Can UK growers fill veg hole?

Labour shortages and a lack of rainfall are putting intense pressure on fresh produce production at a time when the public should be eating more fruit and vegetables. Nick Hughes reports.

UK citizens need to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Few would consider this a contentious statement when you consider the amount of fruit and veg we eat today: working age adults on average eat 3.7 daily portions out of the government’s recommended five. For children aged 11 to 18 average consumption is just 2.8 portions.

But should we also be growing more of our own fruit and veg?

That’s a harder question to answer since it pits different visions of food security against one another – simplistically, those who argue for greater self-sufficiency versus those who put their faith in global trade.

It’s also an important question to interrogate at a time when the country is on the brink of a vegetable shortage due to a crisis in labour and a prolonged period of heat and drought – and when food businesses, including many in the hospitality sector, need to increase their supply of fruit and veg in order to meet their own health and sustainability commitments.

The UK government committed in June’s food strategy to produce a dedicated strategy for horticulture – a sector it has identified as providing a post-Brexit growth opportunity. But amid reports of crops being ploughed back into the fields because there’s no-one to harvest them, or they fail to meet supermarket specifications, some believe there’s no time to wait.

Urgent action needed

In a new Food Research Collaboration briefing paper, the organic grower and campaigner Rebecca Laughton argues there is an urgent need to protect and strengthen our domestic fruit and veg production capacity in light of volatile geopolitics and future climate impacts.

Laughton notes that at present the UK produces 54% of field vegetables and 16.4% of fruit consumed domestically. While field vegetable production has remained stable at around 2.3 million tonnes over the last 10 years, ‘protected’ vegetable and fruit production (meaning produce grown under glass or in tunnels) have both declined steadily since 2015.

“Does this matter when we can import produce from countries with warmer climates, such as Spain, Egypt and Kenya?” Laughton writes. Yes, she argues, for at least two reasons. First, much of the fresh produce we import is grown in countries facing more severe climate impacts than the UK. For example, large quantities of imported produce are sourced from countries facing increasing water scarcity as a result of climate change, such as Spain, South Africa, Chile, Morocco and Israel.

The second prong of Laughton’s argument concerns the resilience of the domestic sector and its ability to meet any future shortfall in overseas supply. She cites an Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) survey of skills in the ‘edible horticulture’ sector (which excludes ornamental plants), in which certain respondents expressed concern about the future of highly specialised growing techniques which could be lost in the next 10 years.

“Creating a resilient food system entails ensuring that sufficient people have the skill and capacity to grow food efficiently and sustainably,” writes Laughton. “At a time when government policy is aiming towards net-zero and nature recovery, both traditional and modern practices will be needed to make best use of natural resources.”

Veg demand

If you accept that imports of fruit and vegetables are unlikely to increase substantially in the near to medium term (post-Brexit customs requirements are also reported to be acting as a deterrent to importers), then UK production will have to meet the majority of future increased demand – should it materialise.

In his independent national food strategy for England, Henry Dimbleby modelled that a 30% increase in fruit and vegetables consumption was needed by 2032 to meet the country’s health, climate and nature commitments.

Foodservice businesses are intent on being conduits for some of that growth. A survey by the Food Foundation as part of the monitoring of its Peas Please programme found that 79% of out-of-home businesses that responded to the survey have plans to redesign their menus with more plant-based options. When asked what type of plant-based options they will be focusing on, pulses, legumes and vegetables came out on top, followed by meat alternatives and vegetarian dishes without any meat and fish. Three quarters (75%) reported their business is intending to make new public commitments for improving health and/or sustainability and to increase the vegetable content in their menus. Sodexo, for example, has pledged to increase the volume of vegetables it procures by 16% by 2025 from a 2017 baseline.

Labour pains

The bleak situation facing farmers casts doubt on the ability for home grown fruit and veg to meet anticipated future demand at a cost that operators can afford. An NFU survey of farmer members published last week showed how significantly the 2022 fruit and vegetable harvest has been impacted because there aren’t enough people to pick the crops. The survey found that 40% of respondents are suffering crop losses as a result of labour shortages; 17% of workers recruited did not turn up and 9% of workers left their contract early. Growers expect to suffer a further fall in production in 2023 of 4.4%.

Labour shortages have been exacerbated by the record-breaking heatwave experienced across much of the UK this summer. Large areas of England, especially in the south, central and east of the country, are officially in drought. The FT reported that yields of crops like potatoes are down by up to 40%. NFU vice-president Tom Bradshaw told the paper that water shortages for growers were in part to blame, in some cases stunting vegetables below the size that supermarkets will accept. “One retailer turned down 60 acres of cauliflowers because they did not meet its specifications,” Bradshaw said, adding that the crop had to be ploughed back into the soil. (Farmers are unlikely to have to report on their levels of food waste under new proposed regulations, allowing such practices to continue unmonitored).

These are losses growers can barely afford at a time when inflation busting cost increases have raised production costs to unprecedented levels, according to British Growers CEO Jack Ward.

Supply shortfall

If prolonged periods of heat and drought are to become the new normal for the UK such shortages are set to become commonplace without decisive action to build sector resilience. Ward noted how other parts of Europe which have traditionally supplied the UK when domestic production was short are experiencing similar issues with production cost increases and record temperatures. “The relentless pressure over the last five years to reduce costs has left growers with nowhere to go in the face of the current challenges and expecting growers in other parts of the world to make good any shortfall in domestic production may no longer be the solution,” said Ward. He warned that growers would turn to less risky crops like wheat, sugar beet or energy crops unless they could see a way of “securing viable returns for the risks they take in growing vegetables”.

In her paper, Laughton called for “nothing less than a bold, cross-departmental strategy, supported by the UK’s four nations [….] to expand and strengthen the domestic horticulture sector to meet current and future demand”.

If the oppressive heat isn’t keeping policy makers awake at night, the threat to our future fruit and veg supply certainly should.

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