Why we need to get used to fluffy vegetables

Fascinating vegetables

Fascinating vegetables

Fruit and vegetables on shelves will be smaller and look different as hot, dry summer weather hits crops, experts say.

Potatoes, onions, carrots, apples and Brussels sprouts are likely to be worst affected.

Many areas of the UK experienced very low rainfall in 2022 and parts of England are in drought.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) wants supermarkets to accept more “junky” produce and be flexible with growers.

In Essex, farmer Sarah Green’s fields are dusty and the grass crunches under her feet.

Her crops are “alive, but not growing or thriving.” The hot summer sun made her sweet corn tasty, but smaller than usual and she had to lower her prices. Other crops still in the ground, such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, are delayed.

Sarah Green on her farm in Essex

Sarah Green has already seen her summer products get smaller

And in Herefordshire, farmer Ben Andrews said “nice green” cabbage and kale were fine until a few days ago.

Now they have turned blue, he says. They feel leathery and tough, no longer crunchy and rich.

These crops are still in the fields, but soon they will be what we buy in supermarkets.

It is too early to know how much UK produce will die from the drought, but “crop quality” will certainly suffer, Gerry Knox, professor of agricultural water management at Cranfield University, told BBC News.

More potatoes will be smaller, with lower quality skins and even some blemishes, he adds.

Vegetables this autumn and winter “may not look normal, but they will taste the same”, says Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the NFU.

“Consumers are conditioned to think a potato looks a certain way,” says Mr Bradshaw. To reduce the risk of even more price increases during a cost-of-living crisis, “we need to be more relaxed about appearances,” he adds.

A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium (BRC) told BBC News that supermarkets were already accepting odd-shaped vegetables.

“Retailers understand that the weather has been a challenge and have taken steps to support their farmers. This includes expanding their range of odd-sized/shaped fruit and vegetables when needed,” says Hannah Dougherty, Food Policy Advisor at the BRC .

In Essex, the rain is all Sarah Green and her family talk about. This year, 107 millimeters of rain have been measured. Their annual average is 525 mm.

This dryness means that the vegetables in the soil cannot get the moisture they need to continue growing, so they grow more slowly and do not reach full size. Lack of water can make the skin tougher or cause defects as the crop is stressed.

Potatoes are very vulnerable to drought in the UK, where half the national crop is rain-fed, explains Professor Jerry Knox.

Harvesting the potatoes will be a challenge because it is likely to be difficult to get the machine into the hard ground, explains Sarah Green. It can form large clumps that destroy the crop or cut it into pieces.

Carrots, parsnips, onions will be affected in a similar way to potatoes, says Professor Knox.

By this point in the summer “the damage is done,” he says, and even significant rains aren’t enough to fix stressed potatoes.

Farmers are also concerned about brassicas such as cauliflower and broccoli that are planted in the fall. In many areas it is feared that the soil is too difficult to dig and the seeds will not survive in dry soil.

The last time the UK had a drought was in 2018, but the rains came just in time to save most crops. But this year the Met Office is predicting several months of dry, hot weather.

Farmers could choose to sacrifice some crops to fully irrigate others, Professor Knox says. Harvesting enough water in autumn and winter will also be crucial to stop the effects of the drought from spreading by 2023.

But in the long term scientists warn that parts of England, particularly the south east, will become much drier due to climate change.

Farmers are indeed adapting and some have changed the crops they grow, but the unpredictability of the UK weather makes it dangerous.

Alastair Chisholm of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management says that in the long term, adaptations to agricultural techniques such as regenerative agriculture that helps the soil store water, as well as investing in storage for winter rains, can be solutions.

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