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Hero Ingredient – The potato

We have come to expect supermarket shelves to be filled year-round with a variety of fresh produce. Yet while many people in Europe are adjusting to the new normal of life under measures to protect society from COVID-19, it can make us pause to reflect on where our food comes from and celebrate those that ensure food supplies are maintained. ECPA and CropLife International have teamed up with YouTube channel SORTEDfood to explore the story behind some of our hero ingredients and the challenges involved in producing them. We have chosen the humble potato as the star of the show or ‘spud’ as they call it in Britain, favoured by chefs around the world for its versatility in cooking and long chosen by farmers for its nutrient-dense, high-yielding value.  In Europe, we think of this ingredient as ours – enjoying pommes frites, pommes dauphinoise, baked potatoes, crisps, chips, latkes, mash, even vodka and much (much!) more. 52 million tonnes of potatoes were harvested across the EU alone in 2018 but there’s an increasing disconnect between the knowledge of how food is grown and how it’s consumed.  Enter Ben Ebbrell (a chef) and Mike Huttlestone (a ‘normal’) who are eager to explain how food is produced, they take us on a journey to understand more about how the food they eat is grown, what they discover might surprise you!  After seeing where potatoes come from they will battle it out to create the best tasting potato dish, incorporating some of the facts they learn about this ‘starchy tuber’. To see this for themselves first-hand, Ben and Mike travelled to the Dutch-Belgian border near Eindhoven to visit a third-generation potato farmer whose farm has been growing potatoes for more than 50 years. His harvest almost entirely goes to feeding Europe’s frites-hungry consumers. Jacob Van Den Borne explains that his methods of precision agriculture and attention to detail do not differ much from that of his grandfather, other than the scale of production. Yet, despite having access to sophisticated technology tools and monitoring systems that generate data about his crops, he regularly walks around his fields and remains at the mercy of the climate and diseases – just as the generations of farmers did before him.  For example, during the extraordinary European heatwave in 2018 – maxing out at a record 42 degrees for the Netherlands – Jacob lost almost half his yields, meaning he had to adapt and invest heavily in irrigation techniques to make sure that losses would not be as severe in following years. Whether it is through water soil moisture monitoring, or using models to predict the spread of blight, learning about how best to protect the crop is essential to producing enough affordable, safe and high-quality food in challenging conditions.  “We use a lot of software platforms that tell us when to spray; those platforms get weather information and know in which kind of weather fungi can attack my plants. We aren’t only spraying the crops just before such an attack can happen. The software tells us when and how, and with what to spray” Jacob says. “Sustainability is the key to what we’re doing. One thing that a lot of people forget is that we have to pay for all the chemicals we use. So, the less we put on, the better it is for us. We only use chemicals when they are absolutely necessary. Why put them on when they’re not needed? ” As farmers, we have the job of protecting future – because the population is growing fast and food demand is growing with that. If we don’t gear up we won’t be able to work to feed the world”