Recipe for disaster: how climate change could impact British fruit and veg

A new report from the Climate Coalition has warned extreme weather could be a disaster for farmers, but there are steps being taken to tackle the issue.

7 February 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

Extreme and unpredictable weather – made more likely by climate change – is putting supplies of British-grown vegetables and fruit at risk as growers struggle to cope, a new report from the Climate Coalition has found.

More than half of all farms in the UK say they have been affected by a severe climatic event, such as flooding or a storm in the past 10 years, according to the organisation, which brings together 130 organisations, including WWF and the National Trust, and represents more than 15m UK members.

So how has produce been affected? Most recently, apple growers lost around 25% of their harvest in 2017 due to unexpectedly late frosts, while warmer-than-average temperatures last year brought down yields of carrot by 25-30% and onion by 40%.

Potato yields were also down on average 20% in 2018 compared to the previous season, making it the fourth smallest harvest since 1960 and cutting chips down by more than one inch.

 

Potato points

  • Potato production is a £700m industry in Britain.
  • More than 80% of all potatoes eaten in the UK are grown here and around 15% of all UK meals include potatoes.
  • The potato is the most wasted food and drink item in UK homes.
  • By the 2050s, the area of land that is currently well suited for potatoes will decline by 74%.
  • The roundworm pest already causes losses of approximately £50m per year to UK potato growers.

 

Even herbs can’t escape the extreme weather. “All last year’s crops went in very wet and cold soil. We were 2-3 weeks behind,” said Chris Daking, a director at Valley Produce, one the UK’s biggest fresh herb producers. “I’ve never known it as late as this in 18 years working at this business. We lost probably £200,000-£250,000 worth of sale from those lost weeks.

“We could then only harvest minimal volumes to fulfil contracts during the extreme heat. We rely on being able to produce UK crops for 26 weeks a year. If this year’s extremes were to become year-to-year, it would threaten our survival.”

Growing pains

The biggest area for fruit and veg farming is the East of England, including the counties of Bedfordshire, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as in the South.

This is bad news in climate terms, as these regions are more vulnerable to water shortages, according to research from the Priestley International Centre for Climate.

Scientists are also predicting stronger and longer-lasting heatwaves for the UK in these areas. By the 2030s, average daily maximum summer temperatures could be up to 4°C warmer, rising to 5°C warmer by the 2050s. Heatwaves with an average temperature of 40°C and a duration of 50 days are likely to occur more frequently by 2100.

Seasonal differences in rainfall are also likely to present risks to soils and agricultural production, including increasing the risk of major flooding on farmland or increased soil erosion and aridity.

“In August 2015, a five-minute hailstorm with a mini tornado destroyed my entire crop of apples,” Ali Capper, chair of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) horticulture board, told the Climate Coalition. “The crop was almost ready to be picked and then within a few days of the hail the entire crop was rotten.”

Milder winters and warmer summers could also mean an influx of new pests and diseases spreading from warmer climates, plus faster-growing weeds and more plant pathogens surviving winter. The result? An increase in pesticide use and key pollinators like honeybees and wild bees put under further pressure.

image credit: Getty Images

Lee Abbey, head of horticulture at the NFU, said if extreme weather events continue, there is a big risk that a run of challenging years could prove too much for businesses to continue.

But it’s not just farmers that are affected – businesses that champion the use of food waste like Rubies in the Rubble have also seen an impact.

“Harvests and yields have been worse than usual over the past year, which has resulted in fewer surplus crops for us to use and the quality has been less usable than previous years,” said Joanna Vierod, head of retail at Rubies in the Rubble.

 

Food waste facts

  • Fruit and vegetables already have the highest wastage rates of any food because of their perishability – estimated at more than 30% across the UK and Europe.
  • More than one-third of farmed fruit and vegetables never reaches supermarket shelves, largely because it is misshapen or the wrong size.
  • 900,000 meals end up in the bin at the end of the day because they haven’t been sold.
  • 1.4m bananas are thrown out every day.
  • Food waste is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Fighting back

UK farmers aren’t sitting still on the issue though. The NFU pledged in January that UK farming would become net zero in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 at the latest, while 39% of its members already rely on renewable energy.

The rising numbers of electric cars – and, soon, tractors – on the road could also create opportunities for farmers to host battery-charging stations, according to the NFU.

Some farmers are also introducing new production techniques to conserve moisture, improve water storage and irrigation application, and monitor more effectively soil moisture.

There are also plans to develop carbon-neutral farms in the UK, where emissions are minimised and offset through on-farm energy generation – including biogas and solar panels – or agroforestry and the planting of trees to absorb carbon.

 

Farming facts

  • The UK horticulture sector grows around £3.7bn worth of produce.
  • The UK is around 60% self-sufficient in terms of the food we eat being grown here, except for carrots (93%), peas (96%), cabbage (92%), strawberries (67%) and raspberries (62%).
  • More than 95% of fruit and vegetable production in the UK takes place in England.
  • Between 70% and 80% of tree fruit and soft fruit production takes place in areas that are classified as being under water stress.

 

The UK Government will use powers in the Agriculture Bill to reward farmers who reduce their emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change, said Michael Gove, secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

But farmers aren’t alone in this battle either – and the food industry should also be turning to consumers, who appear willing to help, said the report. Three quarters of respondents to a YouGov survey commissioned by the Climate Coalition said they would be willing to buy more misshapen fruit and vegetables.

There were also 57% of people who would buy more seasonal food to help achieve a more environmentally friendly diet, while 62% of UK adults said they would prefer to buy fruit and vegetables grown in the UK to help achieve a more eco-conscious lifestyle.

 

How could climate events impact on crops?

  • Heavy rainfall: waterlogged land prevents access and harvest, reduced yield and increased disease risks.
  • Drought: reduced yields, increased demand for irrigation but water supplies may not be available. Most concerning for apples, potatoes, lettuce, salad crops, strawberries and soft fruits in particular.
  • Flooding: soil erosion, kills plants, long-term yield loss and an increase in susceptibility of roots to disease.
  • Heatwave: crop losses and reduced yield/quality. Carrots are in the firing line along with cauliflowers and onions.
  • Storms: loss of leaves/blossom, crop damage from hail or wind and supply chain disruptions.
  • Frosts: warmer winters could hasten flowering in fruit crops leading to greater susceptibility to late frosts.

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