A vegetable shortage has given the UK a reminder of the risks of relying on faraway countries for food.
It’s a risk that would be amplified by the “hard” Brexit the country seems to be heading for, especially if a “hard” Brexit increases reliance on non-EU countries for food.
However, readers of the UK’s Sun newspaper will be happy enough with a “hard” Brexit, if only to spite the Spanish supermarkets which the newspaper told them hoarded vegetables while British shoppers faced rationing.
The Sun complained that the impact was mainly being felt in the UK, of the bad weather on the continent which devastatated vegetable crops.
It showed pictures from Spanish shops with no shortage of fresh produce, alongside empty supermarket shelves in the UK, where shoppers were panic buying vegetables.
It reported UK supermarkets restricting the number of vegetables for each customer, and stopping online sales of vegetables.
Spanish growers responded, by saying they had no such complaints from buyers.
They confirmed that floods in December and snow in January had reduced their crops, such as their lettuce, a major import item for the UK.
Whatever about allegations of Spain hoarding vegetables, it is a fact that 38% of all foods in the UK’s shops is imported.
It is also a fact that drought, flooding and freezing conditions severely affected growers in southern Spain, while poor conditions also hit farmers in Italy, Greece and Turkey.
Horticultural production in Spain’s Andalucía, Murcia and Comunidad Valenciana regions fell 20-30% in recent weeks, compared to 2015.
In outdoor production, losses were concentrated in crops such as lettuce, broccoli, celery, cabbage, artichoke and endive.
New plantings will be necessary of many of these crops.
Plants did better in greenhouses, so these crops can be revived without new plantings. Growers expect output to recover within a few weeks.
But the supply shortage led to record farm-gate price increases in the south of Spain, of 50-200% (the highest price rises were for courgette and aubergine).
The price of ready-to-eat salads made by processing companies increased more than 100%.
The British market is estimated to import nine out of ten of its lettuces from Spain.
But vegetable prices soared also in France, and sales of vegetables throughout the European supermarket industry are believed to have fallen by millions of euros.
Lithuania, for example, had sharp price rises also.
French consumers saw some fresh fruits and vegetables double or triple in price.
Therefore, market forces are a much more likely explanation for a shortage of vegetables in the UK, than alleged hoarding in Spain.
But where would the UK, and other countries feeling the shortage, get enough vegetables, if they had not been EU members, trading freely with the Mediterranean countries which are the big all-year-round producers of fruit and vegetables ?
That is the prospect facing the UK, if it goes ahead with its plan to go it alone in trade, looking to do a stand-alone deal with the EU.
It’s a real possibility that no trade deal is agreed between the UK and the EU.
At the very least, trading costs will rise significantly.
At the moment, vegetables on sale in Europe include lettuce from the Arizona desert, imported at high cost due to airfreight charges, import duties, and the strength of the dollar.
It’s not the first time.
Europe also imported some US vegetables in 2005 and 2013. Occasional shortages are inevitable because food depends on changing climatic conditions down on the farm.
Many in the industry expect the vegetable shortage to become even worse in March.
It could be a taste of the future for the UK, unless it can secure a deal with the EU giving it good access to the Union’s huge food production.
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