Climate change means that non-native crops could thrive in the UK. But what will become of our traditional varieties, asks FIONA BECKETT
At the beginning of August, visitors to West Dean Gardens will be thronging to the annual Chilli Fiesta. More than 250 varieties of chillies and sweet peppers will be on display, along with food tasting, chilli growing and cooking demonstrations – just what you’d expect from the south-western states of America. Except that this isn’t New Mexico. It’s West Sussex in southern England. Chillies are just one of the exotic crops that are becoming more common in the land of lettuce, cucumber and garden peas. Last year, Marks & Spencer trialled home-grown Charentais melons in 20 of its stores. Other growers have been experimenting with citrus fruits such as grapefruit, and even olives. By 2080, it’s possible that we could be seeing Mediterranean crops such as raisins, currants and sultanas, according to Professor Richard Selley of Imperial College London, who recently predicted in his book The Winelands of Britain: Past, Present and Prospective, that the south of England could even become too hot for vines.
An apocalyptic vision maybe, but other experts concede that the fields of Britain are changing. ‘In the future, we should be able to grow the kind of crops that thrive in southern France and northern Italy – figs, olives, artichokes, grapes, peaches, apricots, nectarines – maybe some citrus and even the odd banana,’ predicts Leigh Hunt, principal horticultural advisor to the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens at Wisley. ‘Over the short term – say the next 10 years – the climate might not warm sufficiently to make these crops commercial, but they will become easier to grow.’
But the picture is a little more complicated than that. Global warming may have brought an increase in average temperatures over the past few years but it has also brought much more unsettled weather with unseasonally heavy rainfall. (Remember last summer’s floods?) ‘Many growers will scoff at the idea of growing exotic crops when, last summer, it was barely possible to grow staples such as potatoes,’ says Phil Sumption of the research division of Garden Organic, near Coventry. Cold snaps can take their toll too. ‘The erratic element of climate change still means that we can have late frosts, and these set the true limit of what can be classed as hardy in the UK,’ says Hunt. ‘Until enough warming has taken place to make cold weather truly a thing of the past, it is not really possible to grow new tender crops reliably.’
One crop gained may be another lost – or, at the very least, diminished in quality. Quintessentially English crops, such as runner beans and leafy salads, are unlikely to thrive in drier summers, while excessive rain like we had last summer – the wettest on record – can blight staple crops such as potatoes and tomatoes. Dr Gareth Davies, of Garden Organic, believes that drought poses the greatest long term threat. ‘Lack of water could be a problem for salads, which require a continuous supply, while it is likely that cereals will be less affected. Hot and dryweather makes it more difficult to establish vegetable crops.’
The weather is also likely to vary across the British Isles. While the south of
England could be warm enough to grow Mediterranean crops, Scotland could become more like northern France, says Hunt. But rising temperatures could have an impact as far north as Yorkshire. Plants such as apples and rhubarb need a set number of hours of cold before their buds will break. This could be a problem by 2080, leaving, for example, the rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire under threat. Many of the successes attributed to climate change and the extension of the growing period for crops such as strawberries and tomatoes are due more to the use of polytunnels and glasshouses than warmer weather. (Take West Dean’s success with chillies for example). ‘Some growers are experimenting with early and late plantings of crops based on the unpredictable weather
patterns. Others are chancing later plantings of crops such as lettuce and calabrese as there appears to be a trend towards warmer and later autumns,’
says Sumption. ‘At Garden Organic, we are hosting an experiment and growing salad crops over the winter to see if milder winters might make some crops viable outdoors when they wouldn’t normally be.’ Which new crops become viable will also be a question of economics. The price of white asparagus grown in Herefordshire for Marks & Spencer this spring was £24.90 a kilo, roughly three
times as much as it would cost in southern France. Not all supermarkets want to go down this route. ‘We wouldn’t grow a warmer climate crop in the UK if it
needed large amounts of artificial heat and light,’ said a spokeswoman for Waitrose. ‘This would be difficult for the grower to make a big enough profit, and
there would also be no benefit to the environment.’
She also pointed to a need to reeducate the consumer not to expect perfect produce. ‘Early last summer, for example, severe hail affected about 30% of the UK apple crop. In light of this, we pledged to take our suppliers’ haildamaged apples at a fair price and explain to customers why these apples didn’t look as perfect as they would normally. We also took the decision to continue to sell peas that were not cosmetically perfect, and explained on notices in our branches the reason for the blemishes.” Combined with the global rise in food prices and also transportation costs, the tough conditions that growers experience may bring a new realism about what produce we can reasonably expect to purchase at any given time of year. Perhaps it is time to go back to cultivating our own back gardens. We all need to know our onions.
Written by Fiona Beckett