Cucumber crisis: Soaring energy prices leave UK greenhouses empty

  • Cost of growing a cucumber to increase from 25p to 70p
  • High energy costs mean crops aren’t planted
  • Pressures likely to drive up food prices

ROYDON, England, March 31 (Reuters) – In a small corner of southeast England, sprawling greenhouses lie empty as soaring energy prices prevent their owners from using the heat to grow cucumbers for to the UK market.

Elsewhere in the country, growers also failed to plant peppers, eggplants and tomatoes after soaring natural gas prices late last year were exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, making crops economically unviable.

The blow to British farms, which need gas to counter the country’s bad weather, is one of the myriad ways the energy crisis and the invasion have affected the world’s food supply, global grain production and edible oils are also threatened.

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In Britain it is likely to drive up food prices at a time of historic inflation and threaten the availability of products such as the quintessentially British cucumber sandwich served at the Wimbledon tennis tournament and in major hotels from London.

While last year it cost around 25p to produce a cucumber in Britain, this has now doubled and is expected to reach 70p when rising energy prices take full effect, the body said. British Growers commercial.

Full-sized cucumbers were selling for as little as 43p in Britain’s biggest supermarket chains on Tuesday.

“With gas prices being so high, it’s a worrying time,” producer Tony Montalbano told Reuters, as he stood in an empty greenhouse in Roydon in the Lea Valley where, for 54 years, three generations of his family have grown cucumbers.

“All these years of working hard to get to where we are, and then one year it could all be over,” he said.

The 30,000 square meter greenhouse at his Green Acre Salads business, which supplies supermarket groups such as market leader Tesco (TSCO.L), Sainsbury’s (SBRY.L) and Morrisons, is currently empty.

Montalbano, whose grandfather emigrated from Sicily in 1968 and opened a nursery to supply local stores with fresh cucumbers, decided not to plant the first of three cycles of the year in January.

RISING COSTS

Last year he paid 40 to 50 pence per spa for natural gas. Last week it was 2.25 pounds per bath, after briefly hitting a record high of 8 pounds following the Russian invasion.

Fertilizer prices have tripled from a year ago, while the cost of carbon dioxide – used both to help with cultivation and packaging – and hard-to-obtain labor have also increase.

“We are now in an unprecedented situation where cost increases have far exceeded a grower’s ability to do anything about them,” said Jack Ward, director of British Growers.

It means a massive contraction for the industry, threatening Britain’s future food security, and further price hikes for British consumers already facing higher inflation than other countries in Europe after Brexit.

UK inflation hit a 30-year high of 6.2% in February and is expected to approach 9% by the end of 2022, contributing to the biggest drop in living standards since at least the 1950s.

The National Farmers’ Union says the UK is descending into a food security crisis. He warns that UK production of peppers could fall from 100 million last year to 50 million this year, with cucumbers from 80 million to 35 million.

In winter, the UK has generally imported around 90% of crops like cucumbers and tomatoes, but has been almost self-sufficient in summer.

The Lea Valley Growers Association, whose members produce around three-quarters of Britain’s cucumber and pepper harvest, said around 90 per cent had not planted in January, while half had still not planted and would not crash if gas prices remained high.

“There will definitely be a shortage of British produce in supermarkets,” said association secretary Lee Stiles. “Whether there is a shortage of product overall depends on where and how far retailers are willing to source.”

Growers in the Netherlands, one of Britain’s main suppliers of salads, are facing similar challenges and have cut exports.

Spain and Morocco don’t heat their greenhouses much, but delivery to the UK in refrigerated trucks adds time and cost.

Joe Shepherdson of the UK’s Cucumber Growers Association said growers who have planted use less heat, but this reduces production and increases the risk of disease.

PRICE PRESSURE

Britain’s biggest supermarket groups, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Marks & Spencer (MKS.L), acknowledge market pressures but say they are confident about supplies, stressing their long-term partnerships with growers.

The extent to which increased production costs will translate into higher shelf prices largely depends on whether supermarkets choose to absorb the difference themselves or pass it on to consumers.

Smaller retailers buying from the market may experience difficulties.

“Any reductions in supplier production would undoubtedly put further pressure on prices,” said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the retail industry lobby group, the British Retail Consortium.

Producers want government help. They lobbied for gasoline taxes and levies to be scrapped, but Finance Minister Rishi Sunak did not mention it in his spring budget last week.

Despite the dismal backdrop and after much soul-searching, Montalbano will plant a crop next month, fearing the loss of future contracts if he does not. He can bank on the British weather and grow his plants “cold”, with little or no heat.

“I feel like I have no choice, because if I don’t, I lose my place,” he said, in a greenhouse that in normal March would be full of seedlings. bushy green cucumbers.

“Am I going to get anything out of it? I’ll be very happy to break even this year,” he said.

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Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Kate Holton and Jan Harvey

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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