What's causing the UK's vegetable shortage?

David Kinane for Distilled Post

Across the country, reports have been made of food shortages hitting UK supermarkets, with consumers across social media posting pictures of glum shelves lacking tomatoes, cabbages, strawberries, carrots and leeks. Food supply and delivery services have similarly had to cut back on supplying to customers.


This has occurred at the same time that Inflation has also continued to rise, to a high of 8.4 percent in February, with fresh food inflation in particular has risen to 16.3 percent (and regular food inflation hitting 14.5 percent) the highest figures on record, which significantly impacts on the price of food that remains in stock.


Why is the UK experiencing shortages?

Tomatoes are among the worst hit by shortages. In the UK tomato season starts in March and lasts until November, so around this time of year we’re particularly dependent on imports, with approximately 95 percent of our tomato produce being imported overseas from countries such as Spain and Morocco.


According to the British Retail Consortium among the factors that are impacting the food shortages are colder weather in Southern Europe and North Africa. Spain was hit by unusually cold temperatures brought in by storm Juliette, in a normal year Barcelona would have temperatures as low as 8C but regions of Spain, like the Spanish islands of Mallorca have had temperatures hit as low as -2C. In the Lledia city of Catalonia temperatures dropped as low as -18C. As a result Spain alone has seen a drop in tomato produce by around 35 percent.


Morocco has faced similar issues, cold temperatures that began in January, coupled with a lack of sunlight, flooding and cancelled ferries in early-mid February (also a result of bad weather) have created a backlog of vehicles attempting to cross from Tangier in Morocco to Algeciras in Spain, causing further disruption to supply chains. The British Tomato Grower’s Association (BTGA) have agreed stating that shortages are “... predominantly a consequence of the lack of imported product at this time of year”.


In addition to inflation, steady demand and a cut in supply has had a further impact on the price of fruit and vegetables, with some produce more than doubling in price.


Why doesn’t the UK have its own supply?

 Increasing energy costs have made other alternatives, such as growing salad vegetables in winter time in the UK significantly more expensive to the extent that it has become unfeasible. Home grown vegetables require fertilisers which have increased in price in line with inflation and intense LED lighting. An energy crisis has built up over the last year since the UK’s economy has opened up post-lockdown which coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a consequence gas prices have risen and had a knock on effect on the price of energy.


The British Retail Consortium has similarly also blamed higher energy bills and “tougher trading conditions” as a result of the war in Ukraine for the increases in food inflation. These factors have had a negative effect on the value of the British pound which has made it more expensive to import goods from mainland Europe. The Republic of Ireland has also been hit by similar shortages for the same reasons as the UK. Ireland has also been affected by colder weather in winter and unusually dry summers, affecting its homegrown supply of vegetables at this time of year.


Brexit is unlikely to be a major factor on its own, although there has been a decline in confidence in labour supply which partially affects the yield of fresh vegetables. However this has been far less significant than inflation or weather issues.


How long will shortages last?

Fortunately, these shortages are not expected to last with experts at the BTGA expecting supermarkets to resupply again by the end of March or the start of April, as the British tomato season begins. The Environment Secretary, Therese Coffey agreed after speaking with industry and retail experts, saying that she expected shortages to be temporary and that they would last for another “two to four weeks”.