A NEW REPORT from the inter-university Food Research Collaboration (FRC) shows the weak state of British fruit and vegetable production and urges policy-makers to give more attention to rebuilding UK horticulture.
According to the briefing paper, strengthening the sector would both reduce the food trade gap and benefit public health.
This is a practical issue which cuts across the current Brexit vs Bremain debate, according to Professor Tim Lang, of City University London, and FRC Research Fellow Dr Victoria Schoen.
The pair argue that horticulture ought to be central in the Government’s forthcoming 25- year food and farming plan, which is understood to commit to increasing food exports to pay for the huge £8 billion food import deficit.
In a statement on the report’s release, Co-authors Professor Lang and Dr Schoen said; “We worry that government strategy looks a bit like allowing Europe to feed the UK with good healthy produce – fruit and veg – while our food industry exports less desirable elements – alcohol and overprocessed, sugary, fatty foods.
“Actually, horticulture offers something relatively simple to improve matters. Grow more here, but make it sustainable production only.”
The report, Horticulture in the UK: potential for meeting dietary guideline demands, paints a sober picture of a mismatch between supply and demand in the UK, particularly in light of public health advice to eat more fruit and vegetables. Drawing on official and unpublished data, the report shows that there has been a big decline in the area given to UK horticultural production.
From 1985 to 2014, there has been a decline of 27% for fruit and vegetables combined. The area growing vegetables has declined by 26% and the area growing fruit by 35%. Fruit and vegetables are by far the greatest source of imports in the UK food system. The trade gap in horticulture has risen to £7.8 billion a year, about 37% of the UK’s total food trade gap of £21 billion in 2014.
Although some growers have extensive growing operations in Southern Europe and further afield, this makes sense for them as commercial enterprises but still does not resolve the serious lack of UK horticultural output.
Some imports (e.g. pineapples, avocados) cannot currently be grown in the UK but others which could be UK grown (e.g. brassicas, mushrooms, lettuce, apples, pears) have seen serious drops in production.
The proportion of the adult population (over 16 years) in the UK consuming five or more portions of fruit and vegetables per day peaked in 2006 at 28% of males and 32% of females.
Only 9% of 11-15 year olds achieved an intake of five-a-day or more in the period 2008/09-2011/12, and only 14% of 16-24 year olds.
The Consumer Price Index for food items as a whole has shown a significant increase of 35% in 2007-2013. Within this, the price of vegetables has increased by 27% and fresh fruit by 26%, less than the average for the food sector as a whole.
The researchers noted that horticulture holdings are unevenly distributed across the country, which they said is partly for climatic reasons, but pointed out that areas which used to have sizeable sectors (e.g. the South West) have seen a heavy decline.
They said a ‘re-boot’ of regional strategies is overdue a review of planning and financial regulations and improve resilience in food and farming.
Currently, only 3.5% of the UK’s croppable land is used for horticulture (and only 2% of the farmed area in England), but this land produces £3.7 billion worth of produce and employs 12% of the agricultural labour force and at least 35% of the UK’s casual farm labour force.
The paper’s authors made a number of recommendations for the government, which is set to bring out its 25 year food and farming plan in the spring. They urged the government to apply a ‘health lens’ to its proposed focus on ‘Brand Britain’ and to work with industry and regional groups to give policy and financial support for horticulture.
This funding should include public health and environmental analysis to look at narrowing the gap between supply and demand for home grown fruit and veg, the authors said, as well as funding more research into sustainable production methods.
Professor Tim Lang, Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University London, and Chair of the FRC, commented on Thursday: “At a time when some politicians are urging the UK to vote to leave the EU, it is somewhat alarming to note the poor state of UK self-reliance in horticulture.
“This ought to be the ‘good news’ in food and health. Why is the country producing lots of sugar but not enough fruit and veg?
“We have been genuinely shocked by the mismatch of UK supply and demand in horticulture. Our report points out some weak links in the chain: low wages, reliance on migrant labour, a suspicion of low returns to growers, a waste of land and resources.
“These factors should receive more attention from academics and civil society. And politicians need to look very carefully at the sector. Dairy farmers have been understandably ‘noisy’ about being squeezed by rising costs and powerful supermarkets.
The public needs to be more aware of a not dissimilar situation in fruit and veg. “The public says it wants to eat British. Chefs encourage it. But the Government isn’t listening. Its message is more about exports than about growing more here. We think this risky.”
Dr Victoria Schoen, Research Fellow for the FRC, said: “We frequently hear the five-a-day message – many of us can see the reasoning for this. Why is it then that so few of us take any notice? What would happen to our supermarket fresh produce shelves if we did?
“We are eating slightly less fruit and veg per person than we did ten years ago but this is increasingly fruit and veg that are not grown here.
“It is time policy-makers considered the reasons for this and whether anything can be done to encourage consumption, and production, of British produce.
“British horticulture has contracted partly because of lack of demand for the things we grow here. A more thorough examination of the food systems in place is required to understand why products that should be more expensive – those that are highly processed – are often in greater demand than those that come to us in the fresh-from-the field state.”
Wales can lead on net-zero farming
NFU CYMRU hosted a farm visit for the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma MP, to demonstrate that Welsh farmers are well-placed to deliver on the industry’s net zero ambitions.
The event saw NFU Cymru launch its new document, which sets out that Welsh farmers are part of the solution to climate change.
NFU Cymru President John Davies presented the report to the Secretary of State, who also holds the role of nominated President for COP26, as part of the on farm meeting.
The visit was hosted by NFU Cymru Next Generation Group member Llŷr Jones, whose 1,600-acre sheep, beef and egg farm near Corwen also produces renewable energy to satisfy the farm’s energy needs, exporting the surplus power to the grid.
