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Turnips to the rescue? UK tomato shortages could last weeks as Morocco curbs exports

After Morocco restricted certain exports, several large British supermarkets have started rationing produce.
DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

The UK could continue to see salad and other vegetable shortages “for a few weeks” after Morocco imposed export restrictions on tomatoes, with several large British supermarkets rationing produce.

There have been multiple reports of empty salad shelves and a shortage of staple vegetables, including tomatoes, across the UK in recent weeks. Following Britain’s exit from the European Union in 2020, the country has increasingly relied on North African food exports. For example, Morocco overtook Spain in the second half of 2022 as Britain’s leading international tomato supplier.

Morocco is a key trade partner for the UK. In the year ending in Q3 2022, Morocco imported £1.7 billion ($2.04 billion) in goods to Britain, a 56.5% increase from the previous year, according to the UK Department for International Trade. Nearly £395.3 million ($473.8 milion) of that was vegetables and fruit, which is the top Moroccan export to the UK. 

Over the winter, there were cold snaps in Spain and Morocco, with heavy rain and flooding in the latter. Last month, Morocco imposed quotas on tomato exports to boost local supplies and lower prices ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which will last from March 22 to April 21. Higher input costs for farmers due to inflation — particularly on fertilizer, which has soared in price since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 — have led to increases in fruit and vegetable prices.

British and European supermarket chains including Aldi, Asda, Morrisons and Tesco are now rationing produce due to the shortages in salad crops. Morrisons is limiting customers to two an item on packs of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and peppers. Asda shoppers can only buy three items each in eight fresh produce lines including broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, raspberries and tomatoes. A spokesperson for Sainsbury’s told Al-Monitor it had not introduced limits.

UK Food and Farming Minister Mark Spencer met with supermarkets on Monday to discuss the food shortages. “Shoppers need to know that our food supply chain is extremely resilient, as we saw during COVID-19, with our retailers and farmers working hard day-in, day-out to keep the nation fed,” he said in a statement to Al-Monitor.

He added that the supermarkets discussed how they are responding to the short-term food shortages at the meeting.

“I have also asked them to look again at how they work with our farmers and how they buy fruit and vegetables so they can further build our preparedness for these unexpected incidents and welcome their commitment to working with [the] government and farmers on longer-term solutions,” Spencer added.

However, the shortages could last at least a month, UK Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey warned last week.

The British Retail Consortium’s director of food and sustainability, Andrew Opie, also said that the shortage would last “for a few weeks.” “Difficult weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa have disrupted harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes and peppers,” he said in a statement.

“While disruption is expected to last a few weeks, supermarkets are adept at managing supply chain issues and are working with farmers to ensure that customers are able to access a wide range of fresh produce,” he went on. “In the meantime, some stores are introducing temporary limits on the number of products customers can buy to ensure availability for everyone.”

Coffey went as far as suggesting that people should perhaps eat turnips. "A lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about aspects of lettuce and tomatoes and similar, but I'm conscious that consumers want a year-round choice and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world try to satisfy."

Alise Ilzina-Raghuvanshi at Fitch Ratings told Al-Monitor that Britain “nearly fully relies” on fresh fruit and vegetable imports at this time of year, as the climate is too cold to grow them. Tomatoes are must-have items for traditional English breakfast, known as "full monty." 

Currently, only 5% of Britain’s tomatoes are grown domestically in greenhouses, she said. “The rest is all imported, and Morocco is, of course, a place at this time of year [where] tomatoes are actually grown and harvested,” Ilzina-Raghuvanshi said.

Europe’s soaring energy costs amid the Ukraine war mean that powering greenhouses has become more expensive, so importing remains an attractive option.

The analyst said that other European countries were not experiencing the same produce shortages as the UK. Ilzina-Raghuvanshi said that the additional paperwork and complications associated with Brexit make Britain a less attractive market for European vegetable exporters, such as the Netherlands or Italy.

But as Europe enters spring, many of Britain’s salad products will be grown domestically or be imported from European countries like Spain.

Asked how long these food shortages could last, Ilzina-Raghuvanshi said, “It is hard to put a time on it but one thing is clear: This was for the period of Ramadan and influenced by the weather … so it should ease within a matter of weeks.”

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