Farmers seek energy price aid as UK salad production wilts

By Nigel Hunt

BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Britain should provide more support to growers of salad ingredients with production expected to fall to the lowest level since records began as high energy costs bite, the head of the National Farmers Union said on Tuesday.

Horticulture has been excluded from a government Energy and Trade Intensive Industries scheme (ETII) that provides help with energy costs, while the country's botanical gardens are included.

NFU president Minette Batters said that despite recent falls, gas prices remain three times higher than normal.

"The situation seems ridiculous. The Royal Botanical Gardens, as important as they are, qualify for the scheme. But the protected crop sector - those growing tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines and peppers to feed British families - don't," she told the NFU's annual conference.

The government began collecting production data on salad ingredients in 1985.

The country is already facing a severe shortage of these ingredients such as tomatoes.

Farming minister Mark Spencer said during a news conference on Tuesday the current shortages had little to do with the challenges faced by UK producers.

"The reason we are short of those products in supermarket shelves today is because of weather events in other parts of the world," he said.

"What has driven some of this is frost in Morocco and Spain in November and December which damaged a lot of the salad and brassica crops which we have traditionally relied for imports at this time of year. That has created a gap in the market."

Spencer said there were similar issues across Europe which was leading to a spike in prices, noting this could provide an opportunity for UK growers.

"If the price of cucumbers is going to go through the roof then the economics of heating your greenhouse do change," he said.

Batters said high energy prices had also contributed to a fall in UK egg production to the lowest level in nine years, with nearly a billion fewer eggs produced in 2022 than 2019.

Many supermarkets in Britain have rationed eggs sales, with production also hurt by bird flu outbreaks.

(Reporting by Nigel Hunt. Editing by Jane Merriman)