Supermarket shortages will get worse until the Government stops prioritising imported goods over home-grown produce, farmers have warned.
Sean Rickard, former chief economist at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), claimed that the Government’s “big plan on Brexit” was to import more produce from abroad and therefore “shrink the agricultural industry”.
He said farmers would be under “severe pressure” this year as they grappled with high input prices and a lack of Government subsidies, meaning some will “give up” and others will grow less food than they otherwise would have done.
“This makes us all the more dependent on world markets for our food supplies,” he said, adding: “And you see what happens in the current situation when we become too dependent on imports.”
Shortages of salad vegetables in UK supermarkets could last up to a month, according to the Environment Secretary, after Tesco, Asda, Aldi and Morrisons introduced limits on purchases on items including tomatoes, cucumbers and pepper.
Thérèse Coffey told parliament that the shortages, caused partly by a cold spell in southern Spain and north Africa, could take “another two to four weeks” to be resolved.
The shortages have been impacting small businesses already grappling with inflation, rising interest rates and huge energy bills, according to Martin McTague, chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).
He said: “While there are several factors behind the current salad shortages, the climate and energy crises play a crucial role; we’ve heard reports of growers scaling back investments because of soaring energy costs, and extreme weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa affecting harvest.”
James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), said members had additional flexibility to be able to shop around wholesalers, but prices had “increased significantly”.
“It will be up to the individual business to decide whether they can afford that premium, and to what extent they can pass the cost increases on to customers in the coming weeks,” he said.
Leeks could be next to disappear from supermarket shelves, Tim Casey, chairman of the Leek Growers’ Association, warned. He said: “Leek farmers are facing their most difficult season ever, due to the challenging weather conditions. Our members are seeing yields down by between 15 per cent and 30 per cent.”
He predicted that the supply of homegrown leeks would be exhausted by April, with no British leek available in shops between May and June.
Liz Webster, from Save British Food, who has a farm in Wiltshire, called for the UK to return to a free market economy with the EU because the Brexit trade deal had left us “exposed to a food crisis” as a small island with depleting food security.
“The Government believes that we don’t need farming any longer and we can import all our food but we can’t because we’re now at the mercy of global situations in terms of war, weather and events,” she said. “We are particularly exposed because of Brexit. Because we’re not pooling our food security with Europe any longer. Less food is going out from our country to Europe, and less food is coming into this country as a result.”
She said the salad shortages were “just the tip of the iceberg” and called for the Government to “act now” by investing in British agriculture now so that they could “ramp up production for next year”.
Sean Rickard, who also formerly acted as a Government academic adviser on food and policy, called for a “food production strategy” to improve food security in the UK. “Over the last few years, the only thing you really heard the Government talking about is planting trees and environmental plans. You haven’t heard any serious plan about expanding production,” he told i.
Andrew Brown, an arable farmer in Rutland, said he had been financially pushed to enter one of the Government’s environment schemes, which involves taking 50 per cent of his land out of production and rewilding it.
This is because the Basic Payment Scheme, which is the largest payment to support food production as part of the Common Agricultural Policy, is being phased out by 2027, meaning he cannot keep the farm afloat from agricultural activity alone.
He said: “That’s all well and good for the birds and the bees here. But if that lost production has got to be imported from a country that is knocking the rainforests down, for instance, you’ve not shot yourself in the foot environmentally, you’ve shot yourself in the head.”
Instead, he said the Government should be “incentivising farmers to grow as much as they can”, saying: “If we’re not careful, we are walking into a massive food crisis. We’ve got rationing, to a certain extent. If we’re not careful, we could be seeing rationing of basic foods.”
He added: “This Government needs to get its act together and have a robust food, farming and environmental policy to address the issue of our lack of self-sufficiency.”
Andrew Ward, an arable farmer in Lincolnshire, said the food shortages would “carry on until the Government realises that there is an issue and that their policies are causing this”.
He said Brexit had played a role in decreasing food security, as well as immigration policy barring foreign workers and rewilding environmental policies. Mr Ward also blamed supermarkets for prioritising consumers over producers by making food “as cheap as possible” by importing low-quality goods from abroad, rather than paying more for homegrown produce.
Andrew Opie, Director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Difficult weather conditions in the South of Europe and Northern Africa have disrupted harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes and peppers.
“While disruption is expected to last a few weeks, supermarkets are adept at managing supply chain issues and are working with farmers to ensure that customers are able to access a wide range of fresh produce. In the meantime, some stores are introducing temporary limits on the number of products customers can buy to ensure availability for everyone.”
Ms Coffey told the Commons that people could be eating turnips under a seasonal food model in response to questions over the shortages of lettuce and tomatoes in supermarkets.
MPs warned the shortages of salad items were a national emergency, but Ms Coffey responded: “A lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about aspects of lettuce and tomatoes and similar, but I’m conscious that consumers want a year-round choice and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world try to satisfy.”