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Why are we seeing empty shelves in British supermarkets?

Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s have been hit by rising energy prices and supply-chain issues

Amy Houghton
Written by
Amy Houghton

Back in December, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) warned that the UK was ‘sleepwalking’ into a food supply crisis. Lo and behold, shoppers have noticed that many of their regular groceries are currently in shorter supply than usual. Many have taken to social media to share photos of bare shelves in their local supermarkets chains, including Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s.

Experts have pointed to various factors that have contributed to the shortages. The rise in energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the climate crisis, supply-chain issues and worker shortages caused by Brexit have all taken their toll on our weekly shop. 

What products are seeing shortages?

Fruit and vegetable stock appears to be suffering the most. Salad items such as tomatoes and cucumbers are in particularly short supply along with apples, broccoli and root vegetables. 

Why are we seeing empty shelves in supermarkets? 

Soaring energy bills

A report from Promar International, a consultancy for farmers, food companies and retailers, said that agricultural production costs have risen by up to 27 percent over the past 12 months. Here in the UK, crops such as cucumbers and peppers are grown in heated greenhouses during winter. With rising energy bills, suppliers were asking supermarkets for more money to cover the increase. Rather than agreeing to their financial requests, shops instead opted to import produce at a cheaper cost from overseas. 

Because of supermarkets’ refusal to cover costs, British growers delayed their planting until mid to late February. This means that crops will not be ripe and ready to pick until March. 

Fertiliser prices and worker costs have also contributed to the increase in spending during production.

Adverse weather 

Spain and Morocco are two of the biggest suppliers that supermarkets have turned to. However, both countries have experienced unusually cold weather and heavy rain, stunting the growth of crops. In Almería, one of Spain’s biggest tomato-producing regions, the volume of tomatoes produced this month was lower than the same period last year. According to Coexphal, the Association of Organisations of Fruit and Vegetable Producers of Almería, cucumber production in the province decreased by 21 percent and peppers and aubergine were both down 25 percent. 

Even in the UK crops have been impacted by adverse weather. Last summer’s drought affected the growth of cabbage and kale and frosty conditions this winter impacted the production of cauliflowers. 

Transport issues 

In early February, ferries shipping produce between mainland Spain and Morocco were delayed for three days due to poor weather conditions. This in turn delayed the delivery of produce into the UK.

When will the shortages end?

Unfortunately, many experts have suggested that this is ‘just the tip of the iceberg’. Minette Batters, the NFU union president, warned that we could be seeing more empty shelves in the future and urged the government to help primary producers cope with soaring costs. 

As well as fruit and veg, a number of supermarkets have placed limits on wholesale egg purchases because of increased prices and bird flu. 

David Exwood, NFU vice president, added: ‘We are repeatedly seeing a predictable combination of factors such as energy costs and weather leading to empty supermarket shelves. Our UK food resilience is currently gone. The government needs to take this seriously.’

But Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium, promised concerned Brits that ‘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.’

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