A summer tradition set for a revolution

British strawberries and cream are center court again thanks to Wimbledon. The tennis tournament’s traditions have hardly changed, but the industry behind Wimbledon’s favorite treat has. And a new strawberry revolution is set to begin.

Britain’s strawberry production volumes have shot up in the last two decades. In 1997, when Pete Sampras still dominated tennis, production totaled roughly 33,000 tons, and a similar volume of fresh strawberries was imported. Last year, British production was over 120,000 tons, while imports stood at 58,000 tons.

In 2017 alone, the British strawberry market grew by 8%. A good harvest is also likely this year thanks to fine weather in early summer and if prices remain at attractive levels (for consumers), 2018 could be another record year for strawberry eating. Berry growers have been able to boost production by using polytunnels and new strawberry varieties. If the fields are covered, the use of chemical crop protection is substantially reduced. Other advances in British production are coming from greenhouses and from grow bags on table tops. Both of these represent significant improvements in working conditions for fruit pickers: thanks to table tops, they do not have to squat or bend down, and greenhouses mean they have shelter from the rain.

“Britain may be hardest hit by a lack of pickers due to Brexit”

- Cindy van Rijswick, Rabobank

During the summer season, about 66% of strawberries consumed in Britain are homegrown. For comparison, less than 20% of tomatoes consumed in Britain are grown domestically. Over half of Britain’s annual strawberry import volumes are flown in during March, April, and May, mainly from Spain. This volume has remained stable over the last five years. However, fall imports from the Netherlands and Belgium have risen, driven by major investments in Dutch and Belgian greenhouse production.

Covering up: strawberries in a greenhouse.

Three strawberry revolutions

The first strawberry revolution – moving production indoors – is actually coming to an end. Over 90% of British production is already covered by polytunnels. The next revolution is now underway: in Northwestern Europe, including Britain, the vast majority of the berries are expected to be grown in soilless substrate within the next five years.

Even more revolutionary will be the use of robotics. It is inevitable that picking robots will be used in the long term as the availability of human picking labor is running dry, despite the improvements in working conditions. Britain might be hardest hit by a lack of human pickers due to Brexit, but even countries like Poland are now challenged by this issue.

The new fruit picker: robot harvesting berries.

No more plastic punnets?

The current war on plastics is an issue for the fresh berry sector. A wave of plastic packaging innovations brought more convenience to consumers and a longer shelf life for berries. The tide is now turning, with consumers looking more critically at plastic packaging. The sector might be forced to turn to more expensive, less convenient alternatives. But whether a resultant price hike in the berries prevents us from enjoying them at summer events, remains to be seen.