The battle to save 'British' blackcurrants

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Fruit

UK scientists have drafted in blackcurrant varieties from New
Zealand to prevent warmer winters wiping out one of Britain's
traditional fruits, and destroying the source of the popular Ribena
soft drink.

The blackcurrant strains, specially designed to cope with mild winters in New Zealand, have been brought to the rescue via collaboration between the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) and New Zealand's HortResearch.

Scientists believe blackcurrants, also linked to various health benefits thanks to their high antioxidant content, are under threat in Britain from warmer winters.

The problem again highlights how climate change may affect the way food and drink firms operate.

The SCRI project is being part-funded by GlaxoSmithKline, which uses 95 per cent of all Britain's blackcurrants to make its Ribena drink - long a national favourite and now sold in more than 20 countries.

If British blackcurrants die, GSK would face increased input costs to source blackcurrants from abroad, and would also have to overhaul the foundations of its marketing for Ribena, as a "taste of the British countryside"​.

Rex Brennan, who has been working on the blackcurrant project at the SCRI, told​ he was "entirely hopeful"​ that the imported New Zealand strains would be a success.

"We have hybrids in the field that should be fruiting this year. Plant breeding takes a lot of time so there is an element of foresight involved,"​ he said.

Still, no one is yet sure how quickly climate change will take hold, or whether the new strains will work at a commercial level. And, blackcurrants are not the only problem.

Other fruits at high risk in Britain include apples, hops and pears, according to a newly published report from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

It examined the issue after fruit growers raised concerns that milder winters were damaging their yields.

The report confirmed British winters were indeed getting warmer, and predicted so-called winter chill would drop by at least 30 per cent in southern England and 20 per cent in Scotland by 2080. If carbon emissions are not cut, however, winter chill may drop by more than half in southern England and nearly 40 per cent in Scotland.

Developing new species of the most vulnerable fruits would be crucial to ensure their survival, DEFRA warned, calling for more research to identify specific genes or germplasm in existing varieties that could help.

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