Why Does the UK Have to Import Root Vegetables?

The UK's temperate climate makes it ideal for growing these winter staples.

root vegetables

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It's not a good time to be a truck driver in the United Kingdom. The border has been closed with France for 48 hours in that government's attempt to block a new coronavirus strain from spreading across the English Channel to mainland Europe. There are news reports of multi-mile traffic jams and prolonged delays, of drivers stuck with shipments of perishable goods that cannot be delivered, of missing Christmas packages that won't arrive on time. 

Most worrisome, however, is the disruption to the food supply chain. The Guardian cites Rod McKenzie, policy director at the Road Haulage Association, who described the temporary ban as devastating: "We depend on the short straits for our daily supplies. What we are talking about is everything: factory parts, fresh and frozen vegetables, and all the Christmas deliveries."

The mention of those vegetables is what concerns me most. Apparently, there are some 10,000 trucks that cross the Channel daily, some of them hauling winter vegetables from Belgium and northern France, including cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, for British customers. Right now those trucks are stuck or returning empty, and store shelves will not be replenished.

It's one thing to be without imported lettuce and hot-house tomatoes or strawberries at Christmastime, but not to have a reliable supply of root vegetables in a country like the UK? These are the same foods that have provided dietary stability to populations of temperate-climate countries all throughout history. To suddenly not have those long-lasting, hearty vegetables available when they're needed is a nerve-wracking and alarming situation.

It goes to show how disconnected much of the developed world has become from feeding itself, and how over-reliant on imports. Even the items that are produced at home are shipped out at a rapid rate, rather than feeding the country's own citizens. In a 2019 article for Wired on food shortages linked to Brexit, Chris Stokel-Walker wrote that the UK imports 40% of its food, up from 25% two decades ago. It also exports most of the seed potatoes it produces to Europe – a supply chain pattern that cannot be changed quickly. 

Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer for the Food and Drink Federation, told Wired that "stopping that happening to direct [seed potatoes] to British consumers takes time." 

"There is scope for much more significant domestic production, but not quickly," says Rycroft. "You can’t just magic up extra land, processing facilities and people to operate the factory."

The lesson I learned from last winter's lockdown was to source food directly from local farmers as much as possible, both to counteract shortages in grocery stores and to support the farmers whose usual sales outlets had disappeared. This year's lesson, by extension, is to embrace the root vegetables that create the foundation of a winter diet in a cooler country. The more root vegetables we eat in places like the UK, Canada, northern Europe, and the northern US, the stronger a signal we send to growers that we want foods that reflect local seasons, and we want them to travel as short a distance to our plates as possible.

I hope that government leaders will recognize the shortsightedness of depending on imports for foods that can easily be grown at home, and work to change that throughout next year's growing season. But as always, the impetus for change must come from the bottom up, with shoppers asking for it. In the meantime, I hope Britons get their potatoes and Brussels sprouts in time for Christmas dinner.

View Article Sources
  1. PAN PYLAS Associated Press. "Cut Off: Britain Hit With Travel Bans Over New Virus Strain." Dothan Eagle, 2020.