NCGM wholesaler says supply chains need to place more value on fresh produce and “develop a collective sense of realism” as the trade contends with supply shortages and astronomical spot prices

Gary Marshall, the owner of New Covent Garden wholesaler Bevington Salads, says the UK market needs to rethink its expectations and learn from the situation as it deals with some of the highest spot prices for decades across vegetables and salads.

As reported by FPJ on 15 February, spot prices for a wide range of salads and vegetables are 100-200 per cent (two to three times) higher than the approximate average price at this time of year.

Extreme weather conditions in key production regions in Spain and North Africa have created significant shortages. And when combined with the impact of Brexit, the energy crisis, and inflation, it is no surprise that the word ‘unprecedented’ has reared its ugly head once more.

This precise situation may have been tough to predict, but it is a result of years of chronic undervaluation of fresh produce, says Marshall who also chairs the Covent Garden Tenants Association.

“I read and agree with the comments of Nationwide’s Tim O’Malley,” he adds. “The challenges we have now are a consequence of customers asking growers and suppliers to do more and more for less and less for so long.

“Although demand and supply is still mostly reflected in wholesale markets, I think it’s fair to say that the price of fruit and vegetables across the industry hasn’t reflected the real value of our products for more than 30 years.

“We were selling tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers for six or seven quid a box in February in the 1980s and until this surge, that’s where the prices still were. The same goes for vegetables – nothing has risen in line with inflation.

“When you encounter a perfect storm like this, and it’s a global problem, we’re all in the same boat, so it’s inevitable that something has to give.

“First, we need to get through this situation and be as supportive of each other as we can be, right along the supply chain. Then we have to develop a collective sense of realism and recognise that what we’ve taken for granted for so long is no longer sustainable.”

Marshall says that to ensure the UK market has continued access to high-quality fresh produce, there must be a rethink on the value we place on the product.

“Fixed price agreements with suppliers can work when the overriding production and economic conditions are relatively stable, but things haven’t been stable for quite some time, and obviously right now it’s verging on catastrophic,” he explains.

“Clearly the prices we’re seeing can’t be sustained in the long term, but they absolutely reflect demand and supply. I can guarantee everyone that no one is filling their pockets with cash at the moment; it’s in none of our interests for the prices to be this high.

“Every business in any industry eventually will need to pass on additional costs to its customers, but ideally, we’d see a general increase in prices across the year, rather than the large supply-led fluctuations from season to season and source to source.

“The only way we’ll get to that situation is for the entire supply chain to be on board.”

He concluded: “I know that at New Covent Garden, we want to support our suppliers and our customers; the only way we can run profitable businesses is if they do too.

“We should all be concerned – not just about the current situation, but about the future of this industry for the next generation and generations to come.

“Fruit and vegetables are an immensely important part of the diet of people all around the world. If we don’t value them properly, how can we expect other people to?”