It all started a few years ago with the joyless cucurbit cousin of the cucumber, the courgette – a creation with a taste somewhere between cold stewed tea and used football pitch.
I don’t care much for courgettes.
Chefs like them because they offer a cheap alternative to nice food and they sex them up by referring to them by their fancy immigrant name, zucchini.
They are so easy to grow. Ridiculously easy. Even in the UK – but only in summer. The rest of the year we rely on imports, mostly from Spain.
The courgette: only to be eaten when all other edible items are unavailable.
Around the time of the London Olympics, when I’d argue we were a forward and outward looking nation, the envy of the world, something rather odd happened to this lame legume.
A couple of clever chefs adapted some ideas from the much vaunted Mediterranean diet and they made the courgette popular – as food. Here in Britain. I know! We were going places.
The courgette was stripped literally of its cartoon truncheon-like look thanks to a new toy that when cranked up, made long veg look like spaghetti. Courgetti was born.
And people fell for it. They couldn’t get enough.
Courgetti: Why not ruin a plate of spaghetti by making it out of courgettes?
Then suddenly there wasn’t enough.
The courgette: Not to be confused with rubber truncheons used in children’s cartoons.
The courgettes ran out.
In January 2015, bad weather caused a severe courgette shortage in Europe.
By 2017, floods in Spain, where most of our fresh produce comes from, killed the courgette crop. And our nation panicked. About courgettes.
We cope poorly with empty supermarket shelves. Almost as badly as we cope with rising prices.
Waitrose, the ‘upmarket’ supermarket where post-Brexit-like queues snake around the stores as people wait for their turn at the free coffee machine, had no courgettes in the veg section and the news went viral.
There weren’t lettuces either. And as any sensible nation would do in these circumstance would do, we panicked.
Who remembers the KFC chicken crisis a year later? When the fast food chain that makes chicken taste of battered pepper served in waste paper bins ran out of chicken? We went nuts.
In winter, Spain is the main supplier of our courgettes. Even into March, 90 per cent of lettuces, 80 per cent of tomatoes and 70 per cent of soft fruits are sourced from the EU.
The UK courgette crop isn’t harvested until June.
In a candid interview about their supply chains, two business operators and an academic expert explain just how quickly food shortages become a serious problem in Britain and what happened when the country entered the courgette-based ‘Vortex of doom‘.
Listen to this fascinating episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Bottom Line with Evan Davis.
They explain that in Britain we’re are used to full supermarket shelves and low food prices.
We will accept nothing else. We want our food, we want it now, all year round and we want it cheap.
Vortex of doom: No one likes an empty shelf …so we empty them just in case.
Well that’s about to change.
Listen to this short but apposite clip from the show. Scroll down for the transcript.
Whatever you want to believe about Brexit, and in the absence of any evidence of any tangible economic benefits of walking away from the world’s biggest trading bloc – apart from maybe lining the pockets of hedge fund managers betting on disaster – here’s what I think will happen.
If a no-deal Brexit happened, food simply wouldn’t get through customs to our supermarkets in time. Gradually the supermarkets are finally daring to say so.
The result? We’d panic. Prices would go up, we’d panic some more and in about three days we’d be begging to go back in the EU. And of course they’d let back us in.
But in the euro and Schengen zone, having lost all the benefits we negotiated over decades to arrive at the deal we have now – the best one.
Admit it: Who hasn’t queued up for a bit of sneaky panic petrol buying after hearing news that a fuel supply shortage might be on the cards?
Here’s the thing. That’s pretty much what’s going to happen even if we just Brexit-means-Brexit Brexit. Why? Because most of our produce from Spain comes… through France.
Ah but we’ll be on WTO terms and can trade with anyone? ‘We can leave without a deal and then start negotiating.’ Oh dear, you don’t understand how WTO works, do you.
Here’s my former colleague Helia Ebrahimi explaining…
But lorries can be diverted to other ports? Nah.
Dover handles around 2.5 million lorries a year, 7,000 a day, 300 an hour, five a minute – 24 hours a day.
A few of those could have gone to freshly dredged Ramsgate on imaginary Grayling Line ferries from Belgium.
That extra journey from Spain would have added half a day for the handful of lucky lorries to get a space. But anyway it was all just an expensive fantasy.
What about air freight? Listen to the radio clip again. Air freight is twice the price. Our food will double in price. Or will have its quality compromised to the point of poison. And we won’t cope with either of those things.
Nothing to see here: the panic buyers moved in like locusts during the fuel crisis of 2000 when it looked like food might not reach our supermarkets.
Why am I qualified to have this opinion? Well I’ve worked in the docks… in France.
