The great British food shortage: what’s causing empty supermarket shelves?

Unseasonal weather, transport issues and energy prices are leading to rationing of fresh produce in UK stores

Empty green produce bins with two signs, one reading ‘Sorry, temporarily out of stock’, the other reads ‘Sorry, due to adverse weather conditions, these products are out of stock’.
Tesco is blaming bad weather for empty produce shelves
(Image credit: Jane Sherwood/Getty Images)

Tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers and citrus fruits are in short supply at UK supermarkets, with fears the empty shelves could last for several weeks.

The recent shortages have caused widespread concern, with photos on social media of empty supermarket shelves, from “customers of Waitrose, Morrisons, Waitrose and Aldi”, said the i news site. Some questioned the effect that Brexit might have had, while others mentioned overall rising prices in the country.

Poor weather conditions in Spain and Morocco “have been compounded by transportation difficulties and a lack of European glasshouse production as a result of the energy crisis”, said National World. These factors “have driven up wholesale food prices by half in some instances”, said the news site.

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Paul Rowe, from Poupart Imports, which supplies independent retailers and UK wholesalers, told National World that the shortages could last for “several weeks”.

Poor weather has affected supplies...

Spain and Morocco, “known in the industry as Europe’s breadbaskets at this time of year”, according to National World, are the source of most of the UK’s fresh produce.

Warm weather in early January followed by “freezing conditions and extreme wind and rain storms” has hit crops in both countries, added the website.

Since Brexit, UK importers have “become increasingly reliant on Morocco”, said The Telegraph, as new trading arrangements have “slowed” the movement of produce from other European countries. But storms in Morocco have meant produce has not been able to be shipped to the UK as normal.

... and prices are rising as a result

Farmers in Britain have been “planting fewer vegetables… due to the rising cost of heating greenhouses”, according to the i news site.

Supermarkets have also been “unwilling to pay higher prices to cover the cost of producing fresh fruit and vegetables in the UK year-round”, farmers told the site.

Rowe told National World that “it [is] the wholesale price dynamics that [are] driving the shortages”. There have been some instances, he says, where growers have refused to unload their produce because UK supermarkets refuse to pay more for it.

Growing a tomato cost 27% more last year than it did in 2021, according to research by the National Farmers Union. This caused the cost of a kilogram of tomatoes to rise from £2.09 in January 2020 to £2.96 in February 2023, said the Office for National Statistics.

Similar spikes in costs “were found with other crops, including lettuce, broccoli and potatoes”, said i news.

How long will it last?

Tesco, Aldi, Asda and Morrisons have all introduced fresh produce rationings into their stores, the Independent reported.

Tesco and Asda now allows only “three items per customer” of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers at its stores. Additionally Asda has put rations on cauliflower, lettuce, broccoli and raspberries, said Sky News.

The shortages, Rowe told National World, will most likely last for a month, until “new crops start to come out of Northern Europe”. He recommended that customers try shopping for high-demand goods in independent retailers “where price is less of a factor”.

However, the UK will have a “difficult year” ahead, he said, as “many growers” are still “choosing not to plant vegetables due to uncertainties over return”.

Many British farmers have been planting wheat over produce, “as it’s less expensive to grow and lasts longer”, Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, told the i news site.

Whether it’s climate or rising energy prices driving these shortages, Liz Webster, the Save British Farming chair, believes the government needs to take action.

She blamed Brexit and said “this disastrous Conservative government…has no interest in food production, farming or even food supply”, the Independent reported.

The “clock is ticking”, Webster said, for the government to lower inflation and provide subsidies to farmers so that they may continue to grow produce more regularly.

Therese Coffey, the environment secretary, denied that the government was in any way responsible, saying: “We can’t control the weather in Spain.”

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