Dr Nicholas Beuret is a lecturer in management and ecological sustainability. Before joining Essex Business School, Nicholas worked as a research associate at Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, where he worked on critical approaches to climate migration. He was also a pre-doctoral fellow at Hobart & William Smith Colleges (USA) where he undertook research on the politics of the Anthropocene. He writes below in a personal capacity.
The past few years has seen an almost seasonal news cycle emerge in the UK around food supplies in January and February. This year it was given a visible boost by salad crop shortages and rationing in major UK supermarkets. Supermarkets and major news outlets cried weather, while critics in turn focused on Brexit. So where did all the UK salad go?
There is no one single cause for the shortages. We can however identify how a number of different processes have come together to produce a fragile food system in the UK, one susceptible to disruption. Crucially, climate change will hit this fragile system to ensure this undersupply crisis will repeat itself in the decade to come.
Poor weather has reduced salad and fruit crop availability in Spain and Morocco, two major European and UK suppliers (Spain is the number one lettuce supplier, with Germany and France it’s number one and two buyers). This joins a number of other global food shocks beyond the immediate impacts of the Ukrainian war produced through bad weather. While there is more than enough food produced to feed the world, recent years have seen a large number of regionalised weather-related food production crises. From drought in the Po valley to hurricane damage in Mozambique, weather is undermining food security. This is climate change in action, and as we move from the now 1.3C of global warming to a likely 2C, it will only intensify. Food crises are here to stay.
Brexit has had a very real effect on the UK food supply. It has created a shortage of farm workers in the UK where, like Spain, much farm labour is badly paid and reliant on importing workers who will work long hours for in poor conditions. It has created new blockages that disrupt the smooth workings of just-in-time food supplies, which, crucially, means when there are shortages as there have been, suppliers choose customers within free trading blocks. Hence it has created a hierarchy where EU countries gain access to Spanish crops before the UK as it is easier to supply them. Despite this, the UK’s supermarket’s ability to pay more than buyers in West African countries means the UK has still managed to secure salad and fruit crops at the former’s expense (just as Europe acquired LNG over the winter at Asia’s expense).
In addition, the UK government hasn’t recently prioritised food production, and has steadily reduced its autarky over recent decades, increasing its dependence on food imports. Between 40-50% of all food is imported into the UK (and the UK only produces 16% of its own fruit). At the same time farming is increasingly concentrated in fewer hands, with the sector in a state of crisis. Farmers work to very small margins, and a rise in the price of wages (Covid, Brexit, the cost of living crisis), in fuel and fertilizer (Ukraine), the loss of subsidies and weather damage all mean farmers face a near-permanent choice: pack it in or try, often by going into debt, to continue to sow and grow. Crucially, farmers also face the problem of having to sell to a small number of supermarkets who essentially control food retail, dictating wholesale prices, and who are refusing to pay more for the produce.
The UK could produce more salad crops, and has done so in the past by using large, heated greenhouses. The war in Ukraine has made this uneconomical however, especially as the UK government decided to not subsidise the energy costs of growers. Coupled to the short 6-month visas of seasonal workers when 9-months are needed, this has meant areas like the Lea Valley around London are empty. Worse still, Growers in the Lea have started applying to knock down greenhouses and use the land for housing development as rentierism is far more profitable and secure.
All of this adds up, with grocery inflation in the UK at a 15-year high, running at 17% in the four weeks to February. Coupled with massive energy price rises pushing millions more into fuel poverty, and persistent real wage cuts, and more people have less to spend whilst facing a profound squeeze on living standards.
All of this suggests a food system that will face persistent crises in our warmer future. And as many of these issues extend across Europe, the UK will not be alone in feeling them. But we also need to ask why are UK consumers demanding cucumbers and tomatoes in February? These can only be secured at a price people can afford through cheap fossil fuels (for UK production) and cheap, often migrant labour (across Europe). It comes at a cost we shouldn’t afford. Resources shouldn’t be mobilised to feed a food culture without regard for people or planet. A more resilient, just food system is possible. In a period of profound supply chain disruption, transforming UK food production in favour of a diverse community farmers for a healthier, more appropriate food supply is critical.