Climate change has made UK chips ‘an inch smaller’ on average

Sometimes the complexity of global warming and impacts on local weather patterns must be packaged as stories that people can relate to or can experience first-hand in thier lives. 

Today the UK news is full of reports that during 2018, extreme and unpredictable weather patterns driven by climate change (a heatwave and drought) had a significant impact on potato harvests, reducing potato yields by 20% (from a report by the Climate Coalition of environmental and social groups) and resulted in smaller and misshapen potatoes – hence our chips have been 1 inch smaller this year! 

Shock horror … but a story that neatly fits into the saying that ‘today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers”.

Last year’s weather with its enjoyable but extreme summer – which the UK Met Office said was made 30 times more likely by climate change – also hit other UK crops (carrots, brassicas, onions, etc) with growers reporting yields down 25-40%. The dry weather also caused forage problems for many livestock farmers.  The prediction is that future yields of UK fruit and vegetables, from the humble potato to expectations that the UK will become the next great champagne region of the world, could increasingly be hit by extreme weather patterns such as longer-lasting and more intense heatwaves, downpours and flooding.

Through events such as these, future impacts of climate change on food supplies and supply chains are starting to make their impression on growers and marketers, not as extreme events but as a business reality. More than half of UK farmers now say they have been affected by severe flooding or storms in the past decade, with future cyclonic rainfall patters likely to bring further records in rainfall.  Few growers have started to consider the investments or changes in agricultual practice required to mitigate these changes in thier businesses, as the events and the scenarios they represent are too unpredictable – do you switch crops, invest in a new farm reservoir or upgrade flood defences when the occurrence and scale of risk cannot be quantified easily in monetary terms.  A lot of growers and farmers will also have come through 2017 with reduced incomes and are thus badly positioned to take immediate action.  What happens if the next two to three years follow similar weather patterns? Will they be financially able to adapt to the weather and calls by their own National Farmers Union to become net zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2040?

By 2050, climate projections indicate that 75% of UK land used in potato cropping will have declined in productivity, many of these on black peaty soils which are at risk of being lost through heavy agricultural production.  Raising the risk that chips will lose their position as the cheap, staple food so beloved on Friday and Saturday nights and become a delicacy!

Developing climate change adaption strategies for agriculture is in all our interests, as we need now to consider in depth the benefits of home-grown seasonal foods, the adverse carbon footprint of crop production and the considerable carbon mileage of UK and imported crops to market.  Can we continue to fly green beans halfway across the world only for 30% of it to be wasted or thrown away? 

Farmers cannot face this challenge alone as it will need significant changes in UK agriculture policy, its financing and management. Ultimately we all have a vested interest in achieving a successful outcome, it cannot be left to the marketplace alone to muddle through, it is a partnership between the agricultural industry, food manufacturers, retailers and the public.

Donald Trump take note, Thomas Jefferson had “potatoes served in the French manner” during his time in the White House in 1802.  Will the climate change revolution finally gain unstoppable momentum in the US when your heartland voters in Ohio, Arkansas and Oklahoma finally link climate change reality to the size of their French fries during a visit to McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s or Arby’s. 

Will they be joined by other nations concerned about the reduction in size of their pommes frites (French), “frieten” (Dutch), slab chips (RSA), Salchippas (Peru), Chipsi mayai (Tanzania) and 炸/马铃薯条 in China.  I hope so.

Sometimes it takes simple stories to help us change our cultural perceptions and start to consider the global picture. To make progress on this issue are any other nation measuring the average length of their fried potato – could I suggest the Leading Green Chip Index as a future global sustainability marker!  

At Leading Green, our approach to sustainability in business consulting encourages our clients to look closely at their own internal leadership strengths and goals.  Helping them adopt an inquisitive state of mind and supporting them in how sustainability can support their long-term business strategy.

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