Horticulture Week Podcast: Lee Stiles of Lea Valley Growers' Association warns about potential 2024 salad shortages

Lee Stiles, Lea Valley Growers' Association secretary, has been outspoken about the state of the UK protected salads sector, which saw market failure in 2023, with empty supermarket shelves and reduction in UK production.

Stiles sees energy, labour and prices as the big three problems facing UK tomato and cucumber growers. Until recent years energy and labour were more controllable, he says, but those factors have fallen away and now "price is king", regardless of anything else. Government policies seem to work against each other in areas such as labour, though Defra strives to do the right thing.

With an increasingly high profile in the media, he has not had to pitch a story for two years. The media wants to know what is happening on the ground rather than what the BRC, supermarkets or the Government is saying, so Stiles gets daily calls from around the world.

And on the ground, he predicts there could be more empty shelves this year due to ongoing issues in Europe and North Africa with viruses and market prices. One certainty, he says, is that production volumes from British growers have not increased: "There will be a gap. Retailers will either pay more or have empty shelves."



But he adds that there is a fine line between warning about problems and "spooking" the retailers and the public: "UK growers are stable now after two years of decline and small business closure." He says this is the same as in Europe. Few can invest in new machinery and are just concentrating on keeping their heads above water.

Government help for smaller producers has been too little too late and any help "avoids the underlying problem of low prices". Meanwhile primary producers are not making money he says, intermediaries deal with the retailer, so loyalty and service standards matter less:

"We're 10 years into a supermarket price wa and it seems to be getting worse. There's not enough profit in the supply chain at the moment which means the trend for British producers closing will accelerate, reducing self-sufficiency and food security."

He would like to see loss leader legislation to stop retailers selling at less than the cost of purchase. It is used to protect producers in France, Canada and Germany, for instance.

But regardless, he says, whoever comes in next politically, "will inherit quite a mess".

HortWeek editor: Matthew Appleby
Producer: HortWeek digital content manager Christina Taylor

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