Fresh produce shortages across Britain’s supermarket chains have been blamed on bad weather in southern Spain and Morocco. British farmers say it’s a more systemic problem.
“Now Tesco has joined Aldi, ASDA and Morrisons in rationing the amount of peppers and tomatoes that customers can buy. The disruption of fresh produce is expected to last a few weeks…”Sky News
Last week, supermarkets began to ration lettuce, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers.
They blamed bad weather in southern Spain and Morocco for the poor harvest.
“A lot of the produce grown in Spain and Morocco is under plastic and without heat so once they get a bit of cold weather it slows down and it’s just not ready.”Farming Today, BBC Radio 4
While Justin King, the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, blamed Brexit…
“This is a sector that’s been significantly disrupted by Brexit and if you look in particular at the salad veg which historically, for a long time actually, has been grown 52 weeks of the year under glass… which used to supply vast quantities of tomatoes, cucumbers and the like, but that’s not a sector the government has chosen to support this winter from an energy point of view so we’re uniquely exposed to imports at this time of year, there is a genuine shortage but we did rather bring this problem on ourselves.”Justin King, former Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s
The shortages led Environment Secretary Therese Coffey to encourage consumers to switch their salad vegetables for the more seasonal turnip…
“It’s important to make sure that we cherish the specialisms that we have in this country, a lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about lettuce and tomatoes…”Environment Secretary Therese Coffey speaking in parliament
But the National Farmers’ Union criticised the government for not taking the issue of Britain’s supply chain seriously enough.
Although bad weather and the impact of Brexit have contributed to the shortage of fresh produce, soaring energy costs, inflation, striking French port workers, and the choice of suppliers by British supermarkets all play a part too.
Farmers blame the government’s lack of strategy and support as a key reason for the empty shelves.
So, what does the tomato shortage tell us about Britain’s food system as a whole?
“No one is really admitting that our current food system is completely broken…”Thomasina Miers, Co-founder of the Wahaca food chain
This is Thomasina Miers, co-founder of the Wahaca food chain, speaking to the BBC’s Laura Kuensenberg…
“The very system which it depends is rife with insecurities whether it’s to do with climate, biodiversity or public health so I mention public health and how much it’s costing the taxpayer, but it’s also killing people now, the food we eat, diabetes is killing more people than smoking or alcohol, and no one is really addressing that… we have this problem with our food culture and I think it’s really propounded by government who seem to think that good food is a luxury.”Thomasina Miers, Co-founder of the Wahaca food chain
Britain doesn’t have a strategy to deliver healthy, affordable, sustainable and ethical food..
But it could have been quite different. In 2021 Henry Dimbleby, director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, published a National Food Strategy.
It was actually commissioned by the government – and it was the first independent review of England’s food system in 75 years.
After consulting the food and farming sectors, the report set out a vision and plan for a better food system through 14 recommendations – including a tax on salt and moves to reduce the amount of meat the nation consumes.
On the day it was published Prime Minister Boris Johnson publicly rejected some of its key findings following a backlash from tabloids like the Sun which called the report “bonkers”. Since then, the government has only delivered on four of the recommendations.
Here’s chef Jamie Oliver…
“If you asked me a week ago I would have said it looks like we have a world-class obesity strategy. There’s people in other countries looking at what we are putting together, thinking actually this is a really incredibly grown-up strategic approach to making a difference for child health and then of course last Friday we were told that they were going to go back on a handful of the really important strategies and it just feels like history repeating itself again.”Chef Jamie Oliver speaking to Channel 4 News
Last week, in a speech to the National Farmers’ Union, Labour leader Keir Starmer said the Conservatives had “given up” on British farmers.
He pledged that under a Labour government, at least half the food bought by the public sector would be produced locally and sustainably.
“By the way that’s £1.2 billion of public money spent on quality food that is genuinely better for people’s health.”Labour leader Keir Starmer speaking at the National Farmers’ Union Conference
It could be a vote winning pledge for rural communities.
While recognising Britain will always rely on some imports, farmers have called on the government to ensure more food is grown here.
Here’s the National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters…
“It is time for the government to start walking the talk… we need action, no more warm words, the era of saying we’re a wealthy nation we can just import our food is long over and it’s being played over in real time now.”Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union
And although tomatoes and cucumbers may be back on supermarket shelves in a few weeks, farmers have warned that shortages will continue.
Supplies of British leeks could be “exhausted by April”, while carrots and cabbages are at risk too.
The government didn’t necessarily cause this problem, but it’s clear that it’s theirs to fix.
This episode was written and mixed by Imy Harper.