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The review has taken 10 months to complete and has been compiled by an expert panel of industry professionals, led by John Shropshire OBE

The government needs to commit to a longer-term seasonal worker scheme, while also investing in developing the UK workforce and automation if the food sector is to overcome its chronic staff shortages, a new report has urged.

Defra’s Independent  Review into Labour Shortages in the Supply Chain, published this morning, called for a more co-ordinated approach to recruitment across all food sector stakeholders to maximise efficiency, avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts and tackle worker shortages.

The non-binding probe took 10 months to complete and was compiled by an expert panel of industry professionals, led by John Shropshire – founder of G’s Fresh, one of the UK’s largest fruit & veg suppliers. It was initiated by Defra last autumn in a bid to provide recommendations to tackle the labour crisis plaguing the food sector and followed a recommendation in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy last autumn. 

“England’s food supply chain is an extraordinary network that is fundamental to the nation’s economy and the security of its citizens,” said Shropshire. “Yet, we face significant obstacles in recruiting and retaining a competent workforce in this vital sector. Factors such as low unemployment rates, shifting labour market dynamics, and diminished access to migrant workers have exacerbated these challenges.”

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In his foreword to the review, Shropshire said labour shortages had made the UK “increasingly reliant on [food] imports” and that “overly bureaucratic and slow administration of visa applications during periods of stress and conflict have had a substantial impact” on labour supply.

The review covered four key themes: recruitment, retention, skills and automation.

Recruitment was a challenge for sectors across the food supply chain and evidence suggested obstacles included negative perceptions, unappealing working conditions, unusual working hours, undesirable environments and repetitive tasks.

“Every job within the food supply chain is essential and should never be dismissed as menial or unskilled,” said Shropshire. “Each role ensures the smooth operation of the entire system, from farmers and agricultural workers to food processors and distributors.”

There was a low rate of domestic recruitment across the food sector and a reliance on migrant labour, the report also found. And uncertainty around immigration policy had created significant challenges, it added.

“It is important to understand this challenge is not unique to the UK; our international and European counterparts face similar obstacles as they expand their search for labour beyond local regions to ensure a stable workforce for domestic food production,” said Shropshire.

But the UK labour market currently made retention more difficult for food and farming businesses to retain staff, with companies losing talented workers to other industries offering better working conditions and financial incentives, the report pointed out.

The report also found there was a skills shortage within the food supply chain due to a lack of upskilling of current staff with evidence finding there was a mismatch between workforce needs and available training.

In response to mounting calls, particularly within government, for an increase in automation, the report acknowledged there was some scope for improvement. However, progress had been constrained by high costs and a complex landscape of incentives.

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And the main challenge in this area was that technology that could replace labour-intensive food production was not yet commercially available or viable.

“Crucially, the sector’s productivity growth has been slower and this is significantly contributing to food price inflation compared to other domestic sectors and international counterparts,” said Shropshire. “There is an exciting future in automation and new technology, but it is in the future and much of it will take years to reach commercial viability.”

The expert panel compiled a list of 10 recommendations across these themes including: the implementation of a comprehensive strategy to enhance sector attractiveness, improving access to migrant labour, investment in domestic workers, reforming the apprenticeship levy.

It also recommended building on skills supply collaboration, supporting food career curriculum delivery and producing a workforce data strategy to improve available data on labour and skills supply.

Incentivising automation by improving funding for uptake was also recommended, alongside the implementation of a cross-industry approach to knowledge sharing on automation and a ‘moon-shot’ approach to innovation funding.

“Through collaboration and concerted efforts, we can overcome the challenges faced by the industry and create a resilient food supply chain that provides high-quality and affordable food for British consumers,” concluded Shropshire in his opening statement.

Responding to the report, farming minister Mark Spencer pointed out the government had already made an early committment to an enlarged horticulture seasonal worker scheme for 2024 at the recent Number 10 Downing Street food summit. Defra had also provided new funding this year for a £12.5m research and development fund for automation and robotics, he added.

“We will look closely at the findings of the review and will set out our response in the autumn,” Spencer said.