An insatiable appetite for junk food among China's emerging middle class has a Canadian firm hoping for fat profits from Chinese french fries made from its exported bio-engineered seed potatoes.
Vancouver-based Penn Biotech is sending nearly 6,000 tonnes of bio-engineered seed potatoes to China this fall.
The micro-tubers grown in a greenhouse in Olds, Alberta, will be planted in three test sites in China to see if the potatoes that emerge are suitable for consumption and wider distribution.
"Rapid economic development in China has created great demand for Western foods which include a lot of potatoes.
"But Chinese growers have been slow to cultivate Russet potatoes and other varieties used for French fries and so they're importing them at present," said Jay Lee, president of Penn Biotech.
"One new McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken opens every day in the country, so it's a good niche market if we can help them grow their own," he said.
The upstart company is relying on technology developed at the Korean Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology to cut growing time by one-third to two years and produce more uniform-sized spuds.
One kilogram of seed potatoes planted produces 10kg to 15kg of potatoes.
"If you reduce growing time, you can get more product to market sooner and increase profits," Lee said.
Potato is the most important vegetable crop in Canada, accounting for 35 per cent of vegetable farm receipts or about US$570 million annually.
About a quarter are exported, mostly to the US. Nearly half become french fries.
In April 2000, Canada signed a trade agreement to become the only country allowed to import seed potatoes to China, the biggest consumer and importer of potatoes in the world, but the deal failed to generate any new trade.
One shipment of seed potatoes was sent, but it contained nematodes, microscopic worms that can spread diseases to plants, and was turned away.
"From this experience, we determined that it was almost impossible to meet China's import requirements," said Frangois Mercure, acting vegetable manager for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
"The seed potatoes were also not entirely free of soil [another import requirement]. It's really hard to produce a potato without soil," he said.
Jiang Wei, the Chinese consul general in Vancouver, said his country plans to ease import restrictions for seed potatoes soon and test more growing technologies in order to meet an insatiable appetite for French fries.
"Fast food is becoming big in China. People want to try new foods. Potato has become very popular," Wei said.