An agricultural revolution has been quietly gaining momentum in the fields of southern England with climate change meaning apricots, peaches and all manner of exotic crops are springing up in a way unimaginable just a generation ago.
Britain’s first ever crop of sweet, seedless “table” grapes will hit Asda’s shelves this autumn, as global warming adds another exotic fruit to the nation’s tables. It’s the latest in a growing list of now regular crops that also includes tea, sunflowers, sweet potatoes, water melons and walnuts.
Existing crops, such as strawberries, raspberries, sugar beet and asparagus, have also flourished – and not just in the south – as global warming pushes up the temperature and extends the growing season. The trend is set to keep on improving yields across a wide variety of crops in the UK and much of Northern Europe in the coming decades.
But the improving prospects for British farming bring a huge responsibility to help feed those parts of the world where global warming will destroy agriculture, says Professor Ian Crute, one of the country’s leading crop experts.
“Since 2000 we’ve seen some very clear signs that climate change is already changing agriculture in this country. And it’s highly likely that this will be good for our arable crop production in the future,” said Professor Crute, a former director of Rothamsted Research, the world’s oldest agricultural research centre.
“We have an opportunity for ourselves in the temperate regions to grow more food. But we also have an obligation to grow even more, to help feed those parts of the world where it will become increasingly difficult to produce food reliably. If we don’t, then people are going to be marching north,” added Professor Crute, a board director of the farmer’s official research body, the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.
The southern hemisphere has traditionally fed the north. But in the future the north will need to feed the south, as large swathes of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, central and south America and Australia look set to be ruined, he says. The changes that climate change will inflict on farming all over the world this century will dramatically redraw the global agricultural map, says Professor Chris Elliott, a food expert who led the Government’s inquiry into the horsemeat crisis.
Some cases countries will need to switch the crops they produce as changes in temperature and rainfall patterns make some traditional cereals, fruits and vegetables unviable while others become possible. This is already happening in parts of central America, where soaring temperatures are forcing farmers to switch from coffee to cocoa.
In other regions, farming will simply become impossible as rising temperatures, droughts and floods destroy crops, while in other areas, such as Britain, the agricultural prospects will improve, Professor Elliott says.
Very little is known about how the agricultural map is going to be transformed in the coming decades as the climate changes, or what needs to be done on a global scale to ensure the world is fed, he added. He is working on a project to determine which crops in a given area are threatened by global warming, what could be grown in their place and where those crops that have been replaced could be grown instead.
With global warming set to revolutionise the world’s farming industry for decades to come, it’s unlikely to be long before British-grown grapes are the norm and some new development is in the offing – such as tomatoes grown without the need for greenhouses, a development predicted for the 2030s.