A shortage of fruit and vegetables which has forced supermarkets to impose purchasing restrictions on products “is the tip of the iceberg”, the deputy president in the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has said.
Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi and Asda began rationing staple items, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, this week, after bad weather in Spain and Morocco – upon which the UK is increasingly reliant for winter produce -disrupted their production and transportation.
Speaking on Times Radio, Tom Bradshaw warned that investment in food production has become unaffordable for domestic growers due to the impact of rising energy costs.
Of the shortages, he said: “Things have just hit a tipping point. We’ve been warning about this moment for the past year.
“The tragic events in Ukraine have driven inflation, particularly energy inflation to levels that we haven’t seen before.
“There’s a lack of confidence from the growers that they’re going to get the returns that justify planting their glasshouses, and at the moment we’ve got a lot of glasshouses that would be growing the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, aubergine that are sitting there empty because they simply couldn’t take the risk to plant them with the crops, not thinking they’d get the returns from the marketplace.
“And with them being completely reliant on imports – we’d always have some imports – but we’ve been completely reliant on imports (now). And when there’s been some shock weather events in Morocco and Spain, it’s meant that we’ve had these shortages.
“It’s really interesting that before Brexit we didn’t used to source anything, or very little, from Morocco but we’ve been forced to go further afield and now these climatic shocks becoming more prevalent have had a real impact on the food available on our shelves today.”
While noting energy prices are currently “much lower than many anticipated”, he added: “They’re three times higher than they would have been this time last year and (growers) just simply haven’t been willing to take the risk that they would get the returns from the marketplace.
“And ultimately this all goes down to whether they’ve been able to pass their costs up the supply chain or not, and actually, it’s proved incredibly challenging to pass those costs up.
“Retailers are doing everything they can to keep prices down during this cost-of-living crisis but what we see is that farmers and growers can’t afford to invest in food production for the future.
“And so it means that these shortages are something we see on the back of it, and we’ve warned about this for a long while. We do need a transparent and fair supply chain so everyone is fairly rewarded within that supply chain.
“And those growers haven’t been getting the returns they need for some time now and this really is the tip of the iceberg.
“They weren’t willing to do it for any longer.”
Mr Bradshaw added that “we need to take command of the food we can produce for ourselves” due to “volatility that’s happening around the world”.
He said: “As we reposition ourselves in the world, we’ve left a trading bloc in the EU where we had very good trading relationships, we’ve had to go further afield.
“We see geopolitics, and the war in Ukraine being a tragic example, having huge impacts and I don’t think that unrest is likely to go away in the near future; we seem to live in a very volatile world.
“We’ve then got climate change, compounding all of those issues. What we saw last summer with 40C heat is climate change in action.
“And we have 70 million people living on an island and we have to take responsibility for how we’re going to feed those 70 million people.
“Imports will always be part of that but with all of that volatility that’s happening around the world, we need to take command of the food we can produce for ourselves here and make sure that everybody in that supply chain is getting a fair return so that we can continue to provide the food that everybody needs.”
Huge energy costs, combined with the low sums supermarkets are prepared to pay for produce, are deterring growers from planting certain crops, particularly those that are cultivated in heat-guzzling greenhouses.
Research published by the NFU in November found the cost of growing a tomato increased by 27 per cent between 2021 and 2022.
British growers are instead choosing to wait until it is warmer to plant their crops, increasing the nation’s reliance on Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Morocco.
But cold weather across the region has affected harvests over recent months. Unsettled conditions have also limited opportunities for suppliers to transport produce to Europe from Northern Africa.
The Environment Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has faced criticism for failing to grasp the issues facing the industry, as growers warned that the current shortages could persist until May.
Dr Coffey told MPs on Thursday that ongoing shortages of produce will be a temporary issue that should be resolved in two to four weeks.
She encouraged the public to “cherish” domestic produce, adding that “a lot of people would be eating turnips right now” under a seasonal food model – rather than thinking about lettuce, tomatoes and similar produce.
The Lea Valley Growers Association (LVGA), which represents members throughout the area dubbed Britain’s “cucumber capital”, comprising parts of Greater London, Hertfordshire and Essex, disagreed with Dr Coffey’s assessment.
“The majority of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines are not going to be around in big volumes until May, so it’s going to be longer than a few weeks,” LVGA secretary, Lee Stiles, said.
“It’s too late for UK growers to step in and try and make up some of the shortfall [from abroad],” he added.
The NFU, which warned in December that the UK was facing an “emergency situation” when it came to food security, is among the groups that have grown impatient with Dr Coffey and the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra).
“We are repeatedly seeing a predictable combination of factors such as energy costs and weather leading to empty supermarket shelves,” said NFU vice president, David Exwood.
“Our UK food resilience is currently gone. The Government needs to take this seriously,” he added.