British chips shrink by an inch as climate change slashes potato yields

Josh Gabbatiss

Britain’s chips are under threat as climate change triggers unpredictable weather and brings sweeping changes to the nation’s fruit and vegetable growers.

The potato snack was left an inch (2.5cm) shorter on average in 2018 after extreme heatwaves robbed them of much-needed water over the summer months.

This was one of the many changes catalogued in a new analysis by the Climate Coalition network and scientists at the University of Leeds.

They explored how rising global temperatures and associated extremes are likely to impact crop production and make British-grown produce harder to find.

Analysis conducted in the wake of last summer’s heatwaves by the Met Office found the event was made 30 times more likely by climate change.

Potato yields were slashed by a fifth in England and Wales in 2018, while carrot production fell by up to 30 per cent and onions by 40 per cent.

At the other end of the weather spectrum, more than half of UK farmers reported being affected by severe flooding or storms over the past 10 years.

The intensity of winter rainfall has gradually been creeping up in recent decades, as the changing climate tampers with weather systems and increases the chances of major downpours.

There are also concerns that milder winters and warmer summers will bring new pests and diseases to British shores.

“Farmers and growers are used to dealing with fluctuations in the weather but if we have two or three extreme years in a row it has the potential to put growers out of business,” said Lee Abbey, head of horticulture at the National Farmers Union (NFU).

Richard Thompson, a potato grower from Staffordshire, said he would be reducing the space he devoted to potato production after a disappointing year.

“I can’t afford to take the risk of planting more potatoes,” he said.

At current rates, the amount of land that is well-suited to growing potatoes could decline by three quarters by the middle of the century, according to projections.

Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate change at coalition member WWF, said: “To be able to enjoy our mash, chips or jackets for years to come, we need to take measures to tackle climate change urgently.”

“If we don’t, then the impact on both growers and consumers is just one of the ways our lives will change in a world of climate breakdown.”

Farmers are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change, with the NFU announcing at a recent conference that UK agriculture would aim to be carbon neutral by 2040.

The government has pledged to reward farmers who help cut emissions and protect the environment under its new agriculture scheme.

“High-quality, locally-grown fruit and veg are a crucial component of British diets,” said environment secretary Michael Gove.

“Yet, as we saw with last year’s drought, this nutritious food, and the livelihoods of the hard-working farmers who grow it, are increasingly threatened by more extreme weather and increased pests and diseases as a result of climate change.”

However, while the UK has achieved impressive cuts of around two fifths of its greenhouse gas emissions since 1990s, it is current not on track to meet its future targets as sectors such as transport continue to lag behind.