processing industry has to prepare the potatoes for further processing at breweries. Smaller breweries then produce ‘biersap’ (beer juice) containing about 14 percent alcohol, which large breweries convert into 82 percent alcohol through distillation. The last step is performed by filling and packing companies who process the alcohol into hand gel.

‘We are essentially building a new, temporary supply chain in the blink of an eye”, said Timmermans. “Eventually you will need customers that are willing to pay a fair price for the hand gel. There is barely a commercial business case, although the market price for hand gel has skyrocketed.”

Rethinking the system

The government compensation scheme offers clarity to growers and enables healthy businesses to continue their operations. But Timmermans would have preferred a different approach involving government and industry assessing and rethinking the current system. “This solution is in line with the traditional system. We have a temporary oversupply of potatoes because of the crises so we remove them from the market. Such measurements only lead to more waste without stimulating sustainable and circular solutions. On top of this we are also facing global food crisis with shortages in various areas.” 

The financial compensation is a necessity, argues Timmerman, but it should involve a strong incentive to boost a circular economy. That would not only make agriculture more sustainable; it would also make it more agile in future crisis. “I have recently read that we can expect periods of lockdown more often to control this virus and future viruses.  That means that we have to move towards a better system. This is possible when everyone in the chain, from farmer to consumer, takes responsibility. At the moment there is a lot of enthusiasm to collaborate to find short term solution. But let’s also work together on finding long term solutions.”

Fries for good

Meanwhile, Lamb Weston / Meijer has found a social solution for its stocks of fries. The company supplies products to local food banks and has joined the ‘Benefrietjes’ campaign. The latter is an initiative from trade organisation BO Akkerbouw that aims to raise awareness about the hardship the industry is facing, while showing their appreciation for healthcare staff.

“Our aim is to encourage consumers to eat more fries and potato products, to somehow reduce the heap of potatoes. But we also visit hospitals and care homes to treat the staff to fries”, Soons said. “It is our way to express gratitude to everyone working in the healthcare sector in these difficult times. Besides, we continue to find good outlets for as many potatoes as possible and actively seek sustainable alternatives.”

Images: Lamb Weston / Meijer