fruit and veg

The UK’s fruit and veg sector is in an alarmingly weak state, and should be a major focus for government policy, a new report has warned.

The report, published today (24 March) by the inter-university Food Research Collaboration (FRC), pointed to a serious mismatch between supply and demand of fruit and veg in the UK.

It claimed British horticultural production was in rapid decline, making the UK increasingly reliant on imports – and accused Defra of neglecting the sector as it focused on boosting exports of processed foods.

The area used to grow fruit and veg in the UK fell by 27% between 1985 and 2014, claimed the report, with “serious drops in production” of traditional crops such as brassicas, mushrooms, lettuce, apples and pears.

Some regions of the UK that used to have “sizeable” horticulture sectors – such as the South West - have seen “heavy decline”, it added.

With UK production declining, fruit and vegetables are now “by far the greatest imports” in the UK food system, said the report, with the trade deficit in fruit and veg reaching £7.8bn a year.

Professor Tim Lang director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University London and chair of the FRC, said the poor state of the UK’s self-reliance in horticulture was “alarming”.

“We have been genuinely shocked by the mismatch of UK supply and demand in horticulture,” he said. “Our report points out some weak links in the chain: low wages, reliance on migrant labour, a suspicion of low returns to growers, a waste of land and resources.

“These factors should receive more attention from academics and civil society. And politicians need to look very carefully at the sector.”

Dr Victoria Schoen, research fellow for the FRC, added: “We are eating slightly less fruit and veg per person than we did ten years ago but this is increasingly fruit and veg that are not grown here. It is time policy-makers considered the reasons for this and whether anything can be done to encourage consumption, and production, of British produce.”

Calling for a “massive reinvestment in, and policy support for, horticulture”,the report urged Defra to put UK horticulture at the heart of its forthcoming 25-year food and farming plan.

It also recommended more government research into how to build demand for more sustainable domestic production of fruit and veg, and an inquiry into the weakness of Britain’s horticulture sector by MPs.