It wasn’t a clever plan, but Thérèse Coffey aroused more interest in turnips than anyone since Blackadder when she suggested that people might eat them instead of tomatoes.
The environment secretary’s response to the salad shortage drew more ridicule than Baldrick, including from Vladimir Putin, who suggested last week that sanctions against Russia had failed in the West. The turnips are good, but they’ll probably have to get them from us, he said.
Putin’s comments had a thin layer of truth. Although Coffey said people should “appreciate” British specialty produce, he seemed unaware that Britain’s biggest turnip grower was in his constituency and that he had stopped growing them months before.
No tomatoes? What about turnips? suggests environment secretary – video
AW Mortier, near Alderton in Suffolk, had a near monopoly on the few turnips available in supermarkets, but gave up in September last year as stores were unwilling to pay higher prices to offset rising costs of energy and fertilizers.
“It just wasn’t worth doing,” said Andrew Thorogood, managing director of S Thorogood and sons, a leading wholesaler specializing in traditional English fruit and vegetables.
“They were tied to all the supermarkets and terribly tied. The free market price is much higher than what supermarkets are willing to pay; That’s pretty normal these days.”
He said there were “two or three” other growers serving independent retailers and restaurants. “Most of our turnips now come from these two or three growers or from France. We import probably 70 or 80% of our product from France, and increasingly from Spain and Portugal.”
Despite their sometimes bitter taste and key status, turnips have made a minor comeback in recent years, Thorogood said. “They are very useful in Asian cooking. It maintains its consistency.” But imports of mooli, a long white radish, had been replacing turnips, he said.
Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Farmers are not only cutting back turnips, but devoting less land to potatoes, leeks and brassicas, with some reducing acreage by 25%.
Andrew Burgess, chairman of the National Farmers Union’s organic forum, said the cost crisis would mean the proportion of produce grown in the UK, currently around 60%, would decline. “Our level of self-sufficiency will probably be the lowest ever recorded, probably below 50% this year. That’s pretty scary when you think about geopolitics right now.”
Thorogood said UK supermarkets insist on long-term contracts, meaning growers don’t make a profit when prices rise, instead having to absorb costs like fertilizer and energy. French and German supermarkets set prices for growers every Thursday, so prices increase when crops are scarce, he said.
Supermarkets in France were charging 3.50 euros for a cauliflower last week, he said. “A cauliflower at Aldi in Chelmsford was 88 pence. When everyone is struggling with their accounts, they look like the good guys. But they are crucifying the producer base.”
Will Golding, a Lancashire farmer, said he stopped growing turnips some time ago. His electricity bill had risen from £50,000 to £125,000.
“We are a small family farm,” he said. “We are kicking and screaming for an extra penny per pack.”
Last year, Sustain, the alliance of food and farm organisations, found that farmers were making less than a penny in profit, which, according to its director of sustainable agriculture, Vicki Hird, showed that the UK food system “already It wasn’t fit for purpose.” .
“We need to transition to climate- and nature-friendly agriculture, and farmers can’t do that if they don’t get the right rewards,” he said.
Defra did not comment on whether Coffey knew that Mortiers had stopped growing turnips. A spokesman said UK growers were “crucial to the resilience of our food system”, and the government knew farmers were “facing global pressures, including from the invasion of Ukraine”.
“The UK has a very resilient food chain and is well equipped to deal with disruption,” they said.
“Our new farming schemes will help farmers grow food profitably and sustainably, including £600m in grants for equipment that helps farmers become more productive.
“This is part of the important action we have taken to support the sector so far, along with the allocation of 45,000 temporary workers and broader government support on energy bills through the Energy Bills Relief Scheme.”
This article was modified on March 20, 2023. An earlier version implied that turnips always taste bitter; this can sometimes be the case, but not always.