BY JIM WEBSTER
There is a shortage of salad vegetables in the UK at the moment. Given it is now early March I suspect my Grandmother would not have been particularly surprised by this. But a modern, environmentally conscious, and wealthy population expect to get everything, all the time.
The problem is that the consumer expects it to be cheap. And this is why we have run into trouble. Before Christmas the big producers (think the Lea Valley Association which produces cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, and lettuce in 3,450 acres of glasshouses) had discussions with the supermarkets. The discussion went something like this:
Food producer: “We need to plant now to harvest in February. If we plant now we will need to use £x (where x is a ridiculously large number) worth of gas to produce the crop. Thus the crop will cost £y.”
Supermarket: “Far too expensive, cut the price or we’ll just buy from abroad. We will pay £y-3.”
Food producer: “We lose money at that. We’ll just plant in February then and you go and buy from abroad.”
Note this discussion wasn’t just held in the UK, the Dutch growers had a similar discussion and came to a similar conclusion. Why plant food to lose money and go bust? So in northern Europe, glasshouses were not planted.
Now let us turn to Spain and Morocco. Here they do not need heated greenhouses. Indeed, the out of season salad veg of the enlightened is produced in Almeria in Spain without heat. Just enough plastic greenhouses to be visible from space
Except that this winter, Spain and Morocco did need heat. They have had weeks of heavy rain and a cold spell. So their crops just haven’t grown.
So this is the world we have now. We have food inflation. In the UK we had food inflation of 16.9% in the 12 months to December 2022. Lest anybody feels that it’s something to lay at the door of Brexit, the Germans had 18.9% food inflation over the same period.
But in reality, food has been cheap for far too long. If you look at the graph below, you’ll see another spike. That’s 2008 where we had ‘a weather event’ and there was a major shortage of grain. That’s when we had the Arab Spring because so many countries revolted at the price of bread.
And now we had another ‘weather event’. Add that to a ‘political event’ with tanks rolling into the Ukraine and the current price of food is easily explained.
There are a number of questions you may want to ask:
Firstly, are you happy for major retailers to decide UK agricultural policy? Because frankly they have far more say over what is and isn’t grown in this country than government. Government environmental schemes consist of paying relatively derisory sums which might or might not have an impact, depending on how many farmers reckon they can afford to take part in the schemes.
Secondly, are you happy with the idea that we can do away with home production and just import from abroad if it produces a better margin for retailers?
Thirdly, why do you expect to eat salad in February anyway?
Just remember where it comes from.
Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.