'Empty shelf warning' as double impact of drought and gas prices cause food crisis

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We are on the cusp of ‘global food catastrophe’ says charity chief

Experts have raised the alarm over a UK food crisis – impacting fruit and vegetables – as periods of low rainfall and skyrocketing energy prices threaten to hamstring production, sending the risk of shortages soaring. Farmers are reportedly not sowing – or are waiting for spring to arrive – as a sustained period of low rainfall has made it increasingly difficult to grow crops, while the surging gas prices made production more costly.

The summer drought reportedly has made growing crops such as cabbages, carrots and potatoes more difficult, which could be a worry as these vegetables are usually still in plentiful supply when other crops have reduced yields. 

Despite rainfall picking up again in recent weeks, river, reservoir and groundwater levels remain low after plummeting amid the scorching drought over the summer months. And this is likely to remain the case, according to forecasts which indicate that the UK will not experience enough rainfall to benefit crops, with most river flows expected to remain low. 

This comes after a large number of crop growers already experienced a 20 percent drop in production levels, according to Rob Percival, the head of food policy at the Soil Association.

He told The Guardian: “The fruit and veg sector is undoubtedly in crisis. Many growers have suffered a 20 percent reduction in the production of crops this year and most growers are anticipating further reductions in the year ahead.”

Empty shelves

The UK could be on the brink of a food crisis amid surging energy prices and drought (Image: Getty )

Crops

The UK may not receive enough rainfall to benefit crop growth (Image: Getty )

Mr Percival urged the Government to intervene or else the crisis risks being blown out of proportion, with businesses shutting down and food shortages emerging.

He said: “Without immediate and concerted action from Government, we can expect to see growing business going bust and shortages on supermarket shelves.”

Meanwhile, despite Liz Truss’ pledge to protect businesses from surging energy costs, businesses are currently not shielded by a price cap in the same way that households are (Ms Truss is freezing household bills at £2,500), although the Prime Minister has pledged to give them support “equivalent” to that promised for households. 

Last year, the UK saw a hike in energy prices force two fertiliser plants to close, sparking a CO2 (carbon dioxide is used slaughter process in the industry) shortage that threatened to keep meat products off the shelves. This year, high prices might mean food businesses find it increasingly difficult to keep running, highlighting the importance of the support Ms Truss needs to lay out in the coming weeks. 

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Pigs

Gas prices caused two CO2 plants to close last year, threatening meat and poultry shortages (Image: Getty )

Ben Reynolds, the deputy chief executive of Sustain, told The Guardian: “Growers are facing an impossible situation that is beyond their control. With the recent droughts and impact of the climate crisis making it harder to grow [reliably], worker issues, and energy costs going through the roof, there is a very real likelihood of empty shelves in the coming months.

“Some producers will be out of business, flying in the face of the Government’s aims for us to be more self-sufficient, and this will affect the health of the country if citizens can’t access affordable healthy food.

“The Government may believe trade deals are the answer if their plan is to let the British farming industry decline and import more produce, but these problems are global, and leaving this to the free market may in practice mean a very empty market. They need to step in and find a way to cut energy costs for food businesses and expand renewables capacity.”

This comes after experts warned that Britain is just one global shock away from a food crisis due to its reliance on imports. Timothy Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at the University of London, said: “When it comes to food we are massively dependent on other countries. 

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Drought

Drought was experienced across Europe over the summer (Image: Getty )

“If you look at nutrient value, Britain doesn’t even produce half of its food. We export meat and dairy and import that which is good for health – namely, fruit and vegetables.”

And Professor Lang claimed that Brexit is exacerbating the difficulties. He said: “There are serious issues around Brexit. Britain gets the vast majority of what it imports from the EU. The Government says it has left the EU – it hasn’t, the EU feeds us.”

Government figures show that Britain imports 46 percent of its vegetables, the large bulk of which come from the EU.  And with drought not just affecting Britain but suppliers across Europe, the emphasis on slashing the reliance on imports could grow stronger. 

Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The UK is dependent on globalised food chains but it’s ultimately problematic.” 

Pointing to the example of Spain, from which the UK imports 19 percent of its fruits and vegetables, Professor McKee added: “Temperatures in Spain have been hitting 40 degrees. In the next few months this will probably lead to a squeeze on fresh vegetables, that will have a huge impact.”

Europe food prices

“The plan is to let British farming industry decline and import more, but the problems are global” (Image: Express)

But, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the UK is “nearly 100 per cent self-sufficient in poultry and certain vegetables” thanks to British farmers. However, in light of the recent challenges to domestic production, this may not necessarily be reassuring.

A spokesperson for the National Farmers’ Union said: “Growers have certainly faced challenges due to the ongoing dry weather and overall lack of rainfall this year. The ground conditions as a result of that will be a challenge for growers looking to sow and harvest crops over the next few weeks.

“In regards to energy, there have been ongoing concerns among growers, particularly those that are more energy intensive such as those growing under glass, about the rising energy costs.”

Express.co.uk has contacted Defra for comment.



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