British chips to be 3cm shorter than usual as Belgian potatoes hit by dry, hot summer

James Crisp
The famous Belgian frite in its natural habitat - under dollops of delicious mayonaise.  - Lonely Planet Images

Britons will be served up shorter chips this year as potato farmers across Europe struggle to cope with the worst summer drought for decades.

Britain eats 1.75 million tonnes of frozen chips every year and is, alongside the US, the world’s largest importer of the product. Almost all frozen fry imports to Britain, about 750,000 tonnes, come from the Netherlands and Belgium.

The hot weather and lack of rain has hit European crop yields, resulting in a drop of about 20% in Northern Europe, and made the potatoes, usually the size of a small brick, smaller. That will mean smaller, shorter chips, potato experts in Britain and Belgium have warned.   

The remaining million tonnes of frozen fries eaten ever year are made from British potatoes but even British farmers are facing a 10 to 15 percent drop in yield. Britons are one of the biggest potato eaters in the EU, eating a 100kg of potatoes per person ever year.

“This was the hottest British summer since 1976, which any potato person will tell you was an almost mythical year,” said Cedric Porter, editor of World Potato Markets, “it is still talked about in potato circles.”

“The chips are down,” he said, “You can expect smaller chips in Britain and in Europe.”

Mr Porter said that Belgian and Dutch farmers had been hit hard and could struggle to fulfil their contracts. Potatoes sold on the open market, rather than under contract, were selling for 10 a ton last year but were now selling for €250 a ton.  

The squeeze on frites has appalled Belgians, who cherish the chip as their national dish.  The traditional bintje, tuber and the newer fontane varieties have been much smaller with crop yields dropping by 25 percent in Belgium.

Pierre Lebrun is the coordinator of the potato sector of Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking region. He told local media that the poor crop would mean frites from tubers being shortened by as much as 3 centimetres from their usual length of 8 to 9 cm.

“We will all eat small fries”, added Mr Lebrun, who added that that farmers in Western Germany, France, the Netherlands and the south of Britain “were all in the same boat.”

Belgium is one of the largest exporters of frozen fries in the world, exporting 2.3 million tonnes of frozen fries every year. In the year ending June 2018, Belgium exported 344,000 tons of frozen frites to the UK, a 9.3 percent increase on the previous year, despite Brexit.

The Belgian frozen fry industry has been waging a campaign to boost its exports by using a James Bond style character with a “licence to fry”. “James Bint” insists the frites are called Belgian, rather than French, fries.