When food shortages bite: what to eat and drink in the age of empty shelves

·13 min read

I have known about the frailty of the UK’s supply chains for a long time – I first wrote about the problem over a decade ago, and I too survived the great loo roll shortage of 2020. But this spring, I couldn’t get hold of any lettuce – hardly a crisis, except I was writing a book about salad. It wasn’t just one shop – because of strikes in Spain, fuel costs and the weather, none of the supermarkets had any.

It’s not just lettuce: thanks to a combination of war, weather, and rising energy and feed prices, the UK could see less of everything from mustard to coffee, wine to risotto rice. When you’re used to being able to buy anything you like, it’s a shock to be reminded just how global this island’s food supply really is.

We produce a lot of food here: the UK is close to self-sufficient in grains such as barley and oats – although 2020 was a bad year for wheat – but the global grain shortage caused by the war in Ukraine still has knock-ons for us, ratcheting up feed and fuel prices, and making it harder to produce dairy, eggs and meat.

Many chefs advocate putting animal protein to the side, and making it less important in a meal

Nor is it just about shortages: food inflation is predicted to hit between 15 and 20% this year. When supply chains get choked up or farmers can’t make ends meet, food becomes expensive, fast. The UK has to import about half its food supply, and here – unlike in poorer countries – people are going hungry not because of a lack of food on supermarket shelves, but because they can’t afford to buy it.

There is still enough food to go around, though, so rather than panic, it’s time to think laterally. Whether it’s unaffordable or unavailable, here are the items you might be missing, and what you can use to fill the gaps.

Eggs

The price of chicken feed has gone up nearly 50%, and egg farmers say their margins are almost non-existent, so a shortage is predicted by the end of the year. Given that we each eat more than 200 eggs a year in the UK, that could pose a bit of a problem.

What to buy instead
There’s no easy substitute for boiled eggs and soldiers, so we may all need to buy a hen, but vegans swear by egg alternative aquafaba, the leftover cooking liquid in tins or jars of legumes, which can be used to make surprisingly good mayonnaise or whipped into meringues. Then there is silken tofu which, with a pinch of black salt, makes a passable scramble or frittata; and in baking, bananas, apple sauce and ground flax seeds all act as neutral-tasting binders.

Coffee

Coffee is a big deal in the UK – we drink 95 million cups a day (snapping at the heels of tea, at 100 million cups). But global coffee reserves are at their lowest for two decades, and inflation plus climate change has pushed bean costs up and up.

What to buy instead
Even instant coffee, which is made with cheaper beans, is getting pricier, so where will we get our caffeine hits? Are we going to give up and switch to turmeric lattes and fancy herbal teas? Or will we all hop ourselves up on caffeine-rich energy drinks? (Frankly, most of us will probably swallow the price increase – have you ever tried to quit?)

Mustard

Who knew that the mustard seeds needed to make Dijon mustard mostly come from Canada, where production has been cut in half by a heatwave? In many kitchens – and restaurants – it’s an essential, used in vinaigrettes, marinades, rubs and as both a flavouring and an emulsifier in sauces. (It’s also a critical ingredient in the perfect devilled eggs.)

What to buy instead
It’s worse for the French – they each eat about an astonishing kilo a year – but if you’re missing its peppery flavour, try wasabi, English mustard powder or fresh horseradish; if it’s more about emulsification, experiment with mayonnaise, egg yolk (when you can get them) or aquafaba.

Steak

For cuts such as steak, cattle need to be slaughtered at between 12 and 22 months old. Rising feed costs mean farmers are finding it hard to keep them that long, so cattle are being slaughtered younger and processed into burgers and mince. That means less – and more expensive – steak in the shops.

Rather than immediately looking for another hunk of protein for the plate, many chefs advocate putting animal protein to the side, and making it less important in a meal. Rob Howell is head chef at Root, a plant-focused (but not vegetarian) restaurant in Bristol. “We don’t use meat substitutes,” he says. “We make the most of vegetables, so that they’re so satisfying you don’t pine for steak.”

One of his most successful dishes is baked swede, which is then pan-fried in brown butter and served with a peppercorn sauce. “You get many of the same flavours as with steak and chips. We love using vegetables people don’t often like, to make dishes which really work.”

