In Britain, there is currently a shortage of a lot of things – eggs, some veg, as well as news about the shortages.
Google “empty shelves in supermarkets today uk” or some such and most of the results are news articles from February 21st or thereabouts.
That’s three weeks ago but the shortage of eggs and other food products isn’t over. Today, I managed to buy the last box of six eggs on Asda’s shelves. It was £2.50 but I count myself lucky. Lidl had none (see photo).
Why is there a shortage of news about the shortage?
I can’t believe that it’s because we don’t want to know about the structural problem. That would be too much like an ostrich in a whole Sahara desert of sand.
Even so, it is revealing that the only real, more recent accounts about the situation today are in trade journals. The Fresh Produce Journal spoke about the deep problems faced by British consumers (and farmers and food producers).
The journal is a print and digital publication, which brings out 10 issues a year and was first published in 1895 to provide UK industry analysis. In a piece dated March 3, it noted that Belgian fresh produce cooperative BelOrta had expressed willingness to sell its wares in British supermarkets, “but only if the price is right”.
It said that “a group of BelOrta’s growers were taken on a tour of UK retailers and farms by FPJ managing director Chris White on 2-3 March, to explore opportunities to boost exports to the UK post-Brexit”. They subsequently expressed confidence on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme that they could help solve Britain’s problem. At a price.
A high price.
The journal quoted BelOrta CEO Phillippe Appeltans to say that UK retailers would need to pay the weekly or daily prices that constitute the co-op’s “typical market approach” to its produce.
In real terms, what this would mean is British shoppers would need to be more appreciative of the food they’re able to buy because it will cost a whole lot more. As the BBC has noted, British supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco sell salad tomatoes for £1.75/kg but their Belgian counterpart Delhaize sells standard tomatoes for roughly £4.66/kg, according to the BBC.
Brexit Britain: Grow-your-own-salad country Vs start-up nation
In Britain, let us root around for a salad
Belgian growers do much better out of their produce than the British. On March 1, said the journal, BelOrta’s growers’ price for loose round tomatoes was around €3/kg, while its speciality tomatoes on the vine commanded €6/kg. It quoted research by Farming Today on the contrast with British growers’ measly takings of £1.5-1.60/kg for loose round tomatoes.
The mad scramble to fill supermarket shelves is hardly helped by the announcement from the British Free Range Egg Producer Association that the cost of feeding hens has risen by at least 50 per cent and the price of fuel by 30 per cent. But with British supermarkets still trying to slice the omelette as thin as possible, the perceptible rise in food costs is not really helping producers, who reportedly have less than a 1 per cent increase in returns.
It sounds like it doesn’t pay to farm or to sell fresh produce, a uniquely British problem in Europe today, and one that is not receiving enough attention.
As Patricia Gibson, the Scottish National Party MP who serves as its Westminster spokesperson for environment, food and rural affairs, reminded parliament, “we are the only European country with empty supermarket shelves. The reality is that food shortages are due to low food production”.
It’s the way the system is currently set up with little heed to the reality that the UK currently imports 46 per cent of the food it consumes. It produces just 54 per cent, a marked decline from 78 per cent self-sufficiency in 1984. No wonder National Farmers Union president Minette Batters has said “British food is under threat” and the clock is “ticking”.