British tomatoes have suffered from the energy crisis
“I doit’s not wellies and wheelbarrows,” laughs Andy Roe, head of tomato production at Flavourfresh Salads, a grower outside Southport, in north-west England. The company is one of the few in Britain that still ‘ provide the fruit through the winter thanks to a modern hydroponic greenhouse plant equipped with Barbie-pink light emitting diodes (leads) to replace the sun. The vines, tens of meters long, suspended above hot water pipes and fed a steady diet of carbon dioxide, are a world away from their spiny cousins in compost bags that are a feature of houses – British Sun.
Flavourfresh not only provides green groceries but, thanks to a small on-site power plant called combined heat and power (cp), it also supplies electricity to four surrounding villages. That means the tomatoes are as embedded in global energy markets as the soil of Lancashire: the cp using natural gas purchased from wholesale markets and selling electricity to the national grid. Carbon dioxide from the cp stripped of pollution and pumped into the greenhouse to be photosynthesized into sugar – the tomatoes pick up tons of greenhouse gas. Water used to cool the machine is pumped around the nursery and reproduces a climate a little closer to the plant’s native Mexico than is typical in February in England. The pink leads, powered by electricity, produces the precise spectrum of sunlight that the tomatoes love.
To understand why Britain has run out of salad, think of tomatoes less as a fruit and more as a form of energy storage. The original energy can come from the ambient solar energy hitting the earth, trapped by the glass of a greenhouse, or it can be created by burning fossil fuels. The solar powered tomato is the most efficient; according to estimates by Vaclav Smil, a Canadian scientist, one typical 125-gram specimen grown in a sunny field requires 22 kilocalories of additional energy, approximately the same energy that would be obtained man from eating it. A tomato grown in a heated greenhouse in northern Europe may require as much as 150 times more energy to produce than it offers as food. A kilogram of such tomatoes needs energy equal to a liter of diesel.
Britain’s salads are collateral damage from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Growers rely on mass heating to keep their greenhouses toasty and, in winter, well lit for subtropical plants. Many British outfits have closed shop as natural gas prices began to rise. By January tomato prices had increased by 35% compared to two years earlier. In February, the crisis became scarce and supermarkets were rationing their sales.
The shortage is not a uniquely British problem. Many growers in the Netherlands have announced a day. In addition to higher electricity bills, the war has increased the cost of fertilizers. At the same time an unseasonably warm autumn in Spain reduced planting. At the same time, production in Morocco and northern Africa has been stifled by a virus known as tomato brown rot virus and a patch of bad weather.
What is unique, however, is that British supermarkets have started rationing salad. On February 27 Lidl, a low-price supermarket, announced that they were limiting sales to three tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers per person. Expats and continental Europeans, who want to blame Brexit, have shared mocking pictures on social media of well-stocked supermarket shelves and called the problem Vegxit.
Cross-border trade problems have no doubt helped but rationing should be more to blame for the competitiveness of British supermarkets; smaller shops are often well stocked. For the bigger outfits, fresh vegetables are a way to get customers through the door and supermarkets prefer to sell their produce cheaply rather than charge prices to the load. – buy them.
The natural gas to power Flavourfresh’s cp it was bought on forward contracts and the electricity sold months ago; promises the investors who have the cp to return The cherry tomatoes that are currently being picked have been sold on contract to a large British supermarket. That gave the grower certainty to continue producing through the winter. “Farming is always a gamble,” said Mr Roe, on the weather, crop health and, this year in particular, global energy markets. Scientific knowledge, however, has helped stack the deck in the grower’s favor. ■
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