Thérèse Coffey has been slammed over her response to the shortages of fruit & veg in UK supermarkets, with NFU president Minette Batters telling The Grocer her comments had been “really out of touch”.
Defra secretary Coffey came in for stiff criticism from farmers at the NFU Conference on Wednesday over her dismissal of the impact of the crisis – which has seen Asda, Morrisons, Tesco and Aldi introduce buying restrictions on certain lines – stating “we can’t control the weather in Spain”.
She also came under fire for dismissing the suggestion the egg and pig sectors were in crisis in an often-uncomfortable and ill-tempered Q&A exchange with both Batters and delegates.
Coffey then doubled down on her position in parliamentary questions on Thursday, when she stressed the UK had a “highly resilient food supply chain and is well equipped to deal with situations that have the potential to cause disruption”.
A subsequent comment suggesting British shoppers should “cherish the specialisms that we have in this country” by adopting seasonal veg such as turnips then prompted derision by opposition MPs and on social media.
Both the Mirror and Daily Star ran front page splashes today carrying the headline ‘Let Them Eat Turnips’, with Coffey coming under further criticism for suggesting hard-up shoppers should work longer hours if they were unable to afford food.
The embattled Defra secretary’s performance at the conference was “surreal”, said Batters in an exclusive interview with The Grocer’s editor in chief Adam Leyland.
Coffey had “lost the room with her comments”, with Batters citing the experience of an egg producer who “collapsed in tears” after her denial the egg sector had seen market failure. This was despite production falling to its lowest level in nine years due to the ongoing issues around low returns to farmers.
Batters – who said at the conference that the government had failed to engage on myriad issues plaguing food production – added government was too “fixated on automation” when presented with calls to engage on other issues such as energy, returns and labour.
She also asked whether government cared about expected falls in self-sufficiency, with NFU data showing growers were expecting a further 4.4% fall in production in 2023.
In a survey run by the union, 56% of respondents had already reported a fall in 2022 production, averaging at a 19% reduction across the sector. This was expected to fall by up to a further 20% as businesses cut back.
“The sector is just being mothballed,” said Batters. “That era of self-sufficiency has gone. [The UK has a] great climate but there is no political ambition to maintain a level of self-sufficiency.
“They’ve tied the industry down. The big growers are moving their business abroad. The smaller ones have no idea what their storage costs are going to be. They don’t know what their contractual relations will be. And they’ve paid a massive cost,” she added.
“And why are we not getting energy support for protected crops? Who made the case for the Royal Botanical Gardens? Not Defra that’s for sure,” Batters said. “Do we want protected supply? Relying on imports is pretty dangerous.”
The fruit & veg shortages are expected to continue in the weeks and months to come with more lines affected, industry experts have warned.
“If you’re on productive land, with global wheat prices this high, why would you take a risk on field veg? It’s about the highest risk you could take,” Batters added. “With wheat you can take out labour costs. It’s a product you can store. But field veg is extremely high risk and the production figures are playing out in real time.”
This decision by many growers to swap to a lower volatility crop was reinforced by British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward, who said it was “a lot less hassle”.
It comes as further challenges have hit the sector, including adverse weather conditions in the UK, which is expected to result in further shortages.
One product set to be affected is leeks. Due to farmers facing “the most difficult season ever”, the crop will be in short supply this year.
Tim Casey, chairman of the Leek Growers Association, said yields were down between 15% and 30% and predicted “the supply of home-grown leeks will be exhausted by April, with no British leeks available in the shops during May and June, with consumers having to rely on imported crops”.