“If I passed on all the costs we have now, our strawberries would be as expensive as caviar,” farmer Bal Padda says, coughing; he, like so many of us this winter, is suffering a brutal cold. Unlike most of us, however, the Worcestershire-based strawberry grower continues to venture out outside to work. Next to spiralling production costs and dwindling labour supplies, a sore throat is the least of his worries.
British farmers and growers are facing an “emergency situation”, according to the National Farmers’ Union, and producers like Padda are facing a stark Hobson’s choice: scale back production in order to make ends meet, or sell up and seek employment elsewhere.
The result? Food shortages, which are expected to hit an array of supermarket products – everything from cheese to cucumbers and tomatoes – over the coming months.
What this means for consumers is that you might have to pay more, or shop around for your favourite products. Many retailers and their customers already have been affected: as early as October, customers were reporting shortages in Aldi on Facebook, and earlier this month Mumsnet mums piled on to a thread complaining about supermarkets’ “permanently low stock”, which was forcing them to scout several supermarkets simply to get their essentials.
In March 2022 many salad growers were unable to seed because of the soaring cost of energy and fertiliser; now that shortage is being seen on the shelves.
In December, the NFU President Minette Batters called an emergency press conference warning that the empty egg shelves we saw in the run up to Christmas were just the beginning.
Avian flu, she said, was being used as a scapegoat, allowing major retailers to distract customers from their refusal to pay farmers a sustainable price for their eggs. The real reason eggs were – and still are, to some extent – proving so elusive in supermarkets was that, faced with input costs that were rocketing far faster than any price increases, egg farmers were either reducing their flocks, or completely giving up on farming.
Other farmers and growers have since followed suit. “We are reducing production. A lot of growers are,” says Padda. “We can’t afford to run at a loss, but if we pass all our costs along, our strawberries will be so expensive that people won’t be able to afford them. It’s chicken and egg,” he concludes.
Come April, the Government says it will no longer support businesses with their energy bills and will only offer “significantly lower” help for those industries which are particularly vulnerable to energy price increases.
Agriculture has yet to be classed as vulnerable. Securing vulnerable status is one of five “urgent asks” the NFU is making of the Government, in an effort to limit shortages and slow down the decline of UK’s already fragile food security.
“It’s the final nail in the coffin,” NFU’s vice-president David Exwood explains. “These inflationary costs of fuel and energy have come after years of reduced prices and reduced margins, and people are just walking away from it.”
It’s about immediate viability – not making a loss, and making sure you’ve enough money to heat and eat, yourself and your family – but more than that, it’s about risk, says Exwood. “It’s, ‘do I plant that crop? Can I afford to? Is it worth it? What will happen come harvest?’
“Most people are hoping inflation will dip later in the year, but in farming it’s still building, because of the long cycles of production. Last year’s crop was grown with fertiliser bought before the war,” he points out. Yet the fertiliser – which relies on natural gas, something in short supply thanks to the Russia-Ukraine war – has increased in price as much as 350 per cent since.
Organic arable farmers are not immune. Nor are livestock farmers; they need feed, and feed comes from grain. All food producers, and everyone involved in the processing of food, rely on energy and labour to harvest their goods and get them from A to B. There’s a knock-on effect on “anything that uses cold storage”, says Exwood. “Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and so on. Anything that uses a lot of feed, or entails a lot of energy in the cost of production: eggs, poultry, pigs.”
Even a farmer like Frankie Guy, whose cattle live and graze outdoors year-round, finds herself squeezed by the need for everyone else in her supply chain to make cost savings. “My price is set by the people who buy the cattle off me to finish them – who are squeezed by feed and barn costs – and by the abattoir,” she says. Many abattoirs are beset by labour shortages compounded by Brexit and the pandemic. Guy, too, has struggled with recruitment. “Brexit really is the gift that keeps on giving,” she says, sardonically.
In 2021, continuing labour shortages caused unharvested crops to be left to rot in fields, and forced the farmers to kill healthy pigs because of a lack of workers at meat processing plants.
Unless the Government lifts the cap on the seasonal worker scheme to increase the number of visas available to meet the sector’s essential requirements, says the NFU, that shows no sign of changing. “We’re very reliant on labour,” says Padda. “But the labour isn’t there.”
There are fewer immigrant workers on account of Brexit, and the domestic workforce “don’t want to pick strawberries”, he says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Billy Kevan, chief executive of Colston Bassett Stilton creamery; the man behind one of the country’s best known and most widely exported cheeses. “In 2022 we couldn’t get the staff we wanted to make the cheese we wanted, so from June through to the end of October we were having to use agencies,” he says. “That is a huge cost.”
Then there’s the price of milk, which has almost doubled because again, producers are selling up, so there’s more demand than there is supply. “Even for those of us who produce our own milk, it has almost doubled – because we could get double last year’s price if we don’t make cheese [and sell liquid milk instead].
For cheesemakers, that means many of us are cutting back on making cheese, as we just can’t make the numbers work,” says Mary Quicke, a 14th-generation cheesemaker in Devon. There she makes cheddar on a farm her family have run since the 16th century.
