Due to a shortage of certain fruits and vegetables, British supermarkets have been forced to ration their supplies. This situation is likely to continue for some time, leading to fears of price hikes. But how did the UK get to this point? While most officials say that bad weather and rising energy prices are to blame, some observers are pointing the finger at Brexit.
As the UK experiences shortages of some fruits and vegetables, several supermarket chains have been forced to limit the number of products each of their customers can purchase. Some are only allowing three tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers per person.
The British government has blamed the shortfalls on extreme weather conditions in Spain and North Africa – where most of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the UK this time of year are sourced – which have affected harvests.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC), the trade association representing UK retailers, says the shortages are expected to last for “a few weeks” until the UK growing season begins in the spring, giving shops alternative sources of supply.
Environment Minister Therese Coffey caused an uproar on Thursday by suggesting that Britons should eat fewer tomatoes and more turnips, fueling the debate over the reasons for the scarcity. While many say that bad weather conditions and rising energy prices are to blame, others are pointing the finger at the UK government and Brexit.
Extreme weather conditions
Exceptionally cold weather in Spain, flooding in Morocco and storms that have severely disrupted the transport of goods are just some of the reasons why the UK is experiencing a fruit and vegetable shortage, according to the BRC. During the winter months, the UK imports around 95% of its tomatoes and 90% of its lettuce from Spain and North Africa.
However, the UK has experienced extreme weather conditions as well. Heatwaves earlier this year led to the fourth-hottest summer on record, with temperatures exceeding 40°C for the first time. In December, the country was hit by a series of severe and prolonged frosts.
This makes it difficult for the UK to rely on local producers, or even those in the Netherlands, another of its major food trading partners. Due to rising electricity prices, farmers in both countries have been forced to use their greenhouses less and concentrate their efforts on winter crops.
In the wake of the war in Ukraine, the Netherlands was hit hard by the energy crisis. “Energy was 200% more expensive in September than in the same month last year” compared with 151% in August, Statistics Netherlands announced in October.
The Netherlands, which is the fifth-largest economy in the European Union (EU), is trying to end its dependence on Russian gas and now has one of the highest inflation rates in Europe, at one point surpassing 17%.
Tim O’Malley, chief executive of Nationwide Produce, one of the UK’s largest fresh food producers, told the BBC last week that shortages could lead to price increases in the coming weeks.
UK retailers will have to find alternative sources of supply and rely on locally produced crops. The National Farmers Union, the country’s main farming union, has asked the government for a support plan geared to producers. GOV.UK announced last week that more than £168 million, or €190 million, has already been paid to British farmers.
Rachael Flaszczak, who owns a café near Manchester, told the BBC she was struggling to get eggs, tomatoes, spinach and rocket. “We go to the supermarket to try and get our stock for the next day and we just see empty, overturned crates,” she said, going so far as to suggest a completely different cause. “There’s no shortage over there [in the EU], so it has to be something to do with Brexit.”
Brexit to blame?
According to the farmers’ union, which says that Brexit rules are one of the reasons why the UK is currently experiencing this situation, shortages of certain fruits and vegetables could be just the “tip of the iceberg”.
The Guardian cited the union’s vice president, Tom Bradshaw, as saying that the shortage was probably an indirect consequence of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
“It’s really interesting that before Brexit we didn’t used to source anything, or very little, from Morocco,” he said. “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.”
Justin King, the former CEO of Sainsbury’s (the second-largest supermarket chain in the UK), is one of many experts who agrees with Bradshaw. During an interview with LBC radio, he said that the supermarket sector has been “horribly affected” by Brexit.
Continental Europeans on social media have shared photos of their well-stocked supermarket shelves to expose the reality of recent food shortages across the UK.
Mick Hucknall, lead singer of the British pop group Simply Red, called on his Twitter followers in continental Europe to post photos of their supermarket shelves, also implicitly blaming Brexit.
“For the sake of balanced fairness can some of our mainland European friends pls post photos of their supermarket food shortages?” he tweeted.
Many – especially in France – obliged.
Some harbour no doubt that Brexit is to blame. “The reason that we have food shortages in Britain, and that we don’t have food shortages in Spain – or anywhere else in the European Union – is because of Brexit, and also because of this disastrous Conservative government that has no interest in food production, farming or even food supply,” said Liz Webster, the president of Save British Farming.
In an interview with LBC, she said the only solution to the foot shortage would be to return to the single market and customs union “as quickly as possible”.
Crop science specialist Jim Monaghan provided a more nuanced view during his interview on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme. “I haven’t spoken to a business who said Brexit has made it easier. There is a range of opinions to the extent of the problem. Getting hold of labour has become more difficult. Moving crops between Europe and the UK has become more difficult, but there are some other issues which are not Brexit-related,” he said. These include disastrous weather conditions, the energy crisis and transport problems caused by the recent nationwide strikes.
Some British wholesalers, importers and retailers dismiss the idea that Brexit is responsible for shortages, arguing that Ireland, an EU member, is also experiencing them, according to the BBC. They say lower domestic production, more complex supply chains and a more price-sensitive market are more to blame for food shortages than Brexit.
This article has been translated from the original in French.
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