Climate change and Covid-19 disruptions are wreaking havoc on the UK’s potato industry so McCain is prioritising the "stability of supply over price".
Potato farmers have experienced the worst crops in the last 40 years due to “increasingly erratic weather”, while a fall in demand due to the shut down of the hospitality industry has resulted in a backlog of potatoes that cannot be used, McCain said.
Daniel Metheringham, director of agriculture at McCain GB & Ireland, explained: “The last two years have seen two of the worst potato crops in the last 40 years and this paired with the impact of Covid-19 has left our growers with a number of challenges including bad crops and surplus potatoes.
“McCain growers saw an average 18% reduction in yield in 2018 and 16% of our 2019 storage crop was still left in field.”
As a result, McCain launched a £25m Potato Farmer Pledge to help boost the potato industry in its time of need, which it said will “strengthen partnerships with farmers and support the wider supply chain”.
The plan includes a three to five year loyalty scheme to reward farmers that continue to grow crops to ensure a more “stable and sustainable” supply of potatoes and provide grant funding for investments in irrigation infrastructure and innovative technology, such as self-propelled harvesters to improve harvesting capacity and sustainability.
The final part of its plan will see the manufacturer provide “fairer, more flexible and sustainable grower contracts” to improve prices on early season varieties and to reduce delays.
The manufacturer will allocate 40% of the funding this year as immediate relief for farmers hit by poor weather and an oversupply of crops due to Covid-19.
The funding will run alongside McCain’s efforts to manage oversupply and minimise wastage by “reallocating potato varieties normally earmarked for foodservice to retail product lines, donating surplus stock to food banks via its partnership with FareShare and, where possible, storing potato stock for use next season”.
Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions in the UK, such as heatwaves and floods, caused by climate change are drastically impacting yields of vegetables. In 2018, potato yields dropped by a fifth.
Meanwhile, the Met Office has predicted that extreme weather conditions will happen more regularly, with “one in 100-year extreme weather event becoming a one in 50-year event in the next 25 years”, adding that “more than half of summers exceeding 38 degrees [celcius] by 2040”.
David Read, chairman at consultancy Prestige Purchasing, said McCain’s investment demonstrated its knowledge that the “stability of supply will become much more important than the price of a product on a particular day”.
He added: “Food is a live product which has to be grown, reared or caught. That makes it particularly susceptible to supply chain volatility. The pandemic, the new reality of climate change, and a potential no-deal Brexit are already showing us how damaging that volatility can be to security of supply.
“Food supply thrives on collaboration. We need new ways of ensuring producers earn a fair share from the value chain, and are given the protection they deserve when external factors impact them negatively.
“Technology investment has a huge part to play in breaking down the barriers between each part of the value chain [in the agricultural sector], and preventing a silo mentality when times are tough.”
Earlier this year, McCain revealed it is working on other projects to develop sustainability in agriculture, including three “Farms of the Future” which will use regenerative farming practices to enhance biodiversity and soil health.
The farms will “showcase how regenerative farming practices and the latest agricultural technology and innovations, can be implemented at scale”, McCain said.
“Each will focus on demonstrating that more sustainable practices can also create a more financially viable future for farming, while at the same time increasing food production.”
Across industries, brands such as Timberland have been implementing similar changes to increase sustainability, including sourcing leather from “regeneratively-grazed cows”.