It wasn’t a cunning plan, but Thérèse Coffey sparked 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 salad shortages attracted more ridicule than Baldrick – even from Vladimir Putin, who suggested last week that sanctions against Russia had backfired on the west. Turnips are good but they’ll probably have to get them from us, he said.
Putin’s remarks had a thin veneer of truth. Although Coffey said people should “cherish” specialist British produce, she seemed unaware that Britain’s biggest turnip grower was in her constituency – and had stopped growing them months earlier.
AW Mortier, near Alderton in Suffolk, had a near monopoly on the few turnips available in supermarkets but gave up in September last year because of stores’ unwillingness to pay higher prices to make up for rising costs of energy and fertiliser.
“It just wasn’t worth them doing it,” said Andrew Thorogood, the managing director of S Thorogood and sons, a leading wholesaler that specialises in traditional English fruit and vegetables.
“They were tied into all the supermarkets, and being tied down terribly. The open-market price is much higher than the supermarkets are prepared to pay – that’s quite a normal thing these days.”
He said there were “two or three” other growers who served independent retailers and restaurants. “Most of our turnips now come from either these two or three growers or France. We import probably 70 or 80% of our product from France, and more and more from Spain and Portugal.”
Despite their bitter taste and punchline status, turnips had made a minor comeback in the last few years, Thorogood said. “They’re very useful in Asian cooking. It keeps its consistency.” But imports of mooli – a long, white radish – had been replacing turnips, he said.
Farmers are not only cutting back on turnips – they’re devoting less land to potatoes, leeks and brassicas, with some reducing acreage by 25%.
Andrew Burgess, chair of the National Farmers’ Union organics forum, said the cost crisis would mean that the proportion of produce grown in the UK – currently about 60% – would fall. “Our level of self-sufficiency is going to be probably the lowest ever recorded, probably below 50% this year. That’s pretty scary when you think about geopolitics at the moment.”
Thorogood said that UK supermarkets insist on long-term contracts, which means that growers don’t get any benefit when prices go up but have to absorb costs such as fertiliser and energy. French and German supermarkets set prices for growers every Thursday, so prices rise when crops are in short supply, he said.
Supermarkets in France were charging €3.50 for a cauliflower last week, he said. “A cauliflower in Aldi in Chelmsford was 88p. When everyone is struggling with their bills, they look like the good guys. But they are crucifying the producer base.”
Will Golding, a farmer in Lancashire, said he stopped growing turnips some time ago. His electricity bill had risen from £50,000 to £125,000.
“We’re a small family farm,” he said. “We’re kicking and screaming to get an extra penny a pack.”
Last year, Sustain, the alliance of food and farming organisations, found that farmers were making less than a penny in profit, which its director of sustainable farming, Vicki Hird, said showed that the UK’s food system was “no longer fit for purpose”.
“We need to transition for climate- and nature-friendly farming, and farmers can’t do that if they’re not getting proper rewards,” she said.
Defra did not comment on whether Coffey knew that Mortiers had stopped growing turnips. A spokesperson said UK growers were “crucial to the resilience of our food system”, and the government knew that farmers were “facing global pressures, including from the invasion of Ukraine”.
“The UK has a highly resilient food chain and is well equipped to deal with disruption,” they said.
“Our new farming schemes will support farmers to produce food profitably and sustainably, including £600m in grants for equipment to help farmers become more productive.
“This is part of the significant action we have taken to support the sector so far, alongside allocating 45,000 seasonal workers and wider government support on energy bills through the Energy Bills Relief Scheme.”