Turnips vs. tomatoes: should salad crisis force UK shoppers back to their roots?

Britons should turn to turnips and other home-grown produce to get their vegetable fix, said the environment secretary, as a national salad shortage hit the nation’s supermarket shelves. 

Lidl was the latest supermarket to limit the number of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers customers could buy following a similar move by Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Aldi. The new rules were introduced after supplies across the supermarket sector were “hit by disrupted harvests in southern Europe and North Africa due to unseasonable weather”, said Reuters.

Shortages could last up to a month, Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey told parliament last week, as she urged Britons to “cherish” the UK’s produce “specialisms” and to eat more seasonally. “A lot of people would be eating turnips right now, rather than thinking necessarily about… lettuce and tomatoes,” she told MPs. 

“But I’m conscious that consumers want a year-round choice and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world are trying to satisfy,” she added. 

‘A seasonal reality check’

Coffey’s suggestion that we look to turnips as a seasonal alternative to vegetables went down “as though she had suggested we browse on cattle cake,” said columnist Jane Shilling in The Telegraph.

But the humble turnip is “much maligned”. The “despised vegetable” even enjoyed “an 18th-century apotheosis”, said Shilling, “thanks to Charles, Second Viscount ‘Turnip’ Townshend, whose obsession eventually produced such elegant varieties as Orange Jelly”. And while turnips may not be the whole answer to shortages in our crisis-ridden food supply, “a second British agricultural revolution is long overdue”, said Shilling, “in which our native root vegetables have a role to play”.

The salad shortage may have provided Britons with a much-needed “reality check,” wrote Xanthe Clay in the same paper. “Our grandmothers wouldn’t have expected to eat lettuce and tomatoes in February, so why should we?”

Although the UK is “around 60% self-sufficient in food”, this time of year has always been “tricky”, said environmental reporters Helena Horton and Sarah Butler in The Guardian. The late winter months are known as the “hungry gap”, where the UK’s crops amount to little more than root vegetables and brassicas – hence our need to import fresh veg from Morocco and Spain, and leaving us open to the risks when bad weather impacts yield over there.

But we could produce salad sustainably in the UK over the winter if we made some different choices, according to Rebecca Laughton, head of horticulture at the Landworkers Alliance, who spoke to the paper. She said that a plethora of other vegetables, such as “leeks, kale, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, spinach, winter salad, brassicas” could be readily available with investment in the right farming practices.

‘More than just Brexit and bad weather’

For Britons who do want to eat more seasonally, culinary lessons might be in order. “Anyone got a turnip recipe?? Literally got no idea what to do with one apart from mash it,” mused one Twitter user last week. 

But Coffey’s remarks nevertheless sparked a “rush” of turnip sales, said The Washington Post, “with some stores appearing to sell out completely over the weekend” and therefore only “adding to the list of absent products” on UK supermarket shelves. 

But industry experts have said the UK government is failing to take the problems with Britain’s food supply chains seriously. While British farmers think that a mixture of “Brexit and bad weather” is part of the problem behind the country’s salad shortage, “the government’s lack of strategy and support for the sector amid the winter energy crisis is a bigger problem,” added the US paper.

There may be few turnips to be had in any case. The Mirror reported that farmer Richard Parry, dubbed the “Turnip King”, once produced some 30m turnips on his 120-hectare farm – “enough to stock all of Britain’s supermarkets” – but has now stopped growing them due to “a combination of rising energy prices and labour shortages” which he said has made his turnip business “financially unviable”.

“I think she’s got the wrong vegetable,” Parry told the paper in response to Coffey’s turnip suggestion. 

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