The mainstream news media is reporting that fresh vegetable shortages in British supermarkets are caused by “bad weather in Spain and Morocco”. But Brexit is a big factor - it has disrupted Britain’s supply chains and is reducing food production in the UK.
Social media is awash with photos of groaning shelves in European supermarkets with arrays of tomatoes, red peppers, cucumbers and even cauliflowers - all largely absent from many UK shops. European newspapers such as the authoritative Der Spiegel are reporting on this as purely a British issue, confirming that this is not happening in EU countries.
10 reasons why Brexit is behind the UK’s food shortages
#1 It is harder and less attractive to trade with the UK
There has been bad weather in Spain and Morocco - but Brexit has played a part in disrupting supply chains, increasing the time and expense of importing fresh produce and making the UK a less attractive place to trade.
#2 When there isn’t enough to go around - the UK is at the back of the queue
After Brexit, Britain increased its dependence on imports from Morocco - which is not in the EU - especially for crops like winter tomatoes. The government trumpeted the roll-over trade deal it managed to sign with Morocco. But when there isn’t enough to go around, it is easier and more profitable for those suppliers to sell to the EU.
With no direct freight ferry, UK importers have to manage direct logistics from Morocco to UK retailers, crossing two EU borders en route. Moroccan farmers can sell produce to EU-wide wholesalers, rather than small, unprofitable UK export firms.
#3 The pound has lost ground against the Euro, making it harder to compete on price
The pound has lost 19% of its value against the Euro since the Brexit vote, making it harder for UK buyers to compete on price. Before the 2016 vote, one pound was worth €1.40. It is now worth €1.14. That means British buyers have to pay Brexit around 19% more just to stand still. Brexit has already been blamed for putting up the price of food bills in the UK significantly.
#4 Club members come first
Spain obviously prefers to trade within the single market “club”. Expat Euro TV journalist Alex Taylor who teaches journalism at the Sorbonne shared pictures from his local French supermarket and wrote on Twitter:
“When you're in a club and there are difficulties (of tomatoes, in winter, hello !) club members first help each other out before shipping off somewhat rarer tomatoes to a country which has been ranting about how it's priding itself on making it much harder to do trade with them ! So yes ! It IS a Brexit issue, despite what media and even Waitrose may be telling their customers"
Later, Alex Taylor tweeted this map to illustrate the point:
#5 Even in Kyiv in Ukraine, it is easier to get tomatoes
The veteran reporter John Sweeney shared on his war diary a video of a Kyiv supermarket amply supplied with tomatoes. In the clip he suggests that the Brexit campaign was partly funded by donations from Russia - donations that have never been adequately investigated.
Twitter users shared a clip from Talk TV Breakfast News incident where a reporter from Kyiv in Ukraine tried to say that it is easier to get tomatoes there than in London and that this is because of Brexit, but the presenter drowned him out by repeating "It's nothing to do with Brexit".
#6 Trade imbalance means many lorries return to the EU empty
The UK doesn't have import controls yet - they have been postponed (again) until the 1st of January 2024. But it has export controls and that has led to a slump in exports to the EU. The growing imbalance between imports and exports mean a lot of lorries go back to the EU empty - and that makes the journey less commercially attractive.
#7 Ireland is suffering too - because it is still partly supplied via the UK
Ireland is also affected by the shortage because a significant amount of its retailers are still supplied by UK wholesalers and a big percentage of exports still come across the UK ‘landbridge’. They are increasing ferry capacity direct from Europe but it takes longer and costs more than when both countries were in the EU.
#8 The UK wasn't part of an EU agreement to protect food producers from rising energy costs
Farmers are struggling with massive energy costs,
The New Statesman reported: "Had Brexit not happened, the British government would have been forced to go along with European Union decisions on how to help farmers through this situation, meaning that British growers might have had more support. The UK has decided not to include horticulturalists in its energy support scheme; in the EU a €500m support package has helped farmers to grow fruit and vegetables on fallow land.
Former Sainsbury's CEO Justin King said UK food production has been "hurt horribly by Brexit". He told Nick Ferrari At Breakfast on LBC that UK greenhouses, previously known to grow tomatoes, have suffered in recent years.
"These are products that we do produce, or in the past have produced year round in the UK. North Kent, in Thanet, [had] the largest greenhouses in Europe, which used to be full of peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes. But those greenhouses have suffered, really, from two big things. I hate to say it, Nick, but it's a sector that's been hurt horribly by Brexit."
#9 Production in the UK is down, partly due to the end of free movement
Production of fresh produce in the UK is down for several reasons - one of them being the lack of seasonal workers. Many growers have had to let crops rot in the ground due to labour shortages in recent harvests, and have planted less since. The shortage of cauliflowers and other brassicas is set to worsen. The number of seasonal visas granted by the UK government is far short of what is needed - and when these workers are in short supply, small Scottish farms that can't afford to pay the highest wages lose out.
Save British Farming chair Liz Webster said:
“The reason that we have food shortages in Britain, and that we don’t have food shortages in Spain – or anywhere else in the European Union – is because of Brexit, and also because of this disastrous Conservative Government that has no interest in food production, farming or even food supply.”
#10 The situation could worsen as the UK moves away from CAP and Brexit continues to bite
It looks unlikely that PM Rishi Sunak will be able to break the impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol which is worsening relations with the EU. Even the Labour party wants to continue with Brexit.
UK farming is being hit hard by energy bills, and by coming out of the Common Agricultural Policy. That is designed so that much of the cost of food production is borne by taxpayers not those who pay at the till. But the UK government is not likely to allocate the same degree of funding - and therefore Scotland will be short-changed through the "block grant".
Businesses face a “cliff edge” in support next month. They have to pay far higher energy costs than competitors in many EU countries. The NFUS wants to see food producers pay lower energy costs, as they are a critical industry.
The NFUS annual survey of farmers shows many Scottish farmers are affected by the disruption and lack of certainty caused by leaving the Common Agricultural Policy, which gives long-range stability and food security for countries within the European Union. Scottish farmers also feel betrayed by deals the UK has struck with Australia and New Zealand which threaten the commercial viability of their farms in the long term.
Yes, bad weather has reduced the supply of fresh produce. But the UK is losing out from not being part of the EU's single market which has always prioritised food security. Food production at home is also been damaged.
An independent Scotland back in the EU would be able to build a country where nutritious food is affordable and available to all, as it is across the European Union.