Europe feels veggie pinch as storms hit Spain's fields

Prices soar across the continent after harsh weather devastates crop-growing regions

MADRID • Vegetable lovers across Europe have been making hard choices this winter after storms battered fields in south-east Spain, the continent's main fruit and vegetable patch.

Courgette prices are soaring, but shoppers are also having to think twice before shelling out for pricier tomatoes, capsicums and aubergines.

Some British supermarkets have even resorted to rationing sales of broccoli and lettuce in the light of plummeting harvests.

The vast fields along Spain's Mediterranean coast usually stay warm enough to produce year-round, even in winter.

But torrential rains hit the region in late December, followed by shock snowfalls last month - in areas near Murcia, in the heart of the farming zones, which had not seen a snowflake in 34 years.

For most of the year, Spain supplies around 30 per cent of the main fresh fruits and vegetables on European shelves.

In winter, this proportion rises to half - and to a whopping 80 per cent when it comes to lettuce.

After the bad weather hit, a Spanish federation of agricultural exporters reported a 30 per cent drop in European shipments.

The Coordinadora de Organizaciones de Agricultores y Ganaderos (COAG) farmers' union said output has been halved in the worst-hit regions.

Some farmers "have lost their entire crop", said Mr Andres Gongora, COAG's Almeria director.

The province of Murcia, which exports two-thirds of Spanish lettuce - a trade worth €423 million (S$641 million) - has been particularly hard-hit.

Young lettuces in open fields were destroyed, and after the foul weather receded, a thick coat of thawed mud held up replanting in many places.

"We won't be able to plant here this year," said Mr Javier Soto, manager of spinach and melon growers Agrar Systems, near the Murcian town of Torre Pacheo.

Adding to the crunch has been heavy snowfall in northern Italy - another major supplier to Europe.

Thousands of growers there have lost their crops, with expected losses of up to around €400 million, according to Italy's main farmers' union.

The double whammy is now being felt in European stores.

Lettuce prices have doubled in Germany and tripled in Finland, while in France, courgettes fetched four to five times their normal price in mid-January.

Spanish supplies of iceberg, romaine and other types of lettuce had already been hit by a dry autumn, and artichoke harvests had fallen by a quarter.

Many shoppers have vented their anger on social media, using hashtags like #lettucecrisis and #courgettecrisis.

Mr Laureano Montesinos, a marketing director at Fruveg - a producer near Murcia - said that British supermarket chains had not immediately grasped how dire the situation was.

In Germany and northern Europe, produce stalls are not as packed as usual, but stores have managed to avoid drastic measures.

"We've had some supply problems with iceberg lettuce these past weeks," said Ms Kirsten Gess, communications director for the Aldi-Sud discount chain.

"But until now, we've been able to offer enough for our clients."

Spain's agriculture minister expects production to recover in a few weeks, with producers aiming to be back on track by early March.

But for lettuce grown in open fields, the wait could extend into April.

For Mr Alan Clarke, a strategist at Scotiabank in London, the price increases could spill over into processed food products, such as vegetable burgers and other ready-to-eat meals.

"More generally, restaurant prices face upside risks," he said, especially because menus for the spring and summer will soon have to be updated.

So, even though higher produce prices may prove short-lived once Spain's harvests recover, diners may be footing the bill for months.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2017, with the headline 'Europe feels veggie pinch as storms hit Spain's fields'. Print Edition | Subscribe