Cordial maker Ribena is attempting to head off the threat climate change poses to its business by developing a new variety of blackcurrant that can cope with Britain’s increasingly mild winters.
Ribena, which is owned by Lucozade Ribena Suntory, buys up 90 per cent of Britain’s £10m blackcurrant crop each year. But milder winters fuelled by climate change threatens poorer quality, less reliable fruits for its drinks business.
That is why Ribena is investing £500,000 in a five-year project with the James Hutton Institute to develop a new variety of blackcurrant that doesn’t need a cold winter to deliver good summer fruits.
“We are seeing big shifts in our climate. We’ve had an incredibly mild winter, followed by the sunniest May ever, and the driest May in 124 years,” Ribena's blackcurrant agronomist Harriet Prosser told i. “That puts us in a really difficult position.”
Standard blackcurrant varieties need around 2,000 "cold hours" - when the temperature drops below 7C - before they start to bud in the Spring, Ms Prosser explained. The cold spell reduces the risk of frost damage to new buds, and ensures blackcurrant shrubs flower at the right point in the season for peak pollination.
But this year, blackcurrant growers in the UK’s South East saw just 1,300 "cold hours", raising the risk of lower yields and an unevenly ripened crop.
Ribena is trying to manage Britain’s unpredictable weather patterns by sourcing blackcurrants from across the country, from Kent to Scotland. Its growers also use a range of varieties, including some better adapted to warmer climates.
But each year growing a bumper crop of blackcurrants in Britain becomes more of a challenge. This year Ribena resorted to using a specially developed nutrient-rich “energy drink” on the plants to encourage fruiting, Ms Prosser said.
Finding a blackcurrant that thrives in Britain’s warming winter conditions is crucial to the sector’s long-term prospects. “I think we would always work to keep British blackcurrants going,” Ms Prosser said. “It would get harder without this breeding programme.”