Fruit and vegetable shortages could last for another month, environment secretary warns

Empty fruit and vegetable shelves at an Asda in east London. Credit: PA

By ITV News multimedia producer Suzanne Elliott

Shortages of some fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes and peppers, may last as long as another month, the environment secretary has said.

Therese Coffey told the Commons she hoped shortages of fruit and vegetables “will be a temporary issue” but anticipated "the situation will last about another two to four weeks".

Several major supermarkets have introduced customer limits on certain fresh produce as shortages leave supermarket shelves bare.

On Wednesday, Tesco joined Morrisons and Asda in imposing a temporary buying limit of three items per customer on tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers as a precautionary measure amid a shortage of supplies.

The shortages are being blamed on a combination of factors, including high-energy prices, supermarkets opting to buy cheaper produce from southern Europe and north Africa over British suppliers, subsequent bad weather in these regions and supply chain issues.

Ms Coffey also told MPs a “lot of people would be eating turnips right now” under a seasonal food model – rather than thinking about lettuce, tomatoes and similar produce – although she accepted consumers want a “year-round choice”.

“It is important that we try and make sure that we get alternative sourcing options. That is why the department has already been in discussion with the retailers," she said.

“It is why there will be further discussions led by ministers as well, so that we can try and get over this and try and avoid similar situations in the future.

“Even if we cannot control the weather it is important that we try and make sure the supply continues to not be frustrated in quite the way it has been due to these unusual weather incidents.”

Empty tomato trays at a Tesco Express store in Wimbledon, London. Credit: PA

Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon told the Commons ensuring the UK has a secure food supply is “mission critical”.

“Frankly I found that response to be completely detached from the reality that is being faced on the ground, whether that is our supermarkets or our farmers," he said.

Mr McMahon questioned suggestions the food shortages were entirely influenced by external forces, claiming ministers could have done more to support farmers with access to “the energy-intensive support scheme”, and could have increased quotas on labour to help with workforce shortages.

Cucumbers and tomatoes are highly energy dependent for production in the UK in winter and are grown in heated glasshouses.

The combination of soaring energy bills to provide artificial light to help the plants grow, especially during the winter, combined with associated surges in the price of fertiliser and the cost of packaging, prompted many British producers and their European counterparts to plant fewer crops this winter.

British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward told ITV News growers had not had the confidence to plant last year amid huge costs "they were not sure they would recoup," he said.

Ms Coffey said “the primary source for goods right now is from an area that was affected by very unusual weather before and after Christmas”, adding: “That’s something that supply chain has to try and manage. Right now, the supermarkets have chosen a particular way, that’s why we will continue to meet them and I’m hoping that this will be a temporary issue.

“This volatility is unwelcome but I’m conscious that our supply chain is resilient and that we will continue to invest in our farmers for generations to come.”

Seasonal eating would solve the shortage of tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables, a Conservative MP for North Devon Selaine Saxby suggested.

“I wonder if my right honourable friend agrees with me that actually the supermarkets are still importing far too many produce for us and that actually we should be eating more seasonally and supporting our own British farmers?

“And if we were actually to move to a seasonal line of eating, many of these problems would be avoided and that there are great food products available from local farmers at this time?”

Ms Coffey replied: “A lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about aspects of lettuce, and tomatoes and similar but I’m conscious that consumers want a year-round choice and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world try to satisfy.”

Liberal Democrat Wera Hobhouse (Bath) said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should call an emergency Cobra meeting to respond to the “national emergency”.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has called on the government to support intensive users, such as tomato and salad growers, with energy bills.

NFU president Minette Batters criticised how botanical gardens receive support with energy bills for their glasshouses but food producers with greenhouses do not.

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