British strawberries could be rendered an “unaffordable luxury” once the National Living Wage comes into force next year.

A new report by farm business consultant Andersons published by the NFU warned “unprecedented” wage rises were threatening to force fruit and veg growers out of business.

It claimed shoppers would face higher prices for British fresh produce, which would be kicked off shelves in favour of cheap imports. 

The Andersons report found the NLW would increase the cost of seasonal wages for horticultural businesses in the UK by an “unprecedented” 35% over the 2016-2021 period - leaving many “uncompetitive and unprofitable” within three or four years.

British fruit and veg would start disappearing from supermarket shelves as higher prices and reduced supplies force retailers to switch to cheaper imports, it claimed. 

In order to avoid this scenario, the NFU wants the government to scrap employers’ national insurance contributions for seasonal workers, which the Anderson report warned would “compound” the impact of the NLW.

“The NFU is fully supportive of a living wage for all workers in the agricultural industry. But, we need government recognition that NLW will have a huge impact on this sector, particularly for labour-intensive crops such as hand-picked fruit and vegetables, where labour costs can be as high as 70% of turnover, ” said NFU horticulture and potatoes vice chair, Ali Capper, who is due to meet farming minister George Eustice today to discuss the issue.

The NFU has also called on retailers to take National Living Wage costs into account when negotiating contracts with fruit and vegetable suppliers. “Our growers must have certainty that a margin over costs can be achieved,” added Capper.