Supermarket shelves empty of tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and other out-of-season vegetables in recent weeks betray our precarious food system. A mirage of abundance hides a fragile system of imported foods, just-in-time supply chains, and fossil fuel dependence.
This shortage of fresh produce is in part a result of exceptional cold weather in southern Spain and northern Africa, where at this time of year much of our fruit and vegetables are grown.
Brexit also plays a role. Large systems of greenhouses in the Netherlands have in the past been a substitute for poor supply from southern Europe but producers are now have to bear an additional administrative burden to export to the UK. Coupled with their increasing energy costs and shrinking profit margins, this makes the UK an unattractive market.
Likewise, growers in the UK producing food through the winter in heated greenhouses have reported planting less in the autumn as they couldn’t meet rising energy costs without supermarkets raising their prices.
The National Farmers Union warned last year that we would see shortages of some produce unless buyers were prepared to pay higher prices to cover increasing energy costs. These warnings were not heeded by supermarkets or policymakers on the assumption that cheap produce will always be available on the global market.
It's not the first time supermarket just-in-time supply chains have failed to supply the food we expect when faced with relatively minor disruptive shocks like severe weather or interruptions to fuel supply. Despite repeated warnings and numerous food strategies from central and regional government, no real policy has changed to address the threat.
Our year-round supply of fresh fruits and vegetables means the produce on supermarket shelves now barely changes with the seasons. We’ve lost much of the anticipation and appreciation of new produce coming back into season. And we don’t have to think about where, by whom and how our food is produced or how it gets to us. We’re in danger of forgetting that food comes from the earth and that seasonal cycles are part of how we connect, understand, and respect the natural world.
Spring has always been a difficult time for fresh produce in the UK, when the traditional winter brassicas and root crops are finished and the new spring crops are yet to begin. Short daylight hours and cold weather impede the planting of new crops in winter and growth is slow as the temperature slowly rises through spring. During this “hungry gap”, from March through to the end of May, we rely especially on imports from abroad and crops grown in heated greenhouses.
Before our globalised food system, this would have been a time of hunger and hardship for many. We would have relied on dwindling winter crops like cauliflowers, broccoli, kales and leeks, as well as stored root vegetables - like the now infamous turnips - and preserved foods. The last of the summer preserves and pickles, meat butchered in the autumn, wild food gathered from hedgerows and dried staples like grain, beans, and peas, would have made up the diet of most households.
It's no coincidence that religious fasting is common at this time of year. Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten” meaning “spring” and begins about a month before the Vernal Equinox, during the hungry gap.
Traditionally preceding Lent, Carnival takes it’s name from “carne vale” meaning farewell to meat! Pulses have always played an integral role in the history of Lent - see our blog Lenten Peas: Black Badgers, Parched Peas & Carlin Sunday.
It’s impossible to see a world where we embrace the old ways of feast and famine, and happily accept cabbages and root vegetables as the only fresh produce through the hungry gap. Anyone who has tried to eat only British produce year-round will know the risk of winter swede fatigue, though inspiring examples like Clare Hargreaves show that delicious diversity is possible even in the darker months.
This shortage highlights big issues with the British food system. The government needs to acknowledge and address the reality of food insecurity in the UK. A widened trade gap, the climate emergency and declining home production combine to put us in a vulnerable position.
Despite repeated warnings from producers and food system analysts, UK policy-makers continue to “leave it to Tesco” in the blithe assumption that food supply is assured and the UK will always have enough money and power to buy food on the global market in times of need. The past month has shown that we can’t be so sure.
We’ll always have to import some food during the hungry gap but we have become over-reliant on imports and the unchanging range of foods offered by our "weird supermarket culture". We should value this imported produce as a luxury and just cheap food. We need to question where our food comes from and what the costs are for the environment, society and food security. We need a revolution in appreciation for British produce.
We don’t have to live on turnips but we may have to learn to accept that we can’t always have fresh tomatoes in February and to rediscover the joy of seasonal produce.
Well, they’re definitely at least part of the answer. Pulses store exceptionally well and are a delicious, nutritious and good value source of food all year round, not least during the hungry gap.
Hodmedod emerged from a project exploring how a city like Norwich might feed itself in a resilient and sustainable way, inspired and informed by the work of Colin Tudge, Simon Fairlie and others. A key finding of this work and more recent studies like the Sustainable Food Trust's Feeding Britain is the need to diversify arable production and move the balance from crops grown to feed livestock to food for people. Feeding Britain recommends a doubling of UK pulse production.
We aim to offer a diverse range of British-grown wholefoods, all of which keep well through the well and help provide excitement, variety and nutrition in our meals through the year. We’re always sharing new recipes, many making good use of seasonal fresh ingredients too, to help inspire different ways of cooking our pulses, grains and seeds.
Tim Lang’s book Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them is an excellent - and hopeful - deeper exploration of the food insecurity challenges that the UK faces. The Guardian: Today in Focus’s podcast What the salad crisis says about Britain offers a revealing analysis of the fresh produce shortage and the role of Brexit.
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