Food

'We're futureproofing the potato': How climate change is causing turmoil for your Christmas dinner

Changing weather is making it harder to put food on the table. We meet the British innovators making sure your Christmas favourites are on shelves

Every year, whether it’s before or after the presents, Brits sit down on 25 December and tuck into Christmas dinner.

A ritual feast which can be traced back some 12,000 years, the meal now has a well-worn feel. Turkey, roast potatoes, sprouts, stuffing, pigs in blankets and the rest of the gluttonous choir combine to sing a song of comfort and tradition. But its future is under threat, thanks to the climate crisis.

Food production is responsible for about a third of humanity’s greenhouse emissions. In turn, a changing climate makes it harder to “ensure the resilience of the UK’s food supply”, the Climate Change Committee, which advises the UK government, has warned. Extreme weather events damage crops, and can also harm farming infrastructure. The amount of arable farmland – used to grow crops – in the UK is likely to fall in the long-run, the government’s department for environment, food, and agriculture has predicted. This isn’t some far-off problem, either. We’re already seeing the effects. Unusual weather patterns, spurred by climate change, reduced the UK’s wheat yields by 17% in 2020.

Food poverty is the inevitable consequence. If production becomes harder, and the products more scarce, prices will rise. Those with barely enough to live on will find plates and fridges become harder to fill.

As Christmas approaches, the peril is acute. Most major supermarkets source the big staples from UK farms and fields. And it’s all riding on the run-up to the festive period.

Among this changing landscape, there’s a story of adaptation. From potato scientists to turkey farmers, danger is breeding innovation. Here’s how the climate crisis will change your Christmas dinner.

Rising temperatures are another problem stressed turkeys don’t need

As 9,000 day-old turkey chicks arrive at Rosamondford Farm in July, it’s unlikely they know what’s in store. In exactly six months, they’ll be fussed over by approximately 9,000 anxious amateur chefs, put on 9,000 serving plates, stuck with 9,000 carving forks, and chewed by 9,000 families.

Before that, though, they must contend with a changing climate. For Sam Slade and his family who began farming in Devon 60 years ago, it’s an added complication.

Slade and his family have been farming for generations. But the climate crisis is changing life. Image: Emily Davis Photography

“With hotter summers and the hotter weather we have, the birds don’t like the heat. If they get too hot they’ll stress, they’ll sweat and they’ll lose a lot of weight, and that’ll push up our food bill,” explains Slade.

After the chicks arrive in January, they’re reared inside for three months until they’re old enough to free range. Then, come 20 November, a week of killing begins. “It’s awful, it’s really hard work for us, it’s stressful,” says Slade.

Slade and his family then hang the turkeys up for 10-12 days to dry age them. On 13 December, the day after he speaks to The Big Issue, prep begins, with the birds butchered. This goes on until the 20th, and customers then pick up ready for Christmas on the 23rd.

Smaller turkeys means less income. The stress also adds to work on the farm, making the birds harder to pluck. It seeps through to the meat, too.

“You can definitely tell it throughout the meat as well, because it’s a lot tougher,” says Slade.

Climate change also affects costs indirectly. The price of buying the chicks has gone up in recent years, driven by rising cost of gas for incubators. Feed is becoming more expensive, too.

The risk of avian flu also changes as temperatures fluctuate. One wave can put a farm out of business. “You can’t do anything. If one bird catches it, then the whole flock is at risk, and they’ll have to be culled,” says Slade.

What does this mean for your Christmas dinner? Slade thinks turkey will remain a resilient fixture of the Christmas lunch, but that we may have to live with smaller birds going forward, as farmers are forced to adapt.

Of the seven varieties reared on Rosamondford Farm – which include names like Super Mini Special, Plumpies, and BBB – some cope better than others.

“Some strains go better than other strains in different climates,” says Slade, highlighting the lighter Roly Polys as an example. “As the climates start to shift, we’ll definitely have to start looking at that.”

British winemakers are getting better at imitating Champagne

Think wine, and you think France. But a changing climate is proving a boon for British winemakers. Viticulture is here to stay.

Warmer weather meant a record harvest this year for Forty Hall Vineyard, which puts its profits back into health and wellbeing programmes.

At the only commercial vineyard in London, 34 tonnes were picked from the vines. After two years being put through the traditional Champagne process, with a double fermentation, many of those grapes will end up in bottles, with corks popped on Christmas.

Traditionally, northern European grapes would have thrived in the UK. But since Forty Hall planted its first vines in 2009, head of operations Emma Lundie has noticed a change. Now, more familiar southern European grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are bountiful, while continental producers start to struggle. For those not familiar, those are the grapes used to make Champagne, even if British producers can’t call it that.

