The UK’s changing climate presents a number of significant challenges in terms of yield and resistance to pests and disease, but is the industry doing enough to ensure its capacity to supply a consumer hungry for homegrown produce?
The unpredictable weather means the need for communication between those who buy fresh produce and those who sell it is arguably at its greatest level.
Last year was the warmest year on record in the UK, according to the Met Office. Sadly though, UK fresh produce growers were still not in a position to lazily sip cocktails by the pool, while watching their crops thrive.
National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president and potato producer Meurig Raymond explained at the recent Brassica and Leafy Salads Conference that last year’s good growing conditions and high yields brought their own particular set of problems.
“Clearly larger yields mean lower prices – and we have had many crops mature early, which has thrown out our schedules,” he says.
The changing climate has also resulted in other problems, such as increased pest and disease pressure. Raymond stresses just how important it is for the UK to invest in “the right tools, innovation and technologies” to ensure our industry is better prepared for what’s around the corner.
“It’s been a volatile time but this emphasises the importance of continuing investment in research and development (R&D) to ensure that we can continue to produce what customers want,” he noted.
Research and development
The UK government has stepped up the pace and acknowledged the importance of R&D in the food production industry.
Its Agri-Tech Strategy, for example, was launched in 2013 to help drive growth in the sector. The scheme includes a £70-million Agri-Tech Catalyst that is being funded through the public body Innovate UK to develop agricultural innovations – such as new machinery or materials – that could help growers better cope with our changing climate.
After this year’s forthcoming general election many in the fresh produce industry are confident that the successive government will keep up the momentum.
Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples and Pears (EAP), comments: “The industry has made great advances in R&D over the last few years. If one compares how political circles viewed agriculture and horticulture some 15 years ago, to how they view it now, it’s completely different.
Back then Barlow says there were ‘continuing nuisances’ – diseases such as BSE, foot and mouth and salmonella. “I know people at that time who were saying: ‘it would make more sense for us to import all of our food’,” he explains.
“That thinking has gone completely out of the window,” Barlow continues. “We need to produce more of our own food. This last government has done a lot for us and we just need to make sure that we continue to move strongly forward.”
The government’s commitment to the sector is promising, but the industry should be mindful of the fact that there are still areas for improvement.
As Lancashire-based potato farmer Robin Cropper, a partner at J Cropper & Sons, points out, a lot of good growing land is still in danger of being flooded. He therefore hopes the new government will tackle this issue.
“We need to make sure there’s proper infrastructure available for the drainage of land on low-lying areas,” he explains. “But at a time when it’s become more important the actual spending by the Environment Agency [which is responsible for these issues] has dropped – and that makes no sense to me at all.”
Innovation in the field
Many growers have already adapted to the changing climate by altering the way in which they operate. “Growers are spreading their risk,” suggests British Growers’ chief executive Jack Ward. “It’s less about individual growers and more about the growers and packers who together are coordinating their operations.
“They have land all over the country so if there’s a particular problem in Lincolnshire they will have someone else in another part of the country that they can go to. We are now operating in a world with much greater volatility so they need to prepare for the unexpected.”
Graham Clarkson, chairman of the British Leafy Salads Association (BLSA), agrees that growers are spreading their risk. He says: “When the weather is warm everything comes forward by two weeks which leaves a gap two weeks later. But this is helped by the fact that the salad industry has growers all over the country, so you spread your options. When you get wet weather in the west of the UK it can still be dry in the east, so everywhere is different.”
Some growers, such as Angflor in Colchester, Essex, have even adopted new growing techniques to better cope with our capricious weather. The firm has built field-sized, polytunnel-like structures, named multi chapelles, under which it is growing baby leaf salad products.
Patrick Bastow, non-executive director of Angflor, explains: “Its about reducing risks for farmers and growers. These tunnels are not heated, but they protect the crop from heavy rainfall and keep it dry and relatively protected against the wind. They are even set up to have some snow protection. They reduce risk and enable us to have more faith that we will be able to harvest what we put in the ground.”
Bastow claims the tunnels also enable year-round production of certain salad varieties that are not traditionally grown in Britain during the winter, while they reduce the risk of pest and diseases attacking the crop too.
“I think this is a growing method that will just continue – we were the first to do this in the UK but we will not be the last,” Bastow notes. “I can see this being developed for nursery stock and soft fruit.”
Indeed, the structures have already caught the eye of one of Angflor’s competitors, Valefresco, which is currently in the process of building similar structures on its land.
Greater communication needed
As the NFU’s Meurig Raymond points out, when a crop arrives early it can disrupt everyone’s schedule.
“The arrival of early or late crops, or of big and small crops, often results in price fluctuations,” he noted. “They can also result in homegrown produce losing some of its retail shelf space to imported crops, which buyers have purchased to ensure that consumers can buy their favourite fruit or vegetables even when they are not in season.”
EAP’s Barlow believes communication with buyers is “critically important”. He says: “I have no doubt whatsoever that the late season we experienced in 2013 was demanding for the [top-fruit] category because it wasn’t appreciated that English apples were going to be quite as late as they were. Shelf space was therefore lost to other products, particularly stonefruit and grapes. So yes, communication is required.”
Both Ward of British Growers and Cropper at J Cropper & Sons concur that the industry still has far to go before consumers and buyers fully accept climate change as being a reason for fluctuating prices and reduced crop. “We have all come to expect such high standards that we are a long way off that,” he concludes.