Europeans mock UK shoppers over tomato shortage - but is Brexit to blame?

British shoppers have been limited to the number of salad items then can buy; tomatoes in France. Credit: PA/adriannorris

While Britain is suffering a fresh produce shortage, Europe appears to be groaning under the weight of tomatoes - according to social media users.

People on the continent gleefully posted pictures of boxes bursting with tomatoes on Twitter amid rationing of some salad items at the UK's biggest supermarkets.

Even people in war-torn Ukraine do not appear to have a shortage of salad items.

"My local supermarket in France must get its tomatoes from parts of Spain & Morocco which aren’t affected by the bad weather that is causing shortages in Britain. There were more varieties in the organic food section, but other shoppers already thought I was mad for photographing these!" wrote one Twitter user.

Brexit has been blamed for the fruit and vegetable shortages, although logistics and increased red tape do not tell the whole story, say experts.

And while three major supermarkets are limiting the number of fresh produce customers can buy, local greengrocers are reporting no similar problems.

Bad weather in Morocco and Spain has been blamed for the shortage, but many growers in the UK are blaming high-energy costs.

Most of the tomatoes grown in the UK are cultivated in huge heated greenhouses that require a great deal of energy.

Higher energy costs have also been compounded by soaring fertiliser costs, which have more than doubled since 2019.

The National Farmers Union has estimated farming costs have gone up by more than 50% since 2019.

On top of this many supermarkets have been relentlessly promising to keep their costs low through the cost-of-living crisis, leading to extremely tight purchasing prices of farmers.

As a result many of the greenhouses in the Lea Valley - known as the UK's "cucumber capital" lay empty this winter as growers were not confident they would cover the cost of growing energy-intensive crops.

Many areas of the UK are also still in drought, with many regions only one dry spell away from crisis.

Andrew Blenkiron, a root vegetable farmer in Suffolk, said he is planning to reduce the size of his crop this season by 300 acres in case there is more hot and dry weather like last year.Mr Blenkiron said: "We dare not take the risk of planting these crops that demand volumes of water through the summer if we can’t guarantee that supply."

As a consequence, supermarkets increased their reliance on imports from Spain and Morocco.

The two countries already make up around 95% of the UK's tomato imports during winter.

But rather than being able to increase imports bad weather has led to a decline, with harvests in both countries worse than expected.

Bad weather in the Channel has also impacted imports with several ferries carrying fresh produce cancelled.

This cancellation of shipping has become a British Isles-wide problem with the Irish Times reporting earlier this week concerns about a shortage of certain fruit and vegetables.

Despite these problems, the wider EU is not facing any shortages, Ksenija Simovic senior policy advisor at the United Voice of Farmers and Agri-cooperatives in the EU, told ITV News.Andrew Opie, Director of Food and Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium said: "Difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa have disrupted the harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes and peppers."

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Mr Opie said the disruption was expected to last "a few weeks."

"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," he said.

Ms Simovic said northern Europe was facing similar issues, with major growers like Netherlands and Belgium cutting back on production due to the rise in energy and fertiliser costs.

This has led to a squeeze in supply in Europe but rather than facing any shortages it has led to fewer external exports and higher prices.

Ms Simovic said: "Things tend to be managed easier within the Single Market."

When asked if Brexit was to blame for the shortages in the UK she said while it wasn't the leading cause "it certainly doesn't help."

Although the general view is the shortage will only last a few weeks, some growers have said they can see it continuing into the summer.

The Leek Growers Association said their farmers had experienced the "most difficult season ever," and shoppers may see a shortage in May and June.

Tim Casey, chairman of the Leek Growers Association, said: "Leek farmers are facing their most difficult season ever due to the challenging weather conditions.

"Our members are seeing yields down by between 15% and 30%. We are predicting that the supply of homegrown leeks will be exhausted by April, with no British leeks available in the shops during May and June, with consumers having to rely on imported crops."

The government has said they believe the shortage will not last long, and have denied Brexit is to blame.