Lack of rain has reduced potato crop yields to a third of what they usually are.
Belgians are not known for their religious fervour, but apparently they are praying for rain like never before. Bernard Lefèvre, president of the country's chip stand owners association, is very worried that the lack of rain this summer, and the extreme heat accompanying it, will have a severe impact on Belgium's potato crops -- and that's why people are praying for what he says is "the first time." This matters because potatoes are used to make Belgium's most famous snack, frites. As Lefèvre told Politico,
“We can’t know if the harvest is 100 percent good or bad until September, but it’s true that if everything continues like it is, it’s not great for frites. Frites are essential. It is vital. It is part of our culture. It’s more than a product — it’s a symbol of Belgium."
Farmers are losing hope. The crop yields are predicted to be one-third of what they are in a typical year. The heat affects yield, as well as texture, and when potatoes are grown in excessive dryness they develop tough skins that cannot be used by chip-makers' peeling machines.
At this point only consistent rain could save the potato crops. As farmer Johan Geleyns explained, potatoes will sprout if they get too much rain, and this poses additional problems:
"Sprouts grow on the outside of potatoes and then suck the nutrients from their host. Even if the sprouts are removed, the potatoes become very hard and rot very quickly because they are nutrient-deprived."
Even last year's crop is in high demand. Geleyns told Politico that he sold a truckload of old potatoes for €200 in May, but he recently got a call from another company willing to pay €2,000 for the same load. Romain Cools, the secretary general of Belgapom, the country’s largest potato grower, told the Guardian that, “in 2017, a tonne of potatoes was trading at €25 [but] now we are talking about €250 to €300 per tonne.”
In the meantime, Belgium has turned to the European Commission for help. The Commission has agreed to allow farmers to use fields that would usually be left fallow in order to plant new crops to grow livestock feed and for farmers to receive government payments in October, as opposed to December, to make things a bit easier. Furthermore,
"The Flemish government said it has commissioned the Royal Meteorological Institute to provide data on the drought to determine whether it could be considered an agricultural disaster. 'If that is the case, farmers will get financial compensation for the damage they suffered,' said government spokesman Bart Merckaert."
More distressing than the dearth of frites, however, is realizing that this is most likely the future of agriculture in the face of climate change -- and governmental bailouts will not make it go away. Food insecurity is bound to increase as crops struggle to cope with drought. It's one thing to understand this in theory, but it's altogether another thing to live through it -- and have to turn down a beloved snack because the Earth was unable to grow it in a given year.
Jean-Pascale van Ypersele, a Belgian climate scientist, is unsurprisingly pessimistic about the situation:
“In Europe, there is a lack of preparedness for the severity of climate events such as the heat wave. It is possible to have a more resilient agricultural system but it takes planning, scientific research and the political will to implement the results of that research, which there isn’t enough of in my view.”
We'll see if those prayers do anything. After all, it's known to solve tricky problems in America... right?