This week, the Washington Post reported that a “growing global potato shortage” is affecting sellers and consumers of French fries and chips (in the North American definition of the word) around the world, hitting such disparate places as Japan and Kenya. But the story also reveals that the word “shortage” might be doing the situation short shrift; it’s more complicated than that.
The world’s top potato producers are, in descending order, China, India, Russia, Ukraine and the United States. But potatoes grow in most of the temperate world; there are many varieties, and significant amounts of potatoes are grown in Western Europe, Northern Africa and, of course, in South America, where they were originally domesticated. Is there really a shortage of potatoes in all of these places?
There is a whole mess of problems in the potato industry right now. Canada, a major producer, stopped exporting some potatoes to the United States owing to the discovery of potato wart fungus in Prince Edward Island. A combination of a harsh frost and then excessive rains reduced the supply of certain potato varieties in South Africa.
But many of the problems are due to very particular circumstances that aren’t, strictly speaking, a shortage of actual potatoes. In Japan, McDonald’s has made news for restricting purchase to only the small size of French fries. But that’s not because of a lack of potatoes; it’s because McDonald’s Japan uses fries imported from North America, which go through the Port of Vancouver. That port experienced a disastrous flood in November, which caused a huge backlog of container ships from which the supply chain is still recovering.
KFC in Kenya tweeted out that it’s “run out” of fries and is offering alternatives. This attracted anger from potato farmers in Kenya, who produce more than a million tonnes of potatoes per year and who are not suffering any notable shortages this year. KFC Kenya replied that the company’s quality assurance procedure requires it to import potatoes, rather than use local ones, and most of those come from Egypt. KFC said that shipping delays in Egypt owing to COVID-19-related problems are at the root of the shortage in Kenyan KFCs.
In South Africa, potato chip supplies are running low, but is that due to a shortage? Potatoes South Africa, a promotional agency for the South African potato industry, says that there isn’t a generalized shortage, despite some of the weather issues the country has faced. Instead, the weather has been bad for a few varieties of potato, such as Mondial and Sifra, which are used disproportionately by producers like Lay’s to make potato chips. Potato prices actually hit unusual highs and lows in South Africa, owing to the weather, but the overall supply has been fairly stable.
Potatoes aren’t suffering from a shortage exactly, but the global potato industry does seem to be suffering, as is most of the global agricultural trade, from a lack of versatility.