January 11, 2013 7:28 pm

Farmers must adapt to extreme weather

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Food producers and consumers need to embrace change, writes Clive Cookson
Wine and weather illustration by Ingram Pinn©Ingram Pinn

Nyetimber, the best-known English producer of sparkling wine, abandoned its 2012 vintage because the grapes did not ripen well enough. Supermarkets are selling misshapen apples they would previously have rejected. Hovis has dropped its pledge to use only British wheat in its loaves.

From grapes to grain, last year’s foul weather hit the production of fruit, vegetables and cereals across the UK. Output of many crops, including apples and potatoes, was down by a quarter on 2011, while the decline in English winemaking is likely to be closer to 50 per cent. Wheat yields were pushed back to levels last experienced a generation ago.

Of course, farmers have always been at the mercy of bad weather – and there is no surprise in England’s wettest year for a century having such an impact on the quantity grown. Less certain is the effect of cloud and rain on the quality of what was harvested.

Mike Gooding, head of Reading university’s School of Agriculture, raised concerns this week about the possible impact of high rainfall on the flavour and nutritional value of food. He identifies two particular problems.

One is that continuous downpours wash essential chemicals, such as nitrogen compounds and trace minerals, out of the soil. Plants therefore take up fewer of these nutrients and incorporate fewer in the edible parts harvested for human consumption.

The second problem is that less sunshine reaches the leaves and fruit during wet weather. So biochemical reactions requiring bright light – which produce starch, sugars and flavour compounds – proceed more slowly.

Both factors damaged the quality of last year’s UK wheat crop, with grains failing to fill out as the plants matured during the summer. “Because the grains shrivelled, millers have found it difficult to produce flour for bread,” says Professor Gooding. “Shrivelling is one reason why breadmakers have had to import more wheat than usual.”

The story is more complicated when it comes to fruit and vegetables. Both apple and potato growers concede that visual quality suffered. Their products appear less appetising than usual, with more irregularities, blemishes and brown patches. Potatoes are also smaller, says Rob Clayton, director of the Potato Council: “Consumers are not going to find lots of big baking potatoes.”

Growers insist that the qualities that really matter to consumers – flavour and nutritional quality – have been maintained. “We were very concerned in the summer because we anticipated that the lack of sunshine would have a hugely detrimental effect, particularly on sugar levels,” says Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples & Pears. “But when we came to harvest, which was three weeks later than 2011, we found that sugar levels were pretty good and our mineral analysis was not bad either.”

However, some apple varieties have coped better than others with the poor conditions. Traditionalists will be disappointed to learn that old varieties such as Cox have suffered more than newer ones such as Gala. Braeburn is the worst hit.

Julia Trustram Eve of English Wine Producers makes a similar claim, that vineyards have generally maintained quality despite the decision of Nyetimber and a few smaller vineyards to abandon the 2012 vintage.

“Of course it has been a challenging year,” she says. “People have had to be particularly active in managing their vineyards and more selective with their pickings, but some are reporting very good quality fruit.”

While growers of fruit and root vegetables have an incentive to talk up the quality of their produce in order to attract buyers, their claims could have scientific validity. Yes, the overall amount of goodness going into the plants is cut by excessive rainfall and inadequate sunshine but there are many fewer fruits per plant, so the available nutrients and sugars are concentrated in a smaller volume.

No serious forecaster has ventured a prediction for the 2013 growing season. If this year follows the recent UK trend for heavier and more frequent rainfall, the impact on crops of another washout summer may be more serious than in 2012 because the soil has suffered so much already and needs time to recover.

On the other hand, meteorologists say that climate change is producing more extremes and variability in the weather. So a scorchingly dry summer seems almost as likely, with wheat grains shrivelling because of heat and drought rather than cloudiness and waterlogging.

The consequence for crop breeding is clear, says Carol Wagstaff, senior lecturer in food and nutritional sciences at Reading university. “It is relatively easy to develop a plant that will grow in damp or dry conditions,” she says. “What is difficult – and what we need – is to make crops resilient and robust, so that they can cope better with extremes.”

Although breeders started a “robust and resilient” drive two or three years ago, it will take several more years of development before farmers can buy crops that will grow comfortably in a flooded field or desiccated desert. Until then, consumers may need to be more forgiving of food that does not look or even taste quite as good as they would like.

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