Free digital copy
Get Speciality Food magazine delivered to your inbox FREEGet your free copy
Climate change is wreaking havoc on our seasons in the UK, and it may have a significant impact on the way retailers sell sustainable produce. In fact, “Mild winter brings British asparagus to shops eight weeks early,” was the headline in a national newspaper at the end of February, and such headlines are likely to become more commonplace in future as climate change takes hold.
While asparagus-loving foodies rejoiced, it was a cause of concern for climate experts and farmers.
Seasonality in all its glory
Buying seasonally is better for both the consumer and retailer according to Vicki Hird, sustainable farming campaign coordinator at Sustain. “Consumers have an opportunity to truly support sustainable farming by buying food produce – from apples to cheeses – when in season and getting the best quality and taste to boot. By buying more at these times, and ideally more directly from the farmer or better trader – they support growing what makes sense for their land, ecology and climate – sharing the ups and downs of an agroecological system.”
Lee Holdstock, senior supply chain manager at the Soil Association, agrees that seasonality benefits both parties, but considers the issue to be complex. “For both consumers and retailers choosing what is in season has many benefits, not least being in tune with nature and with your local farmers and markets. It can have significant benefits in terms of the quality, taste and freshness of local grown produce as well as usually being cheaper when there are abundant harvests.
“Buying and eating what is in season offers a simple and understandable message for consumers to help them choose what is, at first glance, more local, fresher and healthier food – with associated benefits for the climate and nature.
“The reality is here in the UK we are growing many varieties of crops which would not have grown here at all, or for just a short season, a few years ago. Today we are enjoying the finest home-grown sparkling wines which are rivalling and beating the top wines from the Champagne region of France and gaining recognition in the world’s top awards. And for decades now greenhouses and poly-tunnels have significantly increased our ability to grow salad crops, tomatoes and peppers almost all year round – although we have to consider the energy input these require.”
The impact of climate change
In the past, Britain’s weather patterns produced reliable seasons that enabled farmers to predict when to plant and harvest indigenous crops. But with climate change wreaking havoc on our natural world, the seasons have become unreliable. What does this mean for retailers trying to sell sustainable, seasonal offerings?
As Lee explains, “Climate disruption is causing some seasonal produce to ‘shift’ so [crops are] coming into season earlier and perhaps ending sooner than expected or for that matter continuing longer - but local markets and local supply chains are adaptable and will showcase what is currently in season and at its freshest.”
Adaptability is something Lewis Glanvill, head chef at Riverford’s Field Kitchen restaurant, champions, in order to provide sustainable produce for his customers. “Consumers need to challenge what they are buying and should be able to expect reasonable rationale for the food on their plate. For our customers, it means they get to explore the diversity of what our farm has to offer and how that changes through the year.
“Consumers are becoming more in tune with when local harvests are but similarly, as global weather conditions change when our traditional seasonal produce is due can also be changing. That conversation needs to be ongoing: perhaps asparagus or rhubarb month moves backwards or forwards each year. We mustn’t force the land to provide these seasonal treats when we traditionally expect them.”
Moreover, it is possible that in the near future, produce that was previously unable to grow in the UK may flourish in the changing climate. According to Lee, “Milder winters will have an impact and we may see in time different produce coming onto the market that perhaps wouldn’t normally be available.”
This is something that Rob Brown, technical and sustainability manager at SunFresh Produce, has also identified. “Seasonality will still remain a phenomenon [in the future], but the crops traditionally produced in one geographic location may shift to a neighbouring region as climatic conditions change. These would be replaced by crops that were previously more suited to a different region and so on. In this way, the seasonality would be retained but apply to a new set of crops as growers adapt to the shift growing conditions.”
Vicki echoed the idea of adapting to the changing seasons, adding, “With climate change kicking in hard everywhere we need to support farmers who will have to change growing patterns, varieties and rotations to cope with the instability. Seasonality and variety may become even more critical – buying what the grower knows they can cope with will be ever more important and that will include seasonal produce alongside different crops. We all need to share the burden of the ever more challenging food system.”
Going further than seasonality
Lee argues that in a changing climate, simply adapting to these seasonal windows and promoting British-grown produce isn’t enough for indies to truly be sustainable retailers.
“Seasonality is at the heart of a more robust food system. But we also need to build robust local supply chains, encourage farmers to adopt more sustainable agroecological farming practices and change our diets for the better by eating less and better meat and more and healthier fruit and vegetables.
“Our current diets are unsustainable and we need to change as climate change gets more extreme. We rely on just a dozen key crops around the globe for the majority of our food – but we need to significantly increase the variety and nature of the fresh produce we eat and where we are obtaining our calories, proteins and nutrients.
“Organic and agroecological farming practices encourage diversity on the farm and in the variety and nature of the products grown. In the face of climate change – it is this diversity which builds resilience into our food and farming systems and will help us to face the challenges ahead.”
Lee concludes, “Consumers are becoming increasingly motivated in their choices by their concerns for the climate, nature and sustainability. To them, seasonality is very important and will become even more important in the future.”
Therefore, maintaining a focus on seasonality as it evolves in the coming years will benefit fine food retailers.