Will droughts hit crisp production in England?

Image caption Potato farmer Andrew Marsh said his potato yields were down 2-3 tonnes per acre, due to low rainfall

Britain loves crisps. As a country we consume an estimated six billion packets per year- the equivalent of almost 100 packets of crisps per person.

However drought conditions are producing smaller potatoes and lower yields. Does that mean our favourite starchy snack could soon be in short supply?

The Potato Council, which represents UK growers, said some of its members were facing "very challenging times" and has issued guidance fordealing with drought.

Seven water companies in the south east have announced a hosepipe ban from April and the Environment Agency has warned the drought could spread as far north as East Yorkshire and as far west as the Hampshire-Wiltshire border, if the dry weather continues.

Andrew Marsh is a farm manager in Atcham, Shropshire, where they sow 1,200 acres of potatoes to turn into crisps for Walkers.

Record dry spell

He said: "Potatoes are very water intensive as a crop. A potato consists of between 75%-80% water so it is very dependent on water."

The farm also sows 2,000 acres of other crops, however it is the potato yields that have been most affected by low rainfall in the past two years.

He said: "Last year was a seven year low in potato production for us. Our yield was about 2-3 tonnes down per acre, this is why we are trying to manage our water use."

His strategies include switching crop variety to a more drought resistant potato and planting crops closer to water sources, such as reservoirs and bore holes.

In the next five years he aims to reduce his water consumption by 50% to make the potato crops less sensitive to water shortages and restrictions.

British farms supply about 370,000 tonnes of potatoes for Walkers per year.

Mark Pettigrew, the European agricultural sustainability manager for Walkers' parent firm PepsiCo said: "Last year, a number of UK crop harvests- apples, oats and potatoes, to name but three - were significantly affected by unusual weather conditions, so it's important that now, more than ever, we find new ways of responding to changing weather and harvest patterns."

Water restrictions

He said the company was working closely with its 350 British farmers to help improve their water efficiency and was using technology and experimenting with different potato varieties to increase yield.

Mark Bowers, one of the Environment Agency's drought managers, said: "To put this in context we haven't had a drier period for the Midlands in about 90 years.

"We will need to start planning how we use water and we need to be aware water is not going to be as abundant as it normally is.

"For farmers and agricultural users they may start to see some restrictions which means they may not be able to take water when they really need it."

To compound matters, Oliver Rudgard, from Herefordshire crisp makers Tyrells, said hot, dry weather often produced a spike in crisp sales.

'Hot summer'

He said: "When its warm and sunny you tend to see more people having get togethers outside.

"When people socialise they tend to want to eat and crisps are an obvious choice as they are cheap and easy to serve.

"If we get a hot summer and with the Jubilee and the Olympics this year there will be lots of opportunities for socialising so we would expect to see a rise in sales."

Drought conditions are not affecting the whole of the country though.

The north of England and Scotland are wet at the moment and overall the Potato Council said it expected potato supplies to remain the same as in previous years.

However, with drought becoming increasingly common in the southern part of the UK, crisp firms may be looking further and further north for their spuds.

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