On a simplistic level the story of the ongoing shortage of salad items in UK supermarkets is an easy one to tell: unseasonable weather in southern Spain and Morocco has impacted the crop, leading to a lack of imports from key supplier countries.

But underneath lies a plethora of issues that go far beyond the trays where the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers normally sit – and they’re issues that could lead to further supply-chain problems moving forward.

Among those issues are Brexit; the UK’s major supermarkets seeking to compete with the German discounters leading to farmers being squeezed on price; sky-high energy prices putting growers off heating glasshouses during the winter and the Government not intervening to sort out labour shortages and nor providing energy subsidies.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents the country’s grocers, is sticking to the narrative that weather in Spain and Morocco is causing a short-term problem.

Andrew Opie, its director of food and sustainability, says: “Difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa have disrupted harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes and peppers. While disruption is expected to last a few weeks, supermarkets are adept at managing supply chain issues and are working with farmers to ensure that customers are able to access a wide range of fresh produce.”

Supply chain resilience

The UK government is also largely echoing the line that this is something of a blip that can easily be remedied.

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In a statement, food and farming minister Mark Spencer said: “Shoppers need to know that our food supply chain is extremely resilient, as we saw during Covid-19, with our retailers and farmers working hard day-in-day-out to keep the nation fed.”

However, suggesting an acceptance of the existence of wider issues, Spencer has spoken to supermarket chiefs and, according to a government statement, “asked them to look again at how they work with our farmers and how they buy fruit and vegetables so they can further build our preparedness for these unexpected incidents”.

Meanwhile, food sector experts, while accepting the immediate issue of adverse weather conditions in growing locations, believe there are structural issues that need sorting out.

Multiple problems behind UK salad shortage

Tim Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at City, University of London and author of the book Feeding Britain, says: “It’s very dangerous to just say it’s about the weather. Was weather responsible for the eggs and turkey shortages? It is only superficially accurate to say it’s about the weather.

“We are dealing with multiple problems here. The snow in Spain and Morocco will fade away and another one [problem] will come along.”

Industry analyst Clive Black, director and head of research at Shore Capital, recognises the climate conditions in southern Europe and north Africa as an immediate cause of the issue but not the sole one.

“The key factor behind where we are today is the weather. If we had had normal conditions in northern Morocco and southern Spain we wouldn’t have a shortage of produce. We need to be upfront about that. First and foremost this is a supply shortage,” he says.

“The more pertinent question is why is the UK short of produce compared to continental Europe. The supermarkets are well stocked there.

“It comes down to basic economics. The UK is not very attractive now to salad and vegetable suppliers around Europe.”

Henry Dimbleby, the founder of the Leon food chain who authored the UK National Food Strategy report in 2021, reacted to the UK’s latest food shortage – which has seen some supermarket groups rationing consumers’ purchases of cucumbers, lettuce, peppers and tomatoes – by blaming what he sees as the UK’s “weird supermarket culture”, which results in suppliers struggling with rising costs while locked into fixed-price contracts

Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Dimbleby called it a “market failure” and said: “I don’t know another system where the supermarkets have these fixed-price contracts with suppliers”.

A new strategy

Like Dimbleby, the National Farmers Union (NFU) also believes there are structural issues that need to be resolved.

In the wake of the UK salad shortage, the NFU has launched a strategy intended to boost horticulture.

“If backed by government this could be the solution to minimising future supply chain disruption,” it says.

The NFU’s suggestions include sustainable energy supplies, access to skilled labour, productivity investment and supply chain “fairness”.

NFU president Minette Batters said: “The consequences of undervaluing growers can be seen on supermarket shelves right now. Shelves are empty. This is a reality we’ve been warning government about for many months. Without urgent action there are real risks that empty shelves may become more commonplace as British horticulture businesses struggle with unprecedented inflationary pressures, most notably on energy and labour costs.

She added: “To meet this ambition, government must deliver on the levers for growth in the sector it highlighted in its Food Strategy last summer.”

Speaking to Just Food, Martin Emmett, the NFU’s horticulture and potatoes board chairman, says: “This [shortage] was absolutely not a one-off. We can assume this is a given that it’s going to happen and we can’t put all our eggs in one basket.

“The current situation has highlighted something we predicted, so hopefully the government will listen.

“What we need to do is look at the supply-chain narrative to create more resilience and spread the risk.

