Uncontrolled global climate change is making it more difficult to successfully and sufficiently cultivate the staple crops that the UK has historically fed on. This was highlighted by the unprecedented heatwave that unfolded across Europe in the summer of 2022, with the UK recording its highest ever temperature in mid-July. As the UK becomes less hospitable for its crops, there will be a profound effect on food supplies, leading to greater food insecurity, soaring prices and devastating inflation.
A diverse response to a growing threat
While recent events such as the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, both of which had similar effects on food security, are more difficult to predict, climate predictions are precise, foreboding and widely available. The whole agriculture sector must respond now and mitigate the impact of climate breakdown on food supply. While genetically editing drought-resistant crops is one mitigating mechanism already in place, another vital precaution both policymakers and industry leaders should take is diversifying the types of crops grown in the UK.
Diversification has started to take root already, with both family and industrial-scale farms transitioning to cultivate warm-climate crops. For example, British vineyards are now able to grow grapes previously unique to Southern Europe. This not only gives the British wine sector the ability to cope with rising temperatures but also reduces the UK’s need to import so much Southern European wine. Similarly, Otter Farm in Devon has found a niche cultivating crops that have historically been imported, including pecan nuts, Japanese wineberries and Szechuan peppers.
Remembering forgotten foods
This route of diversification cannot, however, counterbalance the unpredictable and extreme weather patterns that accompany global warming. A potentially more appropriate way to fortify British agriculture is investing in so-called ‘forgotten foods’, specifically, crop wild relatives (CWRs). These are the wild ‘cousins’ of the domesticated plants that we already grow for food. Examples include wild chives, wild asparagus, least lettuce, and sea carrot.
The key benefit of transitioning to CWRs from traditional staple crops is that they have always had to survive entirely without cultivation and are much ‘hardier’ and able to thrive in unfavourable agroecological conditions. Not only will CWRs be able to cope with rising overall temperatures, but they will also be far less affected than staple crops by unusual weather patterns. Growing CWRs alongside staple crops generates much-needed genetic diversity within crop portfolios, ensuring the agricultural industry will be able to support a more stable and secure supply of produce, preventing food insecurity and soaring prices.
Transitioning to cultivating CWRs may have another advantage over a transition to warm-climate crops in that it will require fewer up-front fixed costs. These CWRs will be able to thrive in soil and water conditions similar to those of the staple crop—only with less maintenance. Farmers will not have to make many drastic (and therefore costly) structural changes, again keeping prices down.
A further incentive for the agricultural sector to invest in CWRs is that they will be able to maintain and satisfy the strong demand for staple crops while also adding enough variety to domestic produce that consumers may shift away from demanding so many imports.
Preserving the past to fortify the future
Crop wild relatives are classed as a ‘forgotten food’, as they have long been neglected not only by the agriculture industry but by ecology and conservation efforts. They have been insufficiently protected from harmful factors such as invasive species and changing land use, which could have—and in many cases has—resulted in their extinction and the permanent loss of their genetic diversity. In the years since 2011, however, there has been a drive by the Global Crop Diversity Trust to conserve them using genebanks, whereby the species of CWRs deemed most important (or at-risk) are collected, properly catalogued and their seeds conserved. As a result of this, and other projects like it, knowledge and awareness of the importance of crop wild relatives has increased dramatically and should continue to do so over the coming years. While this historical neglect—combined with the allure of monoculture farming—means it may be several years before CWRs are truly integrated into the agriculture sector, there has been a marked shift in conservation attitudes toward them. As awareness grows, alongside that of the vulnerability of our food security to extreme weather and supply chain issues, it seems that cultivating crop wild relatives may comprise an important part of the agriculture industry’s climate response.