Officials blame the problem on recent bad weather in Spain and North Africa, saying shortages could last up to a month. But many people were quick to point out that other European countries don’t seem to be facing the same challenges, leading some to wonder if this was a result of Britain’s separation from the EU.
The UK government has rejected suggestions that Brexit is to blame. But shoppers aren’t happy, and Environment Minister Therese Coffey’s suggestion that consumers should “cherish” British produce and eat more turnips instead of imported foods has sparked 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 over-reliance on imports during the winter, rising energy costs and the competitive pricing strategies at UK supermarkets – are more glaring. statements are.
A look at some of the factors contributing to what one European broadcaster has dubbed Britain’s “vegetable fiasco”:
COLD WEATHER, HIGH ENERGY BILL
Unusually cold temperatures in Spain and heavy rains and flooding in Morocco – two of the UK’s largest tomato suppliers – have led to poor yields and have been cited as the main cause of the shortage.
In Spain, growers are blaming recent freezing temperatures after record heat and dry conditions last year.
In the southern province of Almeria, where 40% of Spain’s fresh vegetable exports come from, production 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 says the situation is improving.
Heat and drought in Europe last year also affected the vegetable harvest in other countries, including Germany.
Separately, the Netherlands, another major tomato grower, has seen a drop in production as skyrocketing energy bills related to Russia’s war in Ukraine meant that many growers could not justify the cost of switching on the LED lights in their greenhouses this winter.
Vegetable growers in the UK have reported that they too have been forced to leave their greenhouses empty.
Richard Diplock, managing director of Green House Growers in the south of England, said his energy costs are about six times higher than in previous winters.
“We decided that we couldn’t afford to heat the greenhouses in December and January, and we postponed planting until February. Many tomato growers are in a similar position,” he said.
Britain’s shortages – and contrasting images of full vegetable shelves in mainland European supermarkets – sparked a degree of Brexit sadness in some EU news outlets.
Experts say additional bureaucracy and costs related to Brexit have played a role, although they stress that it is not the main factor.
“One hypothesis for less exports to the UK is that if supply is limited, why do extra paperwork (to export to Britain)?” said Michael Winter, a professor of agricultural change at the University of Exeter. “If the transaction costs are higher for exporting to one country compared to another, that determines where you go.”
“Brexit has undoubtedly exaggerated the problem,” added Winter. “But I don’t want to exaggerate that. It has more to do with climate change and lack of investment in our industry.”
Farmers say another factor is how Britain’s biggest supermarkets have tried to stay competitive by keeping prices as low as possible even as food costs soared, a major driver of inflation hitting its highest level in decades. stands.
In some EU countries, such as Germany, there are no empty shelves, but prices for fresh vegetables have skyrocketed. British supermarkets are reluctant to pay more or charge customers as much, Diplock said.
“Being in the UK you know that every week the price of a cucumber is 75 pence ($0.90) regardless of the time of year,” Diplock said. “North African and Spanish growers will see a better return on supplying European supermarkets.”
“WHERE IS THE INVESTMENT?”
Even if energy costs hadn’t risen so much, British growers wouldn’t be able to make up for shortfalls in imported produce, Diplock said.
During the winter, domestic production in the UK only accounts for 5% or less of the tomatoes and cucumbers sold in UK supermarkets.
The National Farmers’ Union has been warning for months that over-reliance on imported fresh produce leaves the UK vulnerable to unpredictable weather conditions and other external factors, such as the war in Ukraine.
Farmers have also complained about the lack of government investment in the sector and funding to help them cope with painfully high energy bills.
The government spent billions to help consumers and businesses as European natural gas prices rose to record highs on limited supplies from Russia.
“The bigger question is why we’ve neglected horticulture in this country,” Winter said. “This is a bit of a wake-up call.”
AP writers Joseph Wilson in Madrid and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.