Food shortages may worsen next year as UK farmers consider planting less to avoid produce being wasted due to a lack of workers
The British Growers Association has accused the UK government of “not listening” to the food sector as labour shortages reach up to 34% on some farms.
CEO of the British Growers Association, Jack Ward, said labour shortages are so acute that some farmers are considering cutting the volumes of crops to be planted now for 2022 because pickers are predicted to be low in numbers. Ward said all food harvested by hand is now under threat, including tomatoes, cucumbers, salad, mushrooms, broccoli and berries.
Ward told Supply Management: “These are the kinds of foods that 67m people would expect to find in their shops. But unless somebody can give a reasonable assurance that there will be access to a reasonable amount of labour, growers are seriously considering whether it's worth putting the crops in the ground.
“We should be entering a golden era for the UK fresh produce industry. But that golden era is just being undermined, and could be derailed by a number of supply chain issues – lack of labour being the number one problem.”
Britain’s food sector has been hit hard by shortages of workers and HGV drivers, as well as the soaring cost of gas, which is needed to heat indoor greenhouses. Packaging costs have also increased.
Farmers are frustrated by the “inactivity of the government”, according to Ward, who said “we're not entirely convinced government is either listening, or that our concerns are on their list of things to do”.
The association is calling on the government to extend the Seasonal Worker pilot scheme, which grants international workers visas to work in the UK’s horticultural sector.
It claims the number of visas available on the scheme needs to be increased from 30,000 to 50,000. This, Ward said, is was vital to “give people the confidence to go ahead and invest and plant”.
He added: “What's frustrating is there is a customer for all this produce. There's no shortage of demand for it. But before we invest thousands of pounds per hectare growing these crops, we need to be assured that there will be somebody there to harvest them. If we can't, we won't put them in the ground.”
The National Farmers Union (NFU) vice-president, Tom Bradshaw, agreed saying farmers are “struggling to find the workforce” to pick the nation’s fruit and veg, with some labour providers seeing a 34% shortfall in recruitment.
Bradshaw told SM: “At the very start of the supply chain, farm businesses are feeling the pressure. Farms have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited.
"A solution to this crisis is the right people with the right skills and training available in rural areas where many roles are based,” he added, and joined Ward in calling for government intervention.
Bradshaw said: “The food supply chain remains united in its view that a temporary 12-month Covid Recovery Visa is needed to enable the entire food and drink sector to recruit for essential roles.
“This would give us time to invest in the skills and recruitment of our domestic workforce, helping to provide long-term stability so we can recruit the people we need to continue to deliver quality, nutritious and affordable food for the nation.”