Brexit is still casting uncertainty on Irish seed potatoes two years on.

Image Credit: by Christos Giakkas from Pixabay

Brexit related restrictions have left an opportunity for Irish mini-tuber producers to fill a market gap. William Kenny explains.

For Irish farmers and retailers, the sourcing of high-quality seed potatoes has become increasingly difficult over the past two years. Brexit and EU Phytosanitary trade regulations have seen a huge upheaval in Irish trade practice and a scarcity in supply of traditional seed varieties. 

Plant health is a major issue for the whole of the plant supply chain and its standards intended to assist businesses and organisations in the development of a consistent plant health management. In Ireland, regulation comes under the EU Plant Health Directive (Council Directive 2016/31/EC), which gives guidance on what official controls should be in place for phytosanitary matters and how they should be financed.

However, with the introduction of any new piece of prohibitive legislation, difficulties are sure to arise in the short-term, and in some cases the long-term. Farmers and traders have been forced to reactively equip themselves with the knowledge and understanding of the challenges legislation change can place upon them, both economically and environmentally. 

This legislation which came into force in 2019, though carried many benefits, came as a double-edged sword for Ireland and its traders. The United Kingdom has formally left the EU on February 1 2020, and as of January 1 2022 has passed its “transitional period”, meaning it can no longer freely trade on the European market. As a non-EU member state, the UK is now placed under the category of a “Third-Country Trader”, meaning they no longer fall under the remit of this legislation. Because of this, member states trading with the UK are now subject to new, more stringent regulatory practices such as documentary, identity and physical checks on trade of plants and plant products. Under this legislation, the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs for the UK, must submit a Pest Risk Analysis (PRA) to justify its trade in plants and plant products which are categorized as high risk by the EU. However, this assessment was rejected, meaning the UK will for the future, be prohibited from the export trade of plant and plant products into the EU, with the exemption of trade between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. 

The chaos of Brexit and EU legislation wreaks havoc on seed potato imports from Britain, however it also presents Ireland with huge opportunity and potential for self-sufficiency.

However, there are some on the island who are seeing opportunity through all of this. Speaking to the senate, Charlie McConalogue, Minister for Agriculture, Food & Marine believes that this gap in the market can be filled by domestic seed potato producer organisations.

“There is an increased interest from major seed potato contractors in placing contracts for seed with Irish growers in the wake of Brexit… This expansion should be assisted in the coming years by the availability of seed of our main variety, Rooster, whose plant breeder's rights expired at the end of 2021…The sector has diminished somewhat in recent years, but we have the necessary natural resources, advantages, land and climate to do that. It is important that this is industry-led”. 

This of course comes as no surprise to the Irish Farmers Association who have been calling on its stakeholders to support the reinvigoration in the Irish industry for the last decade. The area of seed potato crops for certification in Ireland has seen a steady increase of 29% over the last five years to 299ha in 2021. However this is still a massive 40% decrease from the 483ha in 2010. Up until recently, over 60% of certified seed potato in Ireland came from Scotland. IFA Potato Chair Thomas McKeown in recents talk with Minister McConalogue stated “Ireland is heavily reliant on the UK market for seed potatoes”.

“Our industry is proactive and growers can see the opportunity that will come from this challenge. However it will take time, investment and expertise to reinvigorate the sector” He added on the supports required to develop the national industry.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine (DAFM) have made some moves in recent times regarding seed potato innovation. The Tops Potato Propagation Centre in Raphoe, Co. Donegal, which has its own lands for potato propagation, as well as polytunnels and a virus testing laboratory has recently completed works on a new glasshouse which will increase production of pre-basic mini-tuber seed participants in the Department's Seed Potato Certification Scheme, where over 700 varieties are already produced.

“This latest investment to the Tops facility will provide a significant increase in the production of mini-tubers for seed potato growers and is a significant support to the sector” said Minister McConalogue at a recent inspection of the site.

“It is up to everybody in the sector now to play their part to turn this opportunity into a reality,” he added with regards to the responsibility the industry must share.

One such company to have taken up the call is Kilkenny based company Fitzgerald Nurseries, who since Brexit have expanded into the industry of mini-tuber production. In 2021, Fitzgerald Nurseries became certified under the DAFM scheme, which allows them to multiply certified virus-free seed and the potential to supply these to the Irish market.