Soft fruit growers warned of threats that climate change presents to industry

Scientists are warning that climate change poses a serious threat to the UK strawberry industry after new research found that some growers - particularly those in Scotland - actually view it as more of an opportunity than the pressing concern it really is.

A number of soft fruit businesses, which together provide 40 per cent of the UK's strawberry output, were surveyed as part of the Government-funded study.

Results showed that growers consider the biggest present day threats to be labour issues (first), loss of chemicals due to policy changes (second), the threat posed by cheaper, imported fruit (third) and disease and pest pressure (fourth). Climate change was ranked 11th in a list of 14 threats.

The worst potential threat posed by climate change was thought to be extreme one-off events such as strong winds because of the financial impact of damage caused to polytunnels and other structures.

But University of Warwick School of Life Sciences' Eman Calleja, who conducted the study, told a Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) seminar that growers should be more concerned about climate change then they are because strawberry diseases will go hand in hand with warmer conditions brought on by climate change. The study found, for example, that cases of blackspot could increase ninefold by 2080.

This is likely to be compounded over coming years by greater restrictions surrounding the use of chemicals and a lack of research to identify new alternative fungicides and disease-resistant varieties.

But the study found that many businesses in the Scottish sector actually view climate change as a positive opportunity - bringing longer seasons, more sales and less competition from regions south of the border.

SAC plant pathologist and Fungicide Resistance Action Group chair Fiona Burnett also warned growers about the disease burden. "In Scotland, Botrytis and powdery mildew are already prevalent and are forecast to increase even under modest climate change scenarios," she explained. "Growers struggle to manage these even in our relatively cooler climate.

"These are both diseases with a high risk of fungicide resistance development and many fungicides are no longer effective. I agree with the Warwick study's assessment that more research and development in this sector is needed to develop better control strategies."

Calleja said: "Many in the Scottish sector were excited about the fact that warmer temperatures will improve growing conditions, but when I showed them the forecasts for how climate change may increase the disease incidence, they were surprised.

"While some were concerned, others did not regard it as a problem because they felt chemicals could be relied on to keep disease at bay. But policies such as the EU pesticides directive will reduce the range of chemicals available for controlling disease.

"At the same time, the relatively small size of the industry worldwide means there is a lack of research and development focusing on new fungicides and disease-resistant varieties. Climate change's impact on disease, combined with a lack of suitable chemicals and other pressures such as the rising cost of labour and, in England, planning issues surrounding polytunnels, could have serious implications for the future profitability of UK strawberry growers."


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