The great British tomato shortage is a sign of our times

Bad weather in Spain and Morocco was blamed. Yet there are plenty of tomatoes in Spanish supermarkets, across the EU – even on the frontlines in Ukraine

Britain has been experiencing a seasonal shortage of some fruit and vegetables, February 26. Reuters
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Newt Gingrich is one of the most influential politicians of the past three decades. He led the Republican party to victory in the 1994 US Congressional elections, becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives. Mr Gingrich’s conservative leadership was so effective that he provoked the then US president Bill Clinton to declare in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over.”

I met Newt Gingrich on a number of occasions, and what was most interesting was his breadth of vision way beyond politics. He was a friend of Alvin and Heidi Toffler, the futurologist couple who wrote provocative books about the biggest changes taking place in the world including Futureshock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980).

The Tofflers argued that human history in the “first wave” created the agricultural revolution. The second wave was the industrial revolution. The third wave, as they correctly predicted, would be the information revolution.

What followed included mobile phones, 5G, Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and all the (mostly American) inventions that have changed our world. But with Newt Gingrich I wondered where journalism, reporters, reliable information and facts might fit in. How would we process all this new information from all these new – and perhaps unreliable – information sources and get at the truth?

Mr Gingrich was in this, as always, provocative. One of his most famous quotes was: "People are not in general stupid, but they are often ignorant. In their ignorance they often tolerate ignorant news reporters who in turn tolerate ignorant politicians. The result is an ignorant politician making an ignorant speech to be covered by an ignorant reporter and shown in a 40 second clip on television to an ignorant audience.”

I have been thinking about Mr Gingrich’s language a lot lately while trying to process so much that is taking place in the news. It’s not just what to do about Ukraine or climate change but even apparently mundane news stories. British supermarkets, including the ones I use, have empty shelves for salad vegetables, especially tomatoes. The British Environment Secretary Therese Coffey suggested that to fix the Great British tomato shortage we should eat seasonal vegetables instead, including turnips. Turnips substituting for tomatoes doesn’t play well in my family, so I tried to find out where all the missing tomatoes have gone.

Bad weather in Spain and Morocco was blamed. Yet there are plenty of tomatoes in Spanish supermarkets, across the EU, and one TV reporter in Ukraine noted there are shelves of tomatoes in a supermarket near the front lines in Kherson.

Transport costs and Brexit disruption are other theories for the shortage. Certainly road hauliers suggest that driving truckloads of tomatoes from Morocco to France is easier than filling out the forms and going through the customs checks to get to post-Brexit Britain. Then there is news from farmers that British greenhouses are too expensive to heat in February as a result of increased fuel costs. Growers have not planted tomatoes this winter because supermarkets will not pay enough to make it worthwhile.

At my local street market, the stallholder sold me tomatoes, and apologised for the fact they had jumped up in price. He said that there was no shortage but only if you were prepared to pay much more. The Great British 2023 tomato shortage, he thought, would continue for weeks, because Brexit bureaucracy and road haulage delays to bad weather and the high cost of energy were all to blame.

That’s why Newt Gingrich came to mind. He was always challenging us to consider what we know for sure and why we think we can be certain that what we are being told is actually true. I know for certain tomatoes are more expensive and difficult to find. Yet, having read copious accounts in the mainstream and social media, I confess to being “ignorant” in Mr Gingrich’s word, about pointing the finger at any one cause. That has not stopped the endless speculation on all kinds of British media including politicians on television in disputes with journalists and offering their opinions in ways that suggest whatever your political views you can find a convenient scapegoat for the problem.

You can blame Brexit, the British government, the fall in the pound, greedy supermarket chains, the weather in Spain and Morocco, the EU bureaucracy, transport costs, oil prices, the energy companies, politicians who think turnips would be good instead of salads, the news media, or anyone else you dislike or distrust. And that leads us back to Toffler’s third wave. It has crashed upon us.

But with endless media sources literally at our fingertips, if we cannot agree why we have no tomatoes and what to do about it, perhaps the prospects for agreeing about global warming, immigration, the Brexit mess or how to end the war in Ukraine may, as Mr Gingrich provocatively predicted, depend upon “an ignorant politician making an ignorant speech to be covered by an ignorant reporter and shown in a 40 second clip on television to an ignorant audience.” I hope he is wrong. But hoping for the best, as I discovered, doesn’t bring home the tomatoes.

Published: March 01, 2023, 7:00 AM