Wandering past vineyards and olive groves, eating local ostrich meat with locally grown okra and chillis, plucking apricots and almonds from well-tended orchards, sipping tea from a plantation down the road... you might think you were holidaying in the Mediterranean, or taking time out in Africa or the Middle East. Well, you'd be wrong. You would be in southern England, where global warming is creating a new climate suitable for growing all sorts of exotics.
A report from the UK Met Office published last week shows that the temperature in England has risen steadily over the past 50 years and it is now 1°C hotter, on average, than it was in 1960. Most of us will have realised on our own that things have been heating up. Record summer temperatures now seem to be an annual occurrence and reports of plummeting crop yields and chillers breaking down provide plenty of evidence of the effects of climate change.
However, while we cannot afford to dismiss the negative impact of global warming on our lives, the burgeoning potential for growers of exotic foods does seem to offer one, albeit very thin, silver lining to the grey cloud of climate doom.
One grower is building a business based entirely on his belief that temperatures will get hotter still, creating a perfect base for a variety of foods not usually associated with the UK. Mark Diacono, who grows almonds, pecans, sharon fruit, apricots, walnuts and olives at Otter Farm, near Honiton in Devon, thinks these crops may be in the vanguard of some big changes.
"We've taken our olive trees from a snowy region in Tuscany so they've already had three years of harsh weather and won't be upset by any we throw at them. But going forward, we're setting up a forest garden for climate-change crops that will include produce a little more on the edge, such as prickly pear, and we're doing a spice garden with things such as grinding peppers and Szechuan pepper, which do much better in warmer weather," he says.
For Diacono, his climate-change farm is as much about being green as it is tapping into an opportunity. He is keen to minimise the very food miles that similar products grown overseas have generated. "So much of our food comes from abroad, with all its associated food miles and, while it may take government intervention to address the madness of overseas produce on our shelves when seasonal British is available, there are some foods that we don't produce.
"What if climate change meant that those 'foreign' foods became viable here? Might we sustainably exploit the new conditions and help contribute to arresting them in the process?" he asks.
It isn't only food that could benefit from warmer weather either. Wine suppliers are looking forward to the day when the best conditions for making Champagne move from France to southern England. Elfrida Spooner, wine sales manager at England's biggest vineyard, Denbies in Dorking, says: "There are rumours that French winemakers are looking to buy land around Dover because the Champagne region may become too hot to produce Champagne, while we'll be coming to the optimum." And England's first tea plantation, set up in Cornwall in 1998, expects its first competitors to spring up as a result of the warmer weather. Tregothnan Estate's garden director, Jonathan Jones, who oversees its tea production, says: "There's no doubt that the warmerweather will mean more people start growing tea. But we're starting to look at other crops too. We're already producing Cornwall's first pepper leaf and will be launching other fibre and oil producing crops down the line too."
Of course, changing conditions bring challenges too. Spooner points out global warning doesn't merely mean warmer weather, it also means unpredictability. "Global warming brings frosts at different times than you're used to so, if there's a frost when your vine just starts to grow, you'll be hit. Last year, many vineyards in the south were hit by a late frost and it limited the volume of crop."
While warmer weather can extend the growing season for farmers, Pete Falloon, climate impact scientist at the Met Office, says that within 100 years the growing season could be extended by up to 100 days - it can also bring major concerns.
"One of the biggest challenges is water," Falloon says. "We predict there will be 50% less water during summer and 30% more in winter over the next 100 years, which will cause problems. And we're certain pest die-off will decrease as winters get much warmer and wetter."
In the next 40 years there will be relatively little additional temperature change, however, Falloon predicts. It takes that long for greenhouse gas emissions to have an effect on the climate, and it's only in recent years that our greenhouse gas emissions have been extravagant. A further 50 years after this, though, temperatures could increase by up to 5°C and farming practices will need to evolve along with the climate.
"Intense rainfall will cause soil erosion and heat stress in summer will be a problem. We'll need to start using livestock housing methods and crop irrigation systems that we see in the Mediterranean at the moment," he says.
Businesses setting up now will, therefore, have an advantage, something Diacono is very much aware of. Although he has yet to sell any of his climate-change crops, next year the first crop of almonds should go to market and olives and apricots the year after. He's in it for the long term, he says. "We're doing this permanently. We want 20 to 30 different crops, long-term, from shiitake mushrooms, which only take up a little room, to olive trees. If you can get these products to grow properly, you can get a huge weight of crop and we think the changing conditions are going that way."n