Over the last few weeks, supermarkets across Britain have experienced a shortage in key vegetable stocks. Many of us have searched in vain for a bag of spinach only to settle, defeated, with a packet of anaemic-looking rocket. These shortages were caused by the bad weather conditions in Southern Europe of the last few months, with many farms reporting a loss of 30 per cent of their usual produce. Cabbages, lettuce, aubergines, red peppers, and spinach have been the worst affected – the courgette, a lost icon.
How did this shortage occur? Poor light levels, cold weather, snow, and flooding in Southern Europe created the perfect storm, driving down production levels of vegetable harvesting. After the heaviest rainfall in three decades, the Southern Spanish region of Murcia, which would normally provide 80 per cent of Europe’s fresh produce, lost a sizeable portion of its usable land for this season.
Because of this scarcity food prices have soared, while many British supermarket chains have taken to rationing their vegetable stocks. Signs have appeared over the racks, informing the customer of the limit on bulk purchases. At Borough Market, London’s vegetable Mecca, it has been reported that courgettes are selling for as much as £4 a piece.
This is not the first time supermarkets have faced shortages of certain vegetables. In 2012 the UK experienced a nationwide broccoli shortage as a result of similarly unpredictable weather – although the effect of this was decidedly less acute. We might even ask ourselves: is this shortage having more of an impact on us because of morphing dietary trends? Five years on and our appetites have changed somewhat. Healthy eating is à la mode, which has provoked a sharp rise in vegetable consumption. Additionally, it being so early on in the year, this is a time when diets abound, the current shortage is perhaps all the more marked. It has even prompted a series of trending hashtags on Twitter, including the popular #courgettecrisis.
It might be slightly hyperbolic to brand the depletion a ‘crisis’, and indeed much humour has been extracted from the situation. The Times told its readers to #Romaine Calm!’, while hundreds took to social media to share their accounts of their culinary struggles. One imagines a meeting of two darkly clad individuals meeting under a lamppost to deal in black-market courgettes. However, although it may appear to be quite comical to be distraught over the inability to use one’s spiralizer, this sudden depletion of produce is actually quite worrying.
In many ways it has woken us up to the fragility of our food sources which, with an increasing world population, has a ripple effect. We forget the origin of our food, and take the all-year-round accessibility for granted. Living in cities, it is easy to forget the balance needed for fresh produce to be delivered in the vast quantities we desire, while also reducing our collective consumer carbon footprint.
This is all food for thought. Hopefully this turn of events will encourage a return to eating more seasonal produce, grown on our own shores. Seed sales for staples such as lettuce and courgettes have increased 179 per cent the last year. People are becoming more aware of the need to grow your own. At present 25 per cent of our fresh produce is imported from Spain, whilst the Netherlands and Belgium take second and third place. Unless we address this problem, our dependency on imports will only deepen. Indeed, several UK retailers are said to be considering importing produce from the US – encouraging people to eat seasonally and locally, would reduce cause for future problems.
So will this herald a return to growing our own veg? Window ledges can house salad pots, rooftops, such as the Grange Farm in Brooklyn, New York, can be turned into fields, and even underground spaces such as ‘Growing Underground’, a London air raid shelter, can be turned into ‘farms’. With the rise of technology and the need for stable food supplies, it is time to re-evaluate traditional cultivation methods in favour of accountability. As the old adage goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.
Image: Wikimedia Commons