The canary in the coalmine?

In the fifth of a series of articles by our Youth Newsroom reporters, Injy Johnstone from the United Kingdom pops a fresh bottle.

The canary in the coalmine? Lessons on adapting agriculture from the English wine industry

Popping the cork of a bottle of champagne brought joy to many Brits this holiday season, myself included. Yet few people appreciate how that same bottle could actually be sourced a lot closer to home due to climate change.

Fresh bubbles

Climatic conditions are closely linked to crop viability; so when they alter, the crops you can grow change too. The burgeoning wine industry in England is emblematic of this, now that grape varieties such as Champagne are able to grow in areas such as Kent and Sussex for the first time in millennia. Yet equally, the wine industry is one that is sensitive to extreme weather shocks. Demonstrating that adapting agriculture is a dual process which involves looking at both the opportunities from new crops whilst ensuring they are protected against new and emerging threats to their viability.

Sensitive grapes

The wine industry is known as the ‘canary in the coalmine’ of global agriculture. Grapes are highly sensitive to climate variations and grow best between 13 and 21°C. Winemaking actually began in England in Roman times. Yet its popularity has waxed and waned over the years in tandem with the climate. Features such as the ‘Little Ice Age’ that Europe experienced, in conjunction with competition from Mediterranean climates in the 19th and 20th centuries meant that the wine industry never gained a strong foothold in England. This changed in the 1970s, attributed to the measurable increase in global warming. Since, English winemaking has grown in both presence and popularity.

Largest ever

50 years on, the wine industry in England is at its largest ever. This was helped by years of record heat, such as 2018 which was described as the ‘harvest of the century.’ Yet the hot and dry conditions which help wine to grow are not the only thing set to become more frequent with climate change. According to the IPCC, climate change also brings greater unpredictability of weather, such as storms and frosts, meaning that adequate strategies have to be in place to counter them if the viticulture industry is to continue to thrive.

In short, before we pop that bottle, we must ensure its fizz does not run out. This window into the English wine industry highlights that new growth opportunities should be paired with management strategies to counter the equally new climatic risks. This speaks more widely as to how we can adapt agriculture on a warming planet in a sustainable way. A question which will be further explored at the Climate Adaptation Summit 2021 (25-26 January, online).

Injy Johnstone (United Kingdom)