There is sporadic notice paid to the impact of climate on fresh produce – a shortage of courgettes in 2017 led to the hashtag #courgettecrisis, for example – but there are much longer-term implications of changing weather patterns on our homegrown crops.
It’s already changing the benign conditions British growers have come to rely on. For some parts of the country, 2019 has been the wettest autumn ever, according to the Met Office.
The atmosphere’s ability to carry water and generate more rainfall rises with temperature, so it’s not surprising to hear that 2019 concludes a decade of exceptional global heating, Today, we’re already 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels, rising to three degrees if nothing is done. Record rainfall falling on our Atlantic-facing archipelago is one obvious consequence.
“One of the main impacts of climate change is more erratic rainfall patterns. This poses a threat to crop yields,” said Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organisation, at the global climate talks COP25 in Madrid recently.
The weather extremes of recent years have been devastating for UK fruit and vegetable growers. A report earlier this year called Recipe for Disaster by the Climate Coalition makes grim reading: British potatoes were smaller because of last year’s heatwave, the carrot and onion crop were decimated, while late frosts in 2017 slashed apple production.
This year there’s already been a severe cauliflower shortage because heavy rain destroyed the crop in Lincolnshire, and other brassicas are also suffering. The torrential downpours and recent severe floods in northern England are now putting more than 50 per cent of the UK’s carrot growing area at risk, so supplies could be low this coming spring. So, what can we expect in an uncertain future, which vegetables and fruit are most at risk? Which areas are most vulnerable?
“The downside will be more volatility and weather extremes. We will therefore need more flexibility from consumers. We’re conditioned to buy a vast array of perfect fruit and vegetables, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. With greater climate variability this will have to change. Consumers will not be able to expect this vast range of crops 24-7,” states Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association.
“There are only so many cauliflowers and carrots we can import to fill the shelves,” he adds.
When it comes to future climate forecasts, predictable unpredictability will be the new mantra. “We are totally food insecure when it comes to fruit and veg – we grow a lot less than we consume, so we should be really worried about where we buy it from and the areas of climate risk, and how we might go about increasing local production,” explains Simon Billing, executive director of Eating Better, an alliance focused on eating less and better meat and dairy.
According to government figures for 2018, the UK only produces 52 per cent of the vegetables we consume, and imports the rest. For fruit it is a staggering 16 per cent with the vast majority shipped in.
Certainly, producing more in different locations would offset localised weather extremes, but where to plant is the question. “We don’t have 500 hectares of grade one land, say in Oxfordshire, to spare waiting for vegetable production,” explains Ward.
Even though the UK is a relatively cool and damp country, horticulture only accounts for about three per cent of the land: 4,000 growers produce 300 types of vegetable, salad and fruit crops, of which 13,500 hectares are vegetables and 2,000 hectares of fruit. There may be potential for more.
“We could be the net beneficiary of climate change as other parts of the world get hotter, our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean makes sure we have mild conditions. Compared to say inland areas in Europe, we’ve certainly got good growing conditions here,” continues Ward.
Yet fruit and vegetables are water-dependent, and with more heatwaves expected, this is an issue. The biggest growing areas are in the east and south of the UK, which are drier and more vulnerable to water shortages. In the next two decades, average summer rainfall could fall by up to 30 per cent below average, with the largest drops in the south. By 2050, the amount of land that’s best-suited to growing potatoes could decline by 74 per cent.
It doesn’t help that the west and the north of the UK are prone to excessive rainfall, as well as poorer soils and cooler temperatures. In general, this makes these regions less suitable for vegetable and fruit production. Studies show that climate change will have significant positive impacts on the wettest and coldest regions of Great Britain, and these, in turn, may become more favourable for production.
Wetter winters, of the kind expected with climate change, lead to early flowering of fruit such as apples, which can then be wiped out by late frosts. A lack of vernalisation, a cold period that assists in flowering, is already affecting blackcurrants and stone fruit such as cherries. Milder winters also keeps pests alive and encourage plant diseases like powdery mildew and bacterial blight as well.
“There are breeders at the moment looking into new varieties that are more robust. I could see more fruit and vegetables being grown under cover and indoors, where we can control the growing conditions,” says Ward.
Irrigation is another option, as many fruit and vegetable crops are rainfed in the UK – take potatoes, where only 50 per cent of the UK crop has access to irrigation. This will have to change with weather extremes when new solutions are needed.
If we do nothing to tackle the climate crisis, by the end of the century, the growing season in the UK is projected to be as much as five degrees warmer, with 140 mm less rain on average a year. It’s a big difference from today.