How far is the blame from Brexit?

Empty tomato crates at Tesco

Some of the UK’s largest supermarkets are restricting the sale of tomatoes and other salad products.

The government says the shortages, which are expected to last for several weeks, are “primarily caused by bad weather in Spain and North Africa, where they are produced”.

Others point to the impact of high energy prices on UK growers, whether the government has done enough to help them and supermarket prices.

Many people on social media have also posted pictures of empty shelves in the UK, comparing them to many fresh produce in supermarkets across Europe, claiming Brexit is a factor.

So, what’s the evidence for this?

How is the supply in Europe?

The European Commission (EC) told us that “there is no specific food shortage situation in EU agricultural markets”.

The Spanish government did confirm that “stocks in Spain are currently lower”.

It said this was largely due to the weather: “unusually high temperatures from the end of the summer period to December”… followed by a “sudden arrival of low temperatures in January… resulted in a drop in supply” .

There have been some shortages in the Republic of Ireland, another member of the European Union (EU), with Irish retailers blaming the freezing weather in Southern Europe and North Africa. But no one rations fruits and vegetables.

How will Brexit affect tomato imports from the EU?

EU countries are in the single market – a giant free trade zone where countries share the same rules and regulations.

The UK is no longer part of the single market and now has a rule that any shipment of “plant products” – such as tomatoes – sent from the EU to the UK requires customs declarations and pre-notification through the government’s IT system are.

It produced a video on how to do this, using an example of someone trying to import tomatoes.

The government says paperwork is not routinely checked, but there will be more paperwork and checks from 2024.

A screenshot of a frame from the government animation video featuring a character named Ali importing tomatoes from Spain

A government video shows the steps the character named Ali has to take to import tomatoes from Spain.

We spoke to MCE Logistics, a company that processes these forms for dozens of importers of Spanish tomatoes for British supermarkets.

It told us it takes about 10-20 minutes to do this by truck – longer if they are carrying mixed loads of vegetables – and that they use specialized software.

Guy Singh-Watson who runs the Riverford vegetable box company and has farms in England and France, blames “Brexit paperwork” for the shortfalls.

Brexit means “a challenge for the entire Spanish fruit and vegetable sector”, according to the Spanish government.

But it said the current tomato shortages in the UK were “due to the said weather conditions and not Brexit”.

We asked the European Commission if Brexit was a factor. It did not comment on this, but said that “food prices and trade flows are driven by market forces”.

One person on social media emphasized the situation in the Netherlandsanother source of tomatoes for the UK.

They quoted ‘Daniel’ saying “I live in the Netherlands. We have too many tomatoes! We used to export them to the UK but now it takes a truck driver 77 hours in a queue to bring tomatoes to the UK and all the truck drivers just say to refuse.”

We have contacted the industry associations in the Netherlands and the transport company depicted in the tweet.

The company has not contacted us and the trade association said they were “not aware of queues at ports in the Netherlands for goods departing or entering the UK”.

Ksenija Simovic, a senior policy adviser at Copa-Cogeca, a group representing farmers and agricultural cooperatives in the EU, said when there is a shortage of supply “it doesn’t help that the UK is out of the EU and one market”.

“But I don’t think this is the main reason why the UK has deficits,” Simovic added.

We asked the UK government if Brexit was a factor, but they declined to comment.

It said Agriculture Minister Mark Spencer had spoken to UK retailers and “…asked them to look again at how they work with our farmers and how they source fruit and vegetables”.

What about UK tomato growers?

Of all the tomatoes eaten in the UK – about 500,000 tonnes a year – British growers produce a fifth or 100,000 tonnes.

In the summer this increases to about half of all purchased tomatoes.

Image of tomatoes in a box with a Union Jack

Image of tomatoes in a box with a Union Jack

There are shortages of seasonal workers on the farms, including in greenhouses where tomatoes are grown, which have been blamed on Brexit and the pandemic.

The government’s seasonal worker visa scheme allows workers to stay for six months at a time. Before Brexit, they could come and go – from other EU countries – as part of free movement rules. Now they come from countries as far away as Nepal.

Bal Kumar Khatri (r) and brother Buddi Bahadur Khatri (l) from Nepal

Seasonal workers Buddi Bahadur Khatri (l) and Bal Kumar Khatri (r) came from Nepal last year to work in greenhouses.

Dr. Sarah Schiffling, a supply chain expert from the Hanken School in Helsinki, told us that the season for growing tomatoes in UK greenhouses is about nine months a year. A six-month visa means recruiting and training two sets of employees, adding to paperwork and costs.

In addition, visas will only be granted if workers earn at least £10.10 for every hour worked – 60 pence more than the current national minimum wage.

Dr. Schiffling highlighted differences in pricing strategies between supermarkets in the UK and the EU, which she says have been a factor in the current tomato shortages.

“The pricing strategies of some supermarkets in the UK tie producers to long-term contracts, while the EU supermarkets have bargain prices – if there are fewer tomatoes, the price goes up,” she told BBC 5 Live.

What about tomatoes from Morocco?

More than a third of the tomatoes eaten in the UK currently come from Morocco.

UK tomato imports in 2022: 35% Morocco, 34% the Netherlands, 16% Spain and 15% other EU countries

UK tomato imports in 2022: 35% Morocco, 34% the Netherlands, 16% Spain and 15% other EU countries

Growers there have been affected by unusually cold nighttime temperatures that have affected tomato ripening.

Bad weather also led to cancellations of ferries bringing supplies to mainland Europe over the past three to four weeks.

After Brexit, the UK signed a trade continuity agreement with Morocco (a replication of the trade agreement the UK had with the country as an EU member).

In March 2022, Poole Harbor announced that a new direct service between the UK and Morocco would be launched “soon”.

It said it would “provide an alternative route for exporters from Morocco and Africa currently heading to the UK via Europe via road networks”. But the route has not been launched.

We have contacted Poole officials but have not received a reply.

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