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.
According to the report, titled Recipe for disaster: Climate change threatens British-grown fruit and veg, the combination of sub-zero temperatures in the early months of 2018, followed by a wet spring and the summer heatwave saw a 3% fall in the area planted with potatoes last year. The combination of late planting and stalled tuber growth due to the hot and dry weather led to a 20% drop in the total harvest of potatoes in 2018 in Great Britain compared to the previous season.
Potatoes are a water thirsty crop, so rainfed production is likely to be severely limited in the future in the UK, the reports says. “By the 2050s, the area of land that is currently well-suited for potatoes would decline by 74% under climate projections. However, getting approval for irrigation will be limited, with 43% of growers on catchments defined as being over-licensed or over-abstracted.”
Richard Thompson, a potato grower from Staffordshire, is cited by the report, saying: “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].”
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.”
Aside from water, the biggest threats to growers are pests and diseases, the report says. Potato cyst nematode already causes losses of approximately £50 million per year to UK growers. That figure is predicted to rise with the pest benefiting from warmer soil and air temperatures due to climate change.
UK growers have, up until now, escaped the deadly Colorado Potato Beetle which can destroy the entire crop. Although widespread in continental Europe, there have been only a few UK cases. But with a warmer climate it is feared this beetle will become a much greater pest for UK producers.
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 is being published as part of The Climate Coalition’s Show The Love campaign which celebrates things that Brits love but could lose to climate change. The report points out that potato is number one in the top 10 most wasted food and drink items in UK homes (that could have been
The full report can be found here. A special chapter on potatoes starts on p43.