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Whatever The Weather

27 September 2018
written by : Alex Brown, Buyer

The impact of weather on food supply

 

Introduction

 

To thrive, crops require a set of optimum growing conditions. These include temperature, soil nutrients, soil type, moisture levels, water, sunlight and competition (e.g. from weeds). Sudden or prolonged changes to these conditions can impact the quantity, quality, yield and, ultimately, influence the balance between supply and demand.

 

Weather events

 

So far this year, the UK has experienced two highly publicised events that have adversely affected growing conditions.

 

The first of these was a cold snap commonly referred to as the “Beast from the East”. The Met Office data below compares the monthly mean average temperature between 2018 and the 20-year average.

 

 

(Source: 1)

 

As indicated by the graph, February and March saw temperatures significantly fall below the 20-year average. This cold bout delayed spring planting of UK crops, including asparagus, potatoes, spring onions, barley and wheat. Lettuce and brassica growers were particularly affected and much of the produce intended for planting had to be disposed of. Many of the surviving crops were affected by issues including crop blisters, loss of rigidity, cracks, pitting, root softening and shrivelling (2).

 

The second period of adverse weather affecting UK produce was the record-breaking period of heat and drought experienced in the summer months. It has been reported that this summer was the joint hottest in the UK since records began in 1910, and the hottest for England (3). During the months of May, June and July, the temperatures consistently exceeded the 20-year average.

 

 

(Source: 1)

 

During this period, large portions of the UK experienced ‘absolute drought’, defined as less than 0.2mm of rain for 15 consecutive days (4). The low rainfall levels meant grain harvests progressed with little disruption. However, cereal crops contained low moisture levels which will provide challenges further down the supply chain (5).

 

Apart from a lack of moisture, the sheer heat can cause many crops to suffer from heat stress. This can have a significant impact on a plant’s ability to photosynthesise and causes root damage to the crop, in turn affecting the yield (6). 

 

The combination of extreme winter frosts that damaged crop roots and the subsequent lack of rainfall, could increase the likelihood of poor quality and reduced crop yields for many crops this year.

 

Example: carrots

 

A specific example of a crop that has been affected in the UK is the carrot. According to the Chairman of the British Carrot Growers’ Association, the UK is circa 97% self-sufficient. The organisation anticipates the lowest harvest in decades this year, possibly forcing the UK to rely on imports to meet domestic demand. However, similar climate conditions across the continent will impact supply across Europe, from where the UK would usually rely on such imports.