Good news for stone fruit but the pressure is on...

Good news for stone fruit but the pressure is on...

In the UK stone fruits have worked their way into the collective conscious since the middle of the 15th century, with plum pudding, precursor to present-day Christmas pudding remaining a favourite. 

Sadly, domestic stone fruit production has not fared so well. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s (LSHTM) recent research demonstrates the decline of domestic supply of fruit and vegetables, from 42% in 1987 to 22% in 2013. Over the same timeframe European imports grew from 20% to 32%. The reasons are complex but price, climate change, longer European harvests, and the British population’s continual hunger for a wider array of exotic varieties all play a part. 

Increasingly educated on food and drink matters the British, once wholly satisfied with domestic fruit and vegetables, routinely demand ever more choice. Unfortunately, the European suppliers we’ve turned to are starting to experience climate change first-hand, whether in unseasonal frosts or more general climate warming. 

Dr Pauline Scheelbeek, from LSHTM’s Centre on Climate Change & Planetary Health, said: ‘The increased reliance on fruit and vegetable imports from climate-vulnerable countries will, if no adequate climate change adaptation measures are taken in the production countries, lead to fruit and vegetable supply problems in the UK and potentially affect price and consumption of such foods.’

Professor Alan Dangour, the director of the same unit at LSHTM went further: ‘The government cannot ignore these trends, or it will be failing in its primary duty to protect its people from future shocks. I call on the government to do more now to support national food production, build resilience into the national food system and ensure the supply of healthy and sustainable diets for all.”

The general conclusion of the research team was that the results are particularly important in the light of government-led programmes, such as the UK’s National Food Strategy, the National Determined Contributions of the UK, and the Obesity Strategy.

Even fruit trees need to chill.

So as consumers, we are now caught between our increasing demand for exotic produce but relying on suppliers who are struggling with the effects of climate change. Earlier this year unseasonal frosts across France wrought havoc with the peach, nectarine, and apricot orchards. Across-the-board 60% losses were average, while in the Rhône-Alps region the losses topped out at a ruinous 80%.

While frosts and cold weather have impacted on prices and production this season climate change is creating its own set of problems too; namely winters that are routinely too warm. To ensure effective growth stone fruit trees need to experience a number of ‘chill hours’ at the beginning of the season. This natural temperature shock serves to ‘reset’ the tree’s biochemical systems and ensures it is prepared for successful flowering and fruiting.

In previous years, the Californian fruit growers experienced the same problem with successive warmer winters. However, they were lucky geographically, being surrounded by hills. They experimented with planting new orchards higher up the hillside, where the lower temperatures returned the ‘chill hours’ to the trees.

Growers in European orchards weren’t so fortuitous and have had to resort to more involved remedies. The Spanish company, PSB Vegetal Producción, based in Pliego, Murcia, is a full-scale stone fruit producer but also conducts extensive breeding and research projects throughout the growing regions of Europe. The company is helping growers to experiment with cultivating specific varieties, which don’t require lengthy chill hours.

Technical-commercial director of PSB Vegetal, Thomas Chevaillier, says: "The growers we are helping are in the southern areas such as Murcia, Valencia, Seville, southern Portugal and Greece,"

While European stone fruit exporters have well established export markets in the UK, South Africa has quietly been making inroads. The growth of the stone fruit market is exceptional in the past year with an increase of 71% for South African plum exports worldwide, and a 29% increase in nectarine exports to 6.5 million cartons: with the UK taking 50% of that volume. 

For South Africa, the only fly in the ointment is transport, as the fruit needs to be shipped to the UK. However, several initiatives are underway to make shipping greener as a method of transport. These include using higher-grade (and higher price admittedly) fuel oils or scrubbing technology to clean the emissions.

Avocado – is a fruit!

The stellar rise in demand for the stone fruit, avocado shows no sign of letting up. 11 billion pounds of avocado consumed each year worldwide at last count and this quantity is only matched by its comprehensive superfood credentials. The avocado is uniquely high in healthy fat content, omega, vitamins A, B, C, E and K, 25 essential nutrients, phytochemicals, antioxidants, fibre, folate, magnesium, and potassium. It is easier to understand just why so many people are mashing it on their toast. 

For Europeans avocados are sourced mainly from Peru, with lesser quantities from Chile, South Africa, and Israel. Hass and Fuerte avocados are the two varieties that arrive in the UK, with Spain being a smaller exporter. The Spanish Hass avocado season starts in December and lasts until May. 

With such high demand for the fruit embryonic orchards are being trialled across Valencia and Cadiz in Spain, the Algarve in Portugal, Antalya in Turkey and even in Greece, on the island of Crete.

Xavier Equihua, CEO of the World Avocado Organisation says: ‘The pilot programmes to grow the green fruit in Portugal, Italy and Greece could, if successful, lead to a rise in volumes, which could drive an increase in consumption among European consumers.’


The full impact of the new import and export process following Brexit remains to be seen, although a steady commentary of grumbles frequents our news.

Delays and confusion still seem to be rife when it comes to recruiting seasonal workers in the UK. Tales such as the visa office in Bulgaria just being open for 3 hours every fortnight. It is a key country for UK seasonal workers, so securing visa permits has proved problematic.

Similarly, the government initiative, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme was still short of two additional operators with the 2021 harvest insight. The expansion aimed to create 30,000 permits for the season but has left recruiters struggling to get manpower into the country for the harvest.

With the hospitality sector hit so hard by the pandemic the unemployed have been quickly assimilated, leaving manpower short for the seasonal harvest.

British Summer Fruits chairman, Nick Marston, told The Grocer recently that farms were: “Being turned down by quite a lot of former workers because they’ve got their old jobs back”.

With the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system, there are three routes for foreign nationals to come to the UK for seasonal farm work. Either alongside the SAWS pilot, those with pre-settled or settled status can work in UK food roles.

The Home Office spokesman said: “We will work with industry to raise awareness of career opportunities within the horticulture sector to help attract domestic workers, and we will explore the potential for automation to meet future labour demands of the sector.’



Back to blog