20 July 2019
Potatoes have unique characteristics that make them an ideal alternative to rice and wheat, China's traditional staples. Photo: Reuters
Potatoes have unique characteristics that make them an ideal alternative to rice and wheat, China's traditional staples. Photo: Reuters

China wants to promote potatoes as staple food

A World War One-era grenade was found in a shipment of potatoes from France to Calbee Four Seas’ food processing plant, a potato chips factory in Hong Kong.

Some netizens remarked that the incident was great marketing for Calbee as it showed that the manufacturer was using quality ingredients for its products – in this case, fresh potatoes imported from France.

In the past, Calbee used to procure most of its potatoes from Hokkaido, one of the main islands of Japan. The sharp change in temperatures between day and night over there provided the unique crispy texture of its potatoes.

But in recent years, due to climate change, there has been a significant drop in the yield of its farm produce. In April 2017, for example, the chip maker was forced to suspend some product lines because of the poor potato harvest in Hokkaido.

As a result, Calbee started to source its potatoes from France. Hokkaido’s share of the company’s potato imports declined to 70 percent last year from over 90 percent in the past.

France is the world’s second-largest exporter of the produce after the United States, which is not surprising, considering that it accounts for a third of the total farmland in the European Union. Its potatoes have a similar texture to those from Hokkaido, thus making them an ideal alternative source for Calbee.

Talking about potatoes, China is trying to promote it as one of the national staples.

Potatoes were introduced to Europe in the 16th century from Peru. And they were brought into China by Dutch traders during the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century.

Many historians believe that China’s population exploded during the Qing Dynasty, spiking to around 400 million from 60 million over 300 years, and they attribute this to the introduction of potatoes. Why? Because potatoes are less demanding when it comes to soil quality, have a much higher yield than, say, wheat, and are very filling.

Xie Conghua, a professor at Huazhong Agricultural University, said 50 percent of the increase in China’s demand for grains over the next two decades would have to be met by potatoes instead if the nation has to feed its 1.4 billion population.

Potatoes provide more calories and vitamins than China’s traditional staples of rice and wheat, Xie added.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 4

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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