The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Replace tomatoes with turnips? U.K. official’s tip is root of new shortage.

(Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post)
4 min

LONDON — Turnips are the latest victim of the salad shortage rocking Britain — with many citing the government’s latest advice as the root of the problem.

As supermarkets started rationing lettuce, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers due to shortages, the environment and food secretary, Thérèse Coffey, encouraged Britons to substitute their salad vegetables with turnips, saying people should “cherish the specialisms that we have in this country.”

“A lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about aspects of lettuce and tomatoes and similar, but I’m conscious that consumers want a year-round choice and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world try to satisfy,” Coffey told the British Parliament on Thursday.

Coffey’s reference to the humble turnip sparked a rush of sales, with some stores appearing to sell out completely over the weekend.

Social media users were quick to share more photographs of empty supermarket shelves, with turnips now on the list of absent products.

The Daily Mirror on Saturday said the Conservative government was “in a stew over turnips,” while the Daily Telegraph published a “salad shortage survival guide.” On Friday, the front covers of both the Daily Mirror and the Daily Star ran the same headline: “Let them eat turnips.”

Britain is running out of salad. Let us explain.

But some industry experts were not amused.

David Exwood, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union, suggested that the government was not taking seriously problems with Britain’s food supply, and urged the government to stop relying on food imports and focus on domestic production instead.

“This is a serious situation,” he told Sky News Sunday. “We need the government to take it seriously rather than make flippant comments about turnips.”

Government and industry officials last week linked Britain’s food shortages to volatile weather in southern Europe and North Africa, which had affected harvests, and said the shortage would likely last a few weeks. Surging energy prices linked to Russia’s war in Ukraine have also placed immense strains on the farming industry across Europe, as have labor shortages caused by Brexit.

While British farmers agree that Brexit and bad weather are part of the problem, they said the government’s lack of strategy and support for the sector amid the winter energy crisis is a bigger problem.

Kamran Mahroof, associate professor of supply chain analytics at the University of Bradford, told radio program “Farming Today” that Coffey’s suggestion was “absurd” and that the government needs to better support the economy, domestic producers and supply chains.

Coffey’s remarks also sparked discussion online about what exactly one should do with a turnip.

“Anyone got a turnip recipe?? Literally got no idea what to do with one apart from mash it,” one person asked on Twitter, to no response. “Do you ever see a good recipe that starts with a turnip. No,” wrote another.

Appearing on the BBC on Sunday, British cook Thomasina Miers pondered why Coffey did not suggest parsnips as an alternative amid the food shortage, adding that they are “sweeter, nuttier and more delicious” than turnips.

Turnips, she added, can also be enjoyed if people “caramelize them in butter.” Miers noted that better food education should be taught in schools and that Britons should try to eat more seasonably. “We have got to give people the skills to cook,” she told the program. “Then they can do anything.”

Britain has faced widespread shortages in recent years — from zucchini to chicken to fuel — linked to supply chain and labor issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit. The current vegetable shortage comes as Britons face record inflation amid a national cost-of-living crisis. Ministers are expected to meet in coming days to discuss food shortages and supply chain issues, the BBC reported on Sunday.

Ellen Francis contributed to this report.