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Promoting spud popularity in China

Spuds to China could mean dough in Washington


In China, the government has launched an “eat more potatoes” campaign – and Washington state could benefit as a result.

China’s potato push is, in part, an environmental effort to provide more clean drinking water for its exploding urban population and offset its polluted water from factories and inadequate sewer treatment.

Home to more than 1.3 billion people, China has, until recently, enjoyed a decades-long economic boom that raised more than 600 million people out of poverty, according to World Bank statistics. Urbanization is expected to continue at breakneck speed, adding 300 million people to Chinese cities in the next 15 years to create a total urban population of about 1 billion people by 2030.

But 13 percent of Chinese city dwellers have inadequate water pressure, and 60 percent of China’s 661 cities face seasonal water shortages. Contamination of drinking water from feces is a critical health problem.

That’s where the potato comes in. Such crops as rice, the Chinese staples, are far more water-intensive than the low-maintenance potato. Even though China grows a quarter of the world’s potatoes, the Chinese frown on tubers. Spuds have traditionally been viewed as a poor man’s food, something to subsist on in times of famine, fed to hogs or thrown into simple stir-fries.

The government wants to change that. Through marketing events and ad campaigns, it is promoting a new image for the lowly spud with slogans and catchy jingles like, “Potato, Potato, Potato” and “Our Potato, Little Round Potato,” broadcast across the country.

To combat the notion that potatoes are bland, fast food companies such as McDonalds are experimenting with a variety of seasoned French fries.

That’s where Washington and Idaho come in. Those states are our nation’s top potato producers, and companies such as J.R. Simplot have developed the technology to deliver high-quality frozen potatoes. Nearly two-thirds of Washington’s potato crop is processed, frozen and sent to the fast-food market.

As lifestyles change and incomes rise among Chinese urbanites, so too does the demand for fast food -– and part of the fast-food menu is French fries, potato wedges and crisps.

In the five years ending in 2014, the Chinese fast food industry grew at an average rate of 12.4 percent a year. In comparison, the mature U.S. fast food industry grew at just 2.5 percent.

While the U.S. fast food industry is more than twice the size of the Chinese industry, urbanization and income trends promise continued growth in China for the foreseeable future.

That’s good for our state because it opens additional markets for exports. In 2014, China was far and away the largest market for Washington goods, at $20.8 billion, up 24 percent.

Trade is the lifeblood of our state. Last year, total exports from Washington hit a record $90.6 billion, an increase largely driven by Boeing ($48 billion). Non-Boeing Washington exports, primarily a combination of agricultural and manufactured goods, increased by 8.9 percent to $3.8 billion.

According to a recent study by Washington State University, the potato industry has a $4.6 billion economic impact and is responsible for 23,500 jobs in our state. Nearly all of the potato farms throughout Washington are family businesses owned by people with deep roots in their communities.

Undoubtedly, China will beef up its food-processing industry, but for now, America has a leg up.

The trump card is Washington has an abundance of clean water to grow and process potatoes and state-of-the-art waste water treatment technology to protect streams, lakes and seashores. That is an advantage we want to maintain.

Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He lives in Vancouver and can be contacted at

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