Steve Brewer unpacks the reasons behind recent tomato shortages, highlighting the role that data, technology and greater collaboration can play in mitigating the effects of climate change on the UK’s food supply.
Are supermarket shelves short of tomatoes because we left the European Union? Research into the very particular circumstances of the British food system suggests that the underlying factors are more complex than the simple b-word might suggest.
For the past few years the University of Lincoln’s Institute for Agri-food Technology has been leading a series of food-related projects applying interdisciplinary research to the food system. This has encompassed surveying the landscape, pioneering new technology such as robots and AI, and exploring how the industry can harness the power of data to address the challenges facing the food system. Research shows why shortages and disruptions are no surprise.
Over the last few years food supply chains have become stretched and put under pressure for a range of reasons including more recently, the pandemic and the energy costs exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine. Regulatory compliance and labour shortages due to Brexit have also played a part and, before that, multiple small but significant factors relating to the quality and availability of food.
However, retailers have worked hard to mask the cost implications from consumers. While this has ensured a plentiful supply of low-cost food for consumers, it has also hidden the supply and demand fluctuations in the system.
Our research identified four configurations that characterise food supply practices: complex collaboration across strategically powerful networks of trading partners, community-driven networks (food hubs), coordinated arrangements (trade body or ethically driven movement), and open market (traditional ad hoc practices, and more recently data-driven disruptor start-ups).
Whilst these four configurations of practice each have their champions and exponents, it is the first, what we know as the large supermarket model which has given us broadly speaking affordable and plentiful food supply tailored to various economic groupings.
These ideas are interesting in the context of some of the comments on the reasons for the recent disruptions. The direct cause appears to have been bad weather in Morocco and southern Spain. However, other countries across Europe do not seem to have experienced shortages.
The government’s now former food tsar Henry Dimbleby ascribed the shortages to ‘suppliers struggling with rising costs while locked into fixed-price contracts’ and Britain’s ‘weird supermarket culture’, calling it a ‘market failure’.
Similar observations were made by Philippe Appeltans, CEO of Belgian food cooperative Belorta, on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme.
In slightly more diplomatic terms, Appeltans suggested that “we have a feeling that for retail, but not wholesale, there is a race to the bottom price wise.”
Those views are echoed throughout the fresh produce sector: tomatoes are indeed plentiful across mainland Europe but the costs and barriers entailed in bringing them over the Channel are prohibitive.
As Appeltans explained: after Brexit, the UK targeted Morocco as a food supplier. Now, due to the weather, there is less fruit. What fruit they have, they don’t want to send to the UK due to the cost of shipping, customs declarations, phytosanitary certificates, and other red tape – all of which is adding costs.
Many retailers in the UK are not willing to absorb these extra costs or pass them on to customers. This artificial stability of prices has largely benefited consumers over the years but, as we have recently experienced, when costs deviate, supply simply evaporates. This is apparently not the case in other countries.
Digging down to understand this is tricky, sellers don’t generally want to reveal their profit margins. Anecdotal evidence suggests that retailers in general did not want to either pass on higher costs or offer loss-leading items at this time, although some of the higher end retailers might have felt they had a few customers with deeper pockets and might therefore have paid the price. The same went for small, independent retailers who were, ‘able to purchase the stock, but at a cost.’
Regardless of these first world problems – shortages of salad ingredients in Northern Europe in winter – that have afflicted the UK, the overarching challenge facing us all is climate change and the sustainability of the planet. The tomato shortages due to weather are just one example, and a sign of things to come.
A rise in temperatures has been affecting the Champagne region for a few years now. Even one degree over the last fifty years has produced not only hotter summers and long-lasting droughts, but also heat waves and frosts that have had a detrimental effect on the vines. Ironically, the vineyards of England, and not just in the south, have been the beneficiaries of this climate change, at least for now.
So, the original headline excuse of bad weather, was valid, but sadly a portent of things to come.
Capturing and using more data, enabling greater collaboration among all parties from business to policymakers, academia to trade bodies, and harnessing the benefits of new technology and science will contribute towards sustainability.
Our research has demonstrated a way forward whereby independent organisations can collaborate to optimise non-competitive factors that are detrimental to an efficient thriving food supply chain. This research describes the role of a data trust framework, essentially a data exchange where supply chain information can be securely, and with permission, shared and exchanged to track the provenance of ingredients as well as journeys taken. The aim of this being to increase resilience and efficiency in supply chains.
Collaboration breeds trust, which in turn fosters further collaboration. Furthermore, the trust framework approach allows the participants to collaborate in the coordination of the scheme, agreeing protocols and standards among themselves which then opens the door to regulators and policy makers, and other service providers participating.
Allowing in other specialist services such as AI providers and industry bodies offers the possibility of real time insights and predictions rather than the traditional retrospective analysis based on outdated historic data.
Who knows, it may even provide some insights into where the tomatoes are along the way.
By Steve Brewer, Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, University of Lincoln.