Typical comments Quicke has heard from her fellow cheesemakers include “it’s brutal” and “this is the most difficult trading I’ve experienced in my career in the industry” – and the pandemic was no picnic, for cheesemakers. “Recently, we put a price rise to a major customer to just get the other costs (not milk) and they delisted us,” she says. “I notice that many particularly larger customers’ cheese selections are hollowing out and losing variety and quality.”
This is depressing for cheese lovers, for our country’s rich cheesemaking history, and for the local economies that cheesemakers support; yet the prospect of other, more far-ranging shortages is downright dangerous. Speaking at the fifth annual Henry Plumb lecture in November last year, the former MI5 director general the Right Honourable Baroness Manningham-Buller made food security and the weaponisation of food the cornerstone of her speech.
“I argue that food is part of our national security, including those ‘essential workers’ who grow and harvest it, and produce crops, vegetables, fruit, and even wine,” she said. The war in Ukraine has exposed the extent of the UK’s dependency on grain from this “bread basket of Europe”– and that is just one example of how reliant we are on global food imports. At present we import 48 per cent of the total food consumed, and the proportion is rising.
“It’s frustrating, because this is a lesson I thought we’d learned in Covid,” Padda says.
“The more we can be self-sufficient, the better resilience we will have against these global shocks,” Manningham-Buller continued, when asked to define what ‘food security’ means for the UK.
And yet, “looking at all the predictions, it seems inevitable that we will see a drop in self-sufficiency,” Exwood tells me. Producing food takes time, whether that’s growing crops, rearing animals or transforming their milk into cheese, and at present, many producers feel they are sitting on a time bomb of financial loss, spending money they may never regain.
“Some cheesemakers are making cheese 15 months before they sell it,” says Kevan. “At the moment the cost of milk is extremely high, and if the market comes back down, they will potentially lose a lot of money.” So farmers make less cheese; order fewer pullets so fewer eggs are laid; scale back on strawberry seeds. These decisions won’t show on our shelves for another six months at least. “Yet as we saw with eggs, once the shelves are empty, it’s too late,” says Exwood heavily.
So what can we do? Producers seem reluctant to point the finger at consumers. “We’re always saying, buy British, buy local, buy direct – but that’s not within the affordability or availability for a lot of people,” says Guy. They need support from retailers: for price rises to be passed on to them, not the pockets of supermarket shareholders, and for British produce to be promoted and prominent on their shelves. “There are lots of ways they can influence what people buy. Is the offer on tomatoes on Dutch tomatoes or English tomatoes? What range are they in, value or premium? The devil is in the detail,” says Exwood.
Responding to farmers’ concerns, Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Supply chains are under pressure from a variety of reasons including extreme weather conditions, inflation, the pandemic, labour shortages, and the war in Ukraine.
Despite these challenges, retailers have continued to deliver excellent service for their customers and are working hard to limit price increases as the cost of living continues to rise.”
Some retailers are better than others. Waitrose’s commitment to paying farmers fairly and nurturing long-term relationships with suppliers meant they were one of the few major supermarkets to not suffer egg shortages. “It’s a fine balance, but we’re committed to making it work,” says commercial director Charlotte di Cello.
The store acknowledges the need to help its customers cope with the cost of living. Yet “great quality and supporting our brilliant British farmers is… a red line we won’t cross”, says di Cello, because they believe supporting British suppliers will serve everyone better long term.
Waitrose is not cheap, obviously, but there are many ways of getting value while supporting British producers, says Exwood. “Some of the discounters have a really strong commitment to British farming,” he says – and if your go-to supermarket doesn’t, he suggests shopping around.
“You will find value, and you will find British produce,” he promises, “because different supermarkets have different policies.” Even in Waitrose or your local butcher, you can find value in alternative ingredients, like oxtail and cheek and other traditional cuts. “These work well in stews and soups,” says di Cello.
This is about values, not just value, points out Padda. “We’re sold a world in which everything is about tech – but we’ve some hard years coming, and we need to prioritise our health and sufficiency. Perhaps we could lose one or two of our subscriptions to streaming channels, rather than skimping on paying for homegrown fruit and veg.”
The same goes for the Government, says Padda, which he says seems to prioritise everything but the nation’s food supply. “They’ll spend millions modernising weaponry, rather than investing in food security,” he says exasperatedly. “They’ve decided IT is skilled labour and producing food is unskilled labour – but everyone needs to eat.”
Ultimately, retailers, consumers and the Government all have a part to play, says Exwood. “We need to share the risk and build certainty into the supply chain.” That could mean more financial support from the Government and a change in migration policy; it could mean retailers listening to farmers and offering more flexible contracts; or it could be as simple as committing to regular deliveries of milk and eggs from your local shop or farm gate.
“Farmers are good businessmen. They want to produce food. But their backs are against the wall, and the end is not in sight. It’s not good news, I’m afraid, and nobody wants that,” says Exwood. “But everyone can do something.”