UK Food Shortages Explained: Why Is This Happening?

Tractors in a field from above
Sophie Bryer

The empty supermarket shelves aren’t just a blip. They’re a symptom of a dysfunctional system. Sophie Bryer discusses.

Lately you might have noticed walking into your local shop that quite a few food sections have been looking a bit bare of late, namely the fresh food and egg aisles. Well, this is because the UK is currently finding itself in a food shortage crisis. Staple produce such as peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, citrus fruits, eggs, raspberries, carrots, leeks and much more have been missing or are in limited supply.

Patricia Gibson announced in parliament this sudden food shortage was forecasted prior to the situation at present, she noted that: ‘Farmers across the UK have been warning of the risk of food shortage for some time’. With this prediction being made long before the situation the UK finds itself in, the questions of why then is this happening? And could actions have been taken to prevent this nightmarish outcome?

It is an issue that I feel impelled and passionate to speak and investigate for Impact

As a proud dairy farmer’s daughter through and through this current food shortage climate the UK is facing is a really important point of discussion. It is an issue that I feel impelled and passionate to speak and investigate for Impact. I am keenly invested in discussing and voicing the hostile support and costs British farmers have always faced and are currently facing in the UK in 2023.

I began my research by typing into Google ‘food shortage in the UK’, I was then bombarded with news headlines which were rather fear-inducing: “England needs new reservoirs or food supplies will be at risk”, “UK risks sleepwalking into food supply crisis”, “Urgent action needed”. Each headline seemed to incite fear and a dystopian sentiment to the country’s food supply situation. So, should we be alarmed?

Why are UK Supermarkets Facing a Food Shortage Crisis?
The disappearance of many food essentials cannot be pinpointed to one particular factor. Instead, the food shortage situation seems to be down to multiple contributing factors which have resulted in the absence and bare presence of familiar produce in our supermarkets. Factors such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Brexit, the rise in the cost of living and energy prices, Avian Influenza, COVID-19, climate-change/ weather changes, labour shortages, lack of governmental support given to the British farming industry and supermarkets paying suppliers next to nothing prices for their produce. All have rendered British farming and the food supply chain insufferable and unstainable. The factors mentioned have in their own right thrown a punch at the UK’s domestic food supply chain’s security and ultimately led us to the predicament Britain finds itself.

the UK has experienced its own difficult weather conditions leading to reduce domestic yields

The UK sources many vegetables during the winter months from northern Africa and European countries such as Spain. However, due to extreme weather conditions crops were heavily damaged and consequently the import of overseas produce was negatively affected. Additionally, the UK has experienced its own difficult weather conditions leading to reduce domestic yields. As aforementioned, the weather and the climate have a profound effect on yields and food supply and security. The increase in the cost-of-living crisis has posed a threat to farmers and producers who already have considerable energy, labour, feed and fertiliser output costs to cover. As well as Brexit and the hostile returns farmers receive from supermarkets. All this and so much more, has left many British farmers with no choice but to reduce their yields to survive this tumultuous time. The British Free Range Egg Producer Association announced that the cost of feeding hens has risen by at least 50%, while the price of fuel has increased by 30%. Additionally, British fruit growers’ costs have increased by roughly 23%. You may have thought, well surely with the increased price supermarkets are charging for eggs and other produce in dwindling supply, surely the farmer is seeing a benefit from the increase? Well, no. Farmers are being met with less than a 1% increase in returns. It is simply an unstainable business and way of life to be in.

Domestic Supply vs Importation?
The UK is 18% self-sufficient in fruit and 55% in vegetables, analysts hypothesised that if everyone in the UK tried to eat their 5 a day from the UK’s current yield, it would fall short by 2.1 million tonnes annually.

Is self-sufficiency what we should be striving for? What are the benefits of greater self-sufficiency? Or should we keep importing produce? In my opinion, what has a long-last been highlighted to the public and ministers, is Britain’s broken domestic food production chain. The empty shelves and baskets in supermarkets is not an unexpected situation it signals Britain’s long-broken domestic food production industry, the scenes we are seeing in supermarkets exemplifies that ‘We are now […] at risk to external shocks disrupting our food supply because we [are] so dependent on imports’.

Patricia Gibson reminded parliament that ‘we are the only European country with empty supermarket shelves. The reality is that food shortages are due to low food production’. In response to this, MP Coffey put the situation down to there being a ‘number of products that we cannot grow in this country and we also have a season’. In my mind, the MP for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs seems to skim over and refrain from addressing the dysfunctional and broken system that is responsible for the UK’s ‘low [domestic] food production’. The Government argues that ‘self-sufficiency is not the same as food security. Being part of a global food system provides us with a diversity of supply sources and access to new products that cannot be produced domestically, contributing to our food security’.

the state of British farming and domestic food production is unviable

I can understand the importance of staying connected with other countries and appreciating the produce their climate facilitates. However, the state of British farming and domestic food production is unviable. As a nation we cannot deal self-sufficiently with the shortfall of imports. In my mind that is a problem and a threat to our national security. There needs to be a huge push in support and the backing of British farmers and the advantages of eating British produce. British farmers strive to grow high quality and ethical produce for the consumer. The industry employs over 4 million people. British farmers have a strong commitment to animal welfare. They are the custodians of environmental/ biodiversity promotion and protection, caring for and nurturing the British countryside and the nature within it. Why wouldn’t we want to support and championing the British farmer then?

