China's potato industry is growing both in terms of quantity and quality, but still has a long way to go before reaching the yields of developed countries, a leading potato expert has said. And there will still be opportunities for foreigners.
China currently has 5 million hectares in some 22 of its 34 provinces given to potatoes, said Dr Kaiyun Xie, liason scientist with the Beijing Liason Office of the Lima-based Centro Internacional De La Papa (International Potato Center).
This planted area produced 75 million tons, creating a 15 tons per hectare yield according to Dr Xie. This is against 30-45 tons per hectare in some parts of the developed world. "So we have a big, big, gap," he added.
A number of different factors contributed to the problem. These included "very low" seed quality, poor growing conditions, especially in terms of irrigation and lack of investment in things such as fertilizer and fungicide, he said.
Despite this, the historical trend is for both acreage under cultivation and yield to rise further although the increase in the latter lags badly.
Figures from Dr Xie's book "How the Chinese Eat Potatoes" show a planted acreage of 2.2 million hectares in 1978 when China had first opened to the world. This rose slowly at first, being only 2.7 million hectares in 1988 but picked up with a second wave of economic growth in the 1990s to reach 4 million hectares by 1998.
In 2006, the last year for when figures were available, 5 million hectares were recorded.
It's a statistic whose implications are best understood personally. In the 1990s annual potato consumption was 17 kilograms per head; now it's 40.
What is driving the numbers is not just increased availability, but the rise of fast food restaurants in China.
Such restaurants have popularized the potato, although paradoxically the potatoes they serve-and its up to 100,000 tons-are imported as prepared.
"More potatoes are coming into the diet for table use as Chinese dishes," said Xie.
Xie is confident this could rise further, potentially massively, in the years to come.
A trend of recent years has been to grow potatoes in the South as a winter crop, such as is already happening in the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and Hunan. "It's possible to have 3 million hectares of winter potatoes in the south of China," he said.
While the potential market is there, it is going to take time and money and will hit problems.
A lot of work is being done on improving seed quality-an area Xie defined as "the most important for foreigners." It was, he noted, easy to produce in China and money could be made.
"The Chinese government and private companies invest a lot of money to improve seed quality" he said.
The other area where opportunity lies is in the processing, especially but not exclusively so, in the dehydrated sector.
"Right now they don't have enough processing capacity to produce," he said. He also identified using China as a country to produce in, although he sounded less confident, saying only "maybe there is a good business to export potatoes from China."
However, a problem will remain because of the issue of water and its scarcity.
Underground water is reducing quickly and has competition making the government defensive of how it will be used.
"We want to keep the underground water table stable or reduce slowly," said Xie, who added this was a global problem and not one found only in China.