Can British horticulture survive without a strong vision from Government?
British horticulture tells a strong story of resilience in the absence of special attention from government, but can this last? This week British Summer Fruits published a report on the impact of expected labour shortages on the sector linked to leaving the EU, and drew grim conclusions in terms of the impact on prices (a rise of 37% in the price of strawberries) and on the trade deficit (which is already very poor for fruit and veg compared to other food categories). Given their heavy reliance on seasonal labour, the vast majority of which comes from mainland Europe, fruit and veg producers in Britain are in desperate need of a clear vision from policy makers in order to avoid a collapse in British production. Does this matter? Yes. Price rises will have a knock-on effect on consumption, which is already way too low. And given the high levels of perishability of fruit and vegetable varieties, transporting produce which could be grown in the UK vast distances is not economically or environmentally smart.
But it is not just labour which needs to be sorted out. While the horticulture sector has been a small beneficiary of the Common Agricultural Policy compared to other sectors of farming, it has received EU investments in farmer cooperatives (Producer Organisations – POs) which have helped to strengthen cooperation and investment between producers, as well as allowing smaller producers to access the market. These POs are testimony to what industry can achieve with small levels of support from policy makers. We need a plan to ensure they don’t collapse when we Brexit. But it is not just about protecting what we have, there are significant untapped opportunities for import substitution in fruit and veg if we can make the right levels of investment in technology to extend growing seasons, reduce input costs, and breed new varieties, potentially benefiting producers and consumers alike. And we need leadership from government to achieve this too.
The Scottish government, through its industry body Scotland Food and Drink, is grasping the nettle, following closely on the heels of the Welsh Government. On Friday, they launched a position paper on the Future of Fruit & Vegetables: Growth to 2030 and announced plans to set up an Industry Leadership Group to develop an action plan for the sector, chaired by Allan Bowie. And we are rather excited that their position paper says they want to work with Peas Please to achieve this. This may be the first time a joint Industry and Government plan for increased production for fruit and veg is explicitly being linked to the need to drive up consumption as well. Bravo! I hope the Whitehall Departments are watching carefully.
As part of the Peas Please initiative we are pushing for similar leadership down south. We have conducted a farmer survey to find out what producers need to be more successful in the future. You can see the results here. They rate very highly the need for more consumer incentives to improve demand, and improved transfer of knowledge between researchers and producers. We are feeding these views into a proposition for a new Sector Deal for Horticulture which we are developing with the Association of British Growers, and many others. A sector deal could help to drive a vision to not only protect horticulture, but to also seize new opportunities for growth. But the government needs to meet the industry half way and help to develop policy which facilitates, incentivises and supports. We all stand to gain – the British people, our growers, the wider food industry and the environment.