Lettuce shortage: Vegetable rationing spurs rise in sale of seeds as British people turn to grow own greens

UK retailers have in recent weeks started rationing lettuce, courgettes and aubergines after floods and storms ruined crops in southern Europe, squeezing supply

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The Independent Online

A shortage of certain vegetables in UK supermarkets has spurred a rise in the sale of seeds. 

UK retailers, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, have in recent weeks started rationing lettuce, courgettes and aubergines after floods and storms ruined crops in southern Europe, squeezing supply. Some experts say that the shortage is expected to last until April or May.

The problem has now become so serious that UK consumers have turned to growing their own greens, according to homes and garden retailer Wilko.

Online volume sales of seeds and bulbs jumped by 272 per cent on the week that ended 5 February compared to the same period last year, said the retailer, suggesting that shoppers are going back to basics and growing their own vegetables to get through the shortage.

Separate figures published on Tuesday by data provider IRI Retail Advantage show that the volumes of courgette sales slumped by £2m in January. Sales declined 58 per cent for the week ending 28 January over the same week last year.

Martin Wood, head of strategic insight for the retail sector at IRI, said: “We know there have been production problems in southern Europe and it’s starting to impact sales quite dramatically.

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“It remains to be seen if this downward trend continues. In the meantime, retailers have to react quickly to the shortage and look to alternative suppliers to plug the gaps and keep customers happy.”

According to the campaign group Eat Seasonably, lettuce and rocket are some of the easiest things to grow at home all year around.

Rob Moore, co-founder at Eat Seasonably, told The Independent: "We've become increasingly disconnected from our food and its relationship with nature – we're accustomed to buying whatever we want, whenever we want.

"In the winter, Europe now sources 80 per cent of its fresh produce from southern Spain and the vegetable crisis has highlighted the fragility of that situation.

"As for growing your own, we believe it's a great way to get back in touch with seasonal eating. It may seem daunting if you've never grown anything before but there are a few crops that are really easy to grow, even if you don't have a garden."

Jordan Coe, a garden buyer for plants and horticulture at Wilko, said: “It’s encouraging to see how resilient Brits are when faced with shortages, particularly of supermarket staples of lettuces and courgettes.

“We are working closely with our suppliers to ensure we are fully stocked to meet the rising demand from customers looking to become more self-sufficient,” he added.

The World Cancer Research Fund suggests that  British consumers should seize the occasion of the shortage to try greens that are currently growing in season in the UK, such as kale, beetroot and cauliflower.

Figures released on Monday also showed that prices of lettuce are rising in response to the shortage. According to the weekly report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a pair of Little Gem lettuces had an average market price of 86p in the week that ended on Friday, up from an average of 56p in the previous week – an almost 54 per cent increase. The cost of Butterhead Indoor lettuce, meanwhile, rose from 47p per head to 54p.

Paul Connelly, managing director at Beacon, a supply chain expert, said a combination of poor harvests, bad weather and the devalued pound has created a “perfect storm” in  the supply chain. He said that floods in Spain's south-eastern Murcia region, which supplies 80 per cent of Europe's fresh produce at this time of year, have almost wiped out some field crops, such as  lettuce and broccoli.

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