Cucumber crisis: surging energy prices leave British greenhouses empty
In a small corner of southeast England, vast greenhouses stand empty, the soaring cost of energy preventing their owner from using heat to grow cucumbers for the British market.
Three generations of Tony Montalbano’s family have farmed cucumbers at Roydon in the Lea Valley, northeast of London. Montalbano has been growing for the past 24 years; his family for five decades.
While last year it cost about 25 pence to produce a cucumber in Britain, that has now doubled and is set to hit 70 pence when higher energy prices kick in, trade body British Growers say.
"Normally you would see, at this stage, fully grown plants, cucumbers harvesting, we would have staff working away here,” Montalbano told Reuters as he walked around the empty greenhouses.
All 30,000 square metres of the glasshouse at his Green Acre Salads business, which supplies supermarket groups including market leader Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrisons are currently empty.
Montalbano, whose grandfather emigrated from Sicily in 1968 and started a nursery to provide local stores with fresh cucumbers, decided not to plant the first of the year's three cycles in January.
He had wanted to plant cucumbers later this year in the hope gas prices would drop, but in March, gas was around five times more than what he was paying in 2021.
Last year he paid 40-50 pence a therm for natural gas. Last week it was 2.25 pounds a therm, having briefly hit a record eight pounds in the wake of Russia's invasion.
Fertiliser prices have tripled versus last year while the cost of carbon dioxide and hard to attain labour have also shot up.
Montalbano is not the only British producer having problems.
Further afield growers have also failed to plant peppers, aubergines and tomatoes after a surge in natural gas prices at the end of last year were exacerbated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, making the crops economically unviable.
The hit to UK farms, which need gas to counter the country's inclement weather, is one of the myriad ways the energy crisis and invasion has hit food supplies around the world, with global grain production and edible oils also under threat.
In Britain, it is likely to push food prices higher, at a time of historic inflation, and threaten the availability of goods such as the quintessentially British cucumber sandwich served at the Wimbledon tennis tournament and big London hotels.
Jack Ward, the CEO of British Growers, said growers have been feeling the pressure for years.
“These, albeit small businesses are a strategically important part of our food supply because in the season the majority of the products that we buy through retailers will come from UK farms," Ward told Reuters.
For the industry it means a massive contraction, threatening Britain's future food security, and further price rises for UK consumers already facing a bigger inflation hit than other countries in Europe.
UK inflation hit a 30-year high of 6.2% in February and is forecast to go close to 9% in late 2022, contributing to the biggest fall in living standards since at least the 1950s.
In winter, the UK has typically imported around 90% of crops like cucumbers and tomatoes but is nearly self-sufficient in the summer.
Growers in the Netherlands, one of Britain's key salad suppliers, face similar challenges and have cut exports.
Spain and Morocco do not heat their glasshouses to a large extent, but delivery in chilled lorries adds time and cost.
Growers want help from the government. They have lobbied for tax and levies on gas to be removed, but finance minister Rishi Sunak did not mention it in his spring budget last week.
Despite the dismal backdrop and after much soul-searching, Montalbano will plant a crop next month, fearing the loss of future contracts if he does not. He may gamble on the British weather, and grow "cold", with little or no heat.