The recent fresh-produce shortages have meant mixed fortunes in the UK industry as well as prompting widespread debate about what, if anything, this means for our domestic growers going forward.
Spain, the main supplier of fresh field vegetables and salads to the UK market in winter, has been hit by prolonged cold and wet weather this winter that has drastically reduced production, bringing bare supermarket shelves and rationed purchases. Suppliers have been bringing in produce from as far afield as California to meet demand.
Lea Valley Growers Association secretary Lee Stiles tells Horticulture Week: "The wholesale market has had shortages because imported produce grown in fields or under plastic has been affected by the weather. So caterers went and cleared the shelves from the supermarkets instead. That has meant increased orders for our members, who source from glasshouses overseas as well as from their own glasshouses here.
"It's been good, but it's a short-term effect. The only way to extend the English season past November would be to grow under lights, requiring more energy and heat, for which the retailers, who are 90% of our market, would have to pay a premium, and that doesn't seem likely."
Nick Walker, agronomist at field vegetable and salad supplier MyFresh, which grows in both Spain and the UK, says: "The cold weather that swept across the Mediterranean in January has meant not many lines remain unaffected, whether they be grown indoors or out, including baby leaf, whole-head salads and chicories, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, citrus and courgettes. With planting and drilling gaps both before Christmas and in January, and poor yields not helping, supply looks like it will remain challenging for much of the import season."
Produce World also grows at home and abroad for year-round supply. Director of agriculture Andrew Burgess says: "Fortunately we aren't in brassicas any more, though we do bring in bunched carrots and beetroot and we are short of these. There is never a winner if you have to bring in expensive gear from elsewhere in the world.
"We will be back in supply this week, but planting programmes have been missed, which will have consequences later on. These blips don't happen very often, but climate change is causing more extreme weather. Globally we had the warmest year ever last year, which also means new pest and disease threats."
According to market analyst IRI, British supermarkets lost more than £2m in courgette sales alone in January, with volumes less than half last year's in the second half of the month. "We need to relearn the potential of great British veg and embrace seasonal British winter crops instead of relying on imports," says Guy Watson, founder of organic vegetable box supplier Riverford. "Right now our fields are brimming with wonderful cabbages, leeks, kale, swede and flavourful greenery that have much more to offer than imported courgettes or watery iceberg lettuce."
Professor John Martin of De Montfort University in Leicester backs this up. "The present shortage offers considerable potential for chefs and food writers to offer new recipes to assist us to deal with these temporary shortages. Britain has an abundant supply of root vegetables that might be used as a substitute for the vegetables in short supply."
For Professor Mario Caccamo, incoming managing director of Kent research station NIAB EMR, the shortages vindicate investment in research for UK growers. "As the UK prepares for a future outside the EU single market, these short-term concerns over availability provide a timely reminder that the UK is only 50% self-sufficient in fresh produce," he points out.
"There is a major opportunity for UK growers to increase market share through import substitution and there has never been a greater need for innovative, industry-facing R&D in the horticulture sector to drive improved yields, quality, seasonality and production efficiency."
The shortages have been felt across northern Europe and Sepehr Mousavi, sustainability strategist at indoor growing enterprise Plantagon and chair of the Swedish Standards Institute's sustainable urban food production committee, says they strengthen the case for urban growing.
"Urban farms guarantee a secure, steady and high-quality production of food throughout the year, regardless of external factors like hurricanes, droughts or cold spells," he adds. "Isn't it time for all our supermarket chains, retailers and real-estate owners to join forces with the innovation sector to create national and local urban food systems instead of depending on imported food?"
Comment - An exciting challenge
Jack Ward, chief executive, British Growers Association
"It flags up the extent to which we are reliant on the weather for our food. But by spreading risk around the country, and indeed the world, you can offset some of that. Whether there will be any change to more seasonal eating is in the hands of the consumer, who still likes to see a broad range of produce.
"We are pretty good at giving them what they want, whether that's a courgette in January or a strawberry in April. One of the exciting challenges for British growers is to increase market share by extending the season at either end, and that brings greater risk but also greater reward - and we have the likelihood that parts of Europe may find other more attractive markets for their produce in future."