How Much Produce is British Grown Compared to How Much is Imported?
At present, the UK imports 46% of the food it consumes. In terms of domestic production of food that stands at 54%, this has been noted as substantial decrease from being 78% self-sufficient in 1984. However, over the decades the demand for unseasonal produce and food that cannot be cultivated in the UK has risen, thus the increase in reliance on imported produce to satisfy the consumer.

The British farming industry has always relied on using energy to power machines which are an intrinsic component in the food production chain, and fruit producers rely heavily on manual labour to successfully get the food from plant to consumer.

The spiralling cost-of-living prices has placed unbearable pressure on British farmers and producers, who find themselves with soaring energy bills but have no option but to pay these bills in order to survive. The production line from planting their crops to eventually having their produce on the supermarket shelves is long and far from plain sailing. Unfortunately, waiting at the end of their hard toil of nurturing and harvesting they receive negligible profits. This has become an issue that has been heightened by the cost-of-living crisis with energy prices rising and supermarket values rising, the farmer continues to bear the brunt of the broken system. A study carried out by Sustain (food and farming charity) found that a cereal farmer spends 9.03p to produce a loaf of bread, but makes only 0.09p in profit, whilst the supermarket sells the product for £1.14. The reality for all UK farmers is that working conditions are challenged and dangerous and the rewards are incredibly low. In my mind, this seems a sustainable and criminal way to run the our British farming industry.

There is greater awareness of food production and the sustainability of agriculture

The Impact of the Food Shortage Crisis?
The impact of this crisis is far-reaching and has uncovered truths about the UK’s shoddy landscape of domestic food production. Many of us with the fortunate of accessing produce easily are conditioned to expect food to be there. There is greater awareness of food production and the sustainability of agriculture but still as a developed nation we expected there to always be a plentiful supply of food. When the status quo is disrupted such as now, huge questions of food security; national security and our ability as a nation to protect and feed itself emerge into the light. In a report carried out by Ipsos it was found that 66% of people said they were finding it harder now than 6 months ago, to source fresh fruit and vegetable in the shops.

There appears to be a whole host of ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding the amount of time shortages in produce will prevail for, according to MP Thérèse Coffey the shortage of some fresh produce will last up to a month. Yet British farmers say that we could be seeing the shortages until May. All that we can predict is that this urgent situation cannot be swept under the carpet any longer, robust, long-term measures and support is needed for British farming and domestic food production to stand a chance at survival. I hope that what can surface from this situation is a positive impact on the farming and agricultural industry. I hope that government enact and use their position of power to show
honesty, respect and a willingness to change a dishevelled system and mend broken and unequal relationships between farmers and supermarkets and the Government.

What Needs to Be Implemented Then?
Tesco, Aldi, Morrisons and Asda have introduced food rationing, introducing a limit on the number of cucumbers, tomatoes etc. The Government stated that: ‘To further build the UK’s resilience to future crises and shocks, we continue to monitor and strengthen the resilience of our supply chains and support our domestic production’. The NFU’s president Minette Batters urged that the ‘food, produced with care by British farmers, is critical to our nation’s security and success. But British food is under threat’. She urged PM Sunak to deliver on the promises he made in August 2022. Batters in February of this year, spoke of the difficulty in ‘getting the government to back up its rhetoric with concrete actions’. She spoke of the ‘ticking’ clock on the wait for Government action to drive sustainable food production and to makes British farming profitable for farmers, their families and their employees.

Farmers look after 70% of UK land

Farmers look after 70% of UK land and consequently are frontline promotors of biodiversity and conservation. Farmers look to improve their practices to benefit the environment and climate they work in, but the low profit margins and lack of government funds makes this difficult to achieve. “It’s important the government acknowledges that preserving and improving domestic food production is vital in meeting domestic targets for biodiversity and nature, as well as consumers’ needs to access safe and nutritious food.’

The Government’s stated in its food strategy policy paper published in June 2022: ‘to further build the UK’s resilience to future crises and shocks we continue to monitor and strengthen the resilience of our supply chains and support our domestic production’. In June 2022 the Government introduced a positive step in recognising the importance of farmers in sustaining the health of the environment. They introduced The Sustainable Farming Incentive and within the incentive the ELM schemes which offers money to farmers who carry out farming practices in a more environmentally sustainable way. Moreover, the Government says it is offering more than £168 million in grants to farmers this year to: ‘ drive innovation, support food production, improve animal health and welfare and protect of the environment’.

Perhaps there is some positive movement and long-term planning for the British farming industry? The Government must make farming viable for those in this sector. Looking into the future, farming must be conscious of ensuring sustainable food production whilst producing high yields. British farmers cannot do this task alone, help is required. Investment and grants will help afford new technologies and considerations of the environment whilst making a decent profit from
their work.

I shall leave you one last thought: ‘Commitments to promote domestic food production, to properly incentivise sustainable and climate friendly farming, to put farmers and growers at the heart of our trade policy, and to guarantee our food security. It really is time to back British farmers’


Sophie Bryer

Featured image courtesy of jimbob63 via UnSplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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