Thérèse Coffey, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, is reported to have been booed by farmers at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference. Her crime was glossing over the cause of shortages of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers on the shelves of British supermarkets. “We can’t control the weather in Spain,” she is said to have told Minette Batters, the union’s president, earning a stern rebuke from Batters and the audience, who reminded her that Brexit might also be a factor.
Coffey was repeating the government line that “current issues relating to the availability of certain fruits and vegetables were predominately caused by poor weather in Spain and North Africa”, and nothing to do with the UK’s exit from the EU.
This argument came up against the full might of Mick Hucknall, of Simply Red fame, who sparked a mass comparison of Britain’s empty shelves (the shortage is so severe that supermarkets including Morrisons and Asda have been forced to impose limits on the amount of salad products people can buy) with those in European countries, which are, according to Hucknall’s crowdsourced accounts, positively groaning with enormous, juicy tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
The weather is partly at fault, as is the leap in production prices caused by the cost of energy. The blame for this sits largely on the shoulders of Vladimir Putin. Batters has said that gas prices are three times higher than used to be normal for farmers in the UK, and British growers supply about a fifth of the tomatoes we buy at the supermarket. The cost of energy has meant that this year many simply did not switch on the lights in their glasshouses.
Had Brexit not happened, the British government would have been forced to go along with European Union decisions on how to help farmers through this situation, meaning that British growers might have had more support. The UK has decided not to include horticulturalists in its energy support scheme; in the EU a €500m support package has helped farmers to grow fruit and vegetables on fallow land. This morning Justin King, the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, said that the government’s lack of support had exacerbated the crisis. “In Thanet, there are the largest greenhouses in Europe, which used to be full of cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes,” he told LBC. “Without support on energy, it’s not been economically viable to produce under glass this winter.”
The government was warned about this well in advance. In November a group of growers in the Lea Valley, known as Britain’s “cucumber capital” because it produces about three-quarters of British cucumbers, said that half their members had not planted this year because the cost of production was so high. “There will be shortage of British produce next year across the board,” said Lee Stiles, the secretary of the Lea Valley Growers Association.
In that respect, this crisis has the same roots as the Great Egg Shortage of ’22: food prices have risen with the cost of production thanks to energy and fertiliser prices (the Office for National Statistics found that food price inflation peaked at 16.9 per cent in December), but supermarkets are refusing to pay growers what they need to produce. That disconnect between what farmers need and what supermarkets are willing to pay has also led to empty shelves.
Coffey’s argument also ignored further effects of Brexit: supermarkets have understandably been looking to suppliers abroad to fill the gaps, but supply chains are more complicated, more expensive and slower than they’ve ever been, with produce from countries including Morocco (which supplies a quarter of our tomatoes) subject to new checks. Liz Webster, the chair of Save British Food, said that Brexit has “messed up our trade, ended freedom of movement and also removed the cap and food subsidies”. She added that “the only quick fix open now” is to “get back in the single market and customs union”.
Lack of labour has also hurt farmers. Last year the NFU said £22m of fruit and vegetables had been left to rot in the fields because growers couldn’t get the workers they needed to harvest it. Until Brexit, farmers relied on cheap, seasonal labour from Europe to pick fruit and vegetables, but with Brexit came the end of free movement of EU citizens, making it harder to recruit.
The government’s refusal to join the dots on this issue is endangering farmers and will lead to further shortages. Yesterday Batters warned that without additional help and support, the situation will worsen. “The time is nearly up for government to demonstrate its commitment to food and farming,” she said.
[See also: The milkman on a mission]