Although a medical report released in January revealed that diet guru Robert Atkins had a history of congestive heart failure and weighed 258 pounds when he died in April 2003, the low-carb craze he spawned is going strong. Millions of American dieters have sworn off bread, pasta, and potatoes in a battle against bulging waistlines. Meanwhile, reports this year suggest farmers are the ones feeling the pinch.
U.S. consumer demand for wheat in the last four years has dropped by 38 million bushels, or 4 percent, says Daren Coppock, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers. “Four percent sounds like a small number,” he adds, “but ask any food producer if they can adjust to a 4 percent drop, and they’ll go crazy.”
The squeeze is even more painful for potato farmers, who harvested approximately 70,000 fewer acres of spuds in 2004. “They are not too optimistic that demand is ever coming back,” says Andy Jerardo of the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The drop-off translates to about 19 million fewer sacks of potatoes produced this year—6.5 pounds fewer per consumer.
Part of the potato farmers’ bad fortune can be traced to water shortages and an influx of Canadian french fries, but experts say that low-carb diets created a tipping point. “Everyone points at the potato as being bad for you, and some people even want to put it with sweets on the nutrition pyramid,” says Bruce Huffaker, publisher of the North American Potato Market News. “It doesn’t take much of a decline in demand to create a problem for growers.”