Low temperatures in Spain have led to widespread shortages in UK supermarkets of tomatoes and other salad veg in what is becoming a pattern of disruptive winter weather in key southern Europe growing regions.
The shortages, described by one importer and wholesaler as the “worst in 40 years”, are a result of a perfect storm of conditions, including a heatwave and drought last summer, and then lower than average temperatures across the south of Spain and Morocco, both large suppliers of salad veg to the UK throughout winter.
Photos have been shared across social media throughout the weekend, with pictures of empty shelves from Devon to Scotland and speculation that the shortages are down to Brexit.
Supermarkets have been putting up signs explaining the shortages are down to the weather, while the BBC has reported Asda has today capped the number of tomatoes, peppers and lettuce that can be bought per shopper.
Colin Putt, an importer at Dole Produce’s wholesale branch in the South West, said it’s been a combination of “poor growing conditions and inflation”. “It’s the worst I’ve ever known for both prices and availability,” he said. The wholesale prices of peppers and tomatoes have tripled as a result of low supply, said Putt, who said other salad like cucumbers, aubergines, spinach and lettuce have been affected.
Spain is the primary supplier of salad veg to the UK outside of the homegrown growing season, with the bulk of it grown in heated glasshouses in the southern region of Almeria and supplied to major supermarket chains. Low temperatures have left produce struggling to ripen while growers face high energy costs for heating and supplementary light.
Holland is usually a substitute for poor Spanish supply, according to Putt, but growers there are facing similar inflation, as well as importers having to pay £1 per box in Brexit paperwork.
Companies buying direct from Spanish growers have so far been less affected with a more secure supply and buying lower volumes overall. Organic veg box company Riverford has lower than usual volumes from its grower partner Ecosur in Spain but remains one of the few places tomatoes are in stock this week.
The shortages are becoming a pattern in winter where weather is becoming more erratic, with less predictable temperatures, snow and hail disrupting the growing season in Spain. In recent years, there have been hailstorms that have damaged outdoor crops, and a so-called ‘courgette crisis’ where cold weather ruined Spanish crops.
Executive director of the Food Ethics Council, Dan Crossley, said: “We need to wake up and smell the tomatoes. Climate change, coupled with supply-chain challenges following Brexit, is increasingly limiting our ability to eat the same foods all year round.
“But perhaps it’s high time we challenged the assumption that this is what everybody wants. Attuning our diets to the seasons and to our local ecologies is a shift that would not only respect nature, but would also help citizens feel more connected to the food they eat.”
For more on seasonal eating, read our guide on how to eat seasonal in February.