Chicory : a small agricultural niche in a world of crisis

Unknown is unloved: that is sometimes said of chicory, since its production and consumption takes place mainly in Europe. The rest of the world knows almost nothing about it. Yet the chicory sector is one to cherish and fight for. The product has many advantages, but the production process suffers from the energy crisis.

The witloofevent par excellence is without a doubt the witloof Biennale. After a successful edition in Etten-leur in the Netherlands, the event could not continue for 4 years due to the corona pandemic. This year it was organized again, in the culture and experience center De Krop in Kampenhout. That was a logical choice, since the witloof Museum is also located here. Witloof, and especially grondwitloof, remains the white gold of Belgium.

In a time of crisis

“We thought that with Covid-19 we had the crisis among the crises. We also had to deal with brexit. The Ukraine crisis was a game changer. The importance of climate is also increasing. We have had many crises in agriculture. We have to constantly adapt” ” says Luc Vanoirbeek, general secretary of the Association of Belgian Horticultural Cooperatives (VBT).

He indicates that everything has become much more expensive because of that ‘polycrisis’. Covid made the operating costs 500 million euros more expensive. There was a logistic disruption: containers that did not arrive on time and become more expensive, ports that were blocked, and so on. In addition, the input for the farmer becomes more expensive. They pay more for crop protection and packaging, but certainly also for fertilisation. That’s doubled in price. “Sometimes it’s not even about the price, but about the availability,” it sounds. Gas, water, storage, electricity… those prices are going up. “In witloof, a lot of energy goes to conservation. This will be difficult for our Belgian chicory sector,” says Vanoirbeek. “The problem is that we can’t calculate.”

The question arises whether these rising costs should still be passed on to the consumer. There is also some competition between countries due to inflation. “French and German chicory is becoming more competitive due to the energy. France is using more nuclear energy.””The price for other foods does rise, such as for beef.”

In Europe

The chicory sector is mainly concentrated in Europe, in 4 countries. The Netherlands is at the forefront, with an economic value of almost 29 million euros in 2021. Belgium and France are also important countries, with a trade value of 18 million euros and 8 million euros respectively. Germany is the fourth country with a sizeable chicory sector, but its trade value is only 1 million euros. “We mainly eat our own chicory” ” says Luc Van Bellegem, marketing consultant at the Flemish Centre for Agro – and Fisheries Marketing (VLAM). In Belgium, the most chicory is eaten per person. French and Dutch also eat a lot of chicory annually, compared to other countries.”

The trade value per kg of chicory within the EU is very different, and ranges from 0.75 euros for Belgian chicory to 2.31 euros for German chicory. The Netherlands and Belgium are particularly active in exports to third countries. The chicory is mainly intended for Switzerland, the UK, the US and Belarus. However, exports are on a downward trend. Belgium exports less and less, while exports from the Netherlands are rising slightly.

Belgium vs Netherlands

The chicory sector looks quite different per country, although hydroponics continues to dominate. In Belgium and the Netherlands, the number of hectares of hydroponics is the same, but Belgium produced around 30,000 tons and the Netherlands more than 55,000 tons in 2021. Furthermore, there is little to no groundwater gap in the Netherlands, while in Belgium there are about 200 ha. That area accounts for the production of almost 1,900 tons.

The Netherlands has more area of biowitloof and red witloof. 250 ha is dedicated to biowitloof in the Netherlands, while in Belgium it is only 80 ha. In proportion, the Netherlands also produces more organic chicory. In 2021, the Netherlands produced 2,400 tons of organic chicory, and Belgium 410 tons. When it comes to red chicory, about 800 tons are produced in the Netherlands on 60 ha. In Belgium, about 30 tons of red chicory were produced on 4 ha.

A trend that applies to both countries is the decreasing number of growers. In 2021, there were 200 chicory growers in Belgium, and 55 in the Netherlands. Ten years ago, there were 318 in Belgium, and 100 in the Netherlands. Retail prices have also risen slightly over the years. In both the Netherlands and Belgium, 65% ended up in retail in 2021. A second important sales channel in Belgium is the sale directly to the farmer.

Energy: an important challenge

In the panel discussion, the challenges of the sector became really clear. Rising energy prices have been a hot topic. After all, most growers are no longer under contract, but in the free market in terms of energy. Marnick De Visschere of REO Veiling, who is also a grower, indicates that it is difficult to work with the system of supply and demand. “We can’t work in periods when energy is Cheaper. It doesn’t work that way. A grower may be able to get energy from windmills and solar panels, but they want government support. Dutch grower Koos Groot joins him: “I think the developments in energy now have to go fast, because otherwise it will be too late for our sector. Solar and wind energy are short-term solutions, we need long-term solutions. For a better price, for example, I could communicate with my customers, so I can increase the price in certain periods.”

Mia Demeulemeester, who represented Inagro in the panel discussion, indicates that the research will certainly focus on efficient work. Cultivation technology can be optimized, but energy saving is certainly also an important topic. “Chicory is already a very sustainable product at this point, but we are always working on better ones. Growers can already turn to Inagro for 1 on 1 advice,” she says. She points out that the energy issue must also be discussed across sectors. “After all, we can learn from each other across the different sectors, and that can also be done across the different countries.” She does advocate that the government should accommodate the growers. “Placing windmills is nice, but the policy must also be able to facilitate that. For example, a sound licensing policy is needed.”

The author: Michel THEYS

Michel Theys, a Belgian native, began his career as a civil servant, serving the public for several decades. After retirement, he shifted gears to follow his passion for journalism. With a background in public administration, Theys brought a unique perspective to his reporting. His insightful articles, covering a wide array of topics, swiftly gained recognition. Today, Michel Theys is a respected journalist known for his balanced and thoughtful reporting in the Belgian media landscape.

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