The shortage of vegetables across the UK has caused major retailers in the country to introduce purchase restrictions on a number of vegetable items. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and in some cases, even lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower have been limited to buyers so that they can only buy a few units per person. The British government has claimed that bad weather in Spain and North Africa has sharply decreased the supply of imported vegetables from these origins, leading to a severe shortage across the country. Although the government’s claim is true, other factors must be considered to analyze the reasons behind this unprecedented shortage.
According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) trade group, the UK imports around 95% of its tomatoes in winter and 90% of its lettuces mainly from Spain and Morocco. However, this winter, Spain has suffered unusually cold weather and has also been affected by high energy costs. In Morocco, crop yields have been damaged by floods, while storms have caused shipping containers to be delayed or canceled. As a result, Morocco banned the export of tomatoes, onions, and potatoes to Western Africa at the beginning of 2023 in an effort to protect exports to Europe, which are of higher value.
Besides Spain and Morocco, the UK also gets some winter produce from domestic producers and the Netherlands. However, farmers in both countries have reduced the use of greenhouses to produce winter crops due to higher electricity prices. In addition, since the outbreak of the Ukraine-Russia conflict last year, energy prices, and electricity prices in particular, have skyrocketed in the UK, leaving many British farmers unable to grow fresh vegetables in greenhouses. As a result, UK farmers have decided to leave part of the greenhouses empty during the winter to avoid the cost of lighting and heating.
Affected by high inflation and the rising cost of producing fresh agricultural products in the UK, the situation has resulted in a serious decrease in the number of British domestic agricultural products and increasing dependence on imports. In addition, the departure of the UK from the European Union also has disrupted the supply chain for many goods, adding to the current pressures of the shortage of fruits and vegetables.
Major UK supermarkets like Tesco and Aldi have limited fruit and vegetable sales after shortages. The purchase of peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes has been limited to three units per person so that as many customers as possible can purchase a minimum need. Asda also has limited sales of lettuces, salad bags, broccoli, cauliflowers, and raspberry punnets. Tomatoes and peppers are the worst affected vegetables as prices have tripled since last December 2022 due to the greater demand in the UK for both.
According to The Lea Valley Growers Association, the shortage of some vegetables could last until May, when local spring production arrives at the market. However, according to industry experts, in order to minimize the negative impact on producers, the British government needs to issue a large-scale subsidy policy for the agricultural production industry. In addition, the National Farmers' Union has called for more support for UK growers, noting the horticulture sector should have been included in the government's support scheme for energy-intensive industries after Brexit.
Besides the support schemes that need to be granted to local farmers, the UK will need to reevaluate its fresh fruit and vegetable supply. After Brexit, the UK has increasingly depended on a few fresh produce suppliers to fulfill their local demand. Therefore, when supply from these providers is short, the local market gets directly affected by prices for consumers rising at very high levels.