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Report: Climate change threat to British fruit and vegetables

5 February 2019

5 February 2019

  • Climate change poses a major threat to British potatoes, carrots, wine and other much-loved fruit and veg

  • More than half of all farms in the UK say they have been affected by severe flooding or storm in the past decade

  • Drought and extreme heat blamed for 20 per cent drop in yield for potatoes in 2018. Average British chip left more than one inch smaller

  • UK could lose almost three-quarters of the area of land currently well suited for potatoes by 2050s under climate projections

  • YouGov poll shows Brits ready to do their bit to tackle climate change with 75 per cent willing to buy more wonky veg to avoid food waste and 62 per cent ready to buy more UK grown food

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 the British fruit and vegetables we love 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.

Impact of climate change on UK farming

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 LoveShow 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, RSPB, and the National Trust.

Impact of climate change on fruit and veg: growers suffer big losses

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 3 cm 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.”

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said:

“High-quality, locally-grown fruit and veg are a crucial component of British diets. Yet, as we saw with last year’s drought, this nutritious food, and the livelihoods of the hard-working farmers who grow it, are increasingly threatened by more extreme weather and increased pests and diseases as a result of climate change.

“This Government is committed to supporting fruit and veg producers to meet this challenge. We will use powers in the Agriculture Bill to reward farmers who reduce their emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change through our new Environmental Land Management scheme. We are also taking steps to end the environmental, economic and moral scandal of food waste through our Resources and Waste Strategy.”

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 OBE, 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.”

Notes to editors

  1. Media contact:

  2. Show The Love is organised by The Climate Coalition, the UK’s largest group of people dedicated to action on climate change and limiting its impact on the people, places and life we love at home in the UK and around the world, including the world’s poorest countries. The Coalition includes over 130 organisations such as the Women’s Institute, National Trust and WWF, and aid agencies such as Christian Aid and CAFOD, representing more than 15 million people across the UK.