Why are we seeing empty shelves in our supermarkets?

Credit: Twitter / adamclarkitv

By ITV News multimedia producer Suzanne Elliott

Shoppers have been sharing pictures of empty supermarket shelves across the UK, prompting concerns about access to basic foodstuffs for people already struggling with cost of living pressures.

People on social media posted images of bare shelves in stores, including Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury's.

One social media user uploaded a picture from a Weymouth Sainsbury's showing a fruit and vegetable aisle completely empty, while others posted similar images of bare shelves and boxes.

Rising energy prices, supply chain issues, the weather, the climate crisis and Brexit have all been blamed. But what is behind these bare shelves? And why could these shortages be just the "tip of the iceberg"?

Why are we seeing empty shelves in supermarkets?

  • Rising energy costs

Salad items in particular appear to be in short supply, with shoppers finding it difficult to track down tomatoes and cucumbers - a situation predicted by the National Farmers Union (NFU) in December when it warned the UK was "sleepwalking" into a food supply crisis.

The Lea Valley, sometimes referred to as London's "salad bowl", is Britain's "cucumber capital".

Just 20 miles from Piccadilly Circus, the Lea Valley produces 500 million cucumbers and peppers every year along with tomatoes, aubergines, and lettuce in 3,450 acres of glasshouses.

Lea Valley Growers Association (LVGA) secretary Lee Stiles explained the empty shelves we are seeing now are the result of a "perfect storm" that began in December.

Faced with soaring energy bills - produce such as cucumbers and peppers are grown in heated greenhouses in winter in the UK - meant British suppliers were asking supermarkets for more money to cover their rising costs. The supermarkets, Mr Stiles said, opted instead to import - cheaper - produce.

"Growers would normally plant in December and be picking around now," he told ITV News.

"[But] because they weren't able to achieve the economic price for doing so with the supermarkets, they've delayed their planting until mid to late February, which means they [crops] will not be ready until March.

"The supermarkets decided not to pay the cost of production price for British growers and instead decided to import more cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers from overseas."

British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward said cucumber and tomatoes are "very energy dependent for production at this time of year". He agreed suppliers - both in the UK and across northern Europe - simply did not have the confidence to plant last year amid huge costs they were not sure they would recoup.

"Because of the energy situation, the cost of energy and the uncertainty around what they would get for those products once they reached maturity, around now, people said 'we are not putting these in the ground'.

"That was a big chunk of production - not just in this country, but across Holland as well.

"And it's that lack of production, which is now manifesting itself in empty supermarket shelves because effectively, the production moved south to Morocco, but there was no way they were ever going to be able to replace the volumes that were provided by northern Europe, both in the UK and from Holland."

He said the thinking behind, "'If you don't want to produce it, we will get it somewhere cheaper' is coming back to us."

"We [the UK] have outsourced our fresh produce production. And this is what it's starting to look like," he told ITV News.

  • Bad weather overseas

But bad weather in countries such as Spain and Morocco, two big suppliers that supermarkets were relying on to supply crops such as tomatoes, has delayed crop production, Mr Stiles said.

Some 24% of tomatoes eaten in Britain come from Morocco and weeks of heavy rain and a cold spell has led to a significant shortfall of supply across many products.

"What they've found is especially in Spain and Morocco, they've had very cold weather - because they don't necessarily grow in glasshouses with heat - so the cold weather has meant that the crops are not growing as quickly. The yields are down," he told ITV News.

In Morrisons' Cheltenham store, signs were put up in the fruit and veg section advising customers that the “adverse weather conditions” across Spain and Morocco had affected imported supplies of fruit and vegetables.

According to the industry magazine, Fruitnet, supermarkets across Europe face shortages of fruit and vegetables.

According to Coexphal – the Association of Organisations of Fruit and Vegetable Producers of the province of Almería, one of the biggest tomato-producing regions in Spain, the volume of tomatoes sold in February was lower than in the same period in 2022.

Cucumbers were down 21 per cent, while peppers and aubergine production had fallen by 25 per cent.

But crops grown in the UK were also impacted by the weather, especially last summer's drought, the BGA's Mr Ward said. This particularly affected brassica crops (cabbage and kale, for example) that were meant to go in the ground during last year's heatwave. Meanwhile, cauliflowers were hit by frost this winter, which has "wiped out another set of production".

Andrew Opie, Director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa have disrupted harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes.

"However, supermarkets are adept at managing supply chain issues and are working with farmers to ensure that customers are able to access a wide range of fresh produce.”

  • Supply chain problems

In addition, Mr Stiles said, there have also been issues with transporting goods to the UK, including disruption to a ferry that takes produce from Morocco to mainland Spain in order where it then starts a four-day road trip to the UK.

Ferries between mainland Spain and Morocco were disrupted by cancellations due to bad weather between February 9 and 12. The three-day delay led to long tailbacks of goods crossing from the Port of Tangier in Morocco to the Port of Algeciras in Spain.

He also said there had also "been issues with the border at Calais".

Mr Stiles said: "It's all a bit of a perfect storm where, instead of encouraging or paying British growers the correct price, they've [the supermarkets] decided to go overseas and there's been a disruption to the supply chain which means that there are empty shelves in supermarkets."

A glasshouse at Thanet Earth in Birchington, Kent where around 400 million tomatoes, 30 million cucumbers and 24 million peppers each year. Credit: PA

Will we see more empty shelves in the UK in the coming months?

Mr Stiles' comments echo those of earlier warnings from the NFU and those of Mr Ward.

At the end of last year, NFU union president Minette Batters said the government needed to step in to assist primary producers under severe strain from soaring fuel, fertiliser and feed costs, warning the UK was likely to see more empty shelves in the future.

Over recent months, multiple supermarket giants have introduced temporary buying limits on eggs amid the impact on supply of rising costs and bird flu.

She said egg shortages “could just be the start” as multiple farming sectors were impacted, warning tomatoes, cucumbers and pears would be impacted in the coming months due to them all coming from energy-intensive crops. “I fear the country is sleepwalking into further food supply crises, with the future of British fruit and vegetable supplies in trouble," she added.

Mr Ward also told ITV News the current shortages of fruit and vegetables are "just the tip of the iceberg".

NFU Vice President David Exwood said on Monday: “We are repeatedly seeing a predictable combination of factors such as energy costs and weather leading to empty supermarket shelves. Our UK food resilience is currently gone. The government needs to take this seriously.

“Producers must have the confidence they need, working within a fair and transparent supply chain, ensuring fair and sustainable returns so they can do what they do best; produce nutritious, high-quality British Food to meet demand from shoppers.”