Therese Coffey’s comments were crass, ill-informed, tin-eared and risible in many regards but did at least shine a light on aspects of our food supply chains. And in one small sense she has an unpalatable point; we’ve got used to having it all, all the time, whether it is tomatoes, asparagus or even the turnip. Maybe we now need to get used to this period of plenty drawing to a close and reflect more on seasonality?
The tomato shortage (and peppers, cucumbers so on) has been a big story for some weeks (and months in the case of eggs). Rationing has been introduced by many large food retailers (though smaller shops and markets are less impacted). On social media the situation in the UK has been contrasted with photos of stores in France, Spain and even Ukraine. If they have plentiful supply, why can’t we?
An aspect of the ‘debate’ over the great tomato shortage/rationing is the refusal to treat this as a complex problem with a range of interacting factors (there are some exceptions, see Jay Rayner’s piece and in part the BBC Reality Check). As much as I would love to blame it on Brexit (and I’d be sort of right), others say it is all the weather’s fault. Now it is the supermarkets that have caused this. This single issue ‘cause’ helps no one and certainly does not help us understand and then attempt to improve the position. Maybe it is all of the above – and more?
So what might be at play here?
- There has been bad weather in Morocco and Spain. It happens and has happened before. It can create some restrictions on supply.
- Brexit has made our supply lines more complex and difficult. If there is a product shortage then we are at the end of the queue for the supply because we have made it too much effort. Being inside the Single Market has its advantages.
- The shortage is also due to the cost of energy, and the uncertainties over future costs which have curtailed production in, for example, the UK and the Netherlands. Heating energy hungry glasshouses in winter and not getting any coverage of your costs (in the UK a Government decision) have meant that many greenhouses are left empty and unplanted.
- Our retail system pre-Brexit was based on long flow-based supply, in which certainty of supply and distribution allowed long fixed contracts to be agreed. This is now disrupted (and the weather added to this) but supermarket retailers seem to have been caught out by the full implications of this change. Distribution is now about managing uncertainty and volatility not about smoothing predictable flows to satisfy stable demands. Our contracts and prices and speed of adjustment when shortages etc arise do not compare well to European practices, to our detriment. And as it is harder to distribute into our country/retailers post-Brexit, when producers have a choice, or can get a better price elsewhere, then our reputation goes against us. We are being marginalised and end up paying the price.
- Then there is the media. For decades the mainstream media has pushed the idea of cheap food. Forget about quality, price is all. Retailers are ranked on being the cheapest. It is understandable in a cost-of-living crisis to be concerned but this has gone on for much longer than that. This obsession has focused downward pressure on supermarket prices, eventually being felt most acutely by farmers. We see this across the supply chains.
So is our choice to try to have it all, all the time, scouring the world for cheap prices and then be forced to put up with the inevitable shortages when disruptions happen or actually build a sustainable fair system around seasonality and local supply?
All of these issues intersect and have come together in the lack of tomatoes etc and eggs, the price of milk and butter and so on and on. There will be other products to come, as the issues are systemic not isolated bad weather alone (and there’s a lot of that around) We need a recognition that this is a complex problem and we need long‑term sustainable holistic solutions. This may require more acceptance of higher prices and of seasonality in our produce. The slick extractive system dragging produce from wherever across the globe is no longer dependable, nor desirable. As countries turn to look after their own, isolated islands will struggle more than most.
We might also do well to remember that the full Brexit paperwork etc requirements on produce do not come in until next year. Things may not get any easier.
As some will know I tend to grow my own tomatoes, peppers etc and am lucky to be able to do so. It has led me however not to buy such products ‘out of season’ as I find them bland and tasteless in the main. We can’t all do this, but we might think more about the damage caused by our desire for year round perfect product at very cheap prices, obtained from wherever we can. It is increasingly an unattainable goal.