I’ve crossed the English Channel hundreds of times and I’ve experienced first hand what goes on behind the scenes and experienced most kinds of possible hold ups at ferry ports, apart from a sinking. A couple of crashes though.
The smallest thing can cause a delay and the delay causes chaos. Six hour waits have happened frequently. And that’s just as a car passenger on holiday.
Freight is a whole new container of complexities. Add in a French protest – they’re very good at it – and we’re stuffed.
We’re now talking about about six-day queues to get across the Channel – and not on the France side.
This is in the UK as empty lorries queue from Dover to Gatwick Airport, trying to get back out again to pick up more produce from Spain that will be rotten by the time if gets here – if the protesting French have their way.
The delays coming into Calais don’t bear thinking about. These 50-mile tailbacks could become the norm as the French ‘work to rule’ in protest at the extra workload created by the exports going to a non-EU country and having to be checked.
You’ve gotta love the French, they make our passports. But if you’re a xenophobe, it is quite likely that you voted for Brexit and would love the idea of preventing the French from getting their hands on stuff they wanted.
Quite good at protesting: French gilets jaunes take back control of their streets – and quite soon possibly our food.
Now switch that notion round for a moment. We are about to present the French with the same opportunity.
Such is the unmitigated joy we’re about to hand to our former EU allies across the channel, as they control our dinner, medicines and manufacturing components, the gilets jaunes will no doubt gleefully join in and switch their protests from a few petrol stations and a bit of rioting in Paris every Saturday – to preventing us from eating.
For now, Dover and Calais cope. Add just a five-minute delay to 7,000 daily trucks and they don’t. Our supermarket fresh produce sections end up empty – and not just of vapid veg the courgette but the lot.
Sure, we can grow our own. But only in the summer.
Mange bien. We may not have much time left.
We panicked over these? However you look at it, the courgette is not worth getting excited about. What’s it going to be like when there are shortages of nice food?
What is a vortex of doom?
In the short clip from an episode of BBC’s The Bottom Line on supply chains with Evan Davis, Tim O’Malley, managing director of Nationwide Produce and Liam Fassam, associate professor of supply chain geography at the University of Northampton, explain what happens when the food runs out in Britain’s supermarkets. It’s pretty scary stuff. We don’t cope.
Evan Davis: You start with a shortage. Then people are aware there’s a shortage, then people increase their demand because there’s a shortage. That’s the VORTEX OF DOOM. Have you ever witnessed panic buying?
Tim O’Malley: Yeah we had it just a couple of years ago, You probably remember we had floods in Spain, And I think it started off with a fairly harmless tweet that somebody couldn’t find courgettes in Waitrose and they were doing spaghetti courgetti, which was quite trendy at the time and the Tweet went viral with everybody else at Waitrose saying, ‘we can’t find courgettes either’ and before you know there’s a run on courgettes and there’s a run on everything else. And there was plenty of pictures in the press of empty shelves of produce. We were air-freighting iceberg lettuces from America.
Evan Davis: So hang on a minute, air-freighting lettuces that can’t be common?
Tim O’Malley: No it’s not that common
Evan Davis: So who’s paying? That must be very expensive. So who’s paying for that?
Tim O’Malley: A mixture of the packer, who supplies the supermarket, and in fairness probably the supermarket as well. So there’ll both be taking a small loss on this. Because there won’t be enough there.
Evan Davis: So the packer has a contract to supply lettuces.
Tim O’Malley: Can’t do it from Spain, road freight.
Evan Davis: They’ve got to to supply the lettuces so they’ll pay to distribute
Tim O’Malley: The supermarket says ‘we’ve got to have got to have them on the shelves. But ultimately air freight lettuce will cost more than double road freight from Spain so it’ll; probably be each party takes a bit of the the pain,
Evan Davis: But often these prices must be specified in contracts and do the contracts allow for renegotiation if there’s bad weather or good weather
Tim O’Malley: This is a problem that we’re having. It’s all about getting to a place where most people are happy but usually we don’t get to that place. Price is the first one that everybody tries to protect and it’ll be about reducing specification, reducing sizes but trying to avoid the dreaded increase of price.
Evan Davis: You’re the supply chain expert Liam, what would be your take on this?
Liam Fassam: There’s a whole thing about public health. If you look at the way some of the global markets operate their food supply chains by lowering quality of products. And great scandals seen in China with the melamine in the milk. They were diluting that to get more protein. Is this the way we’re going with food supply chains? We’re lowering the risk and making sure product is available on the shelves. But we could be opening up to other risks outside of economic.
Evan Davis: Well if we cut too many corners in the sake of trying to keep the show on the road, then you probably might.