Climate change is affecting what foods can be grown in the UK: This farmer is adapting

Guy Singh-Watson in Devon.
Guy Singh-Watson in Devon.   -   Copyright  Joanna Furniss/Joanna Furniss
By Joshua Askew

Climate change is drastically impacting agriculture.

Rising temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns and longer dry spells are altering what crops Europe can grow and where it can grow them.

In England, a country famed for its wet, dreary landscapes, farmers are now choosing to grow one surprising food due to soaring temperatures: nuts.

Inspired by a trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, where he saw some interesting “agro-ecological combinations”, Guy Singh-Watson is one of these trailblazers.

In 2020, he planted 50 sprawling acres of walnut and hazelnut trees on his farm in the picturesque county of Devon, southwest England.

Speaking to Euronews, Singh-Watson says, “the idea behind the project was to try and produce food with essentially a lower impact on the environment and soil life while trying to enhance biodiversity.”

Nuts can now be grown in the UK

Compared to warmer parts of the world, relatively few edible nuts grow in England because of its cold, rainy climate.

Hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts – brought over by the Romans – and walnuts are the main three, though they mostly grow in the wild or are used solely as a source of wood.

But this is no longer the case because of climate change, which baked the country in unprecedented temperatures of 40°C last year.

“There’s very little production in this country as the trees don't yield as much, but with the impact of climate change, that’s probably going to change,” Guy tells Euronews.

“We are on the northern fringe of viability, but if the predictions go right we are going to be pretty much in the optimal conditions”.

Joanna Furniss/Joanna Furniss
Guy Singh-Watson.Joanna Furniss/Joanna Furniss

“Planning now seems like a good thing to do,” he explains.

While climate change is allowing new foods to be grown, such as nuts and grapes for sparkling wine, it has at the same time devastated conventional crops. English farmers reported widespread crop failures during last year’s drought.

In what he called an “experimental” project, the founder of the vegetable box company Riverford Organic Farmers planted some 5,000 trees into pastures where cattle and sheep are currently grazing, though the potential is much, much larger.

The purpose of this is to not only enrich the biodiversity of his farm, with more crops and animals, but improve soil health as the roots of the trees will help prevent harmful erosion from rainfall.

‘Massive environmental benefit’

Bigger boons are promised in food production, however.

A long time is needed before Guy’s forests will deliver the goods -walnut trees take around five years to first fruit. But, once they do, they’ll provide a steady yearly crop for up to a century.

This makes nuts a more reliable food source, especially given that the environment is becoming increasingly erratic with climate change, explains Guy.

“The climate is becoming much more unpredictable,” he says.

“Perennial crops [like walnuts] are much better suited for dealing with unpredictable variations in the weather than ones planted annually.”

Joanna Furniss/Joanna Furniss
Guy Singh-Watson's farm is in Devon.Joanna Furniss/Joanna Furniss

“These are big trees with deep roots that are going to be able to withstand periods of intense rainfall or drought much better than a crop of lettuces.”

Nuts are also a rich source of protein that can be used as a substitute for more carbon-intensive alternatives such as beef and lamb.

One kilogram of lamb produces 39 kilograms of CO2, equivalent to driving 91 miles. Nuts produce just 2.3 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram, according to figures from the Environmental Working Group.

The trees will also absorb carbon as they grow and live but there are some concerns.

Growing nuts is a risky decision

Though trailblazing, Guy’s project is still a very risky venture, especially if production cannot be made profitable.

“I want this to be a commercial thing,” he tells Euronews. “When it comes to harvesting, processing and selling you really do need a reasonable scale of production and to mechanise.”

“I am not interested in picking them up by hand”.

Ultimately, he points out, deeper problems with farming and how the market works put more environmentally-friendly products at a disadvantage.

“The question is: Can it be done in an economically viable way in a world where farmers aren't charged for the degenerative impacts [of their practices], such as using agrichemicals or releasing carbon emissions?”

“If all those things were factored in, I am sure there's no doubt that our system would be economically very profitable in comparison”.