Fruit and veg shortages were far more common in past, says DMU history expert


Shoppers are struggling to buy salad leaves at the supermarket – but shortages were far more common in the past, says DMU's History Professor John Martin

John Martin

The shortage of iceberg lettuce and broccoli and other crops is widely predicted to last until late Spring due to bad weather. The reason? Spain, which grows around 80% of Britain’s fresh produce out of season, is being badly affected by cold and wet weather hitting crop production.

This has drastically reduced supplies and forced retailers to search for alternative supplies, even importing our lettuces from California.

Professor Martin, Professor of Agrarian History at DMU, said: "In part, the shortage reflects the long-term change in shopping habits which has resulted in yearlong, as opposed to seasonal, eating of salads and broccoli. Periodic shortages and gluts are, however, the inevitable feature of agricultural production which is dependent on the weather.

"Shortages were acute and far more common in the past than they are at present. The classic example is the 1975-6 drought which led to extensive shortages of many vegetables and a seven-fold increase in the price of potatoes.


"During the Second World War, food was not only rationed but official campaigns were introduced to persuade the population to change their eating habits. Cartoon figures such as 'Potato Pete' and 'Dr Carrot' helped to persuade the public to eat more of vegetables that were readily available.


"Such initiatives were not always well thought-out. For example, during one of the Ministry of Food’s radio broadcasts, listeners were told that during a cabbage shortage, rhubarb leaves were a possible substitute. Thankfully, the Home Guard was successfully mobilised to tell people to disregard the advice and prevent mass oxalic acid poisoning.

"The present shortage offers considerable potential for chefs and food writers to offer new recipes to assist us to deal with these temporary shortages. Britain has an abundant supply of root vegetables such as potatoes, swedes and carrots which might be used as a substitute for the vegetables in short supply.

"Finding effective substitutes for salad crops will require more innovative responses, but could still be possible."

Posted on Monday 6th February 2017

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