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The Great British Vegetable Crisis

Extreme weather has caused British vegetable shortages—but is the real problem an unsustainable food system?

Peter Nicholls/Reuters

This winter has brought unusually icy and rainy weather to Southern Europe, causing floods and ruining the Mediterranean vegetable crops on which British grocery stores rely. As a result, zucchini have all but disappeared from British shelves, while eggplants can go for as much as $1.50 apiece. Certain supermarkets have rationed iceberg lettuces and heads of broccoli per customer to make sure stocks last. There is even talk of people stockpiling greens and reselling them for huge profits.

Green advocates have been urging Britons to eat local, seasonal produce for years. Right now, it seems that we don’t really have a choice.

This mix of high prices and shortages is clearly a crisis of sorts, but exactly what sort of crisis it is remains open to question. Is it a sign that climate change-induced extreme weather poses a threat to Britain’s food security? Is it a warning to rely less on non-local, non-seasonal foods? Or is it a sign that Britain’s supply system—rather than agricultural production itself—is broken?

While unusually harsh conditions have hit from Istanbul to Lisbon, it’s extreme weather in Spain that has hit Britain’s food stocks hardest. Snow has fallen in places like the province of Murcia, where it has previously been all but unknown away from the mountaintops. All of Northern Europe imports some Spanish produce, but while prices have risen elsewhere, it’s only in Britain where there is talk of crisis. Indeed, when the issue has appeared in the European press, it’s been covered as a predominantly British problem.

So dependent is the U.K. on other countries’ crops that 50 percent of the vegetables and 90 percent of the fruit in Britain is non-domestic. A little over half of these imported vegetables come to Britain from Spain.

A notice in a British supermarket warns customers about vegetable rations. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

That heavy reliance on foreign produce, more than bad Spanish weather per se, is arguably the real problem right now. As Kierra Box, a food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told CityLab, crops grown out of season are especially at risk. “The question is whether weather has become too extreme to deliver the foods that we're used to, rather than whether it has become too extreme for plants that are actually indigenous to those areas [and] grown in season,” she says.

“We need to change our expectations of what foods are available and when,” she adds. “Rather than continuing to try to force production of unseasonal foods grown in the wrong climate at the wrong time of the year, we need to become more realistic. We can't go into meltdown if salad isn't available in the shops all winter.”

For Adam Smith, founder of food-waste-busting nonprofit the Real Junk Food Project, the key issue is a broken food supply system. While lettuce shortages have hit the headlines, the sense of panic many reports portray bears no relation to the picture picked up on the ground by the Real Junk Food Project, which redirects unused, donated food supplies to a chain of not-for-profit cafés and a warehouse supermarket in Leeds.

“No one's running round desperate to buy iceberg lettuce. It's not happening,” Smith says. “During the week that Tesco's was rationing iceberg lettuces, we saw photos of [rival supermarket chain] Morrison's down the road throwing them out.” Plus, he continues, “why are we even worrying about why we've not got bloody iceberg lettuce in the middle of winter?” Smith advocates a system that doesn’t depend on foreign-grown food “when we can grow our own equivalents—and then still throw a lot of it out when it actually arrives."

The waste Smith refers to here is disappointingly standard. According to Box, around a third of E.U. food production is discarded somewhere along the line, either because it doesn’t fit exacting aesthetic standards that have no connection to  taste or freshness, or because it has passed often-arbitrary sell-by dates. If Britain were prepared to accept extra-nobby carrots and adopted a more rational, flexible approach to assessing the shelf-life of food, it would end up with a far more efficient and possibly more affordable food system. But if winter lettuce from Spain is such a bad idea, what can British people eat in winter if they want to keep scurvy at bay?

Quite a lot, as it happens. Right now, British winter root vegetables, leeks, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale are all in season. (Kale has never quite reached the apogee of hipness in Britain that it has in America, because it never really left U.K. supermarket shelves in the first place.) Within a month, British leafy vegetables and spring greens will be in markets again. Such foods may not be exotic, but they are sustainable. Were production to be scaled up, they could also be perfectly affordable. The fact that some British buyers are struggling to pay inflated prices for food that doesn’t normally grow at this time of year even in its country of production is surely a sign that somewhere, somehow, things have gone awry.

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