Why is there a tomato and vegetable shortage on UK shelves?
As supplies run short and shelves are bare, several supermarket chains are rationing tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers this week, while British greenhouses lie empty. We find out why and how long the problem could last.
Severe shortages mean UK supermarket chains are restricting sales of tomatoes, peppers and other salad vegetables, as images of empty shelves circulate on social media this week. Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, and Aldi placed temporary limits of three per customer on tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, while Asda has capped sales per customer of broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, raspberries and salad bags. Morrison’s is also rationing tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce and peppers.
Tesco is blaming adverse weather conditions abroad, but how much are other issues, such as rising energy prices, supply chain problems, the climate crisis and Brexit contributing to shortages? Do we need to start getting used to the sight of bare shelves in Britain?
What is causing the tomato shortage?
Extreme weather conditions, including flooding and cold temperatures, in Morocco – which provides a quarter of Britain’s tomatoes – and in southern Spain have delayed ripening and been a major cause of bare shelves in produce aisles this week, resulting in a sharp rise in wholesale prices. Ferries that transport produce have also been cancelled due to storms.
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson says: “We remain in close contact with suppliers, who are clear that current issues relating to the availability of certain fruits and vegetables were predominately caused by poor weather in Spain and North Africa where they are produced.”
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Environment Secretary Therese Coffey suggested that eating turnips could help fill the gap during fruit and vegetable shortages, as she answered a question in the House of Commons on 23 February. “It’s important to make sure that we cherish the specialisms that we have in this country,” she said. “A lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about aspects of lettuce and tomatoes and similar.”
Coffey added that she was “conscious that consumers want a year-round choice and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world try to satisfy”.
Sir Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, accused the minister of a "let them eat turnips" strategy – a reference to 18th century French queen Marie Antoinette, who supposedly responded to a bread shortage by saying "let them eat cake". However, Downing Street has insisted Ms Coffey had simply been "setting out the importance of celebrating the produce that we grow here in the UK".
How have energy price hikes hit British growers?
Soaring energy costs have resulted in a severely reduced supply of UK-grown salad vegetables, as many British farmers shut down their greenhouses this winter. CEO of the British Growers Association Jack Ward explains: “What’s also contributed to the problem is, last autumn, growers in the UK would have been putting plants into glasshouses ready for production at this time of year. Because they couldn’t get the prices they needed to cover the costs they were incurring, those plants didn’t get put in, so we’re missing a chunk of British production.” Ward says retailers then looked to Spain and Morocco for tomato supplies, but the scale of production there is struggling to meet current UK demand.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 on 22 February, National Farmers Union president Minette Batters said farmers have been warning about the risk of shortages for many months, due to high costs as well as supply challenges from Europe. “I called an emergency press conference at the end of last year on the back of the rationing of eggs, saying that if we didn’t act we would be facing rationing in other sectors, and that is exactly what is happening. A lot of that is being driven by the price of gas, which is down but it’s still three times higher than what it was in 2019. So, if you’re growing undercover, which for tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, peppers, they are grown in a closed environment so they can be kept warm, and if you’re facing all those costs and not getting a fair return back from it, you are having to cut your production level.”
Merseyside farmer Olly Harrison, who has his own YouTube channel Olly Blogs Agricontract farmer, says the supermarkets’ unwillingness to pay a fair price following energy price hikes has meant many British farmers have simply stopped growing tomatoes. “It’s not Brexit; it’s not climate change; it’s basically people not wanting to pay enough to keep them on the shelves, and there being too much risk and no profit in it, so everyone has stopped growing it.”
Fresh produce has become incredibly cheap for UK consumers over the past 10 years, adds Jack Ward of the British Growers Association. “Growers are going, 'Do you know what? We just can’t afford to grow this stuff at the price you’re offering.' [Supermarkets] have to go back and look at the way they engage with their suppliers and, in particular, the costs of production have got to be picked up in order to keep this stuff flowing through to the supermarket shelves.”