“It is an advantage. In southern Europe, some of the countries there are really struggling to produce. Hopefully we can take on some of that market,” says Lundie.

“We’ve seen a lot of change in terms of climate over these last few years.”

This wasn’t always the case. Within the next 20 years, we can expect to see a growing season typically experienced in the Champagne region. Taittinger, the French Champagne house, is even planning to open a winery in the UK, having purchased land in Kent.

“It works both ways. While it’s easy to assume that with global warming this might be a good thing, there’s a lot of rainfall. That isn’t good, necessarily, to the vines,” says Lundie.

When grapes flower at the end of summer, too much rain means less pollination and fewer grapes. As grapes ripen, a dry patch intensifies the flavours. But when the grapes are about to be harvested, a burst of rain can fatten them up. It’s a delicate process, made more complicated by the unpredictability of climate change.

“You’re always going to be at the whim of the weather, but I feel that’s becoming more extreme year by year. It’s hard to plan, but we’re adaptable.”

Domestic wine isn’t always cheaper, but its reputation is growing. With British vineyards primed to profit from changing weather, it’s a chance to reduce the air-miles on your Christmas table.

Pesky European ‘super-pest’ moths are coming for our Christmas dinner sprouts

Unless you’re a bit weird, Christmas is the only time you eat Brussels Sprouts. Typically grown in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, the bite-sized brassica is vulnerable as the climate changes.

Pests can destroy a harvest, leaving supermarket shelves sub-optimally empty as advent calendar doors get opened. In 2016, “super-pest” moths ravaged the UK’s harvest. Some growers lost 60% of their crop. 

The culprit was diamondback moths, come over from Europe to eat our sprouts. And as the climate changes, the UK becomes an increasingly attractive destination for the peckish pests.

Sprouts grow best in cool, but not freezing, temperatures, preferring between 10 and 24 Celsius. Volatility, in turn, puts them at risk. Extreme weather in 2022 meant sprouts were smaller that year.

Scientists are futureproofing the potato – but we might have to move beyond Maris Pipers for Christmas dinner

“We’re trying to futureproof the potato,” says Ingo Hein. When you discover the peril spuds face, it’s a relief somebody is.

Think roast potatoes, and you think Maris Pipers. It’s an enduring bit of brand loyalty, but not without foundation – the dryer content matter of Maris Pipers makes them crisp and fluff just the way we want.

Climate change is putting this in danger. Warmer weather is making potatoes, and specifically Maris Pipers, harder to grow. They’re a cold weather crop. As the UK gets hotter, the bedrock of any good Christmas dinner has an uncertain future.

Ingo Hein, working to save the future of the potato. Image: Ian Georgeson

That’s where Hein comes in. He’s the head of potato genetics at the James Hutton Institute, and his mission is to come up with new types of potatoes – cultivars, as he refers to them – which can survive the storm.

“If we want to stick to Maris Piper then it will be very difficult to grow this crop reliably,” Hein says.

Growing potatoes in a changing climate is a fraught business. A cold spell will freeze the ground. A wet spell will waterlog it. A dry summer needs irrigation. A wet summer needs fungicide. A wet autumn, and you’ll struggle to harvest.

The good news is that Hein and his team are dreaming up varieties to cope with each of these challenges. Whether it’s the Hutton Hero or the Carousel, there are crops which need less input, less maintenance, and can thrive as the climate changes.

“We’re trying to breed the next generation of potatoes that require less water, less nitrogen,” says Hein.

In the face of this, sticking to Maris Pipers will see farmers ploughing more and more resources in – trudging up and down the fields with fungicide after more frequent heavy rains, for example.

Harvesting tubers at the James Hutton Institute. Image: Ian Georgeson

“If they have a choice to grow something that requires less, and is cheaper to produce for them, they will be happy to switch, as long as they have a buyer for the product.”

Consumers may have to abandon brand loyalty. On the continent, brand names of potatoes are rarer. It’s one consumerist habit too far – spuds are merely grouped by their function, labelled roasting, salad, and so on.

“The problem is consumers and supermarkets, because if there’s no acceptance of new varieties coming through, then farmers can’t grow them because there’s no market for them,” says Hein.

“We’re wedded to a romantic idea, the old cultivars are the best and so on, but at the same time they’re actually denying progress.”

Still, even if we save our Christmas dinner by going potato-polyamorous, unpredictable climates will make life harder for farmers, regardless of whether they pick the perfect cultivar.

The message is this: Don’t be too fearful about your roasties – but be prepared to cast aside the Maris Piper.

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