Is climate change endangering Britain’s national dishes?

Our rapidly changing climate is having a profound impact on what food makes it to the supermarket shelves and British farmers are suffering in the process. Kate Sambrook explains how extreme weather is impacting our food and what we can do about it.

Fruit and veg farmers have been hard hit by extreme weather events over the past few years. Heavy rainfall in 2015 and 2016 flooded farmland and destroyed crops.

The record-breaking heatwave this past summer not only scorched the British public but also farmland, which caused devastating reductions in crop yields and high financial losses. The lack of water and extreme heat caused potato yields to drop by 20%, and reportedly left our beloved British chip more than one inch smaller!

If events of this magnitude persist, some growers could potentially be put out of business.

What does the future hold for British fruit and veg farmers?

Drawing on evidence from several academic papers and the latest UK climate projections, my research examines the observed historical trends in extreme weather events and how the UK climate may change over the 21st century.

If our emissions continue to increase, results show an increased chance of milder, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers, along with an increase in the frequency and intensity of extremes.

Higher summer temperatures and reduced water availability in eastern and southern England (the country’s biggest agricultural areas) could make current farming activities impossible, due to a combination of limited water supplies and soil aridity. A trend towards wetter winters is likely to introduce other problems such as soil compaction and erosion.

While changes to average temperatures and rainfall patterns will have a large impact on the agricultural industry — the real threat to farmers will be the rise in extreme weather conditions.

Projections show that if warming continues at its current rate, heatwaves will become more intense and long-lasting, and by 2050 could occur every other year. There is also a high chance of record-breaking rainfall hitting parts of England each winter, further increasing the risk to farmers operations and ultimately their livelihoods.

My research into historical and future UK climate is one of the chapters in Climate Coalition’s new report: Recipe for disaster: climate change threatens British-grown fruit and veg. This report is part of The Climate Coalition Show the Love campaign which celebrates things that we love but could lose to climate change.

The report draws on research by a number of climate change scientists and highlights the challenges facing UK growers and the British food industry.

How can we save British fruit and veg?

The answer is we as individuals, all must pull together and start reducing our carbon emissions today. By shopping locally and eating seasonally, you can reduce your food miles while supporting the local economy and most importantly your health.

When it comes to meat consumption — beef and lamb are the biggest problems — producing nearly 60% of agricultural emissions in the UK. If you currently eat meat every day, reducing your intake may feel quite daunting, but you don’t have to become a vegetarian straight away. Eating less red meat would make a huge difference! Why not try meat-free Mondays? We all must start somewhere right?

Avoiding food waste also plays a major role in cutting emissions. UK households bin a staggering £13 million worth of edible food each year. The avoidable food waste generates roughly 19 million tonnes of greenhouse gases over its lifetime — and preventing that pollution would be equivalent to taking one in four cars off UK roads.

In short, it’s a big deal. While there are many areas of food waste that are out of consumers’ control, we can still be conscientious and take proper care of our fruit and veg from purchase to plate. Through buying just what we need, storing our produce properly and being clever with our preparation, we can all turn our homes into zero-food-waste zones.

As a country we must step up and play our part: reducing emissions, and wasting less food, so that we can ensure the delicious, healthy, home-grown produce we enjoy today is still available for generations to come.