Cucumber Crisis: Rising energy prices leave UK greenhouses empty

  • The cost of growing a cucumber increases from 25p to 70p
  • High energy costs mean no crops are grown
  • The pressure is likely to push food prices higher

ROYDON, England, March 31 (Reuters) – In a small corner of south-east England, huge greenhouses stand empty and rising energy costs prevent their owner from using heat to grow cucumbers for the UK market.

Elsewhere in the country, growers have also failed to plant peppers, eggplants and tomatoes after a surge in natural gas prices late last year was exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, making crops economically unviable.

The blow to British farms, which need petrol to combat the country’s bad weather, is one of the myriad ways the energy crisis and invasion have hit food supplies around the world, with global grain production and cooking oils also under threat.

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In the UK, at a time of historic inflation, this is likely to push up food prices and threaten the availability of goods such as the quintessentially British pickle sandwich served at the Wimbledon tennis tournament and in major London hotels.

While it cost around 25p to grow a cucumber in the UK last year, the price has now doubled and is expected to reach 70p when higher energy prices take full effect, says trade association British Growers.

Regular-size cucumbers were selling for just 43p in Britain’s biggest supermarket chains on Tuesday.

“Gas prices are so high it’s a worrying time,” grower Tony Montalbano told Reuters while standing in an empty greenhouse in Roydon, in the Lea Valley, where three generations of his family have been growing cucumbers for 54 years.

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

All 30,000 square meters of greenhouse of its Green Acre Salads store, which supplies supermarket groups including market leader Tesco (TSCO.L)Sainsbury’s (SBRY.L) and Morrisons, are currently empty.

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

HIGH COSTS

Last year he was paying 40-50p a spa for natural gas. Last week it was 2.25 pounds a therm after briefly hitting a record 8 pounds following the Russian invasion.

Fertilizer prices have tripled from a year ago, while the cost of carbon dioxide – used in both growing and packaging – and hard-to-find labor have also skyrocketed.

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

This means a massive contraction for the industry, threatening Britain’s future food security, and further price hikes for British consumers, who are already facing a bigger collapse in inflation than other countries in Europe post-Brexit.

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

The National Farmers’ Union says Britain is sleepwalking into a food crisis. It warns that UK production of peppers could fall to 50 million this year from 100 million last year, and cucumbers from 80 million to 35 million.

In the winter, the UK typically imported around 90% of crops such as cucumbers and tomatoes, but was almost self-sufficient in the summer.

The Lea Valley Growers Association, whose members produce around three-quarters of Britain’s cucumber and pepper crop, said around 90% didn’t plant in January, while half still haven’t planted and will not plant if gas prices remain high.

“There will definitely be a shortage of British produce in supermarkets,” said federation secretary Lee Stiles. “Whether there is an overall shortage of goods depends on where and how far away the dealers are willing to source them.”

Growers in the Netherlands, one of the UK’s main suppliers of lettuce, face similar challenges and have reduced exports.

Spain and Morocco do not heat their greenhouses to any great extent, but delivery to the UK in refrigerated trucks increases time and costs.

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

PRICE PRESSURE

Britain’s largest supermarket groups including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Marks & Spencer (MKS.L)acknowledge the pressure in the market but say they are confident in supply and emphasize their long-term partnerships with growers.

The extent to which the increase in production costs translates into higher prices on the shelf depends largely on whether supermarkets make up the difference themselves or pass it on to consumers.

Smaller retailers shopping at the market may struggle.

“Any production cuts by suppliers would undoubtedly put further downward pressure on prices,” said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at retail lobby group the British Retail Consortium.

Farmers want help from the government. They have pushed for the abolition of taxes and levies on gas, but Finance Minister Rishi Sunak made no mention of it in his spring budget last week.

Despite the grim backdrop and after much deliberation, Montalbano is set to plant a crop next month as he fears losing future contracts if he doesn’t. He can bank on the British weather and grow his plants ‘cold’ with little or no heat.

“I feel like I don’t have a choice because if I don’t, I lose my place,” he said in a greenhouse that in a normal March would be crammed with bushy green cucumber plants.

“Am I going to do anything with it? I’ll be pretty happy to break even this year,” he said.

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

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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