Officials blame the problem on recent bad weather in Spain and North Africa, saying shortages could persist for up to a month. But many people were quick to point out that other European countries don’t seem to be suffering from the same challenges, leading some to wonder if it was a consequence of Britain’s divorce from the EU. .
The British government has rejected the idea that Brexit is to blame. But shoppers are not happy, and Environment Secretary Therese Coffey’s suggestion that consumers should ‘cherish’ British produce and eat more turnips instead of imported food has drawn widespread ridicule.
Experts say Brexit likely played a role in the food shortage, although a more complex set of factors – including climate change, the UK’s overreliance on imports during the winter, soaring energy costs and competitive pricing strategies in UK supermarkets – are more salient explanations.
A look at some of the factors that contributed to what one European broadcaster called Britain’s ‘vegetable fiasco’:
COLD WEATHER, HIGH ENERGY BILLS
Unusually cold temperatures in Spain and heavy rain and flooding in Morocco – two of the UK’s biggest tomato suppliers – have resulted in low yields and are cited as the main cause of the shortage.
In Spain, farmers are blaming recent freezing temperatures after record heat and drought last year.
In the southern province of Almeria, which produces 40% of Spain’s fresh vegetable exports, production levels of tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines fell by more than 20% in the first three weeks of February compared to the same period in 2022, according to FEPEX, an organization representing Spanish fruit and vegetable exporters. The group said the situation was improving.
Heat and drought in Europe last year also affected vegetable harvests in other countries, including Germany.
Elsewhere, the Netherlands, another major tomato producer, saw its production plummet because soaring energy bills linked to Russia’s war in Ukraine meant that many growers could not justify the cost of turning on LED lights in their greenhouses this winter.
UK vegetable growers have reported that they too have been forced to leave their greenhouses empty.
Richard Diplock, managing director of Green House Growers based in the south of England, said his energy costs were about six times higher compared to previous winters.
“We decided we couldn’t afford to heat the greenhouses in December and January, and we delayed planting until February. Many tomato growers are in a similar situation,” he said.
Shortages in Britain – and contrasting images of shelves full of vegetables in mainland European supermarkets – have led to some schadenfreude Brexit in some EU news outlets.
Experts say the extra bureaucracy and costs associated with Brexit played a part, although they stress it’s not a primary factor.
“A hypothesis for fewer exports to the UK is that if supply is limited, why would you do the extra paperwork (to export to Britain)?” said Michael Winter, professor of agricultural change at the University of Exeter. “If the transaction costs are higher to export to one country versus another, that’s going to dictate where you go.”
“Brexit has undoubtedly exaggerated the problem,” Winter added. “But I don’t want to exaggerate that. It has more to do with climate change and the lack of investment in our industry.
Farmers say another factor is the way Britain’s biggest supermarkets have sought to stay competitive by keeping prices as low as possible even as food prices have soared, a major inflationary factor that is at its highest level in decades.
In some EU countries, such as Germany, there are no empty shelves, but the prices of fresh vegetables have exploded massively. UK supermarkets are reluctant to pay more or charge customers so much, Diplock said.
“Being in the UK you know that every week the price of a cucumber is 75p ($0.90) whatever the time of year,” Diplock said. “North African and Spanish producers will see a better return for supplying European supermarkets.”
“WHERE IS THE INVESTMENT? »
Even if energy costs hadn’t risen as much, UK growers would not come close to making up for shortages of imported goods, Diplock said.
During the winter UK domestic production accounts for only 5% or less of the tomatoes and cucumbers sold in UK supermarkets.
The National Farmers Union has warned for months that overreliance on imported fresh produce leaves the UK vulnerable to unpredictable weather events and other external factors such as the war in Ukraine.
Farmers have also complained about the lack of public investment in the sector and funding to help them meet extremely high energy bills.
The government has spent billions to help consumers and businesses as natural gas prices in Europe hit record highs on tight supplies from Russia.
“The bigger question is why in this country have we neglected horticulture,” Winter said. “It’s a bit of a wake-up call.”
AP writers Joseph Wilson in Madrid and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.