The Guardian: LONDON, England – Early on Saturday morning, as Paul Crane, a trader at London’s renowned Borough market, was arranging blood oranges from Valencia on his stall, he admitted that his industry is facing some of the toughest conditions in a quarter of a century.
The wholesale price of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines has quadrupled, and English cauliflowers are up too. Some stallholders are not even selling vine tomatoes because they are just too expensive.
“There are supply chain issues, as in there isn’t enough to go round. It’s all to do with price,” said Crane, who has worked in the south London market for more than 35 years. “It’s been like it for six or seven weeks. All prices across the board have risen.”
While supermarkets face problems because growers cannot fulfil their contracts, greengrocers are better placed, said Crane, who had arrived at New Covent Garden Market in Nine Elms, south London, at 3am to buy his stock. As news of fresh goods shortages spread last week, the stall had got busier. “Greengrocers can find anything. You’ll always find stuff – it’s just how much you’re willing to pay.”
Louise Owens, 55, a training manager from Chelsfield in south-east London, and her husband were carrying two tote bags full of goods they bought from the market as a monthly treat. She noticed that some items at the market, including tomatoes, were more expensive than usual, and said that Waitrose has been low on some products.
“It makes you think: OK, I’ll eat what’s in season locally rather than trying to get the thing you might have had before.”
Farmers said the rationing of selected salad items at some supermarkets last week, including Asda and Morrisons, involves several factors, including the climate crisis, energy prices and Brexit. While the poor weather has been the key factor, the episode has once again exposed the fragility of the modern supply chain.
Tim Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at City, University of London and author of Feeding Britain, said: “Our supply chains are creaking and we are seeing a forerunner of what could be a huge crisis. There has been a total failure by the government to develop a proper food strategy.”
He said it is “absurd” to be increasingly relying on fresh produce grown more than 1,000 miles away in places such as north Africa while UK production is being wound down.
Car makers have similarly been hit by the dearth of computer chips since the pandemic, cutting production in some factories.
COVID led to limited supplies of carbon dioxide, which is used to keep packaged food fresh and to stun livestock before slaughter. The complexity and lack of resilience in many parts of supply chains extending across the globe were exposed by the pandemic. Experts warn that the vulnerabilities are systemic and require urgent attention.
Lea Valley has been described as the “salad bowl” of London and beyond, with its greenhouses from Epping Forest in Essex into Hertfordshire, growing cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and pears. Its growers now warn they are being driven out of the business by soaring costs and worker shortages.
Tony Montalbano, a director of Green Acre Salads in Roydon, Essex, typically produces a million kilograms of baby cucumbers a year, but his glasshouses were standing empty last week. He said he delayed growing his crops this year until March to avoid winter fuel bills of up to £500,000 a month. He expects his production to be cut by up to half this year.
“It’s sad and frustrating but I can’t afford to grow,” he said. “I have to make a profit this year to make up for what I lost last year. If I don’t, there’s no point in me going on. Lots of growers are closing their doors and selling up.”
A market in France. Photograph: Dieter Wanke/Alamy
Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, said: “Up and down the country, we’ve got empty glasshouses.
“People who would grow two or three crops of cucumbers a year may cut that to just one because they want to avoid using more energy than they have to. The fresh produce industry is on the edge of a crisis.”
The British Tomato Growers Association said last week that many of its members have also delayed their crop season by two or three weeks to avoid high heating bills. It still expects significant volumes of homegrown tomatoes from April onwards.
The UK is more dependent than ever on foreign imports for some of the most popular staples. The production of UK-grown and marketed tomatoes has fallen from 134,000 tonnes in 1990 to 68,000 tonnes in 2021, and now accounts for just 17% of total UK supply.
Over the same period, UK-grown and marketed cucumber production has dropped from 100,000 tonnes to 55,000 tonnes. The volume of UK-grown lettuces, mushrooms, apples, pears and plums has also declined.
Farmers were last week warning that leeks, carrots and cauliflowers may also soon be in short supply, as farmers in Britain and mainland Europe contend with a volatile climate. Temperatures broke the 40C (104F) mark for the first time last summer in the UK, and this was followed by a series of hard frosts in winter.
Guy Poskitt, who farms carrots and parsnips in East Yorkshire, said his carrot crop production was down nearly a third compared with last year. “It’s been a nightmare. Traditional vegetables just don’t grow well in hot weather. They shut down. And, on top of that, we’ve had massive inflationary costs.”
