Why we need to get used to unstable vegetables

Why we need to get used to unstable vegetables

crazy vegetables

crazy vegetables

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

Potatoes, onions, carrots, apples and Brussels sprouts are probably the most affected.

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

The National Farmers Union (NFU) wants supermarkets to accept more “flawless” products and be flexible with producers.

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

Your crops are “alive, but not growing or thriving.” The hot summer sun made her sweet corn delicious 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 stunted.

Sarah Green on her farm in Essex

Sarah Green has seen her summer products get smaller

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

Now they’ve turned pale blue, he says. They look leathery and tough, no longer crunchy and lush.

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

It’s too early to know how much of the UK’s production will die from the drought, but “crop quality” will certainly be affected, Jerry Knox, professor of agricultural water management at Cranfield University, told BBC News.

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

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

“Consumers have been conditioned to believe that a potato looks a certain way,” says Bradshaw. To reduce the risk of further price hikes during a cost-of-living crisis, “we need to be more relaxed about how we look,” he adds.

A representative for the British Retail Consortium (BRC) told BBC News that supermarkets already accept oddly shaped vegetables.

“Retailers understand that weather conditions have been a challenge and have taken steps to support their farmers. This includes expanding the odd sized/shape fruit and vegetable varieties when needed,” says Hannah Dougherty, BRC Food Policy Advisor.

In Essex, rain is all Sarah Green and her family talk about. This year, 107mm of rain is measured. Its annual average is 525 mm.

This dryness means that vegetables in the soil can’t get the moisture they need to keep growing, so they grow slower and don’t reach their normal 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 of the national crop is rain-fed, explains Professor Jerry Knox.

Harvesting the potatoes will be a challenge because it will likely be difficult to place the combine on hard ground, explains Sarah Green. It can form large clods that damage the crop or cut it into pieces.

Carrots, parsnips and onions will be affected similarly to potatoes, says Professor Knox.

By this time of summer, the “damage is done,” he says, and even significant rainfall isn’t enough to fix stressed potatoes.

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

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

Farmers may choose to sacrifice some crops in order to fully water others, says Professor Knox. Collecting enough water during the fall and winter will also be crucial to preventing the effects of the drought from spreading by 2023.

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

Farmers adapt and some have changed the crops they grow, but the unpredictability of the UK’s climate makes that risky.

Alastair Chisholm of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management says that in the long term, adjustments to farming techniques, such as regenerative agriculture, which helps soil store water, as well as investing in winter rainfall storage, could be solutions.

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