Prosecc-woe: Italian delicacies hit by extreme weather

Analysis finds imports of popular Italian foods such as olive oil, fruit and prosecco down and prices up.

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By Amber Sawyer

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New figures from the Italian statistics bureau (ISTAT) show that agricultural production of common Italian exports to the UK such as olive oil, fruit and wine were down in 2023, with the bureau pointing to a number of extreme weather events linked to climate change [1]. The bureau says that the production of these ‘woody crops’ was down 11.1% in 2023.

Analysis by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) of UK Government data [2] suggests that these extremes are having a knock-on effect on the quantity and cost of food imports to the UK. Whilst prices may have been affected by other factors too, like Brexit, we are seeing extreme weather directly affecting agricultural output and therefore product availability, contributing to the price increases on supermarket shelves.

Italy is our second biggest supplier of olive oil after Spain. Last year, the UK imported around 12m kilograms worth £79m from Italy, but this was down by 14m kilograms - or more than half - from 2022's 26m kilograms, while the average price per kilo went up by 53%. According to the ONS, the average price for a 500ml-1000ml bottle in January 2022 was £3.73. In May 2024 (the most recent data) it had risen to £8.60, an increase of 130.56% [3].

Italy also supplies the UK with a range of fresh fruit. In 2023, 13% of our apple imports came directly from Italy, or 38m kilograms worth £44m. This was down by 5m kilograms from 2022, while the average price per kilo went up by over 10%. Though we can grow apples in the UK, they are seasonal so imports are needed to make up the shortfall. Italy also supplies us with fruits that we can’t grow at commercial scale in the UK, like nearly 10% of our grapes and over a third (39%) of our kiwis.

Last year, the UK imported 83m kilograms of prosecco worth £330m from Italy, which was down by 10m kilograms from 2022. The average price per kilo also increased by 11%.

Commenting on the trends, Amber Sawyer, analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said: “Here in the UK, we have crops rotting in fields because of the unprecedented wet winter, while in Italy harvests are down because of a range of climate impacts. Our food security is being hit by climate extremes both at home and abroad, as we rely on imports for foods we simply can't grow here. We’re already feeling the effects of climate change in our shopping bills, with £360 added from 2022 to 2023 [4]."

“As we know, all this continues to get worse until we stop adding emissions to the atmosphere and reach net zero. In the meantime, if we are to try and shore up our food security, we need to be helping farmers here and abroad to adopt more resilient techniques. In the UK, that means measures to improve soil health, support pollinators and plant hedgerows and trees that will help to shade livestock and protect against floods and droughts."

"Italy’s recent vote against the EU’s nature restoration law [5] is misguided, given that healthy nature increases resilience to climate impacts and could help Italian farmers to cope with the extreme weather we are already seeing at 1.2 degrees of warming."

Scientists recently calculated that storm rainfall during the UK’s wet winter was made 20% heavier by climate change [6]. The wet winter could see British wheat harvests cut by a fifth with barley, oats, oilseed rape, potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli also down [7]. This would cut the UK’s self-sufficiency by a tenth [8]. Reports suggest that France also may have its worst wheat harvest in a decade due to heavy rains. [9]