Five reasons why Brexit is to blame for Britain’s fruit and veg shortages

From a shortfall of workers to higher transportation costs and more red tape, we look at how direct and indirect consequences of Brexit have contributed to the dwindling of fresh produce supplies in the UK.

A storm broke out on Twitter this week when users posted images of supermarket shelves in the likes of Spain and France laden with fruit and veg compared to the empty fresh produce aisles in Britain. So severe are the shortages in the UK that some supermarkets have been forced to impose limits on the amount of salad products consumers can buy. Brexiteers took offence to the posts, claiming ‘Remoaners are at it again’ and are ‘ridiculously blaming Brexit.’ 

‘Blame it on Brexit’ is a popular snipe made by many a Leave voter to mockingly suggest Remainers blame everything that is going wrong in Britain on our departure from the EU. The trouble is that many of the country’s woes, such as lagging behind our peers in trade and investment, is the blame of Brexit, as economists have warned.

And none more so than our bare supermarket shelves.

Here’s how.

1- Morocco restricts it exports to the UK, post-Brexit

In October 2019, Britain signed a trade deal with Morocco. However, the agreement is not as valuable to Moroccans as the EU-Morocco Association Agreement, which came into force in 2000. The deal set up a free trade area between Morocco and the 27 EU countries. Hence the EU is Morocco’s largest trade partner and the country prioritises sending its surplus tomatoes to EU countries. Post-Brexit, Morocco made the decision to restrict supplies to Britain to in an attempt to control prices.

2- Labour shortages

But we’ve got loads of polytunnels in sunny Kent which supply the supermarkets with produce, so why would we need to import tomatoes anyway, is another popular argument made by Brexit defenders. While fields of polytunnels might be a common sight in southern regions of England, they are not working to capacity because many EU workers have gone home. Why have they gone home? Before Brexit, free movement legislation meant that citizens from the EU had the right to live and work in the UK without requiring permission. This all changed on January 1, 2020, when free movement ended, meaning workers from the EU now face more restrictive immigration rules. A major report from ReWAGE and the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford in May 2022, showed that the end of free movement has exacerbated the recruiting issues many UK employers face.

3- Spanish growers blame associated Brexit costs and red tape

Spain is the UK’s biggest foreign supplier of fresh fruit and vegetables. But additional paperwork and costs post Brexit has made the UK a less desirable market, some fruit and vegetable producers in Spain claim. Alfonso Galvez, general secretary of the Murcia brand of Asaja, Spain’s largest farming association, says the current shortages in the UK may have more to do with logistics and bureaucracy than the weather, which some growers – and much of the media – are pinning the shortages on.

“There have been logistics and transport problems when it comes to export, such as a shortage of lorry drivers to service the UK market, and the problems we’ve seen with the queues to get into the country through Eurotunnel,” said Galvez. “On top of that, you’ve got the costs of all this bureaucracy and all these waits, which mean that perhaps the UK market isn’t so attractive,” he added.

4- Greenhouses too expensive to heat because of high energy costs

In October 2021, the UK’s biggest tomato supplier shut its greenhouses due to soaring gas prices. Phil Pearson, group development director and head grower at APS Group – which supplies around 40% of Britain’s tomatoes – said: “I am really very worried for the future of UK food production in 2022.”

There will be “empty shelves” Pearson warned, as the company’s energy costs had increased between six to seven fold. “The result of the gas prices mean, as an industry, we’re going to have less British tomatoes next year,” he added.

Fast-forward 18 months and energy prices have rocketed further. But how is this related to Brexit? During the EU referendum campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove promised cheaper household gas bills, if Britons backed Brexit. Energy prices might also be at record highs in Europe, but the countries in the EU’s internal energy market trade efficiently with one another via linked auctions that balance prices across the EU. In theory, having no ties to auctions from Europe, Britain could enjoy cheaper prices than elsewhere, if energy was cheap. However it isn’t, so the UK is exposed to higher prices.

This week, Liz Webster of Save British Food called for an urgent return of free trade with Europe to keep supermarket shelves in Britain stocked. Talking to LBC, Webster said tomato growers in glass houses in the UK have shut down, as a “result of energy costs that are higher than the rest of Europe.”

5- Supply chain inefficiency

Supply chain inefficiency post-Brexit has been attributed to the shortages of tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables.

Ksenija Simovic, a senior policy adviser at Copa-Cogeca, a group which represents farmers and farming co-operatives in the EU, said Brexit certainly hadn’t helped Britain and its supply chain issues. According to Simovic, if there is a shortage of supply then the produce that is available is simply more likely to remain within the Single Market.

“It doesn’t help that the UK is out of the EU and single market, but I don’t think this is the primary reason the UK is having shortages,” she said.

Bring on the turnips

Meanwhile, as experts warn supermarket stocks ‘may be low for a month,’ the environment secretary Therese Coffey has come up with a solution – people should eat more homegrown food like turnips so we are less reliant on imported products.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

Image credit: Lidl supermarket in Baza, Spain – Chris Whitehead

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