The latest warning over shortages of fresh produce comes as shoppers are getting used to gaps on their supermarket shelves. During the pandemic there were shortages of pasta, flour and even toilet paper as the supermarkets’ “just-in-time” model ground to a halt.
Thérèse Coffey suggested people should eat more turnips. Composite: Parliament TV / Alamy
Sunflower oil supplies were seriously disrupted last year by the war in Ukraine, one of the world’s biggest suppliers. And there is also a continuing shortage of eggs as producers struggle with outbreaks of avian flu and rising food and energy costs.
Liz Webster, chair of the campaign group Save British Food, said Brexit compounded many food supply problems because farmers in mainland Europe find it easier to sell within the European Union than face extra paperwork by transporting produce in short supply to the UK. “The government is getting rid of our food security and relying on imports while cutting off links to Europe.”
Shoppers who may face a shortage of some produce in their local supermarket are also finding gaps in their shelves at the local chemist. Pharmacists say they are routinely struggling to obtain prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
Olivier Picard, owner of Newdays Pharmacy, which has four chemists in Berkshire, said: “There have always been drug shortages but in recent months there have been almost 200 medications we couldn’t get hold of, or the prices had increased significantly.
“I had a lady who came in this morning and she wanted a nasal spray for allergies. She had been to about 10 chemists in the Windsor area. There are two forms: one is prescription and the other is over-the-counter. Both are unavailable.”
He added: “There are still some forms of penicillin that we can’t get and certain strengths of antidepressant. There are other medications where the price has gone through the roof and I am losing £40 or £50 by dispensing a prescription. I spend an hour a day just trying to source medication.”
He said his pharmacies had almost empty shelves for some products because of the limited availability of popular cold and flu remedies.skip past newsletter promotion
Archie Bland and Nimo Omer take you through the top stories and what they mean, free every weekday morning
China is the world’s largest producer of active pharmaceutical ingredients while India is the biggest manufacturer of generic medicines in the world. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have disrupted these supply chains. Community pharmacists have recently faced higher-than-normal outbreaks of seasonal illnesses that have strained supplies, including those manufactured in the UK.
The pandemic also exposed the pivotal role of Taiwan in supplying the world with computer chips, which were in short supply as demand soared from consumers in lockdown. The island nation accounts for 92% of production of the world’s most advanced chips, according to a 2021 report by the Boston Consulting Group.
The increase in gas prices forced factories in the UK and Europe that make fertilisers and carbon dioxide to halt or cut back production. Carbon dioxide is widely used across the food sector, from carbonating fizzy drinks to stunning livestock before slaughter. There have been widespread shortages and reported price increases of up to 3,000%.
Richard Wilding, emeritus professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield University in Bedford and an industry consultant, said supply chains had prioritised being low cost and “lean” but were at risk of failure when faced with a series of adverse events or large fluctuations in demand.
“They were designed when there were very few ‘black swan’ [highly unpredictable] events, and now we have got a flock of them coming at us,” he said. “Companies are now going to have to procure more for resilience rather than cost. We will be able to get the stuff but it’s going to cost more.”
He said many large corporations were already redesigning their supply chains, switching manufacturing locations, building new warehouses and changing shipping routes.
At her speech at the National Farmers’ Union conference last week, the union’s president, Minette Batters, called for a new food intelligence unit to highlight risks in the sectors and make recommendations to ministers.
While Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, suggested last week that consumers might eat more turnips when other vegetables are in short supply, industry figures said the government needed to “get a grip” on the UK supply chain.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said: “We need more UK production and to seek out more places to buy produce from. We also need to ensure we have the storage capacity and the transport resilience.
“We now have unpredictable climate and unpredictable harvests. This is the new reality and we can’t pretend it’s not a problem.”
A government spokesperson said: “The UK has a highly resilient food and medicine supply chain and is well equipped to deal with disruption.” The government also announced £168m in grants for farmers last week to drive innovation, support food production and protect the environment and animal welfare.
Despite the problems, fruit and vegetable trader Crane seemed optimistic at Borough market, looking forward to warmer months and better supplies. “This is the worst,” he said. “It will get better from now.”
Top Feature Photo: Empty vegetable crates at a supermarket in London last week. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images