fresh food shortages

The strategy has set out 10 policies which will underpin the success of the sector, enable long-term growth and ensure the fresh supply of produce

The NFU has launched a strategy designed to boost UK fruit & veg production and minimise future supply chain disruption.

The strategy – which includes a major emphasis on increasing UK fruit & veg production – sets out 10 policies to underpin success for the sector, while also enabling long-term growth and ensuring the ongoing fresh supply of produce on supermarket shelves. 

The plan, described as the “building blocks” of success, calls for the boosting of sustainable energy supplies, an improvement in access to skilled labour, investments in productivity, greater supply chain fairness and other critical support needed to create growth in the sector.

It comes as five of the UK’s major supermarkets have now introduced rationing on certain fruit & vegetable lines in response to shortages on shelves.

NFU horticulture and potatoes board chair Martin Emmett emphasised the new strategy was not a “knee-jerk reaction” to the empty shelves situation but a “helpful coincidence”.

“We can’t do anything about this immediate situation but to avert this situation [in the future], we do need to address precisely the types of issues that we are actually tackling in this growth plan,” he said.

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“Because the planned production was primarily going to come out of southern Europe, the fact that southern Europe has been hit highlights that you want resilience in your supply chain,” added Emmett. “You can’t rely on overseas supply; the most appropriate strategy is to be able to grow as much as close to home as you possibly can.”

British growers had received “very little support” from government in terms of supply chain resilience in the past, added NFU chief horticulture and potatoes adviser Lee Abbey.

And while stressing not all the produce consumed in the UK could be grown on these shores, this “short-term thinking” meant when challenges arose in UK growing “we are not able to fix the problem ourselves, and we are reliant on [also vulnerable] overseas production”, Abbey added, pointing to how UK production had fallen due to challenges such as soaring energy costs and labour issues.

All of the NFU’s 10 policy areas were described as “equally critical” by Abbey, although some have a more “immediate impact than others”.

First on the list was access to labour, particularly getting a long-term commitment on the seasonal workers scheme, which is due to end in 2024.

“We cannot afford to get to the end of this calendar year and still not know if that scheme is being extended beyond 2024, we will be in the final year again,” he said. “The amount of last-minute decisions we have had from government, it has been very damaging to businesses and that has played a massive part in the declining production of the last few years, the lack of confidence on labour.”

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Energy is also critical, following the recent rise in prices and the omission of the horticulture sector from the government’s Energy & Trade Intensive Industries (ETII) scheme – which is due to come into place in April – the NFU is calling for better access to affordable and renewable energy, including the inclusion of the sector on all energy intensive support schemes moving forward.

Other priorities included in the strategy were: access to crop protection to ensure the UK is not disadvantaged against its global competitors; access to water; improvements in investment to replace previous EU schemes; fairness in the supply chain, access to environmental funding schemes; access to sustainable growing media in response to a move towards peat-free; an enabling planning policy to support business growth; and enabling import controls for plants and plant products.

“The consequences of undervaluing growers can be seen on supermarket shelves right now. Shelves are empty,” said NFU president Minette Batters. “This is a reality we’ve been warning government about for many months.

“Without urgent action there are real risks that empty shelves may become more commonplace as British horticulture businesses struggle with unprecedented inflationary pressures, most notably on energy and labour costs,” she added.