Environment secretary Therese Coffey was on Wednesday booed by farmers after saying UK egg shortages had not been caused by “market failure”, as the country’s biggest supermarket became the latest to ration purchases of some fruit and vegetables.
In a fiery onstage exchange at the National Farmers’ Union conference with its president, Minette Batters, Coffey maintained that she was “not necessarily seeing a market failure in poultry” after egg farmers cut back production because of spiralling costs, leading to empty shop shelves.
Batters, who had called for government to intervene to support producers, retorted that “we had a billion less eggs [produced] in 2022 [compared with 2021]” and “we’ve lost businesses”. She later said she “took real exception to the secretary of state’s denial”.
Farmers accused government of ignoring growing disruption to supply chains as Tesco joined three major rivals in rationing purchases of fresh produce, following a warning that salad shortages would last “for weeks”.
The exchange formed part of a testing visit to the NFU conference for Coffey. Over the two-day event, both she and farming minister Mark Spencer were challenged by farmers over a range of problems linked to Brexit and high inflation, highlighting disillusionment in rural constituencies with recent Conservative governments.
Coffey further angered farmers by saying with reference to the produce shortages that she “can’t control the weather in Spain”.
Shortages caused by bad weather in southern Europe and north Africa, the source of most salad vegetables sold in the UK in winter, have been compounded by a drop in production in the UK and the Netherlands outside peak season because of soaring energy costs.
Marion Regan, managing director of fruit and arable growers Hugh Lowe Farms in Kent, said at the event: “[Coffey] dismissed the empty shelves . . . so I don’t think she does understand the challenges facing the horticulture sector . . . This is about the wider costs.”
Tesco on Wednesday joined Asda, Aldi and Morrisons in rationing purchases of fresh produce including tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
Batters urged ministers to provide more help with growers’ energy bills, but the government rejected her call to add them to the roster of “energy-intensive” industries requiring extra support, saying it would “increase costs for other bill payers, including households”.
Farmers have been buffeted by pressures including the gradual removal of EU-style subsidies, new checks on imports to the bloc, and spiralling prices for energy, feed, labour and fertiliser.
Egg shortages began in late 2022 after farmers reduced their laying flocks because of cost increases. UK egg production declined 7.8 per cent in 2022 to 869mn dozen from a year earlier, according to official data, and shortages are still being reported.
James Mottershead, a Shropshire poultry farmer and chair of the NFU’s poultry board, said it was “disheartening” that the industry’s pleas to government “keep falling on deaf ears”. He said ministers “should use the powers that they have under the Agriculture Act to address failures in the supply chain . . . and they should get out on farms and see the problems”.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is reviewing the supply chains for dairy and pigs, where farmers have also come under pressure. Coffey told the conference these reviews would be completed soon.
Farmers reserved a warmer reception for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who on Tuesday insisted farming was “in [his] DNA” and that the UK “must not lose sight of farming as a business”.