Friday, Jun 02, 2023

UK fresh foods shortage: Why tomatoes, cucumbers and everyday vegetables are proving hard to find

The shortage is a result of multiple factors, such as high energy costs in the UK in the winter and weather conditions in southern Europe and North Africa. The situation could continue for the next two to four weeks and food is now being rationed in some major supermarkets.

Empty boxes of vegetables are seen in Tesco, Hanley, Staffordshire, Britain.Empty boxes of vegetables are seen in Tesco, Hanley, Staffordshire, Britain, February 27, 2023. (REUTERS/Carl Recine)
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UK fresh foods shortage: Why tomatoes, cucumbers and everyday vegetables are proving hard to find
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After a winter of high electricity bills and an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, people in the United Kingdom are now struggling to get hold of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in a food shortage that could last for another month.

Such has been the lack of the everyday vegetables that Therese Coffey, the minister for the environment, food and rural affairs, said people could turn to local vegetables such as turnips. “It’s important to make sure that we cherish the specialisms that we have in this country,” she told parliament.

“I’m led to believe by my officials after discussion with industry retailers…the situation will last about another two to four weeks. It’s important that we try and make sure that we get alternative sourcing options,” she said.

But why is there a shortage of basic vegetables in Britain?

The shortage is a result of multiple factors. Notably, the high energy costs in the UK in the past winter have led to less winter production in greenhouses in Britain and the Netherlands. Certain crops, like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and brinjals are grown in greenhouses because of the low temperature in these regions.

UK’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU) have said they are finding it difficult to meet their energy costs, partly due to the Ukraine war and the reduction of European dependence on Russian fuel.

Additionally, the country also imports vegetables and fruits from the warmer countries in Europe and Northern Africa, such as Spain, where they can be grown without investment in heating. The BBC reported that in the winter months the UK imports around 95 per cent of its tomatoes and 90 per cent of its lettuces, most of them from Spain and north Africa, according to the trade group the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

Britain is particularly reliant on Spain, where whose exports of fruit and vegetables were 10.4 per cent lower last year than in 2021. Warm early winter temperatures and spring frosts contributed to this, according to FEPEX, an association of Spanish exporters.


Did Brexit play a role too?

Supermarket company Sainsbury’s former head Justin King was among a section of people who pointed the finger at Britain exiting the European Union, following a 2016 referendum. Notably, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is currently in Northern Ireland to discuss a trade deal. Though the formal exit happened in 2020, there is a significant volume of rules and regulations to be negotiated between the UK and other countries.

The BBC quoted Ksenija Simovic, a senior policy adviser at Copa-Cogeca, a group which represents farmers and farming co-operatives in the EU, as saying while Brexit wasn’t solely responsible for the current lack of fresh produce, it hadn’t helped. Earlier, as part of the common single market, the movement of goods between the UK and Europe was done more freely. Now, restrictions have been introduced.

What has been the impact of the food shortage?

Food suppliers have raised prices amid tough negotiations with supermarkets and British grocery inflation hit a record high recently.


According to a report in The Guardian, “The price of tomatoes has increased as much as fourfold in the past year, from £5 a case to £20 a case, according to the Federazione Italian Cuochi UK (FIC UK), a chefs’ association. The price of canned tomatoes has doubled, it said, from £15 a case to £30.”

Further, some major supermarket chains, such as Tesco, have limited the number of cucumbers and tomatoes that can be purchased by customers. Tesco tweeted, “For a short period of time we’re limiting tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers to 3 per customer.”

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British food and farming minister Mark Spencer said he met with executives of Britain’s major grocers on Monday to discuss alleviating the supply issues. “I have also asked them to look again at how they work with our farmers and how they buy fruit and vegetables, so they can further build our preparedness for these unexpected incidents,” he said in a statement.

(With inputs from Reuters)

First published on: 28-02-2023 at 14:34 IST
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