The price of British summer fruits and vegetables could soar by up to 50% if the UK cannot gain access to EU workers after Brexit, according to a report.
The report, commissioned by industry body British Summer Fruits, charted the current trajectory of the industry over the next three years and possible scenarios if growers could not find sufficient seasonal labour.
They estimated that if UK-based producers were forced to move their operations to countries within the EU to ensure access to labour, the price of strawberries would rise from around £2 per 400g punnet to £2.75—a jump of 37%. Replacing British raspberries with imported fruit would see the price of a 200g punnet jump 50% from £2 to £3.
Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, said fears over labour shortages post-Brexit, which SM reported on last year, had come to a head.
“This is as extreme as it gets,” he said.
“It is inconceivable that people who voted to leave the European Union wanted to destroy an iconic and incredibly competitive British horticultural industry, and see the end of buying British produce.
“But if we cannot ensure access to the seasonal workers needed to produce soft fruit in Britain, that will be an unintended consequence of Brexit—along with soaring prices and increased reliance on imports.”
Over the past 20 years soft fruit production in the UK has grown by 131% and the industry is now worth more than £1.2bn, according to industry figures.
However, the report said around 95% of the 29,000 people needed for cultivating and harvesting strawberries and other soft fruit crops each year were from other EU nations—mainly Poland, Bulgaria and Romania.
It added that the industry was already suffering from labour shortages as the fall in the value of the pound had reduced take-home pay for EU nationals, while some felt less welcome or feared being attacked since the Brexit vote.
David Kay, of Hall Hunter Partnership, a grower for Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Tesco who employ about 3,000 seasons labourers from 20 different countries, told the Guardian he tried to recruit British worker but had found it difficult.
“We have worked with job centres and ex-prisoners, but British people don’t want to do these jobs,” he said.
The report suggested reinstating the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, a short-term visa arrangement that was in place from 1948 to 2013, to allow labourers from Europe to enter the UK “to fill the jobs UK citizens shun” if freedom of movement ends.
Alison Capper, chair of the National Farmers Union’s horticulture board, called on the government to safeguard seasonal labour to ensure farmers had access to EU workers after Britain left the EU.
“Farmers and growers need a commitment from the government that they will have access to the workforce they need up to, and after, we leave the EU,” she said.
“It’s vital that the crucial importance of migration for low-skilled work is recognised.”
Andrea Leadsom, former secretary of the state for the environment, food and rural affairs, who was succeeded by Michael Gove this month, suggested that farmers invest in machinery to boost productivity. Farmers hit back saying appropriate technology required heavy investment and would not be a solution in the short term.
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