The government needs to take “urgent steps” to protect an increasingly beleaguered £5bn horticultural sector, a far-reaching report by the House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee has urged.
The committee today published a report into the state of the sector, which revealed it was under-prioritised and underappreciated by policymakers, leaving holes in the UK’s food security and ability to meet net zero goals.
The report, ‘Sowing the seeds: A blooming English horticultural sector’ highlighted the key challenges facing the sector and provided recommendations for how to resolve these challenges.
The issues facing the sector included a lack of cross-departmental working in government; relentless competition between supermarkets; a long-term skills and education gap; poor rollout and communication over the forthcoming peat ban; a lack of long-term funding for research and a poor understanding of the mental and physical health benefits of community gardening.
The main priority from the report was for the government to publish its long-awaited Horticulture Strategy for England “to set direction for the sector and give growers confidence”.
In an interview with The Grocer, committee chair Lord Redesdale said another key priority was the creation of a minister of horticulture.
“It sort of falls between a number of different departments at the moment. If there was one minister looking directly at horticulture, we think that would be quite helpful.”
He added that the government should “conduct and publish its review of fairness in the horticultural supply chain” as it “hasn’t been a priority and it’s been put off again”.
The committee was “particularly damning on the role of the supermarkets” and Redesdale said the relationship between retailers and growers needed to be looked at “as an urgent consideration and I think this is where the government needs to stand in and make sure that there is fairness”.
“The problem is this horrendous, circular argument,” explained Redesdale. “We want cheap food so the supermarkets want to produce food as cheaply as possible and of course that then means they’re not prepared to pay growers a good margin and of course without a good margin, that means the growers are then facing massive uncertainty, and they’re not part planting certain crops because they’re just not getting the return on investment.”
Of the UK’s major retailers, only Tesco gave public evidence in a committee meeting despite repeated invitations to Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda, Aldi and Lidl. Morrisons, Waitrose and Asda accepted a separate invitation to speak to the Committee in private and Marks & Spencer submitted written evidence.
“If the Lords Committee can’t get them to give evidence, it does show that there is a degree of a lack of accountability,” Redesdale told The Grocer.
Elsewhere in the supply chain, the committee called for the production of a workforce strategy and the publication of the government’s review of the Seasonal Worker visa route.
“Seasonal workers is a real political football,” said Redesdale, adding “we’ve had a quota for them forever” and while “the Home Office obviously has a role over conditions on farms” there also needs to be “much more consultation with Defra about the actual need that farmers have”.
The report also considered how the sector can help to mitigate the impacts of climate change through improving biodiversity, carbon capture and urban greening, and called for a more effective R&D landscape to support with the adoption of new technologies.
“At the moment, many of the organisations have to rely on applying for grants through the Innovate process and that’s not a really long-term solution,” said Redesdale.
“We believe that the government really needs to review long-term funding for research groups to make sure that one there stable and secure and two they can actually carry out the work that we need,” he added.
Another way of future-proofing the sector is through water planning. “With climate change changing our rainfall patterns where we get a month’s worth of rain in one day and then we are in drought for quite long periods of the year, we really need to start looking at water as one of the biggest issues facing horticulture,” Redesdale said.
The committee was appointed in January 2023 by the House of Lords to consider the development of the horticultural sector.
It held 24 oral evidence sessions, received 96 pieces of written evidence and went on four visits.
Following the publication of the report, the government has to give a response to all the recommendations coming forward. There will then be a debate in parliament on the government’s response.