As part of his visit to Derwydd Farm, Mr Sharma was also able to learn about the scale of work carried out on the farm as part of Welsh Government’s Glastir agri-environment scheme, including creating habitats for wildlife, tree planting, protecting some 30 acres of peatland, hedgerow management and soil and grassland management.
During his visit, the BEIS Secretary planted an apple tree as an example of the environmental work the agricultural sector carries out to sequester carbon, while also providing food and aiding biodiversity.
Speaking after the visit, NFU Cymru President John Davies said: “By focussing on improving farming’s productive efficiency; improving land management and enhancing land use to capture more carbon; and boosting renewable energy and the wider bio-economy, Wales’ farmers will be able to play their part in addressing the issues brought about by climate change. By reducing carbon emissions in these ways farmers are in a strong position to achieve the industry’s goal of achieving net zero by 2040.
“I am thrilled that we were able to welcome the BEIS Secretary, Alok Sharma MP, on farm today to see Llŷr Jones’ exciting and impressive farming enterprise, which has carbon capture and renewable energy at its heart. Llŷr’s farm is just one of a wide network of farms across Wales who are harnessing innovation to reduce emissions and produce climate friendly food. These businesses are net zero leaders not just in the respect of farming, but in a wider business context.”
Alok Sharma, COP26 President and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “I was very pleased to visit Llŷr Jones’ farm and see first-hand the actions being taken to mitigate climate change and support nature on their land.
“I welcome the NFU’s ambitious commitment to reach net zero by 2040, and I look forward to working across governments, business and civil society in the run up to COP26 to raise global commitments to reduce carbon emissions.”
NFU Cymru Next Generation Group member Llŷr Jones added: “I take great pride in the work we do to maintain and enhance the environment, encourage biodiversity and support the local community alongside my core role as a food producer.
“I was pleased to be able welcome the Secretary of State on farm today to show him how we’re always striving to positively influence the carbon impact of our business. I hope Mr Sharma enjoyed his visit to my north Wales hill farm and that what he has seen shows him that our industry has a vital role to play in the climate change challenge now and in the future.”
Broadband must reach rural communities
THE FUW has responded positively to news that there are plans to bring full fibre broadband to an additional three million homes and businesses in some of the UK’s most isolated rural communities, but stresses it must really reach them.
The connection to 3.2 million UK premises, which was given the go-ahead after an Ofcom consultation, is reported to be part of a £12bn investment by Openreach to build full fibre infrastructure to 20 million premises throughout the UK by the end of this decade.
Places set to benefit include Aberystwyth in west Wales, Millom in Cumbria, Thurso in north-east Scotland, and Ballycastle in County Antrim. Openreach is due to publish the full list of the 251 locations, referred to as Area 3, where it will build the new network. Ofcom has estimated there are 9.6 million homes and businesses situated in this final third of the UK.
Responding to the announcement, FUW Ceredigion county chairman Morys Ioan said: “The last few months have served as a stark example of how vital connectivity is. Our own Union staff, many of whom live in rural areas, have been working from home and we have continued to assist members with digital paperwork for their farm businesses. Without an internet connection this would not have been possible.
“It is really good news that this extra funding is being directed at rural communities but we must make sure that it really does go to those premises who currently are not benefitting from full fibre broadband.
“Our rural towns and villages have been left behind in the race for better and faster connectivity and it is critical for the competitiveness and viability of rural businesses, and the economy, that tangible improvements are made now.
“The FUW has stressed on many occasions that those without a connection cannot diversify their businesses, that they cannot support their children’s education and that they cannot connect readily with Government programmes for advice and support payments as they are mandated to do.”
Farmers and Police cooperate on modern slavery
POLICE has worked in partnership with rural and farming unions to support a national campaign, aiming to create a picture of the nature and scale of modern slavery and human trafficking in communities.
Dyfed-Powys Police in Project Aidant, led by the National Crime Agency, also looked at the impact COVID-19 legislation and restrictions on travel has had on the availability of labour in the agricultural industry.
Detective Chief Inspector Anthony Evans said: “Dyfed-Powys Police, and our rural teams in particular, engaged with the agricultural industry and raise awareness of the ethical use of labour and avoidance of labour exploitation, as well as asking for any concerns to be raised with us or the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.
“We also worked with branches of the National Farmers’ Union and Farmers’ Union of Wales to circulate information about modern slavery and how to spot the signs to their members.
“Forced and compulsory labour is very often a harmful and hidden crime and its victims may be especially isolated and hidden from view during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, help and support is available.”
Although the true scale of modern slavery and human trafficking is difficult to measure, it is understood that the number of identified victims is increasing. Many victims work in the construction industry, in agriculture, in the sex industry, and in places like nail bars or car washes, while a growing number are forced into criminality by their exploiters. Children are found working in these situations, as well as in sexual slavery.
Many victims have been trafficked from overseas – frequently from Eastern Europe, South East Asia, and Africa – and their exploitation often begins en route. However, the latest figures show British nationals make up the largest single group of those victimised.
The current Project Aidant aimed to identify and respond to the changing threat picture as a result of COVID-19.
DCI Evans said: “It is almost certain that restrictions on movement and activities are having a notable impact on the modern slavery and human trafficking threat in the UK.
“There have been anecdotal reports of displacement from public-facing sectors that have been closed as a result of government measures, such as car washes and nail bars, to high-risk sectors of agriculture and the wider food supply chain.
“We hope to gain a better understanding of the threat, and ultimately to protect vulnerable victims of slavery and human trafficking, who are often hidden in plain sight.”
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