Climate change: what does it really mean for UK fresh produce supply?
Academics say there are ways UK suppliers can capitalise on the opportunities and minimise the risks

Climate change: what does it really mean for UK fresh produce supply?

Jim Butler
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As the recent bouts of flooding across the UK have demonstrated, incidents of extreme weather are becoming more regular. And the fallout from climate change will only continue to impact upon domestic fruit and vegetable growers and their supply chain. But is it all doom and gloom? Produce Business UK speaks to the experts to ascertain the risks and to learn about the potential for the UK to grow a bigger diversity of produce thanks to an increase in temperature

Unpredictability, risk, volatility… these concepts are deep-seated in British fresh produce growers. Moreover, it might be argued the vagaries of our weather make this instability even more keenly felt. What happens then when you factor in the biggest and arguably most complex weather transformation of the modern age – climate change?

With the possible exception of former US President George W Bush and his cabal of naysayers, very few people dispute the evidence of climate change. Global temperature is increasing – 2014 was the warmest year on record in the UK. And the incidents of extreme weather are occurring with such frequency that in time we may no longer refer to these increased cases of flooding and droughts as extreme.

So what are the implications for our fruit and vegetable growers? What will our climate look like in 10 years? Are our growers ready for the changes? What opportunities will arise from these new realities?

Asking these questions is unsurprisingly easier than answering them definitively. Speak to anyone close to the situation – from those on the ground to scientists beavering away in their laboratories and you hear the same word being repeated – unpredictable. The weather we experience in the UK is going to become more unpredictable. It’s likely we’re going to get more floods, but also more droughts. And we’re going to get them at different times of the year. Adjusting is going to be hard and will take time.

Ben Raskin, head of horticulture at environmental agency the Soil Association, has seen the effects of this variability at first hand this winter. He points to a grower in West Wales who experienced over 80 days of heavy rainfall every day. Consequently, his fields of parsnips and carrots couldn’t be harvested. He also noted the early flowering of cauliflowers this year and what should have been a six-month supply of brassicas being reduced to three.

“Planning is really hard,” Raskin concedes. “Every year a crop is thrown by the weather and you never know which one it is going to be because there’s seemingly less and less predictability.”

Major risks

Dr Steven Penfield studies the effect of temperature on seed germination at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, and he concurs with the effects of these adverse weather conditions.

He defines the major risks of climate change into four areas:

  1. Increased rainfall – “Waterlogging can cause damage to field crops,” Dr Penfield notes. “And then there’s the inability to get machinery onto the land for harvesting. In 2012 the fields were too waterlogged to get machinery onto the land, and the crops were left in the ground. That’s the number one danger.”

  2. Failure to get the right amount of winter chill; crucial for soft and orchard fruit – “Yield in these types of crops depends on the activation of all the branches to produce fruit in the spring and the number of branches that activate depends on them receiving the right amount of winter chill,” Dr Penfield explains. “If you get a failure of winter chill you get fewer flowers which leads to fewer fruit. So this can be a big problem.”

  3. Incidents of disease – This is one of the hardest things to quantify and this will either be insect pests or diseases carried by insect pests. “I’m thinking aphids and viruses carried by aphids,” says Dr Penfield. “What happens is that every winter large numbers are killed by the cold so exactly how this will play out in a warmer environment we’re not really sure. I won’t be alone in experiencing mosquitos flying around my house on Christmas Day. “It’s hard to know what will happen because it depends on so many environmental factors and it’s hard to simulate in a laboratory. I don’t think we can learn very much from what happens abroad because we have our own unique climate. But clearly, we have whitefly on kale on our farm right now and normally you’d expect whitefly to be gone by October to have been killed off by some sharp frost.”

  4. Water scarcity due to drought – If growing seasons are extended, more water will be needed. And while Dr Penfield doesn’t think a sea level rise will be something to worry about for the next 10 years, he claims there is potential for tidal flooding after that.

Professor Derek Stewart, research theme leader in Enhancing Crop Productivity and Utilisation at the James Hutton Institute (JHI), meanwhile, believes the biggest problem fresh produce growers will face is managing the environment.

“There’s only so much you can manage,” he explains. “There are also degrees of extreme – you might have a really sunny day, 27 degrees Celsius, after which you get a thunderstorm for one hour in which there is a phenomenal amount of rain and then the temperature goes way back up again. That’s like waterboarding for the crops. The crops are going through a Guantanamo system – it goes from ideal to harm to ideal again and the stress that creates is enormous. It can reduce yields and cause poor quality or misshapen fruit and veg.”

Minimising risk

A key instrument in trying to minimise the risks is if growers can diversify their portfolios. Raskin at the Soil Association believes the more diverse a grower’s system, the better.

“Some of our vegetable production systems are so specialised and so big that they’re very vulnerable,” he says. “If you’re a specialist cauliflower grower and your entire crop is two months early that’s potentially the end of your business. If you’re a grower with 50 crops you’ll have other headaches, but, generally speaking, there will be enough of them that you’ll survive.”

Professor Stewart at JHI endorses this approach, suggesting: “I think we’re going to have better manage crop rotation. Farmers are going to have to be more adaptable – that sounds as though I’m criticising them, but I’m not, they have one of the hardest jobs imaginable – but there is a percentage of growers that have the mindset that because they’ve always grown something, that’s what they’ll always do. Increasing the portfolio so you’re spreading the risk will mean your season becomes a bit more complex but you’re more adaptable.”

Raskin also points to improving the resilience of the soil used. If the health of the soil is improved and the amount of organic matter on the soil is increased, he explains it will be able to hold onto more water when it’s dry, and drain better when it’s wet.

