Researchers at Cranfield University, the University of Oxford and the University of East Anglia (UEA) are looking at how the UK’s fruit and vegetable systems can be more resilient to water-related risks such as drought.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are an important part of our diet, but they are mainly grown in the driest parts of the UK, such as East Anglia or the South East, where water resources are also under most pressure due to factors like an increasing population. Countries which are major exporters of fruit and vegetables to the UK – like Spain, South Africa, Kenya and Morocco – also suffer similar pressures as water resources are even more scarce there.

The three-year research project is being led by Dr Tim Hess from the Cranfield Water Science Institute, in collaboration with the UEA, horticultural research centre NIAB EMR (formerly East Malling Research) and University of Oxford.

Dr Hess said: “Water-related risks include its physical availability which means that we might not be able to produce so much and prices go up as a result, reputational risks when environmental issues are highlighted in the media, and also regulatory risks like irrigation being restricted if there is a drought or introducing legislation for environmental reasons.

While the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables is encouraged, the water resources to grow them are under real pressure both in the UK and overseas. Dr Hess said: “We will be exploring ways of increasing resilience to water-related risks in the system at all levels from farmers, to suppliers and retailers, through to consumers, and seeing if their needs are compatible or in conflict with each other.

“We don’t want to be importing food to the UK while ‘exporting’ drought; the fact that fresh fruit may always be available in this country might actually be detrimental to farmers or the environment in other countries, for instance.”

Five interdisciplinary projects to optimise UK food supply and tackle global food security have been awarded £9 million in total. Under the banner of the UK’s Global Food Security Programme, they are being funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with the Scottish Government also co-funding one of the projects.

Science Minister Jo Johnson said: “These research projects will help tackle the serious threat of food shortages. Supporting these exciting and innovative solutions will help the UK food industry be better prepared for external factors and help provide food security to millions around the world.”