As tomatoes and cucumbers disappear from our supermarket aisles, Britain is being dubbed the (empty) basket case of Europe. 

On Wednesday, Tesco, Britain’s biggest retailer, joined Asda, Aldi and Morrisons in announcing it would be rationing its precious vegetables, with a cap of three items per customer on tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

Thérèse Coffey, the Environment Secretary, says shortages of some fruits and vegetables may last another month, but she hopes this “will be a temporary issue”.

Attention is now turning to the cause of Britain’s bare supermarket shelves. And the finger pointing has begun. 

Ardent remainers have relished the opportunity to pin the blame on Brexit, while British farmers insist the government has, for months, ignored their warnings about a host of production difficulties plaguing their industry. Meanwhile, Coffey has clashed with the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) by rejecting any responsibility for the current shortages: “We can’t control the weather in Spain,” she declared this week.

As ever, there is no single cause. Though, admittedly, Coffey’s slightly flippant remark is largely grounded in truth. While mostly self-sufficient in the summer, Britain typically imports 95% of its tomatoes and 90% of lettuces from December to March, according to British Retail Consortium (BRC) data. Which means this is predominantly an issue to do with imported goods, and the BRC, alongside Asda and Waitrose all agree it’s not a Brexit-induced one. All three have blamed the shortages on extreme weather in southern Europe and north Africa disrupting harvests. 

“It’s been snowing and hailing in Spain, it was hailing in North Africa last week – that is wiping out a large proportion of those crops,” says James Bailey, executive director of upmarket supermarket Waitrose. Extreme and unusual overnight cold in Morocco has affected the ripening of tomatoes, while heavy rain has forced ferry cancellations, hindering deliveries. 

That said, while poor foreign harvests may be largely to blame, the shortages have been exacerbated by the fact that domestic farmers are in no position to make up for the shortfall in supplies. Empty supermarket shelves have therefore shone a light on the plight of Britain’s fruit and veg growers due to soaring gas prices and (largely Brexit-induced) labour shortages. 

According to the NFU, the production of tomatoes and cucumbers in the UK is expected to drop to “the lowest levels since records began in 1985”. 

Farmers have been harder hit than most industries by the enormous rise in energy prices, because they require large quantities of gas to heat greenhouses. 

“The largest input costs for growers used to be labour followed by energy,” says Lee Stiles, the general secretary of the Lea Valley Growers Association. “Now it is energy followed by labour.”

The Lea Valley, which encompasses greater London, Essex and Hertfordshire, is the largest hub in the UK’s glasshouse sector. Covering over 450 acres of glasshouses, and run by 80 growers, it’s labelled Britain’s salad bowl or the “cucumber capital”. 

Yet over half of the greenhouses in the Lea Valley were left empty last year because farmers couldn’t afford production costs. Of those who did manage to grow produce, many were forced to cut their crop in half. 

Minette Batters, president of the NFU, who has called for more government support for growers to buffer them from high gas prices, says it’s “ridiculous” that the horticulture sector was not included in the government’s support scheme for energy intensive industries.

Farmers have also been impacted by a shortfall in workers to pick the produce. Growers across the Lee Valley, for instance, who need 2,200 workers a year, were hit hard by Brexit. The government’s post-Brexit seasonal workers scheme, which set out to ease the problems, is poorly designed. It requires workers to return home after six months in a season which runs for 10 or 11 months. So growers have had to recruit and train twice the number of workers to do the same job. As a result, Lea Valley growers experienced a 40% shortfall in workers in 2022. 

To make matters worse, war has exacerbated the labour shortages on the UK’s farms. Of roughly 30,000 seasonal-work visas issued to workers to pick the 2021 harvest in Britain, 67% went to Ukrainians.

So, in some ways, the empty fruit and veg aisles have served a useful purpose for domestic producers. While largely caused by poor harvests abroad, they’ve helped to draw attention to the struggle endured by British farmers. 

While Coffey can’t be blamed for bad weather in the Med, she could do more to sort the domestic issues which meant there was less surplus available in the UK to offset reduced yields elsewhere. 

Domestic farming aside, there’s another important lesson for the government to learn from the so-called “tomato famine”, according to Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation

Current shortages of tomatoes aren’t because of Brexit but they “could be a harbinger of what lies ahead”, he warns.

Crucially, the real challenge could come when the UK introduces post-Brexit border checks on food entering the UK from Europe.

These customs and sanitary checks at the border – which, for instance, inspect produce for insects and check the quality of meat and dairy quality – still aren’t in place. They’ve been delayed for a fourth time, until the end of 2023.

When it comes to food safety controls on goods coming from the EU, before Brexit there was a common monitoring system. But, “the UK is no longer in it and the EU isn’t under an obligation to check foods for us. So the EU isn’t checking for us anymore, and we aren’t checking it ourselves.”

The UK imports almost half of the food that it consumes every day. It will have to introduce checks sooner or later, says Brennan, because failure to inspect imported foods could risk another food scandal like the horsemeat one, or an outbreak of a disease like foot and mouth. 

But the government is putting off the problem because it’s afraid of the implications of introducing these import controls. 

At the moment, for food growers in, say, Spain, selling to the UK hasn’t changed much since Brexit. “It’s still pretty much the same as operating in the single market,” says Brennan. Once the UK introduces these import controls, growers on the continent will have to do more paperwork to export goods to Britain. The worry, he adds, is that a lot of “European suppliers will move selling to the UK into the ‘too difficult’ box,” and simply decide it’s not worth the hassle. 

“We’re not actually that worried about salads, as controls on them are less onerous,” says Brennan. But meat and dairy, he warns, could be a far bigger problem. 

So let these current shortages be a reminder, he adds, that, while we are not short of tomatoes because of Brexit, sourcing food from the rest of the world could get harder once we bring in post-Brexit food controls. The government needs to think very strategically, about “how it can bring in controls in a way that won’t cause disruption.” 

In the meantime, as we wait for our veg aisles to be replenished with Spanish tomatoes and Moroccan peppers, it may be time to look up some turnip recipes and embrace seasonal eating – of whatever British producers did still manage to grow this year. 

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