The fresh vegetable shortage that has emptied supermarket shelves in the UK has less to do with bad weather in North Africa and southern Europe than it does with price gouging – and trucks queuing at Britain’s borders.
For decades, supermarkets such as Tesco’s, Asda and Sainsbury’s have sourced everything from green beans to cut flowers from as far away as South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, while developing similar markets in Asian countries like Thailand.
Traditionally, vegetables and flowers came by air, while fruit like citrus is shipped by sea after it’s ‘’waxed and gassed’’ and sealed in containers. Before Zimbabwe’s disastrous farm invasions in 2000, 17 international airlines flew produce to Britain and Holland, Europe’s greengrocer. Zimbabwe grew 14 percent of all cut roses sold in the European Union.
By blaming bad weather, environment secretary Theresa Coffey fudged the problem, likely hoping to avoid blaming billion-pound supermarkets who’ve been accused by horticultural growers from Cape Town to Nairobi of paying sub-economic prices on one hand, and rejecting entire consignments when small quantities of produce are damaged in transit.
Increasingly African producers have turned to new markets in the Middle East, saying there’s less quibbling over price or quality.
Meanwhile, a truck driver traveling to London from Holland told The London Economic that delays caused by customs officials and border congestion in the UK have worsened matters. The driver, who owns his own vehicle, didn’t want to be named for fear of losing business.
The situation could worsen in summer when drivers cut their engines which drive the compressors keeping refrigerated trailers cool. That might see your tomato ration cut from three to one.
Still, the reality is that supermarkets can buy tomatoes from the southern hemisphere and land them on shelves within 18 hours of picking. It happens every day – and would happen more frequently if farmers felt they weren’t being gouged. No matter the destination, fruit and vegetables are harvested a fraction before they’re ripe. This allows produce to fill shelves in peak freshness and condition.
Meanwhile, Britain’s farmers know that supermarkets force low farm gate prices on producers, with retailers arguing that consumer resistance and high inflation curbs appetite. Farming publications now say egg production isn’t cost-effective because low prices make inflation-hit feed costs prohibitive.
UK is unable to feed itself
Outside of beef, lamb, milk, and swedes, Britain leans heavily on imports because it isn’t self-sufficient. Most food is imported with the UK unable feed itself. That’s not unusual. Most countries rely heavily on imported food.
Now war in Ukraine has hit wheat and animal feed prices which could decimate British agriculture. Blaming the weather and praising the lamentable turnip won’t solve a growing crisis. Coffey’s comments could well undermine Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s flirtation with the National Farmers’ Union this week.
Supermarkets could at least partially address the shortages by turning to wholesalers in Holland who traditionally truck fruit, vegetables and flowers across the continent. The move would, of course, put them at the mercy of Dutch dealers already chuckling about British shortages. On the other hand, supermarkets know that tomatoes aren’t being rationed in Germany or the Netherlands and if enterprisers shoppers want to buy 100 cucumbers, they can.