A glut of imported cucumbers has resulted in UK crops being thrown away at scale, as retailers take cheaper produce from abroad.
The Lea Valley Growers Association has said many of its growers are choosing to “dump” produce instead of sending it to market as the prices being offered by the mults was “not even worth the transport”.
The price of wholesale cucumbers has collapsed from an average of around 40p per cucumber seen in recent years to less than half that figure, at 16p, said LVGA secretary Lee Stiles, who added the current average price was also lower than the cost of production, currently around 30p per cucumber.
The glut of produce was driven by what Stiles described as a “perfect storm” of conditions, with British and Dutch growers delaying planting due to high gas prices, combined with poor weather conditions in Spain, meaning all major European producing nations were supplying their produce to market at the same time.
“This is the extreme [opposite] of the salad shortages which happened in February and March where we got no produce because the price was too high, and now we have too much produce because the price is too low,” he added.
Stiles said in a normal year the market was sometimes flooded for a day or two, but this year the oversupply situation had been worsening for many weeks and would likely continue, as well as affecting other salad lines throughout the year.
The lower prices on Dutch and Spanish lines are facilitated by EU subsidies, he said, “which I don’t see as a benefit of Brexit, and I don’t think many growers did either”.
In his view, the government has handed over regulation of the market to the retailers, which is exacerbating the issue as despite ‘buy British’ marketing in the supermarkets, only 10% of lines in the salad aisles was British, he said.
This was worsened by price matching as “it just devalues all the produce and reduces the margin for farmers which means there is no money to invest”, he suggested.
Stiles has called on the government to bring in protection for domestic growers because “it seems like madness” that the UK is importing cheap subsidised food from abroad but not supporting home-grown produce.
However, he was not hopeful this would happen anytime soon, as “the government hasn’t shown any interest in protecting British food producers for the last couple of years and doesn’t have any plans to do so in the future”.
Last year, some 10% of LVGA’s growers stopped planting due to soaring costs, labour issues, low returns and a lack of government support in areas such as energy costs, and Stiles warned this number was likely to be replicated this year due to “government inaction”.
It comes as the government holds its emergency food summit tomorrow, which Stiles said would be “nothing more than a PR stunt”.
“It’s supermarket-led, it’s BRC-led and it will just be a talking shop,” he added.
Own label cucumbers cost an average of 80p per cucumber according to this week’s Key Value Items tracker, up by 63% year on year and with a significant margin on the wholesale price.
Stiles explained that according to anecdotal data from growers, the average return they had seen was only up between 5% and 10%. This was six times lower than the year on year average retail price inflation for own label cucumbers.