Tomatoes, cucumbers, and a slew of other vegetables are becoming increasingly difficult to get your hands on in Britain.
Several of the country’s biggest supermarkets have implemented rationing policies for certain fresh produce, as unfavorable conditions in mainland Europe and North Africa have disrupted supply and left shelves empty at grocery stores across the country. Experts say the country’s Brexit, which didn’t fully kick in until January 2021, is not primarily to blame—despite suspicions—as shortages have also cropped up in EU-member Ireland.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which represents farmers in England and Wales, said the industry was repeatedly seeing a “predictable combination” of energy costs and bad weather resulting in empty supermarket shelves.
“Our U.K. food resilience is currently gone,” NFU vice president David Exwood said in a statement this week. “Producers must have the confidence they need, working within a fair and transparent supply chain, ensuring fair and sustainable returns so they can do what they do best; produce nutritious, high-quality British food to meet demand from shoppers.”
Thanks to its climate, the U.K. imports much of its fruit and vegetable supply from warmer parts of the globe, particularly outside of its summer months. In the winter, the country is even more dependent on imports to keep its supermarkets stocked with out-of-season fresh fruit and vegetables.
Year-round, the vast majority of its fruit and vegetable imports are sourced from the EU and Africa.
With crop yields hit by adverse weather in source markets, representatives for grocery chains Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, and Aldi all confirmed to Fortune on Thursday that they had begun rationing supplies of tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers, limiting customers to two or three of each item per transaction.
The companies are the U.K.’s first, third, fourth, and fifth largest grocery store chains by market share, according to data from market research firm Kantar.
Morrisons said it was also putting a cap on lettuce purchases, while Asda confirmed it had applied its own rationing policy to eight products: tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, prepared salad bags, broccoli, cauliflower, and raspberries.
A spokesperson for Asda told Fortune the company had been hit by supply constraints on some produce grown in southern Spain and North Africa.
“We have introduced a temporary limit of three of each product on a very small number of fruit and vegetable lines, so customers can pick up the products they are looking for,” the spokesperson said.
In a statement, Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said the disruption was expected to last a few weeks, but added that supermarkets were “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.”
Have the shortages spread beyond Britain?
The U.K.’s vegetable shortages have raised concerns about panic buying in the coming weeks.
On Thursday, it was reported that one woman was banned from her local grocery store after trying to buy 100 cucumbers.
While some, including Liz Webster, chair of activist group Save British Food, have pointed the finger at Brexit for creating trade barriers that make it more complicated to export goods from the EU to Britain, others have suggested the causes of U.K. supply shortages are more complex.
Although consumers in many other EU countries have been unaffected by supply constraints, the Republic of Ireland has also been hit by fresh vegetable shortages, despite being an EU member state.
Coexphal, a Spanish trade body made up of 101 fruit and vegetable companies in the southern province of Almería, and other Spanish growers, told the Guardian on Thursday that although post-Brexit logistics had played a part in creating shortages, crop yields for several vegetables were down by more than 20% this season thanks to unexpected temperature drops—making it “practically impossible” to fulfill many of their commitments.
Meanwhile, European farmers’ organization Copa-Cogeca told the BBC that when supply tightened, European producers’ ability to coordinate within the EU’s vast single market meant goods were more likely to stay within the economic bloc.
The shortages could also be more pronounced in the U.K. than elsewhere in Europe because of Britain’s ongoing energy crisis, which has seen fuel costs soar to unaffordable levels for millions in the country.
According to NFU research, the cost of cultivating a tomato in Britain rose by 27% in 2021.
Jack Ward, CEO of the British Growers Association, told Euronews that many British farmers had opted out of growing certain crops because of spiraling production costs—creating a shortfall that now could not be filled by European imports.
Even in Kherson, a city on the front lines of war-torn Ukraine, supermarket shelves are fully stocked with fresh vegetables, according to Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Britain’s Channel 4 News.
No tomato shortage here – but I’m in Kherson, a frontline Ukrainian city that gets shelled by the Russians daily, not a British supermarket. pic.twitter.com/FFbVAf1zHC— Lindsey Hilsum (@lindseyhilsum) February 23, 2023
According to the EU’s Centre for the Promotion of Imports From Developing Countries, most of Ukraine’s fresh vegetable imports come from West and Central Asia.
Outside Europe, the U.S. has steadily become more reliant on other markets for its fresh vegetable supply since the early 2000s—with imports rising almost 200% over the past two decades—but the vast majority of its source markets are much closer to home than those rocking the U.K.’s supply chain right now.
Official data shows that in 2020, 77% of fresh vegetables imported into the United States came from Mexico, while 11% came from Canada.
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