Is this veg shortage the wake up call we needed?

How the bare shelves can raise us from our food coma and change the way we engage with food

Is our current centralised food system fit for purpose?

Over the past ten days we have seen major supermarkets ration fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers due to a nationwide shortage. Unseasonably cold weather in Morocco and Spain, where we import the majority of our salad vegetables from at this time of year, has impacted harvests and led to smaller crops. Suddenly vegetables are a hot topic and food production is being discussed by every news platform. There is a huge opportunity here to engage with where our food comes from.

As consumers we have become accustomed to the convenience of supermarkets - we are used to having any food we could possibly want available to us all year round. We’ve disengaged with the growing process; if we want strawberries in January or tomatoes in March, we can have them. Except now we can’t. It is only once a staple is no longer there that we question why and look into where it actually came from. Maybe there is a silver lining to the current issues; it can inspire us to seek alternatives, to ask questions, to re-engage with our food, where it comes from and how it’s produced.

The UK can produce abundant quality vegtabels

Vegetable imports are usually bolstered by production in the UK. As salad vegetables typically come into season through the summer, they are also grown in greenhouses to provide a year-round supply. However, the increase in energy prices and fertilizer costs have made a huge impact on British growers. APS, the largest tomato producer in the UK left glass houses empty last year for the first time in the organisation’s 80 year history. The rise in growing costs has not been reflected in the prices supermarkets are willing to pay, leaving many farms with no choice but to stop producing. Supermarkets are in part the cause of vegetable shortages, rather than the solution to the problem, as their focus on low prices drives growers out of business.

A shortage of red peppers may be frustrating but it’s not life threatening, it is also a frustration unique to our generation. As recently as fifty years ago, dietary habits would have been entirely based on what was in season. In the mid-1980s, the UK produced 78% of the food we consumed. That has now dropped to 64%. The link between locally grown produce and seasonality made buyers intrinsically aware of where their food came from. Now we have the opportunity to do the same. The convenience of supermarkets has disengaged us from the provenance of what we are putting in our bodies, but the cracks in the system of big supermarkets and cheap imports are starting to show.

Farmers markets connect us to quality local food

There is both a short and long term solution to the current issue. In the short term, consumers can adapt to vegetables that are still available. Therese Coffey, the Environmental Secretary, came under fire for suggesting people eat turnips rather than tomatoes. Whilst her argument was a little simplistic, there was sensible logic behind it. There is a plethora of fruit and vegetables currently in season in the UK that are not only available, but also help the environment by reducing transport carbon emissions. They include Artichoke, Beetroot, Carrots, Chicory, Leeks, Parsnip, Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Radishes, Rhubarb, Sorrel, Spring Greens, Spring Onions, and Watercress. These items need not be the entirety of our diet but if consumers start with a base of local produce and supplement with imported produce, it will reduce carbon emission and take pressure off supply issues.

For those who are financially able, products such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are still available through local greengrocers and suppliers. As supermarkets refuse to offer farmers fair prices, many have turned to smaller businesses, greengrocers and farm shops who are willing to pay a fair price. The additional cost is then passed on to the consumer. We now have the incentive to support small businesses and where possible, pay a fair price to farmers for their food. Doing so does not need to be a sacrifice or inconvenience on the part of consumers. There are multiple vegetable boxes, delivery services and smaller retailers who focus on ensuring consumer needs and desires are met by British, sustainably grown and seasonal produce.

Not all veg comes from fields...

Supermarkets argue that they need to keep prices artificially low in order for those most in need to afford food, but this is not sustainable long term. As Jay Raynor wrote this week, ‘We need to stop talking about food poverty and just call it poverty’. In order to solve poverty we need to look at the problems in the wider societal structures that sit alongside the price of food. Artificially low prices do not solve the issue, they impact and slowly destroy our agricultural system as more and more farms become economically unviable. We absolutely need to address poverty but we also need to ensure we have a lasting and sustainable infrastructure to feed the population. This means shifting the focus from cheap imports to regenerative systems of agriculture which can feed the population and benefit the environment simultaneously. More and more farmers are moving in this direction, switching to a regenerative farming model that produces food whilst also improving soil quality and biodiversity, making it a much more sustainable option long term. If the supermarkets are not willing to support this change then both the government and the consumer must.

The current vegetable crisis has shone a light on the failings of the current system and can be used to spark change. It’s a necessary wake up call to address our food production, not only on a consumer level but by supermarkets and government alike. When our supply chains break down we see the benefit of supporting British farmers. The regenerative farming movement is making great leaps forward in the UK to produce food locally, efficiently and most importantly, regeneratively. The current issues prove that the UK government must stop looking abroad to import their food more cheaply but support their local farmers to produce food more sustainably. Through our buying habits, can influence this and do our own bit for the UK's food and farming system.