Local seasonal solutions to European vegetable crisis

By Selina Cuff in Farming

Local farmers have hit back at claims that there is a “vegetable crisis”, asserting that it is not a lack of vegetables that is the problem, but a lack of understanding about when vegetables are in season.

Extreme weather conditions in Southern Europe – particularly Italy and Spain – have damaged crops and reduced yields, pushing up the price of vegetable imports, leading to supermarket-imposed rationing and empty shelves.

The effects of the vegetable crisis have been felt across Europe but the shortages are particularly pronounced in Britain, which imports an estimated 50 per cent of its vegetables and 90 per cent of its fruit.

The purported crisis began in January when a widespread courgette shortage was announced. News outlet and social media were all a twitter with images of empty supermarket shelves and people’s attempts to source a courgette. The cost of the water-dense miniature marrow soared; crates of the vegetable which normally cost £6-7 were now costing £20-22. A price which many supermarkets said they were not willing to pay, choosing instead to keep their shelves bare.

By February the crisis had gone beyond courgette and was hitting salad, instigating a lettuce rationing. Tesco and Morrisons introduced a cap of three lettuces per buyer, in a bid to maintain stocks. The latter is also rationing the amount of broccoli that customers can buy. 

However local farmers and vegetable growers say this crisis is more a reflection of modern globalised approaches to shopping and consumption rather than a lack of produce.

UK’s vegetable crops have not been affected by the perfect storm of harvest wrecking weather that Spain and Italy have experienced. In fact vegetable producers in the Chew Valley say there is an abundance of produce locally.

The Community Farm, a social enterprise based near Chew Valley Lake, reports a bumper crop of winter vegetables in 2017. 

Ped Asgarian, The Community Farm’s managing director, told the Gazette that the farm has a wide range of salad leaves and vegetables on offer due to the fact they grow for the season.

“There are plenty of delicious, seasonal British vegetables in the winter – purple sprouting broccoli is fresh and on our doorstep,” explained Mr Asgarian. “Yet supermarkets still insist on favouring calabrese broccoli which needs to be imported in the winter. Iceberg lettuce has also been affected, but these imports are by no means the UK’s only source of salad at this time of year.

“The Community Farm grows winter purslane, tatsoi, mizuna, red frilled, gold filled, and Japanese mustard leaves as well as baby kales, rocket and radicchio. These salad varieties can be grown all year-round, but are much better suited to the winter months.

“The farm’s salad bags currently contain five or more different varieties, chosen for their unique colours and textures with delicious mixture of mild and peppery flavours.”

Mr Asgarian said the current crisis is a result of people losing touch with seasonal eating.

“Before global transportation was as quick and commonplace as it is today, eating seasonally and locally were just things everyone did. Now many people are sadly out of touch with seasonal eating,” he said.

Recent research supports Mr Asgarian’s claims. A 2014 study found that the British public are "ignorant about seasonal fruit and veg" – 90 per cent or more of those asked struggled to name the correct months when certain foods are in season.

Environmentalists and nutritionists argue that not only did this culture of ignorance and eating out of season create the current crisis but it actually has a detrimental impact on the nutritional value and benefits of the produce.

Researchers from the Austrian Consumers Association confirm that vegetables picked and frozen when in season are actually higher in nutrients than those flown in out of season from abroad, whilst the British Nutrition Federation recommends that people eat fruit and vegetables in season.

"Vitamins degrade over time and with storage, so the fresher the better. Also, if things have been in transit for a long time, vitamin C levels go down. And the longer the shelf life of produce, the more preservatives you have got to add to it," said British Nutrition Federation spokeswoman Sarah Stanner.

Residents in the Chew Valley are far better placed then many to buy seasonally and locally, ensuring a plate of vitamin-rich produce that is protected from the European vegetable crisis.

Besides the Community Farm supplying organic vegetables boxes of their locally produced and seasonal vegetables, local markets such as the weekly Country Markets in Chew Magna and Wrington on Friday mornings and Chew Valley Rugby Club’s Tuesday market all sell locally produced, fresh from field vegetables and fruit. Several shops and farms sell produce every day, including butchers W J Pearce & Sons in Chew Magna who alongside their local meat sell more leafy products from local farmers.

“I definitely think that buying locally is the way to go,” said one Winford resident. “That way we don’t need to ‘google’ to see if something is in season as I saw one woman in Sainsbury do the other day: if you go to your local farmshop or market what is on offer is what is in season. Some would say there isn’t as much choice but there is when you look at it in the context of the entire year, in fact you end up having a wider variety, rather than the supermarket brocolli week in week out, you will have numerous types of greens changing with the seasons that you will never be bored.”

With the vegetable shortages in Europe set to continue, and international buyers predicting the crisis will hit fruit in the coming months, consumers may soon find that buying locally is not only the best but the only option, which environmentalists, nutritionists and local farmers all agree is no bad thing.

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