Why is the UK facing such intense food shortages?


Grace Fegan discusses the issues facing UK retailers, farmers and consumers as shortages blight the country.

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Image by Diamond Geezer

By Grace Fegan

Empty shelves: we’ve seen them before, and it looks like we’ll be continuing to see them as the UK plummets further into a national food shortage. It started with eggs back in December of last year, and now it seems to have spread to fruit and vegetables. As a result, many UK supermarkets, including Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, and Asda have been forced to implement restrictions on the amount of produce that customers can buy. Whilst this shortage seems to be affecting UK retailers only, its causes extend much further than Britain’s borders.

Focusing firstly on the international scale, the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict remains a contributing factor to the decline in British production. Following Russia’s invasion, energy prices have skyrocketed. Accordingly, many manufacturers have had to reduce their scales of production, including British farmers. Particularly during the colder winter months, British farmers typically use energy-powered greenhouses to grow various fruit and vegetables. Exacerbated by the increased cost of living in the UK, such manufacturing processes are simply becoming too costly to sustain.

As the agricultural industry has not been classified as ‘energy intensive’, it won’t qualify for the government’s Energy Bill Relief Scheme; a scheme providing financial aid to non-domestic energy consumers, following soaring energy prices. This lack of financial support means that agricultural processes will continue to be reduced, which could see food shortages further into the year.

However, Britain does have alternative ways of sourcing produce. Spain and Morocco are two of the largest exporters of fruit and vegetables to the UK during the winter months. Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Thérèse Coffey informed the House of Commons that in 2021, Britain imported over £1.5 billion-worth of fruit and veg from Spain, and £340 million-worth from Morocco. However, extreme weather conditions, with both countries experiencing unseasonably high temperatures followed by sub-zero conditions, have ultimately led to a significantly reduced yield. With imports dropping by at least half as a result, the national food shortage that British supermarkets already face has thus intensified.

Narrowing focus onto the national scale, the responses of British retailers to the increased cost of production only seems to have further cemented this food shortage. According to Euronews, farmers are now facing production costs upwards of 50 percent more in comparison to 2019. Although one could expect to see an increase in the price of produce at supermarkets as a result, we’re contrarily met with empty shelves. This is because British retailers, stemming from an attempt to retain customer loyalty, are refusing to pay their suppliers these increased prices.

Supermarkets expert Ged Futter comments on the impact of the fixed price contract between both British retailers and growers, whereby prices between both parties are negotiated, and then fixed. Consequently, the higher levels of inflation that the UK is currently facing have been unaccounted for, and it is the suppliers that have had to absorb this into their own “wafer thin margins”. In other words, production costs have exceeded retail prices, as supermarkets are not required to pay more than the price they negotiated at the start of the contract. Many suppliers have thus been unable to sustain high levels of production.

Another factor that has further reduced this scale of production is the significant loss of British labourers in the wake of Brexit, and subsequent abolition of the ‘Free Movement of Workers’ law. The movement, which gave EU workers the right to reside in any EU member state for the purpose of employment, was brought to an end following Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. With fewer labourers available to work in the UK, British manufacturing processes, including those within the agricultural industry, have been forced to further cut down.

Whilst the impact of these food shortages on British growers and suppliers have been acknowledged, less light has been shed on the customer. So what do the British public have to say about the current situation?

A ‘YouGov’ survey, conducted on 22 February 2023, has revealed that 61 percent of 4,294 British adults have either noticed or personally experienced food shortages in their local shop or supermarket. In contrast, a total of 31 percent of this population haven’t noticed or experienced any food shortages, whilst the other 8 percent were either unsure or unable to comment. These results suggest that a larger proportion of the British population have been personally affected by food shortages. But is this the case in York? After interviewing numerous customers as well as students, it appears that York too, has been affected by the ongoing national food shortage:

One customer commented that despite not seeing any major effects, her local supermarket was limiting the amount of fruit and vegetables that customers could buy. She further commented that “there is a clear reduction in fresh produce, but nowhere else in the store”.

Another customer states “it is very frustrating going shopping at the minute. The fresh produce aisle being so empty has meant I’ve had to buy most fruit and veg frozen, as there is no other choice”. She further comments, “it’s hard to try and keep up a balanced diet when this is the case”.

A student at The University of York has said she has noticed a significant decrease in the number of red peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Both herself and her housemates, she points out, are fearful that this shortage will spread to other products.

Finally, another student seems to share a similar experience after describing his apprehension regarding the financial repercussions of this situation. “The more costly alternatives I am being forced to buy as a result of these food shortages is worrying me. Particularly with the current cost of living crisis, I’m finding that I have less money to spend on shopping each week, and the shortages only seem to be worsening.”

And yet whilst these shortages, which are predicted to intensify over the coming weeks, are caused by numerous factors that are largely out of our control, there are still some measures that can be taken to help alleviate their impact:

In an age where climate change is ever-worsening, growing your own produce has never been more suitable. Not only will this allow you to cultivate produce that may not be available in your local supermarket amidst this prevailing food crisis, but this is also a great way to reduce the pollution created by the importation of foreign goods. Another solution is to buy tinned or canned goods. Although not as fresh, these will last much longer than produce; helpful particularly when considering the likelihood of food shortages to continue. Finally, make more seasonal food choices. Not only will this ease the pressure put on foreign importation, but it will simultaneously support local growers, particularly during this time of economic unrest.