Voices: The real reason behind UK food shortages – and how to stop them from happening again

An apple a day – you should be so lucky.

Strawberries: nope. Cucumber: ditto. Tomatoes: no chance. The fruit and veg aisles in our supermarkets were bare this week.

In the UK, people took to social media to express their dismay; meanwhile, our European neighbours taunted us with plentiful shelves, heaving with juicy tomatoes. One Twitter user showed that even in Kherson in Ukraine, a city under constant shelling, there is ample fresh produce.

So, what’s happening to our food supply? Some argue that it is extreme weather across Morocco and Spain affecting imports, some lay this at Brexit’s door, and some argue that it’s fallout from the cost of living crisis – with energy prices impacting growers’ ability to heat greenhouses. Supermarkets may also be to blame, for paying farmers such low prices that it outstrips the cost of production. In truth it’s all of these.

But don’t worry, Therese Coffey has a solution: we just need to eat more turnips.

She recently told MPs that a solution to the food supply chain issues is to eat more British vegetables, and “cherish” UK produce. Buy British, she implores. Eat seasonal, she urges.

But the truth is, right now British fruit is in a perilous state. Apple farmers in the UK are planning to “mothball the orchards”. Hectare after hectare of UK apple orchards are being dug up and growers are planning to plant 31 per cent fewer apple and pear trees next season.

No tomatoes today, but could it be no apples and pears next? “We have decided to quit apple growing in two years’ time after 40 years of growing fruit,” one grower told the British Apples and Pears association.

Farmers argue that this is a twofold issue – lack of government support and greedy supermarkets. UK farming is an energy-reliant sector offered inadequate government support to cover input costs, such as fuel and labour. These costs have risen 23 per cent year on year, but the price a supermarket pays has risen by just 1 per cent. It’s unsustainable. Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said that domestic production of salad – which includes tomatoes and cucumbers – is at its lowest level since 1985.

So no, Therese, we can’t simply rely on eating British. We can’t just eat turnips – not least because turnip panic-buyers have cleared the shelves. We’re heading into food supply catastrophe, with few solutions.

We already rely heavily on other countries – importing more than 40 per cent of our food. And we’re no longer members of the EU, unable to count on our friendly neighbours to help us out when all the cucumbers are gone. If the government can’t or won’t support British farmers, and intervene where corporate greed is rearing its ugly head, I can’t see an answer.

This is all happening at a time when we are (rightly) encouraged to eat healthily, to reach our five a day, prepare from scratch, minimise ultra-processed food – but food supply chain issues like this make that much harder.

What does the future look like for fruit and vegetables in UK supermarkets? Will we end up with long-term rationing of tomatoes (supermarkets are already limiting purchase); and how will this affect the UK diet when so many of us are already obese and eating too much fatty, salty and unhealthy food?

The UK food supply chain is a resilient one. Remember Covid panic buying? After initial fears of never being able to source flour, pasta or eggs again, the supermarkets (with government support) slowly restored order. But there does need to be some significant transformation in the way our food system works.

First, we need to pay farmers a fair price for their products; one that supports them to continue to supply us with our favourite Braeburn or Bramley.

Secondly, the UK government needs to step up to fix the market failure. In the short term, farmers need relief from crippling energy prices. In the long term they need to be supported to transition to renewable energy, reducing reliance on gas.

Finally, we won’t get fruit if we don’t have people to pick it. The government need to fix the labour shortage – something that Brexit made considerably worse.

We need systemic change – not quick-fix solutions. We need to put pressure on those in charge to fix our food system, and support British farmers.

Dayna Brackley is a food policy consultant at Bremner Consulting and a master’s student at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London