What to buy instead
If you still crave red meat, look for wild venison – the UK currently has 2 million deer, more than at any time in the past millennium, partly because Covid reduced restaurant demand for their meat.

Olive oil

Cooking oil has been in short supply throughout 2022 because Ukraine and Russia account for 60% of the global supply of sunflower oil. This has put pressure on other cooking oils, and now olive oil is in trouble too. For the past decade, blight has been sweeping across Italy, killing olive trees, while supply chain problems and post-Covid labour shortages are tightening things up further.

What to buy instead
Cold-pressed rapeseed oil, cold-pressed nut or hemp oils and avocado oil all work well in dressings; refined coconut, rapeseed and peanut (groundnut) oil are better for frying.

Wine

Global wine production was down 4% in 2021, meaning fewer bottles for 2022. “That was mainly due to France, Spain and Italy losing grapes to frost, mildew, hail and heat: together they provide 45% of wine grapes globally,” says wine writer Aleesha Hansel. “The southern hemisphere generally did better, so that means more new world and less old world wine.”

What to buy instead
Swap light reds like Beaujolais for Chilean Pais and if you’re desperate for champagne, any wine with méthode traditionnelle on the label is made the same way, with the same grapes, often for a lot less cash; Hansel rates Graham Beck Brut from South Africa.

Glass is also in short supply, but that makes this a great moment to try to decarbonise the wine industry – glass and transporting it is its single biggest cause of emissions, so try wine in lighter, thinner, more stackable cans, like Nice wine (although, OK, there is also a global aluminium shortage) or in bag-in-box wine, which has evolved a long way from Chateau Cardboard, particularly wines by sustainable brand BIB.

Chickpeas

Global chickpea production is expected to fall by 20% in 2022, in part because Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of the legume (Ukraine couldn’t plant its crop this year, meaning a loss of 50,000 tonnes), but also because of Australian floods, American droughts, rising fertiliser prices and mangled global supply chains. This is a pain if you enjoy a hummus dip, but far, far worse for the 20% of the world’s population, in places such as India and Ethiopia, for whom chickpeas are a main source of protein.

What to buy instead
If you’re looking for an alternative to use in soups, stews or curries, dried or tinned white beans such as cannellini or haricot work well; whizzed-up cannellini make a very moreish garlicky dip, as do both freshly shelled and dried broad beans – which also make excellent falafel.

Risotto rice

The rice paddies of the Po Valley in northern Italy are parched and dying, which has decimated the arborio risotto rice crop. (Carnaroli rice, otherwise a good sub, is suffering in the southern Italian heat, too.)

What to buy instead
There are Portuguese dishes which resemble risotto, so look out for arroz carolino, which has long but chubby grains. You can also make a risotto-alike with pearled spelt. Pearled barley is another alternative, but – you guessed it – there’s a shortage of barley too.

Fresh fruit and vegetables

We are going to have to get culinarily creative as this year wears on: as well as lettuce, droughts in southern Europe may yet impact tomatoes, cucumbers and fruit. We grow just 50% of the veg we eat, and 16% of the fruit, and import the rest, and with an August drought possibly on the cards, it’s going to be even harder for British farmers to grow crops to harvest this autumn and winter.

In the longer term, climate change may mean that UK farmers find they can grow commercial crops of hot-weather produce, like olives, almonds and lemons. The government will, of course, need to work out how to convince workers to come here to pick them – this is the third year in a row that produce has been left to rot or ploughed back into the soil because the UK can’t attract enough seasonal labourers to harvest our cauliflowers, fruit and potatoes.

What to buy instead
Food writers and chefs have been banging on about eating seasonally and locally for what seems like aeons, but many shoppers have remained happy to buy air-freighted Peruvian asparagus in December and Egyptian strawberries in March. This year, however, we may finally be forced into seasonal shopping, eating crunchy winter slaw instead of bagged salad leaves, frozen mangoes not fresh, and British rhubarb instead of air-freighted raspberries.

