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Thursday, 23 July 2020 09:28

Ribena harvests first crop of climate change resilient blackcurrants

After more than 20 years of research UK Farmers are harvesting their first crop of blackcurrants bred to cope with warmer winters resulting from Britain's changing climate.

Ribena climate resilient tractorNamed 'Ben Lawers', the new variety is the fruit of a longstanding partnership between Lucozade Ribena Suntory, which uses 90 per cent of Britain's blackcurrants to make Ribena, and research centre the James Hutton Institute.

The culmination of two decades of research, 75,000 bushes of the Ben Lawers blackcurrants are fruiting for the first time this year, adding a special excitement to the harvest. Grown across the UK from Somerset and Kent to the West Midlands and Dundee, blackcurrants are a £10m crop with upwards of 10,000 tonnes harvested every year during July and August.

Blackcurrants are particularly at risk from the UK's changing climate, where winters have been gradually getting warmer. The bushes require a 'winter chill' in order to bear fruit come summertime - a process known as vernalisation.

As our winters warm, soft fruits such as blackcurrants will have to adapt to shorter, milder chilling. Lucozade Ribena Suntory has invested over £10m in work with the James Hutton Institute, including recent investment of £500,000 to continue the research into climate change.

Ribena cliamte resilient 2 pickersHarriet Prosser, Agronomist at Lucozade Ribena Suntory, comments, "This breed of blackcurrant is now ready for juicing on a large scale to produce that classic Ribena taste. Harvest is always the most exciting time of the year but this time around it promises to be doubly rewarding.This year's weather has demonstrated why we need to be on the front-foot in adapting to a changing climate."

Dr Dorota Jarret, a soft fruit breeder at the James Hutton Institute's commercial subsidiary, James Hutton Ltd, added: "We are delighted to see the first commercial crop of Ben Lawers this year. Hopefully this cultivar will pioneer innovation in climate resilient crop category, deliver exceptional quality and make the way for further climate-resilient cultivars that are currently on trials at the James Hutton Institute thanks to Lucozade Ribena Suntory's recent investment."

Jo Hilditch, a blackcurrant grower and head of the Blackcurrant Foundation who is growing the new variety of climate-change resilient berries, comments: "We have experienced some challenging weather conditions this year after a very warm winter and the driest May on record with bouts of frost. Thankfully, the June showers followed by some warm weather has helped all our blackcurrant breeds and we are looking forward to a lovely sweet crop."

Ribena harvests woman imageBlackcurrants have been bred at the James Hutton Institute since 1956 and now account for approximately half of the blackcurrants grown in the world. Hutton varieties are instantly recognisable as they are all named after Scottish mountains and have the "Ben" prefix. Varieties bred at the Institute have an estimated 95% market share in the UK, and for the last 30 years the majority of this crop has been used in the production of Ribena.

Blackcurrant farmers and Ribena lovers aren't the only ones to benefit from the latest crop of berries. As part of the company's Growing For Good vision, growers who work with Lucozade Ribena Suntory are required to put a Biodiversity Action Plan in place to support wildlife on their farms. This year, the 35 farmers counted 70 species of birds on their farms and in one week saw over 4,500 individual birds. Some of these feathered friends will undoubtedly be helping themselves to a juicy blackcurrant or two as the harvest begins, but Ribena farmers keep the bushes unnetted to share the bounty.