Growers have no spare cash in the coffers to cover further extra production costs, stresses Ward. “We’ve delivered amazing value for money, margins that are 1-2% at best, then when we’ve had this super-inflation over the past year, there’s no hiding place, there’s no surplus nest in the system to finance it. Energy in some cases, particularly gas and electricity, has gone up four-fold. Who is going to shoulder those additional costs? Up and down the country there are empty glasshouses that last year would have been growing cucumbers and tomatoes.”
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that the average retail price of tomatoes has been steadily increasing since 2006 due to higher production and transport costs. In January 2023, tomatoes reached their highest ever price in the UK, at £2.96 per kilo. This compares to £1.85 per kilo in January 2010.
When will tomatoes be back on the shelves?
British Growers Association’s Jack Ward is optimistic supply will be restored quickly. He told us: “The retailers are saying two to three weeks. They will be in very, very close contact with their suppliers in Spain and Morocco and the thing they will all be asking is how quickly can we restore supply.”
Speaking on LBC London radio, former Sainsbury's CEO Justin King said supermarkets will solve the problem reasonably quickly, claiming “in a matter of a small number of days”. He added: “On the whole, fair purchase policies – that’s what supermarkets call this – are the right way to manage it in the short term.”
Has Brexit contributed to the current supply crisis?
Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford organic farm and UK-wide organic vegetable box delivery company, says Brexit has created a large amount of paperwork for European growers, making export to the UK complicated and expensive. Speaking on Riverford's social media account from a Tesco store in Budapest, Hungary, Singh-Watson showed shelves full of tomatoes imported from southern Europe, saying there seems to be no shortages there. "I can tell you, as having a farm in France, the reason that most people don't want to export to the UK is that we are a customer of last resort. Because we're such a pain to deal with because the paperwork associated with Brexit is expensive, time consuming and involves the loss of flexibility that most businesses, if they can avoid, will. So they do. So we don't have any tomatoes, but they do in Budapest."
However, Jack Ward adds: “Brexit is a bit of a smokescreen for what’s actually sitting at the heart of this. It’s much more about the prices that retailers are prepared to pay UK growers for continuity of supply.”
Is there support on the way for British horticulture?
In a statement, Defra says: “We recognise the challenges farmers are facing due to global pressures on input costs, such as feed, fuel and fertiliser, and Defra has taken a number of steps to support the agriculture industry.” It says this includes increasing the number of seasonal workers visas for the horticulture sector to 45,000.
However, horticulture has been left out of the Government’s newly announced Energy Bills Discount Scheme (EBDS), which offers energy-bill support for businesses. (EBDS will take over from the current Energy Bill Relief Scheme that expires at the end of March.)
Former Sainsbury's CEO Justin King says a lack of support from Government during the energy crisis has hit the horticulture sector hard.
“By far the biggest issue for that sector has been that the Government chose not to make it part of its energy support package. Without the support on energy, it’s not been economically viable to produce under glass during the winter this year in the UK.” King adds that salad vegetables used to be produced in the UK year-round. “In North Kent in Thanet, [had] the largest greenhouses in Europe, which used to be full of peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes. Sainsbury’s used to have year-round British tomatoes grown in those greenhouses.”
NFU’s Minette Batters says she has repeatedly pointed out how energy prices threaten next year’s UK-grown crops of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. She adds, not providing energy support to horticulture also seems at odds with the Government's National Food Strategy, which includes ambitions to grow more fruit and vegetables. “While we accept that farming businesses can’t be insulated from long-term market realities, the Government must recognise that its current approach seriously undermines our ability to produce food,” says Batters.
She now lives in Cardiff and takes every opportunity on the weekends to explore the Brecon Beacons National Park and South Glamorgan’s stunning coastline and wooded hillsides with her family, often encouraging her young son’s obsession with discovering woodland fungi.
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