‘There’s no sign of any rain coming to us’: British farmers warn extreme weather risks food supplies
In a typical year, Rodger Hobson can expect to produce around 35,000 tons of carrots on his 880-acre farm in Yorkshire in northern England. But 2022 has been anything but typical.
As an extreme heatwave and subsequent drought have wreaked havoc on European agricultural cycles, large swathes of Hobson’s crop have blackened and died. He now expects a 30% shortfall in yields this year.
“I’ve been farming crops for 30 years and this is equally the worst drought I’ve seen,” Hobson told CNBC.
A prior dry spell four years ago — then dubbed the worst in a generation — was comparably bad, he said. Only this time record temperatures of 5 degrees Celsius above 2018’s highs are making matters worse.
“We put 2018 as a once-in-a-lifetime drought, but here we are again,” he said.
The hot, dry conditions are the latest in an onslaught of challenges plaguing farmers and their crops this year, with market analysts warning that smaller harvests could lead to higher grocery prices and potential food shortages.
Britain’s long, hot summer devastates food crops
The U.K. officially entered a state of drought across much of southern, central and eastern England — and later, Yorkshire — earlier this month.
It follows the country’s driest July since 1935, during which temperatures hit 40.3 degrees Celsius (104.5 degrees Fahrenheit), exacerbating issues for a sector already feeling the heat from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, increased fertilizer prices and worker shortages.
The drought represents a greater risk of crop failure, with reduced water supplies making it harder for farmers to irrigate fruit and vegetable crops and tend to the soil on which other grains are sown.
“There’s no sign of any rain coming to us,” said Hobson. As of the third week of August, Yorkshire had received six millimeters of rain, well below the month’s 70-millimeter average.
Britain is not used to such extreme weather conditions, with much of its produce — predominantly, large open-field vegetables — dependent on the country’s temperate, maritime climate.
That is causing concern for farmers like Hobson, chairman of the British Carrot Growers’ Association, whose farm produces around 4% of the U.K’s carrot crop and supplies many domestic food retailers.
“A carrot, it just loves the British climate. It’s happy in temperatures between 18 and 22 degrees [Celsius]; plenty of rainfall. The archetypal English summer, basically,” Hobson said. “Anything above 30 degrees, they shrivel up and die. And that’s what we’ve seen.”
Such conditions are having knock-on effects well beyond the humble orange vegetable. Harvests of other crops, including onions, sugar beet, apples and hops, are forecast to fall by between 10% and 50%, according to reports from the U.K.’s Environmental Agency. As much as half of this summer’s potato crop is set to fail.
Smaller harvests, in turn, will likely translate into higher prices for consumers at the supermarket, said Alice Witchalls, analyst at market research company Mintec.
“The critical development period for potatoes is August, and that crop is very water dependent. We could expect production to fall, with some growers reporting a decline of up to 40% for potatoes. That could then pass onto prices,” Witchalls told CNBC.
A spokesperson for Tesco, one of the U.K.’s leading supermarkets, said it has not yet experienced availability issues across its fruit and vegetable lines, but it is working with growers to “understand the impact of the warm weather.”
Europe’s worst drought in 500 years
In other circumstances, Europe might be relied upon to fulfill agricultural shortfalls. But the continent, too, has been hammered by a relentless summer of hot, dry weather, sparking wildfires and droughts across large swathes of land.
The European Commission said last week that Europe is currently witnessing its worst drought in 500 years, with 47% of the region in “warning” status. It added that conditions are intensifying in 15 countries, including Germany, France and the U.K., with droughts expected to last into at least November along the Mediterranean.
European Union harvest forecasts are now down 16% for grain maize, 15% for soybeans and 12% for sunflowers compared with its average for the previous five years.
Agricultural economists say that has implications not only for food production but also for the dairy and livestock farmers who rely on such items to rear their animals.
“If animals and pastures are suffering because of weather, then it will impact the animals and reduce production of dairy, butter, milk,” said Paul Hughes, chief agricultural economist and director of research, agribusiness at S&P Global Commodity Insights.
Mission critical for livestock and dairy farmers
Karl Franklin, a sheep farmer based in Oxfordshire, southeast England, said the situation is now reaching mission critical.
It will soon be time to flush his approximately 90 ewes — a process of increasing the nutrient intake of a flock prior to breeding — but a lack of grass could result in a depleted lambing season.
“If the ewes don’t get flushed well enough, I could be as low as down to 120%, which could mean fewer lambs,” Franklin told CNBC, saying he may have to resort to costly hard feed. The usual reproductive rate for ewes is 180% to 200%, meaning approximately two lambs for every ewe.
Agricultural industry bodies are now calling for more support for farmers, particularly as it pertains to how governments manage extreme weather conditions and national food security.
“The situation on the ground continues to be hugely challenging across all farming sectors. Many farmers are facing serious impacts ranging from running out of irrigation water to not having enough grass and having to use winter feed,” Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the U.K.’s National Farmers’ Union, said.
“It highlights the urgent need to underwrite our food security and for government and its agencies to better plan for and manage the nation’s water resources; prioritizing water for food production alongside environmental protection,” he said.
‘The next few weeks will be crucial’
Climate scientists have been warning for years that such heatwaves and droughts will become more common as a result of climate change.
The planet has warmed by about 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, and leading scientists have concluded that the current heatwave would have been “almost impossible” without human-induced climate change.
That is causing some farmers to consider the long-term prospects of their business and the wider industry.
“Growing vegetables has become much less attractive,” Hobson said. “It’s making us all rethink what we do.”
As for the coming harvest, analysts say the next few weeks will be vital for food supply chains and, ultimately, prices. A burst of wet weather could go some way in recovering certain crops and allowing for more planting for next year.
“Within the fruit and veg industry, the next few weeks will be crucial. If there is a lot of rainfall, it could boost production,” Mintec’s Witchalls said.
For many, it will be an agonizing wait.
“It’s what the next few months have in store that we’ll be watching closely,” Franklin said.