“WHAT the heck is going on?” That question has summed up the concerns of many people across the UK as they head to their local shops only to find the shelves laying bare.

Instead of a spread of fresh produce, shoppers in some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets have found only upturned boxes – the same sight which greeted people in late 2021 as Brexit took hold.

“I'm sorry, @tesco this is not good enough in your Dalmarnock store on a Friday afternoon,” SNP councillor Andrea Cowan wrote on Twitter over the weekend, in a post which has now been viewed more than six million times.

“Lots more shelves with empty boxes throughout the store,” she went on. “Rising prices are bad enough but lack of basic foodstuffs is unacceptable.”

People across the UK have been reporting shortages of tomatoes, peppers, and courgettes in particular.

Dragon Den’s Deborah Meaden shared Cowan’s post, writing: “Why do we think this is happening?”

Another Twitter user highlighting the same concerns wrote: “What the heck is going on? This is in @Tesco in Minehead tonight, and the same last night! No tomatoes, no peppers, no cucumbers, and no bananas! The same situation in @LidlGB. Is this one of the benefits of bloody #Brexit – taking back control??”

But, this time, industry is saying that Brexit may not be to blame.

Bad weather and climate change

The major supermarkets approached by The National said that the issue was “industry-wide”, and so pointed us to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

The BRC, which represents hundreds of major retailers and thousands of smaller ones, said that weather conditions in Europe and Northern Africa were to blame for the shortages.

Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food and sustainability, said: “Difficult weather conditions in the South of Europe and Northern Africa have disrupted harvest for some fruit and vegetables including tomatoes.”

READ MORE: Post-Brexit shortages in supermarkets will be 'permanent', says industry boss

He added: “However, supermarkets are adept at managing supply chain issues and are working with farmers to ensure that customers are able to access a wide range of fresh produce.”

The Fresh Produce Journal reported that a “perfect storm” of cold temperatures, heavy rain, flooding, and cancelled ferries had impacted on supplies from Morocco, which has become a more important source of food for the UK since Brexit.

In 2021, the British Embassy in Morocco said the country provided “25% of tomatoes eaten in the UK”, and that “since January 2021, food exports from [Morocco] to the [UK] have increased by almost 40%”.

Spain has also seen poor weather impact on crops, with tomato supply down by more than a fifth from some key areas.

Spot prices

Tim O’Malley, from Nationwide Produce – a firm involved in the food supply chain, said last week that “Mother Nature” is “the biggest issue we now have as an industry”.

O’Malley said that the prices of key produce were sky high as a result of volatile growing conditions linked to climate change.

“I’ve never seen such high spot prices across such a broad range of products for such a prolonged period of time,” he told the Fresh Produce Journal.

In a market update written on February 14, O’Malley quoted:

  • £22 for a box of yellow peppers, compared to the approximate normal price at this time of year of £8-9
  • £21 for a box of red peppers, compared to the approximate normal price at this time of year of £8-9
  • £17 for a box of cherry tomatoes, compared to the approximate normal price at this time of year of £5-6
  • £14 for a box of round tomatoes, compared to the approximate normal price at this time of year of £6-8
  • £16 for a box of cucumbers, compared to the approximate normal price at this time of year of £5-7
  • £12 for a box of courgettes, compared to the approximate normal price at this time of year of £5-7

Growing in Britain and rising energy costs

There are also reports that skyrocketing energy prices are impacting on farmers in the UK, causing them to cut back on production.

Tomato production in the UK requires heated greenhouses up to 20C, according to reports, with an increase in heating costs making this unfeasible.

The National Farmers' Union said this affects all fruit and vegetable growers across the UK.

READ MORE: Supermarket shortages going to get worse, industry experts say

President Minette Batters told the BBC: "British food is under threat ... at a time when global volatility is threatening the stability of the world's food production, food security, and energy security. I fear the country is sleepwalking into further food supply crises with the future of British fruit and vegetable supplies in trouble."

Dr Philip Morley, horticulturalist and technical officer at the British Tomato Growers Association, said: “Rising fuel costs has meant transportation costs are now higher.

“Other input costs such as seeds, fertiliser, and feed have also increased between 100 and 400%. These are on top of the health checks on seeds entering the UK to rule out plant viruses that can affect crops. Those costs are also passed on to the grower."