Morrisons Organic peppers

Source: The Grocer/Joel Chant

“It’s not fair, Europe has full shelves and we don’t!” This has been the gist of the commentary on social media this week, as the UK battles with fresh produce shortages while the Continent has plentiful supply. Despite the rumblings over Brexit, it’s not the result of the B-word this time. It’s simple economics.

In Europe, fruit and vegetables are bought based on real prices. Prices fluctuate depending on factors that affect farmers and growers everywhere – weather, labour, energy and transport, for example. When costs go up, prices go up.

This is not how most British retailers work. They want a price that is fixed for a season, generally at rock bottom. They also want specifications that are incredibly tight. Suppliers are not just audited by the BRC, but also by their own auditors. In short, working with UK retailers is expensive and demanding.

Over the past year, we’ve seen warning signs the UK’s food supply chain is broken. It’s not just tomatoes and cucumbers in short supply, but eggs, chicken, apples, pears and more. The number of fresh categories on their knees in the UK grows ever larger and still nothing changes.

The retailers plough on searching for cheaper produce, while the UK farming industry gets smaller and smaller. Food inflation is at a 40-year high, yet British apple growers have had an average 0.8% cost increase accepted. Is it any wonder new orchards are not being planted, while others are being abandoned and not maintained?

The smaller the farming sector gets, the bigger the retailer banners claiming support for British farmers become. But the truth is, British retailers are obsessed with two things: price and profit. They want prices lower than anywhere else in the world and have profit levels they have to hit. They will scour the earth looking for new countries where they can get lower prices, leaving UK farmers and growers to pick up all the risk. The risk now, though, is too high for farmers and growers to continue operating at historic levels. This will increase the need for the UK to import more and more of the food we need.

Do we want to be more reliant on imports? Do we want an environment in which farmers and growers are not able to make a living, in which fields and greenhouses are left empty? That is the current direction of travel – and the more we import, the more retailers will have to rely on ‘goodwill’ when the wheels come off.

Amid their unrealistic demands for low prices, constant supply and no hiccups, UK retailers have forgotten their number one job is availability. That means managing risk and having alternatives, albeit potentially more expensive ones, to ensure shelves are not empty for week after week. We have had months of availability issues with eggs – now tomatoes and cucumbers are going the same way.

There is no quick fix, but the answer is not to be found with government intervention. The answer is solely in the hands of the retailers, and that means changing their buying models to better reflect reality – starting with paying more to UK farmers and growers.