Climate change 'poses major threat' to British fruit and vegetable growing

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Extreme and unpredictable weather – made more frequent by climate change – is putting future supplies of British potatoes at risk, according to a new report.

The analysis, from The Climate Coalition, says that the changing climate is posing a threat to British fruit and vegetables because of more frequent and severe heatwaves and flooding. The summer 2018 heatwave was made about 30 times more likely by climate change, according to the Met Office.

The damaging impact of climatic extremes could make British-grown potatoes and other fruit and vegetables harder to come by for shoppers, with more than half of UK farms saying they have been affected by a severe climatic event, such as flooding, in the past 10 years.

Lee Abbey, head of horticulture at the National Farmers Union, which recently announced its aspiration for UK farming to become net zero in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, said: “A lot of growers will have come out of this year with sore heads and not much income. Farmers and growers are used to dealing with fluctuations in the weather but if we have two or three extreme years in a row it has the potential to put growers out of business.

The report draws on research by the Priestley International Centre for Climate and says the UK can expect more frequent extreme weather events – including longer-lasting and more intense heatwaves, and a one-in-three chance of record-breaking rainfall hitting parts of England each winter.

The report, Recipe for disaster: Climate change threatens British-grown fruit and veg, is being published as part of The Climate Coalition’s Show The Love campaign which celebrates things that we love but could lose to climate change.

The Coalition is made up of more than 130 organisations representing over 15 million people, ranging from aid agencies such as Christian Aid and CAFOD to groups such as WWF, the Women’s Institute, the RSPB, and the National Trust.

Potato yields were down on average 20 per cent in England and Wales in 2018 compared to the previous season. Carrots (yields reportedly down 25-30 per cent) and onions (reportedly down 40 per cent) were also hampered in 2018 by warmer than average temperatures. Some English vineyards reported up to 75 per cent of their crop being damaged by late spring frosts in 2017.

Richard Thompson, a potato grower from Staffordshire, said: “Yields were down 20-25 per cent [in 2018]. We also had quality issues with a lot of misshapen and small potatoes. I’ll be reducing my acreage next year because I can’t afford to take the risk of planting more potatoes [that don’t produce the expected yield].”

Cedric Porter, editor of World Potato Markets, said consumers were already having to deal with smaller chips as a result of last year’s drought and extreme heat: “They were three centimetres shorter on average in the UK. Chips are made by cutting the potatoes, they are not reformed so smaller potatoes [at harvest] means smaller chips because the length is reduced.”

David Drew, Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: "Last year’s drought is indicative of the impact of climate change. Farming can only be made sustainable if we prioritise improving soil qualities, water management and encourage pollinators."

Raymond Blanc, chef and President of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, said: "Locally sourced fresh fruit and vegetables play a starring role in many of our signature dishes and are absolutely vital to the British food industry.

“As chefs and restaurateurs, we must step up and play our part: reducing emissions, and wasting less food, so that we can ensure there's enough good food for future generations to enjoy."

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, food writer and broadcaster, said: “If we are to protect our fantastic British fruit and veg for future generations, then the food industry and our Government have got to step up and make the kind of major changes – reducing emissions, cutting waste, supporting green energy, for example – that will have a profound effect.”

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