Special Report: How is climate change impacting the UK’s food and drink industry?

11 September 2023, 12:35 PM
  • The ripple effect of recent heatwaves in mainland Europe, and their implication on retail is yet to be measured...but it’s the weather on home soil we need to worry about, say farmers, leaders and producers
Special Report: How is climate change impacting the UK’s food and drink industry?

“It’s a very sorry sight,” said Andrew Jarvis, who’s been running Sandringham Estate orchards since 1971, producing single variety apple juice that’s sold on the palace grounds, and at local farm shops.

With most gazes now firmly fixed on the continent, he said the plight of British farmers, producers, and the retailers they supply, seems to have been forgotten.

It is, though, he insists, a very real issue. In the long hot summer of 2022, many of Andrew’s apples went into ‘survival’ mode. His entire Cox crop for 2023 has been lost. Though Andrew grows multiple varieties, he called this the “biggest blow”. His worst year since 1991.

“We usually have pick-your-own, and enough apples for the public in retail shops. It won’t be the case this year. We have four Cox orchards and we’ve had to write two of them off completely. We won’t be able to tell until after the set next spring whether they’ll be affected next year.”

Adapting is, of course, he added, part and parcel of farming. The orchards have invested in more robust varieties such as Discovery and Katy, and sticking to heritage apples is what sets the business apart from supermarkets. For now, despite challenges, Andrew doesn’t see this changing. “There are newer commercial apple varieties grown for the supermarkets. But I don’t think they’ve got any taste to them at all. I recommend artisans stick to their guns and keep going. The whole point of artisan is to be different.”

The trickle-down effect

As Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium told Speciality Food, the impact of our changing environment is trickling down through fine food and drink production, and onto the shop floor. “Retailers are increasingly having to manage the effects of climate change, which is creating a greater variability in the weather, and impacting local and global harvests. Thankfully, retailers have become increasingly adept at coping with disruption in the supply chain, and will do their best to ensure availability and affordability for their customers.”

Jennifer Williams, founder of small artisan preserve company, Naked Jam, says artisans like her need to be supported and understood by fine food retail in what she calls “the most desperate times”.

Jennifer’s business has been so badly impacted by poor harvests in the last year-and-a-half that she’s had to consider its viability.

“Last year it was like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said of sourcing raw ingredients. “There was fruit, but the majority of it was rubbish, with no flavour. You could buy in from abroad, but like a lot of people, I pride myself on using British.” 

Echoing Andrew’s bleak picture for the UK’s orchards, Jennifer said she was unable to produce some of her chutneys last year due to an apple shortage, and that piccalilli was taken off the table. “We couldn’t get enough good quality cauliflower. The farmers were really struggling. You can’t put rubbish in the jar, so we took the decision that we had to give in.”

Much like Andrew, Jennifer refuses to make changes that will impact the quality of her preserves, so instead she is pivoting. Rather than focussing on root vegetables or apple-based chutney, she has set up a greenhouse growing hundreds of tomato and chilli plants for a new line. And she’s reviving an old favourite – marrow chutney – based on age-old recipes.

Where retail can help, she added, is by embracing the changes producers might have to make because of poor harvests, and adapting alongside them. “Some shops, if you run out of a product, might go elsewhere to stock up, but what we need is for them to talk to us about what we CAN do. I can’t make marmalade onion at the moment, for example, because I can’t get good quality red onions. But I’ve got a lot of tomatoes and chillies, and I’m making a new tomato sauce line. 

“Retail needs to be a bit more open to the unusual and whacky, and giving these alternatives a try. Invite the artisan in, and explain to customers what’s happening. Celebrate the new, seasonal flavours, and make them more of the star of the show. Seek out products made with vegetable we usually can grow well in this country, like marrows, and runner beans. We have to work with what we can, otherwise businesses like ours won’t survive.”

The value of a circular economy

Pete Russell, CEO of Oooby, which helps British growers and makers sell their produce into retail and direct to consumers, says now, more than ever before, thought needs to be given to the circular economy, and how local businesses can thrive, not just survive, during drought and flooding.

“It seems that weather changes are certainly affecting the predictability of access to certain ingredients here in the UK,” he said. “Especially for smaller scale and artisan food producers when buying from large-scale suppliers. This is because of a delay in yield by even a small percentage can often mean there is only enough to satisfy the high-priority larger customers, so the smaller customers miss out.”

Pete believes artisans should start working more closely with small, market gardens, which may turn out to be more reliable, and that producers should be cautious if they choose, instead, to import ingredients to get products to market. “The UK is often seen as a market of last resort for many EU producers because of the recent import barriers and fees,” he added. “So when there is a reduction in yield due to weather conditions, it means either no access to certain ingredients or, at the very least, limited access and exorbitant prices.

“Small scale growers have much more capacity than is currently being used, and they can often create the right growing conditions for specific ingredients if they don’t need to manage vast quantities. They are far more resilient in times of uncertainty, and can delivery very high quality with exceptional freshness.”

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