By Yuri Prasad
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2844

What’s really behind the fruit and veg shortage?

Fruit and vegetable shortages aren't just about Brexit, but about a food system that is on the brink of collapse
Issue 2844
fruit tomato shortages

A shortage of tomatoes points to a worsening crisis

Why are British supermarkets so short of tomatoes and other vegetables that they’ve started rationing them?

For some, the answer is easy—it’s down to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU). Cumbersome trade and customs rules mean it’s now harder to import, they say. Tory and EU Brexit regulations have certainly added to the problem. But there is something more serious going on here that commentators are missing.

The tomato crisis illustrates how climate change, a degraded environment and high energy prices are ­shattering capitalist agriculture.  It also shows how this could lead to general food shortages in the future.

In winter, Britain imports around 95 percent of its tomatoes, mainly from Spain and North Africa. But the growing regions of southern Spain have been hit by unusually cold weather, while crops in Morocco have been ruined by floods.  That means prices have gone sharply up, and ­supermarkets across Europe have raced to hoover up what supply there is.

These particular forms of mass agricultural production were built in the 1970s and 80s on the assumption of stable weather patterns and relatively cheap energy and fertiliser. But none of these exist in the same way now.

The other major ­requirement for soft fruits is enormous quantities of water. In southern Spain, most of it is drawn from the aquifer, the layers of rocks that act as giant underground reservoirs.

The EU used its Common Agricultural Policy to help pay for pumps needed to access this groundwater. It gave more subsidies to ­farmers growing irrigated crops than to those whose crops were rain-fed.

That decision lay behind the boom in soft fruit ­production in Europe’s hottest regions. But water, which was once thought of as in endless supply, is now growing more scarce. The aquifer that lies beneath the port city of Huelva, in south western Spain, for example, is now one of 15 officially declared “over-exploited” and under restrictions.

For thousands of years it supplied the lush Donana National Park wetlands, irrigating it during even the ­hottest months.  But last autumn the permanent lagoon at its centre dried up completely amid Europe’s scorching summer. Environmental activists there say there are many other aquifers in a similar condition. 

Yet most are undeclared because the government fears the economic impact of shutting off water supplies from them. The crisis spreads beyond Spain and North Africa. In Italy, the northern lakes and rivers are fed by melting snow from the mountains and the winter rains.

But this February the mighty River Po is 3.3 meters below its “zero gauge height”, the normal dry point at the peak of summer.  Rain is expected but is likely to fall heavily on fewer occasions rather than in a normal pattern. That recreates the danger of flooding that hit central Europe in 2021.

“Right now the situation is typical for global warming,” explains professor Stefano Mancuso of the university of Florence. “The same amount of rain falls in a year, but it is concentrated in very few days. To think that this situation can change is absolutely impossible.”

The vast flatlands surrounding the Po are Italy’s breadbasket, and it’s the river that irrigates them. Low rainfall not only threatens the water supply but also makes the ground too hard to plant crops. That means the seeds of the next crisis are already with us.

In Britain pundits and bosses argue about whether Brexit is to blame for empty supermarket shelves. Meanwhile the looming danger of hunger—built into capitalist agriculture—-appears to have passed them by unnoticed.

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