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Has Spain’s weather really caused fresh food shortages in UK supermarkets?

UK supermarket rationing of fresh produce such as tomatoes and peppers has been largely blamed on bad weather in Spain. But are Spanish supermarkets suffering the same shortages or is there another reason for the UK's problems?

Has Spain's weather really caused fresh food shortages in UK supermarkets?
There is no evidence of a shortage of fresh produce in Spanish supermarkets and markets, with the shelves filled up to their usual standards. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)

The United Kingdom is in the midst of a huge shortage of certain vegetables and fruit, with supermarket chains such as Morrisons and Asda deciding to limit the sale of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and raspberries to two or three items or trays per shopper. 

Adverse weather conditions in Spain and Morocco, where the UK gets much of its fresh produce during the winter months, has been largely blamed for the scarcity of certain fresh produce.

“It’s been snowing and hailing in Spain, it was hailing in North Africa last week – that is wiping out a large proportion of those crops,” executive director of upmarket supermarket Waitrose James Bailey told the UK’s LBC Radio. 

Spain has indeed had periods of extremely cold weather and heavy rain in January and February, and another “polar front” is forecast in the coming days. Even in sunny southeast Spain where much of the country’s fruit and vegetables are grown, temperatures dropped well below zero on several consecutive nights in January.

But there is no evidence of a shortage of fresh produce in Spanish supermarkets and markets, with the shelves filled up to their usual standards. 

A number of Britons based in Spain have shared videos of their local supermercados (supermarkets) to highlight how their fruit and vegetable aisles are awash with tomatoes and peppers.

This has raised the question of whether increased energy costs for UK farmers and Brexit’s impact on the recruitment of foreign agricultural workers are playing a bigger role in the United Kingdom’s current food shortages and inability to grow more of its own produce, along with the added red tape for EU farmers exporting to the UK.

That’s not to say that adverse weather hasn’t had an impact on harvests in southeast Spain, where the UK gets 20 percent of its tomatoes from. 

There are also reports that the supply of vegetables to Ireland is being disrupted by Spain’s bad weather and high energy costs.

According to Coexphal, the Association of Organisations of Fruit and Vegetable Producers of Almería, a warm autumn and early winter followed by “persevering” low temperatures are putting the supply of fruit and vegetables across Europe “at risk”. 

The group cites a 22 percent drop in tomato harvests, 25 percent fewer peppers, a 21 percent decrease in cucumber numbers and a 15 percent reduction in zucchini numbers.

The video below posted by an Almería farmer in January shows how his pepper crops suffered due to temperatures of as low as -4 C, despite the double layer of greenhouse plastic sheeting and other protective measures.

“Currently, practically the only European region where fruit and vegetables are produced is the Spanish southeast and we’re going to great lengths to meet this demand,” Coexphal manager Luis Miguel Fernández was quoted as saying by Spanish news agency Europa Press.

A vast swathe of agricultural land in Almería province is referred to as the ‘sea of plastic’ (mar de plástico) given that the sheer amount of greenhouse plastic sheets that are visible from space, and are responsible for 40 percent of Spain’s fruit and vegetable exports. 

READ MORE: What is Spain’s ‘sea of plastic’ and how important is it to the UK’s food supply?

Practically all of the produce stays in Europe (99.5 percent, 81 percent in the EU in 2021) with the main export markets being Germany, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Poland. 

Almería has therefore come to be known as ‘Europe’s vegetable patch’, helping to consolidate Spain as the main producer of vegetables and fruits in the EU in 2020 and 2021.

So it’s no surprise that any harvesting issue they face has the potential to be felt across the continent.

But why is the UK being impacted more greatly than other European nations? Is Brexit really the defining factor or has it been a combination of different circumstances that are to blame?

Perhaps the best interpretation is that of Pekka Pesonen, Secretary General of agricultural group Copa-Cogeca, who told Euronews that the UK should be wary of “tipping the delicate balance of trade channel” and that “even if it’s a minor change to the supply routes and supply chains, it may have a significant impact through operators that opt for the easier way somewhere else”.

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Mediterranean diet: Why the Spanish are eating far less fish

Fish and seafood are one of the most important parts of the Mediterranean diet and Spain is known for its excellent offerings, but now consumption of these products has fallen by 20 percent.

Mediterranean diet: Why the Spanish are eating far less fish

Most Spanish regions have at least one traditional fish dish or seafood dish, even the ones that are not located along the coast. In fact, to follow a Mediterranean diet, it’s recommended to eat fish at least two or three times a week, however, the latest data shows that during the first two months of 2023, fish consumption fell by 20 percent.

Many believe that this is due to inflation and the historic rise in food prices in Spain, which has affected the entire weekly shop but has had one of the greatest impacts on the cost of fish.

Fish prices have risen 14 percent within the last year, meaning that families can no longer afford the types of meals they once ate, causing consumption of one of Spain’s much-loved products to decrease by a whopping 20 percent.

READ ALSO: Food prices in Spain rise 16 percent despite VAT cut

According to data from Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE) published on March 14th, inflation has had the most pressure on the price of the weekly shop and food become more expensive by 16.6 percent in the last year. The Organisation of Consumers and Users (OCU) has estimated that this translates into an extra annual cost of €924.

Many families are now saying that cans of tuna are the only type of fish that they can afford and that it is now considered a luxury product for special occasions only.

READ ALSO – Cost of living: What are Spain’s best price comparison websites?

When the reduction in VAT on food was announced in December 2022, fish was excluded from the list. The 4 percent VAT for staple foods, such as bread, milk, flour, cheese, eggs, fruit, vegetables, legumes, potatoes and cereals, was abolished and the government also cut VAT on oil and pasta 10 to 5 percent for six months.

But now, merchants are asking that the government reduce the VAT on fish to 4 percent as well.

Meat consumption is another important part of the Spanish diet, which favourite dishes and tapas such as jamón, paella Valenciana and cocido.  

The consumption of fresh meat fell by 2.5 percent in the first month of the year, according to data presented by NielsenIQ at the 23rd Aecoc Congress of Meat Products.  

Many Spaniards are choosing to switch to frozen meat instead, saying that they can save around €3 to €4 by not buying it fresh.  

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and the Environment of Spain, Luis Planas, however, does not believe that the drop in the consumption of meat and fish is due to high prices.

According to him, it is due to a trend of consuming a more vegetarian diet instead. Planas claimed it was not necessary to lower VAT on meat and fish. The drop in meat and fish consumption is due to a “consumption trend” rather than the price factor he explained, referring to the annual report on food trends carried out by the ministry.