UK farmers are struggling with one of the lowest potato harvests on record after an autumn of heavy rain, raising fears about supplies for this year’s Christmas dinners.
Experts are warning that supermarkets could be forced to turn to imports from as far afield as Egypt to fill potential gaps on shelves, pushing up the environmental impact of the festive meal.
Fred Searle, the magazine editor of the Fresh Produce Journal, said potato planting had reduced significantly and the sector was “looking at the lowest UK crop on record this season”, with an estimate that about “4.1m tonnes of potatoes would be harvested, 2m less than five or six years ago”.
As well as the recent rain, Searle blamed the smaller harvest on businesses “dropping out of the sector due to cost pressures” exacerbated by years of erratic weather.
“One producer said that in the last six years, there have been extreme weather events that have affected potato production,” Searle added. “If you cannot deliver a crop, then you cannot get the full returns on it.”
This week a report from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit thinktank blamed the global climate emergency for helping to drive British households’ food bills up by more than £600 over the past two years.
Searle said climate change was an important issue affecting domestic vegetable production and leading to more imported goods.
Searle said the poor UK potato crop could lead to “some gaps on shelves and generally tighter supply because of wet weather … I cannot say there will be no potatoes but there might be more imports to make up for the shortfall.”
It is rare for the UK to import potatoes, but if shortages drive up prices then suppliers are likely to look to Israel and Egypt for produce.
The jump in farmers’ costs – particularly the higher price of fertiliser, driven by the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis, and higher labour bills – has also led to fewer being “planted to begin with”, he said.
Crops of broccoli and cauliflower, which feature on many Christmas dinner tables, have also been hit by the poor weather.
“When the weather is wet it is not possible to harvest potatoes, or brassicas such as cauliflower and broccoli,” Searle said. “Some of the main broccoli producers in the UK have said there will be a shortage at Christmas.” Any brassica imports tend to come from Spain and France.
However, the picture looks a little better for other festive root veg this December. Guy Poskitt, who farms carrots and parsnips in East Yorkshire, said a lot of their vegetables had gone rotten from the rain but any shortages were likely to hit next year in the spring.
“I am not sure if it will impact supply; it will tighten supply – there is no doubt about that. A lot depends on the frost in the next few weeks,” Poskitt added.
Poskitt said challenges with growing were becoming more normal because of the “extremes of weather” we now face. He said: “As an industry we have to learn to manage that, and the only real way to do that is to grow plenty, which means customers should pay for growing extra to make sure more is available.”
Martin Emmett, of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “The recent poor weather, flooding and heavy rain have made harvesting some crops, such as potatoes, a particular challenge as some land became waterlogged or flooded.
“We have no expectations of shortages currently but it remains important that we make the best of what’s available, with supermarkets offering flexibility to growers when it comes to crop specification.”