The Rain in Spain falls mainly on the Grain

The UK’s largest vegetable import is from Spain, which supplies 27% of imported vegetables in 2016, according to the National Trade Centre.

In December 2016 and earlier this year ‘bad weather’ in Spain was blamed for a severe vegetable shortage in the UK. Vegetables were rationed in a number of supermarkets, with caps put in place on some types of vegetable for the number of fresh produce customers could buy at one time.

Reports have shown (Netweather, 2017) that wholesale buyers within the UK were less inclined to pay the increased Spanish prices, in the hope that consumers would turn to British grown vegetables instead.  British yields at that time of year are limited in number though, so many supermarket shelves were left empty.

The shortage lead to a supply / demand mismatch, which lead to an increase in prices as wholesalers in the UK ultimately had to import more produce from the US.  Vegetables are normally slightly more expensive at the beginning of the year, but this year’s increases were unprecedented.

Lett-uce see what caused the ‘bad weather’?

Floods triggered by heavy rainfall, cold temperatures, and poor sunlight in Spain were the three main causes of the vegetable crisis in the UK.

Heavy rain

The onset was in December 2016, when heavy rain (Figure 1) in south east Spain lead to flash flooding and an inundation of crops.

Figure 1: Surface precipitation anomalies for Europe for 16th to 20th December 2016. Source: NOAA ESRL PSD.

Over 400 litres per square metre of rainfall fell in the Province of Valencia (Fresh Plaza, 2016) in a four day period (16th to 20th December 2016) leading to over a 170 million Euros worth of agricultural damage to the region, with citrus fruits the most affected.

Murcia in south-eastern Spain was amongst one of the worst-hit areas; the region is one of the largest growing areas in Europe for lettuce, accounting for three quarters of Spanish lettuce exports in 2012 (Murcia today article, 2013). Crop fields in Murcia were inundated by between 150 to 250 litres of water (per square metre) in the same four day period, with  50 % of the ‘Christmas’ harvest being lost.

Figure 2: Inundated crops in Spain. Source: Sharrocks Fresh.

The Spanish meteorological agency stated that the amount of rain that fell between October 2016 and February 2017 was the highest in nearly 70 years (Murcia today article, 2017).

Cold weather

Cold weather followed the severe floods, worsening the crop situation as extreme frost set in (Figure 3). Murcia experienced its largest snowfall in decades in mid-January (Figure 4), with the capital last seeing snow in 1983 (Murcia today article, 2017).

Figure 3: Surface air temperature anomaly for Europe for 15th to 22nd January 2017. Source: NOAA ESRL PSD.

Figure 4: Snow accumulation for Spain for 18th and 19th January 2017.  Source: ECMWF, charted using software from GISS NOAA.

The average temperature anomaly for January 2017 was 1-2C below seasonal average and 3-5C below temperatures seen last year (Figure 5), with the combination of adverse weather types it is not surprising that the cost of an iceberg lettuce increased by 27% from January 2016 to January 2017.

Figure 5: Surface temperature anomalies for Spain for January 2017 (left) and 2016 (right). Source: NOAA ESRL PSD.

After a brief respite in February, with above average temperatures, Spain was yet again affected by cold temperatures in March 2017 (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Surface temperature anomalies for Spain for 20th to 26th March 2017. Source: NOAA ESRL PSD.

Poor sunlight

Finally, poor sunlight in March was also a contributing factor (Figure 7).  Yields of tomatoes and Spanish pepper were reduced and some crops failed to ripen sufficiently.

Figure 7: Solar anomalies (MW photovoltaic output) for Spain for 21st to 26th March 2017. Source: LSC charted using GrADS.

The shortages in Spain impacted the UK through to April, with supplies in part returning to near normal levels thanks to an early harvest of UK salad (The Guardian article, 2017).