Cucumbers may be cool but growing them takes warmth. That is increasingly problematic in chilly northern Europe. The soaring cost of natural gas has tipped its greenhouse growers into crisis. Shoppers should be braced for shortages and higher prices.
British growers are particularly hard hit. Energy accounts for almost half of growing costs, says the Lea Valley Growers Association. It represents an area close to London that produces three-quarters of the UK’s homegrown cucumbers, peppers and aubergines. A typical nursery there would historically expect to pay about £250,000 in gas costs a year. The price recently spiked at almost 10 times that.
Scant surprise then that only a fifth of glasshouses in the area are growing crops so far this year. Higher fertiliser costs, wage inflation and a likely shortage of seasonal workers compound the problems.
Reliance on imports will inevitably increase. Already seven in 10 cucumbers are imported, mostly from the Netherlands. The proportion of imported tomatoes, bell peppers and aubergines is even higher.
Dutch growers are somewhat better placed. Yields are typically higher than in the UK, there is more hedging of energy costs and greater use of combined heat and power. Even so, 40 per cent of growers may be running at a loss, according to industry group Glastuinbouw Nederland. Most are still operating in the hope of government subsidies.
Spain, which accounts for up to 70 per cent of imported UK salad, can cultivate vegetables in unheated greenhouses. They need to be transported by road. But even after taking account of a doubling in diesel costs over the past year, that is a lot cheaper than a heated UK greenhouse.
Spanish growers might be able to fill some of the gaps next winter. But there will still be shortfalls unless growers are compensated for higher energy costs by governments or customers. Fresh food inflation rose 3.5 per cent in March and is likely to go much higher.
Until supermarket price wars broke out a decade ago, cucumbers often cost a lot more than they do now. Retailers will do what they can to keep the lid on prices. But expect high energy costs to defeat this effort.
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Source: Financial Times