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In the News

Has the Hungry Gap Caused a Supermarket Sweep?

Tony Hardman

23rd February 2023

If anyone in the UK was planning to give up fresh salad for Lent then they might have been dealt a helping hand.

This week supermarkets such as ASDA, Tesco and ALDI announced that they have started limiting sales of fresh produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. But why? This is due to a shortage of some fruit and vegetables. The British Retail Consortium, which represents Britain’s largest shops, has said that the situation could last for a few weeks and that people need to be patient (i.e. no Covid style panic buying!). Social media is currently awash with photos of empty supermarket shelves across the country, and speculation that Brexit is to blame has been rife… but maybe we need to look closer to home for the answer?

Let me introduce the 'hungry gap'. This is an annual UK phenomenon - yet many of us have never heard of it! The hungry gap refers to a few weeks (usually sometime between April and June) where the winter crops have ended, but the new season's planting are not ready for harvest. It is the hardest time of the year for UK farmers.

So why does the gap exist? The UK's latitude is to blame - most of our spring crops wouldn't survive if they were planted earlier because of the cold, but the warmer spring weather means that hardly winter crops, such as sprouts, decide to stop growing their leaves and start producing flowers and seeds instead. This combination leads to unproductive fields and fewer British grown crops being available on the supermarket shelves.

But we don't usually see supermarket shelves bare, and people 'going wild in the aisles' (mid 90's TV reference klaxon). So, what has happened this year?

The big issue would appear to be the weather. At this time of year we import around 95% of our tomatoes from Spain and Morocco, but Morocco has been experiencing bouts of rain and snow as well as very strong winds which have impacted farmers and ferry services from Africa. The backup is usually domestic supply (grown inside) or importing from Holland, again fruit and vegetables grown in greenhouses. But, this year, many UK producers have decided not to plant until later due to gas supply prices.

Another element is supermarket pricing. British supermarkets are very good at supply chains and keeping consumer prices low. However, with the current ‘perfect storm’ of factors in play, as the wholesale price of these products has soared, supermarkets have been reluctant pay it. Why? Because they would either have to take a financial hit themselves or pass a price increase onto consumers, already hit by the cost-of-living crisis.

So why don't we know about the hungry gap in the UK? And why haven't we noticed its impact on our daily meals? The name 'hungry gap' is an old one - originating from when people really did go hungry when the fields were empty, and people had to survive on a delicious diet of old cabbages, rotting potatoes and preserved fruit. Expectations of shoppers have changed. Today we eat differently, our diet is no longer dependent on seasonal foods and supermarkets top up their shelves with more imported produce or crops grown in heated greenhouses. As a result, we are none the wiser about the this seasonal gap in UK production.

I had a look at Eat Seasonably to see what a seasonal, UK diet in February would look like today. British-sourced produce on your plate would include parsnips, leeks, kale, cauliflower, carrots and cabbage with perhaps some rhubarb for dessert. Cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers wouldn't be making an appearance until April at the earliest, building up to a seasonal British salad (and soft fruit) crescendo in the summer months, which would inevitably taper off as we pass through autumn and into winter.

It has become the norm for us to expect the current shortage products year-round, to the extent that peppers become headline news when they are not available to us on demand, or at least only in restricted amounts. But, perhaps, more seasonal eating makes sense. Ask any chef and they will tell you that fruit and veg are at their freshest and tastiest when they have just been harvested. It makes economic sense as well, as shopping for products that are available in abundance brings down food bills. And of course, it also makes environmental sense. Eating local, reduces food miles and requires lower levels of artificial inputs like heating, lighting, pesticides and fertilisers. Something to chew on?

Read more here...

Hopefully this blog provides a useful source of information for the food aspect of Resource management at GCSE and Population & the environment at A Level.

Tony Hardman

Tony Hardman is an experienced teacher and examiner of 20 years. He is Manchester (well Oldham) born and bred and is passionate about urban geography!

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