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Warnings have been issued that retailers may face more fruit and vegetable shortages, as temperatures in southern Spain soar to unprecedented levels while the UK growing season gets off to a late start because of cold, overcast weather.
Temperatures are expected to reach a new April record of 39 degrees Celsius in parts of Andalucía amid a long-lasting drought that has affected the production of vegetables in Spain.
In fact, Spain has been in drought since January last year and this is likely to be the hottest, driest April on record.
This has been amplified by the fact that British growers have also been facing weather challenges, particularly the cold start to the spring growing season and a lack of sunlight, resulting in less British-grown produce.
A boost for farm shops
As a result of shortages of cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers during March, farm shops and markets saw a much-needed boost in demand and footfall.
With further shortages on the way, farm shops are set to see the same uplift in the coming weeks.
Emma Mosey, owner of Yolk Farm and chair of the Farm Retail Association, explained, “As happened previously, the shortages in supermarkets will hopefully drive shoppers to look for fresh, local produce at farm shops and farmers’ markets.
“We are uniquely positioned to ensure that shelves are full, as many farm retailers grow their own produce, and when sourcing from overseas, we are willing to pay higher prices than the supermarkets for better quality produce.”
This is something that Gareth Morgan, head of farming policy at the Soil Association, also recognised. “Generally, we find that shorter supply chains are more resilient. Farm shops and independent food retailers can be more flexible with their pricing and suppliers.”
In order to communicate this to shoppers, Emma recommends farm retailers tell the stories of their produce on social media. “The media also has a huge role to play in communicating that farm retailers are likely to have full shelves too,” she added.
A need for more domestic production
However, Gareth warned that SMEs may feel a strain filling in the gaps left by supermarkets. “We also know that these smaller operations might struggle to cope with a sharp increase in demand.
“What we’d like to see from Defra is better support for UK farmers and growers at a time when they are struggling with increasing costs and diminishing returns.
“So, it is disappointing to hear that Defra has recently rolled back on their promise to produce a UK Horticulture Strategy. The sector urgently needs joined-up policy from the government to support domestic production and consumption of fruit and vegetables, promote more sustainable agro-ecological farming practices and tackle the issue of supply chain fairness.”
Indeed, while importing produce allows consumers a wide variety of choice all year round, James Woodward, sustainable farming officer at Sustain, warns it should not be relied upon.
“While some international trade can be part of a resilient food system, this should not be something to rely on. The UK imports 85% of fruit and 55% of vegetables, which is a worryingly vulnerable part of our food supply.
“It takes one global event, as we’re experiencing, to quickly impact food supply on trade and domestic production where costs skyrocket.”
According to Emma, this is an industry-wide problem that is having a knock-on effect across the supply chain. “The shortages in the supermarkets are caused by bad weather, but they are also caused by the fact that the supermarkets have driven suppliers so far on price that with rising energy prices and costs of production, many farmers have refused to supply or left the industry, which has driven up prices further”, she told Speciality Food.
Therefore, James concluded, “It is critical that Defra tackles unfair and low returns from the supermarket chain, plus ensure that growers can fully participate in Environmental Land Management schemes and other supporting grants.
“On top of that, we need a government who will tackle the issues around labour shortages and poor working opportunities in the sector.”