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Let them eat... turnips? Tomato shortage in UK has politicians looking for answers

Tomato shortages in the U.K. are being blamed on bad weather, energy prices and trade policy
AFP via Getty Images
Tomato shortages in the U.K. are being blamed on bad weather, energy prices and trade policy

It's not easy to find a tomato in the U.K. right now. And if you do, you'd better savor it.

Supermarkets like Tesco and Aldi have placed strict limits on the number of tomatoes customers can buy, as well as other produce, like cucumbers and broccoli.

Three Packs Left

Economist Tim Harford, host of the podcast Cautionary Tales, serves tomatoes to his family a lot.

So when he heard the news about shortages, he rushed to the local Tesco.

"There's this whole shelf that normally has crates and crates of different kinds of tomatoes," he recalls. "And there were just three packs left."

Limit per customer: one package.

The last few years, this has been a familiar story. The pandemic created supply chain crises and shortages all across the global economy.

Mostly those have been resolved, so what's going on with tomatoes?

Wild weather, energy prices and politics

The main issue, says Harford, is a bad harvest out of Spain and Morocco, where Europe and the U.K. get a lot of their winter produce. A late frost and flooding killed a lot of the crops.

(In the U.S., most of our winter vegetables come from Chile, Mexico and California, so our salads are safe for now.)

The second issue: energy prices.

The war in Ukraine has caused energy prices in Europe to spike. So growing tomatoes in greenhouses, as they do in the U.K. and the Netherlands, has gotten so expensive, a lot of farmers haven't done it this year, which has further cut back on supply.

But a lot of people are also pointing to Brexit as a culprit.

Now that the U.K. isn't part of the all important market — the European Union — it doesn't have as much muscle with suppliers when times are tight. It's in the back of the tomato line.

Also the extra expense of bringing tomatoes from mainland Europe to the U.K., and navigating another layer of supply chains and transport might be raising prices beyond what many grocers (and customers) are willing to pay.

Let them eat turnips

Economist Tim Harford thinks Brexit isn't he main reason for tight tomato supplies — after all other parts of Europe are also experiencing shortages — but he says Brexit most certainly isn't helping.

"Brexit doesn't make anything easier," says Harford. "It's going to make almost every problem slightly worse."

Harford also points out global supply chains are still normalizing from the pandemic, but overall have shown themselves to be impressively resilient.

He thinks tomatoes will be back in abundance soon.

The Brexit BLT: Bacon, Lettuce and ... Turnip

Until then, U.K. minister Therese Coffey suggested Brits take a page from the past and eat turnips instead, which grow more easily in the clammy British climate.

This suggestion sparked a raft of parodies on social media: The Bacon Lettuce and Turnip sandwich or a Brexit Margherita pizza (cheese and turnips).

British authorities have said tomatoes should turn up in supermarkets again in a month or so.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.