Fish and chips

The president of the National Federation of Fish Friers recently had to go cap in hand to Norway, and ask if we could please have some more fish. Supplies of white fish fillets are now so low that, coupled with the lack of cooking oil and potato prices increasing by 30%, up to a third of British chippies may have to close. What will we eat at the seaside? Crab sandwiches, kebabs or curry?

What to buy instead
Use them or lose them: let’s all buy a bag of chips in solidarity this weekend. Fortunately we do still have other supposedly British classics on our high streets, in the shape of Indian curry houses (originally started by Bangladeshi families) and Chinese restaurants. As it happens, Britain’s original fish and chip shop was probably opened by an Ashkenazi Jew called Joseph Malin.

Sriracha

The current sriracha crisis is the probably least pressing of all the shortages, but fans have been hoarding ever since Huy Fong, the world’s best known sriracha maker, announced that it wouldn’t be taking any new orders until September because of a growing shortage of its preferred Mexican chillies (drought, again) – the company usually burns through 45 million kilos a year.

What to buy instead
Other hot sauces are available: alternative brands of sriracha include Eaten Alive’s delicious smoked sriracha. You could also try Indonesian sambal oelek; Portuguese peri peri; Jamaican hot pepper sauce and even Korean gochujang, thinned with water and a dash of vinegar.

Honey

Ukraine produces about a third of Europe’s honey, mainly from bees feeding on the country’s sunflowers – which understandably aren’t being grown at their usual volumes this year. Globally production is down, and demand is up, so competition for honey from other countries is fierce.

What to buy instead
A beehive? Failing that, alternatives for toast include coconut nectar, and agave, date or maple syrup. Older readers may remember the joys of golden syrup drizzled on buttered toast, or – even better – sugar sandwiches.

Christmas turkeys

Turkeys are particularly vulnerable to the current avian flu outbreak, which in combination with a doubling of their feed costs, means some farmers aren’t rearing many for Christmas this year and some have shut down production entirely.

What to buy instead
Will this be the Christmas we break free from the turkey tradition? (Admit it: roast turkey can be dry and they’re usually far too large for the average family.) Given that all meat is going up in price, perhaps Christmas 2022 will be the year of the vegetarian feast; I did a very nice roast hasselback squash last year, with walnuts and blue cheese. (I also roasted a chicken, granted.)

Baked beans

June’s temporary Heinz baked bean shortage was not directly linked to the war or climate change, but was because of a spat between Tesco and Heinz over pricing (a row Heinz ultimately won).

What to buy instead
Another brand? When Which magazine blind tested a range of baked beans, most tasters couldn’t tell which were Heinz, and ranked other brands higher on flavour. Heinz beans account for up to 70% of the market and can sell at more than twice the price of other brands. Time to broaden your bean horizons.

DIY dairy

How to make your own butter, yoghurt – and even ricotta

Butter is big on social media (truly, we live in strange times) with Tiktok in particular awash with videos about making your own – with jars, whisks, even an electric paint mixer. #Homemadebutter has had 92.8m views so far, with reasons evenly split between saving money and not wasting cream.

So, as Lurpak hits £9 a kilo, is it time to start churning our own? Possibly – the dairy industry is chronically short of staff, on top of everything else, and prices are rising. And it’s easier than you think. Butter is just over-whipped double cream – stick it in a blender or use an electric whisk and blitz until it separates into butter (thick lumps) and buttermilk (watery). Drain off the buttermilk, salt to taste, shape and firm up in the fridge.

Making yoghurt is almost as easy: heat whole milk to 82C then cool to 41C before adding a dollop of live yoghurt, then incubate by keeping warm – in a thermos flask, say – for eight to 12 hours, until it thickens.

Make your own ricotta by heating sheep or cow’s milk in the same way, but rather than cooling, add about a tbsp of distilled white vinegar per litre, then let the curds form for 10 minutes before skimming them and draining off the whey.

And it’s not all about traditional dairy: you can also make oat milk. (Just remember that it won’t contain any calcium, iodine or vitamin D, which are added to help mimic the nutritional profile of dairy milks.) You’ll need a high-powered blender, a 1:4 ratio of rolled oats to water, plus a pinch of salt, if you like. Blitz for 30 seconds, then strain through cloth, but don’t squeeze and don’t over blend, or you’ll get slime, not milk.