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Has Spain’s weather really caused fresh food shortages in UK supermarkets?

UK supermarket rationing of fresh produce such as tomatoes and peppers has been largely blamed on bad weather in Spain. But are Spanish supermarkets suffering the same shortages or is there another reason for the UK's problems?

Has Spain's weather really caused fresh food shortages in UK supermarkets?
There is no evidence of a shortage of fresh produce in Spanish supermarkets and markets, with the shelves filled up to their usual standards. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)

The United Kingdom is in the midst of a huge shortage of certain vegetables and fruit, with supermarket chains such as Morrisons and Asda deciding to limit the sale of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and raspberries to two or three items or trays per shopper. 

Adverse weather conditions in Spain and Morocco, where the UK gets much of its fresh produce during the winter months, has been largely blamed for the scarcity of certain fresh produce.

“It’s been snowing and hailing in Spain, it was hailing in North Africa last week – that is wiping out a large proportion of those crops,” executive director of upmarket supermarket Waitrose James Bailey told the UK’s LBC Radio. 

Spain has indeed had periods of extremely cold weather and heavy rain in January and February, and another “polar front” is forecast in the coming days. Even in sunny southeast Spain where much of the country’s fruit and vegetables are grown, temperatures dropped well below zero on several consecutive nights in January.

But there is no evidence of a shortage of fresh produce in Spanish supermarkets and markets, with the shelves filled up to their usual standards. 

A number of Britons based in Spain have shared videos of their local supermercados (supermarkets) to highlight how their fruit and vegetable aisles are awash with tomatoes and peppers.

This has raised the question of whether increased energy costs for UK farmers and Brexit’s impact on the recruitment of foreign agricultural workers are playing a bigger role in the United Kingdom’s current food shortages and inability to grow more of its own produce, along with the added red tape for EU farmers exporting to the UK.

That’s not to say that adverse weather hasn’t had an impact on harvests in southeast Spain, where the UK gets 20 percent of its tomatoes from. 

There are also reports that the supply of vegetables to Ireland is being disrupted by Spain’s bad weather and high energy costs.

According to Coexphal, the Association of Organisations of Fruit and Vegetable Producers of Almería, a warm autumn and early winter followed by “persevering” low temperatures are putting the supply of fruit and vegetables across Europe “at risk”. 

The group cites a 22 percent drop in tomato harvests, 25 percent fewer peppers, a 21 percent decrease in cucumber numbers and a 15 percent reduction in zucchini numbers.

The video below posted by an Almería farmer in January shows how his pepper crops suffered due to temperatures of as low as -4 C, despite the double layer of greenhouse plastic sheeting and other protective measures.

“Currently, practically the only European region where fruit and vegetables are produced is the Spanish southeast and we’re going to great lengths to meet this demand,” Coexphal manager Luis Miguel Fernández was quoted as saying by Spanish news agency Europa Press.

A vast swathe of agricultural land in Almería province is referred to as the ‘sea of plastic’ (mar de plástico) given that the sheer amount of greenhouse plastic sheets that are visible from space, and are responsible for 40 percent of Spain’s fruit and vegetable exports. 

READ MORE: What is Spain’s ‘sea of plastic’ and how important is it to the UK’s food supply?

Practically all of the produce stays in Europe (99.5 percent, 81 percent in the EU in 2021) with the main export markets being Germany, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Poland. 

Almería has therefore come to be known as ‘Europe’s vegetable patch’, helping to consolidate Spain as the main producer of vegetables and fruits in the EU in 2020 and 2021.

So it’s no surprise that any harvesting issue they face has the potential to be felt across the continent.

But why is the UK being impacted more greatly than other European nations? Is Brexit really the defining factor or has it been a combination of different circumstances that are to blame?

Perhaps the best interpretation is that of Pekka Pesonen, Secretary General of agricultural group Copa-Cogeca, who told Euronews that the UK should be wary of “tipping the delicate balance of trade channel” and that “even if it’s a minor change to the supply routes and supply chains, it may have a significant impact through operators that opt for the easier way somewhere else”.

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Marshes, mills and Michelin stars: Spain’s ‘chef of the sea’

As a child, Angel León spent hours fishing in the marshes of Cádiz in southwestern Spain - and today the chef draws inspiration from this terrain for his three-star Michelin restaurant.

Marshes, mills and Michelin stars: Spain's 'chef of the sea'

León, 46, has pushed the boundaries of seafood at Aponiente, serving up plankton rice, squid cheese and mussel pudding at the avant-garde eatery in El Puerto de Santa María, a fishing town in the heart of the Bay of Cádiz.

The sea is “an extraordinary pantry” that cooks often overlook, Leon told AFP, sporting a tattoo of a turtle on his forearm.

“The problem is that human beings are always selective” in the products they chose to eat, said the energetic chef, who believes in steering away from the latest fashions and suggesting “everything we find” in the ocean is likely to be edible.

The chef, who is also experimenting with new sustainable ingredients and innovations, is known in Spain as el chef del mar or “the chef of the sea”.

Born in Jeréz de la Frontera, León spent his childhood in the Bay of Cádiz where he would go fishing with his brother and father, a doctor, on weekends.

A poor student, León was passionate about fish and how to cook them, and decided to turn this passion into his profession.

As a teenager he enrolled at a Seville hotel and catering school, then earned his stripes in France at the acclaimed Le Chapon Fin restaurant in the southwestern city of Bordeaux.

Tide mill restoration

After spending time in Madrid and Toledo, in 2007 León returned to the Cádiz region and opened his own restaurant, Aponiente, aged 30.

His aim was to use the ingredients found in the bay for his menus.

The bet was risky, and the eatery struggled to draw customers – until his efforts to use little-known marine ingredients were recognised in 2010 with his first Michelin star.

He was also ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the 10 best restaurants in Europe.

In 2015 Leon moved his restaurant to a tide mill dating from 1815, which he said he fell in love with immediately.

The 1,800-square-metre building, located on the heart of the salt pan and exposed to the ebb and flow of the ocean, was then in a state of ruin and the adjoining land was being used as a garbage dump.

León invested €2.5 million ($2.7 million) to fix up the building, which now features a contemporary decor that blends into the salt marsh landscapes that surround it.

Being in the heart of the marshes “allows people to understand why we cook the way we do,” said Leon, who employs 70 people at his restaurant, located in a region with one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe.

León, 46, has pushed the boundaries of seafood at Aponiente, serving up plankton rice, squid cheese and mussel pudding at the avant-garde eatery in El Puerto de Santa María, a fishing town in the heart of the Bay of Cádiz. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

‘Open minds’

The restaurant’s success has inspired others.

Since Aponiente opened, three other chefs from the province of Cadiz have been awarded a Michelin star, including its former head chef, Juanlu Fernández.

León says he is now determined to open the “minds” of other gourmets.

He has embarked on new experiments to combine the protection of the environment with the search for new ingredients, exploring ways to adapt diets to the reality of global warming.

Leon is trying to domesticate eelgrass — a plant with bright green ribbon-like leaves that grows in coastal marshlands, which produce edible grains dubbed “sea rice”.

The grains are packed with protein as well as fibre and omega fatty acids, while the plant captures huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

Working with academics, León has so far succeeded in growing this “superfood” in the marshes of Cádiz, and is exploring its culinary uses.

It is not the first of his marine innovations to bear fruit. In 2008 he invented, along with researchers of Cádiz’s marine research centre, a machine called “Clarimax”, which uses seaweed to remove fat from broths.