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Last summer, I had the privilege of beginning a comprehensive study into the intricate dynamics of England’s food supply chain This exploration, which involved input from over 400 organisations, has thrown light on the pivotal challenges this indispensable sector faces, and it has highlighted how these issues are adding to food inflationary pressures.

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

Securing migrant labour has been vital for bridging workforce gaps in the food supply chain. However, this process has become increasingly complex.

Under a free trade agreement with a highly competitive EU food industry, the UK’s dependency on imports for certain food categories has grown in recent years –  emphasising the need to address labour issues and improve the resilience of our own domestic food supply chain. In this context, our prime minister has pledged to maintain our food production at about 60% of our national requirement by value.

Despite commendable initiatives by the sector and the government, we’ve noted duplication of efforts and isolated operations. The food supply chain would greatly profit from a co-ordinated approach among industry, government and education bodies to maximise efficiency.

Our review identified four critical themes to address the issues we’re facing: recruitment, retention, skills and automation.

On the recruitment front, our recommendations call for a comprehensive strategy to enhance the appeal of the sector, including campaigns to reshape the public perception of the food supply chain. Collaboration among industry, government, and educational institutions is crucial to creating career guidance that showcases the range of skills involved and roles available in the food supply chain. We can learn from our international competitors such as Ireland’s Bord Bia and Greenpact in the Netherlands.

The review also emphasises the need to invest in the development of domestic workers. Businesses are urged to provide clear training and career development plans, as an investment rather than an expenditure. Additionally, the review calls for the reform of the Apprenticeship Levy to provide a highly skilled workforce capable of meeting the evolving needs of the sector.

Automation is also recognised as a vital tool to enhance productivity within the sector. We would urge the government to improve access to funding that incentivises the adoption of automation, with a focus on enhancing productivity.

While we strive to develop a resilient domestic workforce, migration will continue to be necessary for the short term, as both the domestic base of workers is established and automation practices are improved. The review has also considered migrant welfare within this, and makes clear the need for an appropriate legal framework and robust enforcement system to prevent labour exploitation.

I trust that the findings will spark meaningful change and I look forward to the government’s response. I urge them now to consider and make real the vital proposals called for by us and the valued members of England’s food supply chain.