Why is there a shortage of tomatoes in the UK?

March 2, 2023

Brexit, bad weather and rising energy prices have a role to play, but our UK growers have been left out on a limb. Like a glasshouse half empty, this crisis is exposing deep systemic problems in our food system that need addressing. Sustain takes a look.

Is there more to the current salad crisis than a few empty shelves? Sustain Deputy CEO Ben Reynolds interviews Sustain’s Head of Sustainable Farming, Vicki Hird to find out more.

BR: Vicki, let’s start with some basics – what is the cause of the current shortage of some salad crops on supermarket shelves? Is it Brexit? is it poor weather conditions in Spain?

VH: The weather in Spain and Morocco is part of the problem, and it’s potentially linked to wider changes in climatic conditions. The high cost of gas right now is a critical issue for glasshouse producers. But there are also complications linked to our relationship with European trade partners and a new trade deal three years ago with Morocco which set up differential trade arrangements. Bizarrely it means there’s now more friction, meaning it’s easier for Morocco to trade with Europe than us. Also UK growers are clear they can’t buy and plant seeds or fruit trees, with costs sky high, but no farmgate prices increase to match.

So, are there tomato shortages on the European mainland?

VH: There are shortages in both Morocco and the European mainland, but they’re probably making sure their shelves are stocked first and exporting to us second – hence the gaps when we’re so reliant on imports.

How long is this shortage going to continue, and is this is going to happen more often in future?

VH: Given what we know about water stress in our global supply chains this is just going to increase in frequency. This particular period of shortages could last weeks, it’s hard to tell. But this is why we need to build our own supplies here, and resilient supplies with our near neighbours. But production needs to be sustainable – particularly in terms of their environmental impact. And crucially we need to waste less in our supply chain. It’s crazy how much is not used just because it looks wrong!

Can’t we grow more of our own tomatoes? Some farmers are saying that this is about food security and that we could grow more of this produce even out of season, if there was more investment from Government in infrastructure and better support for growers with energy prices. Do you think this is a solution?

VH: Absolutely, we could and should grow more of our own. New production needs to be done with sensitivity, and in harmony with nature and habitat restoration. We don’t want to see a competition between critically important areas for nature covered with hothouses or more peat soils being dug up to support this growth. But horticulture has a low land take and we could grow more everywhere.

And it’s totally understandable that farmers are pointing out the unfairness about energy price support. Minette Batters, head of the NFU, is making a good case for food to get this same support on high energy costs as non-food sectors. In the longer term we need to invest in renewable energy for our horticulture e.g. combined heat plants for glasshouses or geothermal sources. We need to see more combinations of solar panels with horticulture production, as in the US.  But this all needs R&D and investment which is long overdue.

And it needs Government support, this is not something that industry can invest in with such low profits (See Sustain’s Unpicking Food Prices report).

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I was talking to an organisation of apple growers this morning – some of them are grubbing up orchards right now as it’s not paying. In other sectors many growers are not planting, as their likely returns, with rising costs of energy, labour and other inputs, are just not enough. Ali Capper, of English Apples and Pears, has said that planting of 150,000 new apple and pear trees has been cancelled this season. Many Lea Valley growers who provide many of our salads are shutting up shop because they can’t compete with countries exporting here who have lower standards for production. This is not a new problem, driven by energy prices and the impact of Ukraine’s occupation. These crises are exposing deep systemic problems that have been growing over time. Energy prices are just the last straw.

So this is a bit of a wake up call that we can’t simply rely on imports and expect our own supply to be there when we want it, unless we invest in it in the first place. How could supermarkets better support growers, and what alternatives realistically are out there for growers producing out of season produce at this scale?

VH: A big problem is that the horticulture industry has been left on its own to deal with supermarket demands and low prices and it has done so in a way that is understandable but ultimately not sustainable. Where much of the farming industry has had farm support, pigs, poultry and horticulture have not and these sectors have become extremely specialized to meet supermarket demands.

What we want to see is the decent treatment of the horticulture sector, and their demands for cost price increases. Supermarkets are saying they can’t raise prices. But these prices need to be accepted. The Grocery Code Adjudicator (GCA) – the body which enforces a Grocery Code of Practice on 14 top retailers – has a set of seven golden rules that we believe now need to be mandatory. They’re currently voluntary. This is about negotiating better prices for growers – but it’s currently a completely uneven power balance.

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about a shortage of workers to pick crops – is this fuelling shortages of supply in this country?

VH: The shortage of workers has been an acute problem for years here, and it’s also a global issue. As more countries become affluent fewer people will leave to earn an income by picking crops here. One route people see is more robotics, which may have a place, but we also need to make farm labour wages better and conditions more family friendly. The conditions have become much more demanding in recent years and are incompatible with family life. No-one wants to do these jobs. The supply chain needs to recognise that better and not make unreasonable demands on delivery times etc.

You mentioned climate change as a factor earlier – some people might think that warmer climate would mean we could grow more of this produce with less energy and heat needed. Is it more complex than this?

VH: As our climate changes there will be opportunities to diversify farming. Ideally we’d have more horticultural production all across the UK – rather than be trucked across the country. We should invest in market garden enterprises around cities and towns (see Sustain’s fringe farming project). More arable producers could put aside space for horticulture but they need the support for infrastructure. We’re great believers in agroforestry – about combining crops and animals with trees, which also has the nature and climate benefits of more tree cover and new income for farmers. But this won’t scale, and existing farms can’t transition, without the support and better demonstration that it works. A new Scheme is due next year from Defra to help on that.

Many farmers and groups are despairing at a lack of intervention from Government on this and related issues – are there any options beyond Government action that could help provide longer term solutions to this?

VH: It’s not necessarily a government role to educate consumers to purchase differently etc – and they’re not necessarily the best people to do this. But when you look at the billions that industry spends on marketing, there needs to be better encouragement, or even regulation, so that there’s more honesty imposed on the conventional marketplace. We need more industry transparency and honesty in labelling, marketing and beyond.

There is too little investment in marketing of sustainable alternatives for growers. And do we really need strawberries and tomatoes all year round? We’ve become so used to year-round and abundant supplies of produce from global markets and even domestic glasshouses. Moving consumers to more seasonal and domestic varieties, that fit local conditions and which have lower inputs, will be a major shift.

The more transparency about the impact of produce and shorter supply chains will help.  Government has a role in both creating the framework for marketing and promotion and supporting it where it’s lacking.


Teaser photo credit: A gardener with tomato plants. Credit: cottonbro | Pexels

Ben Reynolds

Ben Reynolds is the author of The Coming Revolution: Capitalism in the 21st Century, out from Zero Books. He is a US-based writer and activist whose work has appeared in ROAR MagazineThe Diplomat and other forums.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, food shortages, horticulture, short supply chains