Opportunities ahead

And while talk of climate change is generally couched in understandably negative terms, there will be opportunities to glean from an increase in temperatures in the UK, as Raskin admits.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a grower say climate change is a good thing,” he points out,  “but, equally, if it’s happening you have to adapt to it.”

What this means in reality is the likelihood of crops that were previously thought to be unsuitable for the UK – peaches and apricots for example – becoming economically unviable. An increased planting of table grapes is also on the rise.

Both Raskin and Professor Stewart state the case for protected cropping. Raskin says winter salads will have fantastic growth, while the Professor notes how such a system can give growers more control.

The other obvious advantage is the extension of the growing season. JIC’s Dr Penfield says there will be more scope for production in the UK – field vegetables and soft fruits, in particular.

He adds: “There are other things that rely on a long growing season – things like swede, celeriac, so we could see quite significant yield increases in these types of crops, simply because they can stay in the ground longer, the last frosts will be earlier and they can stay in the ground later.

“If we can dovetail with new varieties that will perform in the new climate, then yes, we can take advantage. One obvious thing is year-round availability of broccoli in the UK – that’s definitely on the cards. If we can adapt breeding and dovetail it with climate change then you can do that rather than switch to Spanish production in the winter.”

Utilising technology

Technology clearly has a part to play then. Improved seed breeding has improved seed performance. Dr Penfield notes the emergence of new varieties coming through – particularly broccolis that flower at different times of the year; leading to bigger yields.

There’s also some innovative work going on in the sphere of drones, in particular collecting information regarding crop management.

“That’s being used quite significantly to assess disease progression, but it’s also looking at water stress and nutrient inputs,” Professor Stewart notes. “Not all fields are the same and even within a field you’ll get areas that need more attention than others, so why apply a hugely expensive water sprayer to supply the whole field when it’s actually only a certain area that might need more – the same with nutrients. The technology needs to be tested and validated – but that’s going on across the board with a lot of things.”

If warmer winters are to be expected, Raskin believes that more efficient lighting could help push crop growth, which will also allow year-round crops to become possible and economical.

Grower response

All agree that, by and large, UK growers are receptive to these changes. Dr Penfield says most growers these days are very sophisticated and open to innovation, while Raskin astutely notes that the best growers are fundamentally entrepreneurs and will always look for a way to exploit the conditions they face. For instance, he says one apple grower in Sussex is currently experimenting with older varieties that don’t need cold storage, thus reducing energy costs.

“There are people who are thinking that far in advance,” he says. “More generally it does go down to your soil and water management and making sure that you can survive those extremes when they come. It’s one thing to lose a crop – and it is disastrous – but if your soil gets washed off down the road then you don’t have a field to grow in next year.”

Companies are also beholden to ‘do their bit’. Leading by example in this field is Midlands-based global fruit import and export business Jupiter Marketing. The company’s CEO, Mark Tweddle, advocates the need to be responsible about the effect we are having on our planet, and to minimise the number of times that produce is handled and moved.

He comments: “The key to this is having good relationships with the suppliers and customers, and an effective supply chain management service.”

Jupiter Marketing has gone even further than that. At the 11th hour it stepped in to sponsor explorer Mark Wood’s 60-day trek from the Russian Arctic Coast to the geographic North Pole across the fragile Arctic Ice. The mission will expose the true cost of climate change in the Arctic and has been described by patron Sir Ranulph Fiennes as the toughest journey on the planet.

Tweedle states: “As a caring, global firm, of course we do our utmost to limit our impact on the global environment but it’s important that we, and other businesses, understand better the true, first-hand effects that global warming is having on our world.

“We want to educate the businesses and workforces that supply us around the world so we can work together on minimising our impact on global warming. We are also excited to be part of history. As a company that is leading in its field with global firsts, including with new varieties of table grapes, we wanted to be part of a world last. We are proud to be the main sponsor of this crucially important expedition.”

Future landscape

So what does the future hold for UK growers and the supply chain? Professor Stewart believes more moves will be made in the direction of protected cropping.

“I think we’ll see a significantly bigger diversity of fruit that we grow, possibly veg as well,” he predicts. “A good example of that is blueberries. I think we supply 5% of the demand for blueberries in the UK, so that market is there to be won. What you’re starting to see is people ripping up raspberries and planting blueberries. There are opportunities and games to be won.”

In the meantime, Dr Penfield believes flooding is the number one risk for the UK. “Current models predict that by 2080 there will be a quadrupling of the agricultural land underwater every year in the UK,” he reveals. “And if the increase in global temperature induces significant sea level rises then that really is a major threat, because that threatens all the low-lying productive agricultural lands like Lincolnshire and north Cambridgeshire. Those types of areas are all below sea level and would really be at risk from large tidal surges.”

One thing is clear – the unpredictability is here to stay. Dr Robin Matthews, research theme leader in Nurturing Vibrant and Low Carbon Communities at the James Hutton Institute, says that even without climate change trying to predict the weather is troublesome, but clear trends are evident. Temperature and rainfall are increasing (although rainfall is more variable), as are incidents of extreme weather, as we’ve seen this winter. Consequently, growers can make decisions now that will help them in the future.

Dr Matthews’ colleague, Professor Stewart says there is lot of tractable research that will assist growers going forward, and, increasingly, this work isn’t being carried out in isolation.

He explains: “Crop people are working with physicists and social economists and agronomists – and they can try to answer what the bigger picture is. What is the knock-on effect of something happening across the system in terms of mankind, costs, and diesel costs? What is coming out is much more practical to the grower.”

In short, climate change offers a mixed bag of risks and opportunities. For UK growers and domestic supply, it’s about trying to find a way to capitalise on the opportunities and, as far as possible, to minimise the risks.

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