French Fries in Belgium Are Shrinking Thanks to Climate Change

European potatoes are shrinking because of declining rainfall in recent years and mounting temperatures: Bad news for fries eaters who will get a shorter version this year

FILE PHOTO: French fries are getting shorter as declining rainfall in recent years and mounting temperatures make potatoes shrink
Fabrizio Bensch, Reuters

Yes, Donald, climate change is a thing: European potatoes are shrinking and Belgian French fries are likely to be shorter from this year onward, because of declining rainfall in recent years and mounting temperatures.

Exported Belgian fries (a.k.a. chips) could be as much as an inch shorter, because potatoes are getting smaller. Potatoes are shrinking because of the heat and relative dryness.

Over the last century, if anything rainfall in Belgium has increased, but in the last five years the trend has been downward, with the exception of 2016. In September, Belgium pleaded the EU for emergency funds to cope with the drought. Crucially, the problem of the relative dryness is coupled with higher temperatures, which causes heightened evaporation from fields. One upshot is drops in crop yields of anywhere from 10% to 20% compared with previous averages. In brief, the result is a smaller spud.

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European livestock and other crops are also suffering from the dry, hot conditions. "Crop yields have fallen sharply," the European Association of Fruit and Vegetable Processors stated in August, noting declines in numerous crops from beans to spinach. "The situation for vegetable growers and processors is the most serious that has been experienced in the last 40 years," the association added.

Just this month a study warned that the hallmark sour lambic beer, an ancient quaff in the region that is brewed exclusively in the Pajottenland region south-west of Brussels, could go extinct as temperatures climb, the Guardian reported.

This beer ferments in the open air in winter, through exposure to wild yeasts and airborne native bacteria. If it's too hot, the beer spoils. Climate change temperature projections for Belgium are in keeping with the global trend. With the caveat that we cannot accurately foresee the outcome of unprecedented changes, Belgium is expected to experience temperature increases of 2.4 degrees to 7.2 degrees in summer by the year 2100.

Belgian farmers have been producing 3.5 million tons of potatoes each year, on average, one of the favorites among chefs being its Bintje variety, which thrives best in rainy conditions. The Bintje was developed in the Netherlands over a century ago and is considered the potato to make French fries.

The bottom line is that Belgium has been exporting a million tons of frozen bintje French fries a year, making in the world's biggest exporter of this delicacy. In fact the site Potato Pro argues that French fries aren't French, they're Belgian.

The potato isn't native to Belgium, or Europe. Today's tubers originated in South America. In the 16th century Belgium was part of the Spanish domain, which gained control of the New World, and brought back much gold, the cocoa bean, and potatoes.  (Cocoa today is grown mostly in Africa, but it was brought there by colonials.)

Painstaking documentation from centuries of yore shows that the first (known) potato shipment from the Americans arrived in Antwerpen, Belgium, in the year 1567. The first Antwerpen kiosk for fries opened in the mid-19th century.

Yet now the Belgians warn that the potato, and the resultant exported chip, could shrink by "at least" 25% compared with the average in recent years.

The potato problem isn't confined to Belgium. Farmers in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Britain report similar issues, notes Pierre Lebrun, coordinator of the potato sector of Wallonia, speaking with the press. As he pointed out, when the potato is smaller, the fry is smaller.