“After Dimbleby’s report Defra [the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs] said it was working on a growth strategy for horticulture but we haven’t seen evidence of significant progress.”

Reliance on imports

According to figures quoted by the NFU, 50% of vegetables and 15% of fruit in the UK is produced domestically.

When it comes to salad items, UK broadcaster the BBC quotes statistics revealing that of all the tomatoes eaten in the UK – about 500,000 tonnes a year – UK growers produce a fifth. More than a third of tomatoes eaten in the UK currently come from Morocco.

In the winter, any shortfall can usually be made up by domestically-grown tomatoes nurtured indoors but there has been a shortage of seasonal farm workers, partly as result of post-Brexit rules and foreign workers heading home during the pandemic. Meanwhile, high energy costs have deterred UK growers from heating glasshouses.

Lee Stiles, secretary of the Lea Valley Growers Association (LVGA), which represents members throughout an area close to London that has been dubbed the UK’s “cucumber capital”, says: “The costs of growing produce over winter have gone up by 100% because of rising energy costs.

“And we only get workers for six months under the [post-Brexit] Seasonal Workers Scheme and then they can’t return for 12 months, so they have to be staggered and we are constantly training people which brings additional costs.

“We are at such a disadvantage compared to European growers with their freedom of movement.”

Joined-up thinking

These are issues for which the Government can be criticised, Emmett at the NFU believes.

“It is about the need for more joined-up thinking and more commitment,” he says.

“Why did it [the Government] not include protected crop horticulture in its high energy relief scheme?

“It’s also an issue like planning. Seasonal workers need accommodation and we shouldn’t have to fight to get planning permission for tall greenhouses.

“We need more effective national and cross-department guidelines so we don’t get confounded by such basic issues.”

Crisis intervention

Prof. Lang goes further and talks about “shocking incompetence” on the part of the Government.

He says: “There’s a blindness of British politicians to food resilience. The reflex is ‘leave it to Tesco et al’.

“The Dimbleby food strategy report was swept away. It’s crisis intervention after crisis intervention but there has been very little crisis intervention about the cost of food.”

Prof. Lang is among those who believe the price consumers are willing to pay for food in the UK and intense competition among supermarkets has produced a downward spiral, resulting in low-value contracts for suppliers.

“Optimists say it [the shortage] was just a hiccup and we can sort it out. Realists say there are structural issues including the power of the supermarkets,” he says.

“In mainland Europe, consumers are prepared to pay more for food and less for housing. We are a housing bubble economy.

“These things will continue to come along.”

Black at Shore Capital agrees. “European supermarkets will pay a higher price [to suppliers] and, whether willingly or not, consumers there pay a higher price too.

“British [consumers] don’t spend enough on food. If you want to maintain supply and you want things to be sustainable you have to start paying for that.”

Need for debate

Black is as critical of the UK government’s response to systemic, structural issues in the food industry as Lang.

“It’s not down to Brexit but down to incompetence. Defra is worse than neutral,” he says.

“I’m not blaming Defra for the cold weather in Spain and Morocco but the debate is much more about structure and strategy. And that conversation does not exist.”

Supermarket contracts

Stiles at the LGVA sees the issue of low-value contracts as crucial to the UK salad shortage.

“It simply comes down to the price British supermarkets are prepared to pay for British salad over the winter,” he says.

“Over the last few years, they haven’t offered enough so growers have left the glasshouses empty.

“They were relying on Spain and Morocco but they grow under plastic over there and they’ve had snow so the crop is not growing at the usual rate.

“Also, if you’ve got a lorry load of tomatoes from Spain or Morocco are you going to take it somewhere in Europe or spend extra days bringing it to the UK with additional paperwork?

“And European supermarkets pay more. A cucumber costs GBP0.75p (US$0.89) in the UK and it’s GBP1.50 in Europe so we are some way apart.”

Stiles sees the solution as simple. “UK supermarkets could be more flexible on price while the government could change their policy on access to labour and could offer [energy] subsidies for growers,” he says.

Shore Capital’s Black agrees. “The Government needs to treat food security as something of strategic importance. We need to nurture our agri-food supply chain and agri-tech,” he says.

He also suggests there need to be discussions around what suppliers are paid.

“There needs to be debate. Does below-cost selling exist in the UK and is it good for the supply chain? And that pertains to the German discounters,” he says.

“The German discounters are a key factor in why there is no salad in the UK at the moment.”