UK's eighth wettest winter on record: How will this affect food production?

Food manufacturers are already under immense pressure, coming from factors including rising energy costs and regulatory changes – such as the implementation of EUDR​. Now the powerful effects of climate change are beginning to be felt by food manufacturers across the globe as extreme weather events put food security in jeopardy.

Extreme weather events affecting food production

If you live in the UK, then you’ll be all too aware that recent months have been well damp, to say the least. In fact, the winter of 2023 into 2024 has been confirmed as the eighth wettest winter on record, causing widespread flooding across the country, including farmland, with wheat, barley and vegetable farmers reporting losses to floodwaters.

Why do some trees need a heavy frost?

Certain types of trees require a frost to provide what is referred to as ‘chill hours’. Chill hours are the number of cold hours or days that a deciduous fruit or nut tree requires for flowering and fruit production each year. Every fruit tree variety has its own specific number of ‘chill’ hours required to produce fruit. Some fruit trees need as few as 100 hours while others need over 1000 hours.

“Since the end of last year, we have seen hundreds of farms across the country face the devastation of flooding and the huge financial stress and misery that brings. Some farms in Lincolnshire have been under water since last October and that is completely unacceptable,” Tom Bradshaw, president of the National Farmers Union, told FoodNavigator.

In addition to being one of the wettest winters on record, the Met Office has confirmed that February 2024 was the warmest February on record for England and Wales, with an average temperature of 7.5 degrees Celsius recorded in England and an average of 6.9 degrees Celsius recorded in Wales. And the UK as a whole saw its second warmest February ever recorded.

“February has perhaps been the quietest month of the winter, without any further named storms, whereas Gerrit in December and Henk and Isha in January all caused significant weather impacts,” explained Mike Kendon, senior scientist at the Met Office. “Despite a cold spell in the north in the first half of the month, the main theme of February is how persistently mild and wet it has been.”

Fewer hard frosts are impacting the growth of fruit trees, including apples and pears, which rely upon heavy frosts as an essential part of their growth cycle.

UK’s eighth wettest winter on record: How will this affect food production? GettyImages/Steve Bateman

Extreme weather is here to stay

The trend for wetter winters does unfortunately appear to be here to stay.

“Climate projections indicate that on average, winters will continue to become wetter, and summers drier, though natural variability will mean we will continue to see individual years that don’t follow this trend,” said a spokesperson for the Met Office. “As our atmosphere warms it can hold more moisture, roughly 7% more per 1 degree Celsius of warming. This brings a risk of increased frequency and longevity of heavy rainfall events in the future, particularly during winter, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.”

Additionally, temperature extremes of hot and cold conditions are set to continue, with a study by UCAR Center for Scientific Education reporting that, “climate models predict that earth’s global average temperature will rise an additional 4 degrees Celsius during the 21st Century if greenhouse gas levels continue to rise at present levels.”

What is causing these extreme weather events?

Though some weather events are anomalies, such as the UK’s much talked about ‘Great Storm’ of 1987, the overarching trend towards extreme weather events is attributed to climate change.

What are the primary causes of climate change?

  • Burning fossil fuels:​ The burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, gas, and coal, releases carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere, causing the earth to heat up.
  • Deforestation: ​Trees take in carbon dioxide for use in photosynthesis, so the cutting down of trees removes this vital process. Additionally, the carbon dioxide, which is stored within the trees is released back into the atmosphere if the wood is burned.
  • Agriculture: ​Planting crops and rearing animals releases multiple different types of greenhouse gases, including methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fertilisers, into the atmosphere.

What help is available for farmers?

In light of the extreme weather conditions, it’s important to not only take action against climate change, but also to assist farmers in protecting their farms from extreme weather events This will help to protect the livelihoods of farmers and help to secure the future of food production.

“Heavy rainfall this winter has affected communities across the North of England, with the Ouse catchment and Yorkshire seeing one of the wettest Decembers since records started over 150 years ago,” said flooding minister Robbie Moore. “Visiting farmers in Yorkshire, I saw first-hand the challenges they have faced, and it was good to hear more about solutions for preventing agricultural flooding. We know there is more to do to ensure the region is more resilient to these events and that’s why since 2015 the Government has invested £529 million [in] flood defences.”

Farmers across the UK could also be could also be eligible for government grants up to the value of £25,000, through the Farming Recovery Fund, in direct response to the flood damage caused by Storm Henk

However, the National Farmers Union (NFU) is demanding more than just financial aid, they want solutions and has been lobbying for the government, demanding it recognise the strategic importance of domestic food production and deliver solutions to mitigate the impact of flooding on farmland.

Wettest winter 3 - GettyImages-hmproudlove

UK’s eighth wettest winter on record: How will this affect food production? GettyImages/hmproudlove

“More than 50% of our best productive farmland is situated in low-lying areas and if we’re serious about our domestic food security and producing more here, then we have to maintain these river systems which have been neglected for decades,” explained NFU’s Bradshaw. “There needs to be political will to provide more funding to the Environment Agency, so it can deliver a proactive plan of management and re-investment in the watercourses and flood defences it is responsible for, to ensure British farmers and growers can continue producing climate-friendly food.”

Following Storm Babet in October 2023, the NFU sent a letter to Westminster, signed by more than 1,750 people, urging all political parties to outline their plans to protect farming businesses from flooding.

“45,000 properties are already protected thanks to our flood defences, and I would like to pay tribute to the work of Environment Agency teams, first responders, and others, said Steve Barclay, secretary for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). “For those who have sadly been affected, our Property Flood Resilience Repair Grant Scheme will soon be open to help residents protect their property in the future, while our Farming Recovery Fund will support farmers who have suffered damage as they work to put food on our tables.”