Empty shelves in UK supermarkets, but British cucumbers are for sale in Singapore. It has been another eventful week for the British fresh produce industry.
The fresh battle in the UK continues. Over the last couple of weeks supermarket shelves were empty. due to retailers refusing to pay a higher price for fresh produce - and due to the cold in Spain and the high energy prices, fresh produce prices spiked over the last couple of weeks. Environment Minister Therese Coffey called on Brits to eat more local, seasonal produce such as turnips rather than imported foodstuffs in short supply. However, UK wholesalers and growers made it clear there is enough produce available in the UK.
"With a lot of Northern Europe delaying or not planting lit crops, due to the energy markets, many UK supermarkets have relied on more fruit from southern Europe and northern Africa this winter," the UK growers of R&L Holt explain.
Their own lit crop is in production producing Roterno, Strabena and Yelorita, at Sandylands. "This normally starts in November but we delayed planting last year due to uncertainty on energy costs so started picking in early January. So, we are in production during this fruit shortage."
Lee Stiles of Lea Valley explains how crops grown under plastic without heat in Spain & Morocco are slow due to cold weather & ferry cancellations. "But more importantly overseas growers can get higher prices in Europe and save them a four-day road trip to the UK, additional paperwork, customs fees & the risk of returning with empty lorries."
It's also why the comment of Thérèse Coffey, Environment Secretary, wasn't much appreciated, to say the least. In the UK House of Commons, she claimed industrial glasshouses “are an emerging industry, not a long-established one”. She suggested last week the shortages could be resolved in a month. According to Lee, most Lea Valley tomatoes, peppers & aubergines will be picked in May, and cucumbers in April. "If British Glasshouse growers are not offered the right price for their produce, they will not plant early. This is the second year this has happened."
To sum up, it is possible to grow year-round in Britain, local and imported produce is available on the market, but it comes at a cost. This is also why, despite UK supermarkets being empty, UK produce can be found elsewhere, even in Singapore. Though it's far from being cheap: the cucumbers were £2.90 each - and as we published last week, many UK supermarkets refused to pay that price.
So what will happen in the upcoming days and weeks? Supermarkets will have to choose to either pay more for their fruits and vegetables or be left without them, as it doesn't seem like the volumes of fresh produce from Spain will increase any time soon, quite the opposite actually.
This week the temperatures were dropping again in the South of Spain. Earlier this week in Almería, the lowest temperature was 12 degrees, these days it will be 5 degrees. There's enough sun, but with these temperatures plants get stunted, resulting in further delays.
Unfortunately, there's more to it. Currently, due to the cold, some crops in the South aren't performing, and many growers have changed to spring new crops. So in the next weeks, another shortage could occur.
Over a couple of weeks, production in North Europe and the UK as well will start. "Our conventional crops will be no later than normal starting later this week and mid to late March in other locations. UK growers in general expect most of the conventional crops to be in production in April which is a normal start date," the R&L Holt growers share.
The vegetable battle has other side effects. According to the BBC, the demand for vegetable seeds has "skyrocketed" as supermarkets continue to limit sales of some fresh produce. They claim the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) said seed sales across its retail outlets had risen 20% in February compared to the same month last year. Separately Mr Fothergill's Seeds said online sales had jumped by nearly 50% last month.