Shortages of tomatoes and peppers on UK supermarket shelves are set to last “for weeks”, retailers have warned, as the National Farmers’ Union said domestic production was falling in agricultural sectors from salads to eggs.
Supermarket Asda said on Tuesday it was rationing purchases of fruits and vegetables after bad weather in southern Europe and north Africa disrupted harvests of several crops.
As images emerged of empty supermarket shelves across the country, the British Retail Consortium, a trade body, said the disruption was “expected to last a few weeks”.
Farming minister Mark Spencer told reporters at the NFU’s annual conference that the shortages had been caused by “a frost in Morocco and Spain in November and December, which damaged a lot of the salads and brassica crops, which we have traditionally relied on for imports at this time of year”.
But NFU president Minette Batters told the same event that supplies of salad vegetables grown in UK greenhouses were also falling because high energy prices were making it uneconomic for some growers to operate.
Growers of salad crops previously operated year-round, albeit at lower levels in winter. Batters called for the government to support their energy costs through its energy intensive industries exemption scheme, from which growers are excluded.
“For protected crop growers, those growing [crops] under cover, the price of gas means that they are mothballing many of their businesses,” she said. “We are seeing huge contractions — the lowest levels of production since 1985, when records began.”
Batters added that cuts to post-Brexit farm subsidies, combined with steep rises in the prices of raw materials, labour and energy, were leading to production falls in other areas of agriculture, including eggs. Almost 1bn fewer eggs were produced in 2022 than in 2019.
“Other sectors are facing an uncertain future as direct [subsidy] payments are phased out against a backdrop of high cost inflation,” she said.
Asda said it was allowing customers to buy no more than three at a time of product lines including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, salad bags, broccoli, cauliflower and raspberries.
“Like other supermarkets, we are experiencing sourcing challenges on some products that are grown in southern Spain and north Africa,” Asda said.
The BRC said: “While disruption is expected to last a few weeks, supermarkets are adept at managing supply chain issues and are working with farmers to ensure that customers are able to access a wide range of fresh produce.”
The shortages emerged as an audience of farmers at the NFU congress subjected Spencer to tough questioning on a range of post-Brexit policy issues, from a lack of checks on inward-bound food products to the slow rollout of farm subsidy schemes.
Ministers on Tuesday announced they would make more than £168mn in grants available for farmers to fund innovation, animal health and welfare changes, and environmental protection.
The government was contacted for comment about the scope of the energy intensive industries exemption scheme.