Column: A window into the supply chain

fresh fruits and vegetables isolated on white background
fresh fruits and vegetables isolated on white background

In recent weeks we have seen our supermarket shelves become emptied of many fresh fruit and vegetables. For most of us, the supermarket aisle is the closest we will get to the farms and suppliers who deliver our food. We have grown to demand the year-round supply of fruit and vegetables but it was not always this way.

The idea that fresh strawberries would be available at Christmas was unthinkable not that long ago and to obtain an iceberg lettuce in February it was bordering the impossible. So what has happened? When did we come to expect fields of plenty in our supermarkets all year round?

During the 1990s British retailers mastered sourcing to maintain our all year demand for a wider range of fruit and vegetables. This gave rise to many myths of EU regulations describing the correct size of cucumbers and so on. But these quality standards improved the British diet so we could get the five servings of fruit and veg from the widest range possible each day. This is why shortages and empty shelves are so shocking. While the current courgette and iceberg lettuce crisis has given some of our local comedians and commentators elements of comedy gold, there may truly worrying times ahead if forces other than the weather are at work here.

The current shortage of lettuces, peppers and courgettes is reported to be an outcome of poor weather in southern Europe. The result is much of the fresh produce that would have ended up on Yorkshire supermarket shelves is not available because agriculture is the engine-room of our food supply. We can rarely think of a time when it has failed us because shelves of plenty are expected whenever we are in stores.

The reality is around a quarter of our vegetables and half of our fruits are imported from European neighbours. This is all from the glasshouses of the Netherlands, the fields of Flanders and the cover crops of southern Spain.

Limiting the choice of fruits and vegetable does not come without risk because we all know that eating five a day is a good thing to aim for. If these choices are going to be limited and more expensive then there is a need to look for alternatives. So is there more to this than bad weather?

Choice, quality and taste are the things that determine many business decisions in the food industry and the information supermarkets have acted on in the last 20 years has come from consumers. We now face a food supply chain where decisions are more determined by what producers are prepared to let the UK have. As such, I think we should face the reality that we should not expect to see blueberries on the shelves in January and be prepared for more seasonal offers that are less likely to come from European producers.

The decision of the UK to exit the European Union is very much behind this re-thinking of supply. Of course weather conditions and local changes will impact on agriculture. But when a producer has the choice of exporting to a restricted UK market or an open European market it makes sense to choose the latter unless the price is influential. An outcome of Brexit will be a drastic change in how fresh produce is moved around Europe. We will see out-of-season shortages and price rises more often.

A solution is for the UK to see this as an opportunity to encourage the seasonal eating of produce. The supermarket aisle is our window into what is happening in the supply chain. How this transfers to our kitchen table is yet to be seen but I think we need to think of different food choices, preserved foods and make way for higher prices on out-of-season produce.