More food shortages could add to Britain’s price pressure

LONDON – Britons already reeling from the biggest rise in food prices since 1977 may have to get used to shortages of fresh vegetables as soaring costs and unpredictable weather hit domestic production.

British shoppers have faced a shortage of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in recent weeks after disrupted harvests in north Africa reduced supply, while inflation forced industry buyers to spend more on less from key markets such as Spain.

Tax office data showed Britain imported 266,273 tonnes of vegetables in January 2023 – the smallest amount for any January since 2010, when the population was around 7 per cent smaller than it is now.

Compounding matters, UK production of salad ingredients is expected to hit a record low this year as costly energy deters British producers from planting crops in greenhouses.

The tight conditions have helped to push British food price inflation to levels not seen for almost 50 years.

Industry data from market researcher Kantar on Tuesday showed UK grocery price inflation hit a record 17.5 per cent in the four weeks to March 19, underscoring the problem for policymakers.

Many UK food retailers are buying less, knowing their customers cannot afford to spend so much, taking a hit to their profits in the process.

Mr Jack Ward, CEO of the British Growers Association, said there was now a question mark over the future of Britain’s fresh food producers.

“There’s a limit to how long growers can carry on producing stuff at a loss,” he said.

Growers, farming unions and shop owners warn of more shortages ahead, possibly soon spreading to other home grown crops, including leeks, cauliflowers and carrots because of summer drought and winter frosts.

In March, the UK typically imports about 95 per cent of its tomatoes, but that drops to 40 per cent in June through to September.

The warnings come after supermarkets were forced to ration egg sales late last year, while the cost squeeze extends to poultry and pig farmers, prompting many to quit the industry.

Apple and pear growers have also said not enough trees are being planted to maintain orchards.

While the government and supermarkets say they are confident about supply, the salad crisis has shone a light on the precarious state of Britain’s fresh produce industry.

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