An uneven distribution of sloes across England this autumn has been noted, not least among readers on the Telegraph’s letters page. Surrey and West Sussex are bereft, it would seem, with the paucity of their favourite gin infusion; Cumbria and the east Midlands are, anecdotally, knee deep in them.
The problem stems from the summer drought. We have seen the driest July since 1935, and an official drought remains in place in eight of 14 areas in England. Scientists have warned that it could last well into 2023. Although there has been recent heavy rainfall, it has not been enough to restore reservoirs and groundwater levels.
Whatever the weather, the damage is done, says Tim Hess, a professor of water and food systems at Cranfield University. “When it starts to rain, it doesn’t mean the effect of the drought is over,” he says. “We will see the impacts of this summer over the winter and into next spring, irrespective of the weather.”
Sloes won’t be the only casualty, however – the forecast for autumn and winter is distinctly gloomy. Drought has struck at a time when farmers are already grappling with labour shortages, skyrocketing electricity and fuel costs, and the high price of fertiliser.
Recent data from the National Farmers Union (NFU) found that around £60 million worth of food has been wasted on farms this year due to labour shortages. The NFU said this was a “travesty” as families struggle and the cost of living crisis bites.
Here are six foods we should be most concerned about – and a couple that are benefiting from the hot summer...
1. Potatoes and root veg
Half of the UK’s potato crop isn’t irrigated so is particularly impacted by a lack of rainfall. A meeting of the National Drought Group (which is attended by Government ministers, water industry officials, farmers and green groups) was told recently that half of potato, carrot, and apple yields could be lost.
Potatoes will be smaller this year with lower quality skin and expect carrots and parsnips to be more misshapen or smaller than usual too. The NFU has called on consumers to embrace “wonky” veg.
“If you have to irrigate earlier in the season, as happened this year, you end up using your stored water and having to ration it – so we’ll have smaller potatoes, carrots and parsnips as we get into winter,” says Prof Jim Monaghan, director of the fresh crop research centre at Harper Adams University.
“We’re already seeing big reductions in the quality and size of the fruit and veg – I was in the supermarket yesterday and the cauliflowers were about half the size I’d expect,” says Monaghan. What will become of Christmas dinner?
Farmers are now looking at how to adjust to the increased frequency of hot spells. Prof Monaghan is working on a project screening seeds from old varieties of lettuces, carrots and onions, to find varieties that are more drought resilient.
“Every crop needs water,” says Monaghan. “But when you look at something like lettuce, that’s 95 per cent water, so it will be more affected,” he says. “You want crispy, fresh lettuce, not limp, floppy leaves. A lack of water can also make fresh produce less tasty, he adds – fresh, juicy tomatoes, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables need a high water content.
3. Brassicas and beans
Cabbage, cauliflower and kale are set to be smaller and in shorter supply this year, according to the National Drought Group.
Martin Lines, a third-generation arable farmer in Cambridgeshire, who farms 1,400 acres of wheat, spring barley, winter and spring beans and oilseed rape, says drought has had a devastating effect. “The spring beans we planted earlier this year are much smaller, and yield is down 60 per cent,” he says. “I’m unsure they’re of good enough quality to make the human market, so they’ll probably be sold for animal feed.”
Beef is set to become more expensive, as drought has a serious impact on dairy and livestock farmers. On Lines’ farm, the sheep have been feeding on hay reserved for winter because there hasn’t been enough grass due to this summer's dry conditions. “If the weather doesn’t break at a steady pace going forward, we’re going to have knock-on effects for next year,” he warns.
5. Beer and bread
The British Growers Association (BGA) has warned that decreased hop yields will push up the price of a pint, while Lines says his wheat yield has been hit too.
“Our wheat is usually sold for bread and biscuits, but what we’ve grown this year has lower protein because of a lack of rainfall, so it might not even make the milling specification for bread,” he says. He is unable to plant “because there’s no moisture in the ground”.
A poor hops yield could make beer more expensive, says the BGA.
Tom Bradshaw, an arable farmer and deputy president of the NFU, warns that milk production is down. “Partly because cows haven’t had fresh grass, but also just because of the heat stress on livestock. 25-plus degrees just isn’t their natural climate,” he says.
Farmers are also impacted by the lack of grass and more expensive feed.
...but it’s not all bad news – here are some heatwave winners
One unexpected winner when it comes to rising temperatures is wine. A study in the viticulture science journal OENO One found that, due to climate change, parts of southern England may soon be able to grow pinot noir grapes for red wine.
Apricots, plums and cherries are on the menu for UK growers. While the drought has negatively impacted other fruits, British stone fruits were sweetened by the heatwave.