UK needs food security action plan to solve supermarket shortages, union warns

ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi explains why sales of certain fruit and vegetables have been limited by some of the country's largest supermarkets

By Multimedia Producer James Hockaday

Britain urgently needs a comprehensive food security plan as climate change and inflation lead to supermarket shortages, the National Farmers' Union has warned.

Shoppers across the UK have been sharing pictures of empty shelves, prompting concerns about access to essential fruit and vegetables.

Today both Aldi and Tesco announced they are limiting purchases of peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes to three units per person in an apparent attempt to prevent panic buying.

They have followed the lead of other supermarkets such as Asda and Morrisons, although no such measures have been announced by M&S, Sainsbury's, Lidl, or Waitrose yet.

Supplies of aubergines, red peppers and tomatoes have been especially hit, as many British growers have been forced to stop running greenhouses due to soaring energy costs.

While the UK will always rely on imports from Spain, Morocco and the Netherlands for off-season items, producers in these countries are also faced with difficult decisions due to economic pressures.

This is compounded by particularly bad weather in Europe and Africa this season, which NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw says is being driven by climate change.

“These weather events are becoming more frequent, and I think that is all the more reason to have a domestic food security plan to feed a population of 70 million people on an island, at the moment we don’t seem to have that plan,” he tells ITV News.

“I think what we’re seeing is that weather events globally are becoming more extreme.

“We saw that last summer, there were shortages of brassica at some points because planting wasn’t done at the right time and because of the incredibly hot and dry summer.”

Tomatoes, aubergines, and red peppers are being particularly affected as farmers are forced to shut greenhouses. Credit: Press Association

Mr Bradshaw says food security in the UK is currently “very fragile” due to “incredible” economic pressures, with inflation in agriculture hitting soaring past 30% at one point last year.

“If we’d prioritised domestic production then we wouldn’t be seeing the same challenges that we’re seeing now,” he adds.

“All of the energy intensive fresh produce, whether that be tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, they’re all grown in glasshouses at this time of year, and that’s where the real bottleneck is because it’s just been simply too expensive to heat them.

“The government haven’t recognised the need to prioritise support into those areas, and they [farmers] make the decision not to plant.”

With such an uncertain outlook, Mr Bradshaw says it’s been difficult to reassure growers that they’ll get returns for their product so that they re-invest and plant more.

He says the sense in the industry is that the government doesn’t have enough understanding of the extent of the market’s challenges, which also includes a lack of seasonal workers post-Brexit.

“For the shortages today there’s actually very little that can be done, but they need to give businesses the confidence to plant those greenhouses as quickly as possible and as soon as possible so the risk of these shortages in the future is lower,” he says.

“We’ve been predicting this for a long while, we held a press conference back in mid-December warning that there would be empty shelves, and unfortunately two-and-a-half months later there are.”

There will be some relief in the short run, says Tim O'Malley, managing director of Nationwide Produce, as weather improves in Spain, but not enough to resolve the problem.

Shortages are likely to remain for the foreseeable future due to inflationary pressures and poor weather in Morocco. Credit: PA

Supplies will still be affected in Morocco, due to a "double whammy" of cold weather, high winds, and floods, he tells ITV News.

"It's not going to get back to any level of normality, it's still going to be tight."

He warned of "major problems with UK crops" down the line, after an unusually cold winter froze many vegetables for far longer than they can tolerate.

This was after an exceptionally hot summer, and not much in the way of autumn-like temperatures in between, and such a sudden shift has had an adverse effect on crops.

"Crops like carrots, cabbage and cauliflower over the coming months are going to be in extremely short supply I'm afraid."

Thérèse Coffey, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, attempted to ease concerns at this week's NFU conference.

She told attendees: "We understand the pressures you are under. We have sought to help even further with the cash flow challenges you face.

"We had already put in place farming profit averaging tax relief. Last year, we brought forward BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) payments to twice a year, for the first time ever, and which we will continue to do.

"Recognising the particularly virulent strain of avian influenza, we introduced urgent measures to protect the sector and we kept the free-range brand going and we modified the compensation scheme.

"We acted to help with rising input costs, including action on fuel duty, energy bills and business rates.

"It is why we will strengthen our focus nationally on energy security, as well as the supplies of critical minerals, and fertiliser we need, and why we must continue to work together to forge a more secure, more sustainable future for farming so we can feed a changing world."

ITV News has contacted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for comment.

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