The Home Office could be forced into a re-think of its immigration policy in relation to fruit-pickers.

Growers claim hundreds of tonnes of fruit will rot in the fields this summer because of government curbs on the number of students the government allows in on the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.

Immigration minister Liam Byrne said this week: "We will listen to independent advice on these issues from the new Migration Advisory Committee. However, arguments put to the committee need to be persuasive."

A spokeswoman for the Home Office admitted the problem of food rotting in fields could prove persuasive and that the committee will look into the issue.

The NFU has already written to Food and Farming Minister Lord Rooker about the problem, saying it had worsened this year and some growers would struggle to meet their needs.

Elaine Clarke of Manor Farm Fruits said she had lost 80,000 kg of fruit last year due to a shortage of pickers. But she was 30 students short of the 140 used in 2006, and feared losses will be even worse this year.

"There is a short window to harvest for strawberries after which they will be left to rot," she said. "We need another 1,500 SAWS work permits to help fill the shortfall."

In 2004, there were about 25,000 SAWS permits, but that has been reduced to 16,000 and will be further restricted to just Romania and Bulgaria next year. Jan Butterley of Nynehead Fruit said much of her May fruit crop rotted because she was 20 pickers short.

"Next year it will be even harder to source workers because the majority are from Russia, the Ukraine and Moldova," she said.

"It's absolutely crazy - this seems to have got muddled up with immigration issues."