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 Drawing on official and unpublished data, the report shows that there has been a big decline in the area given to UK horticultural production.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.”
Cabinet Secretary kick starts land management debate
CABINET SECRETARY for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, has outlined her vision for land management in Wales post-Brexit and has kick-started a conversation with the industry on how this can be delivered.
Speaking at the NFU conference in Birmingham, the Cabinet Secretary outlined the importance of devolution and reiterated her commitment to ensure Wales does not lose a penny of funding as a result.
Speaking at the conference, the Cabinet Secretary said: “As we prepare to leave the EU, the case for devolution is stronger than ever. The nature of our farming is different and our rural communities are different. There is no one size that fits all.
“Farming is a vital part of our rural economy. I often have to remind people from outside the sector that over 80% of Welsh land is owned and managed by Welsh farmers, foresters and environmental bodies. We need them and the work they do to help deliver our ambitions for a prosperous Wales.
“I want to start detailed discussion with stakeholders about the details and to get their input on what works.
“We must work towards a shared vision. I know farmers can adapt but it is government’s job to give them the time and tools to do so.
“The transition period must be a real one, it must be well-planned and it must take place over a number of years. There is too much at stake – economically, socially and environmentally – to not get this right.
“This is worth taking the time to get right. It is a once in a generation opportunity and I am confident we can make swift progress.”
Responding to her comments, FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “Within days of the June 2016 EU referendum we had issued a call for a realistic post-Brexit transition period for farming, and for future policies to be developed slowly and investigated thoroughly, so the Cabinet Secretaries comments are naturally welcome.”
During her speech, Mrs Griffiths highlighted the need for clarity over UK funding arrangements for Wales, and that Wales should not lose a penny in rural funding, echoing calls made earlier in the day by the FUW President.
The Cabinet Secretary also gave assurances that she would “…fight to protect funding returning to Wales from going elsewhere,” adding, “We must continue this vital support because I cannot think of another part of Welsh society which makes such a multi-faceted contribution to our nation. Farming is a vital part of the rural economy. It is the social anchor of our rural communities, and farmers are the custodians of the land that underpins our natural environment.”
“We need to make the most of the opportunities we have to improve what we already do, while also ensuring tools are in place to cater for possible adverse impacts of Brexit,” Glyn Roberts said.
Mr Roberts added that: “The FUW has valued and seen the fruits of our recent work with the Cabinet Secretary and her wider team and we are pleased to see such significant progress. We look forward to continuing to work closely with the WG as we seek to protect the future of family farming in Wales.”
It’s all go for Moat Goats
GOAT farming couple Meg and Damian McNamara of Moat Village Farm, New Moat, Pembrokeshire, have been recognised for keeping the countryside vibrant by the Pembrokeshire FUW Countryside Business Award 2017.
The award, a £200 cash prize, perpetual trophy and a year’s free membership of the FUW, is presented every two years to someone who, 40 years of age or under, has developed their own business in rural Pembrokeshire.
“In presenting the award we recognise the fantastic work our young people are doing to keep our rural areas of Pembrokeshire vibrant and economically active places. Meg and Damian are very worthy winners of the award indeed and we can be proud to have such an inspirational farming couple in our midst,” said FUW Pembrokeshire County Executive Officer Rebecca Voyle.
Meg and Damian were both raised on dairy farms in Pembrokeshire, and always had a strong ambition to farm themselves. Although they both work outside of agriculture, Damian works as a Process Operator at Valero Refinery and Meg is a qualified Bank nurse, currently on Maternity Leave, they have managed to fulfil their farming ambition alongside keeping their day jobs. Meg also participated in the 2017 Agri Academy Business and Innovation Programme.
They bought their first land, a 12.5 acre field, in April 2015 and also farm 72 acres of Meg’s family’s farm. Their first goats arrived just 7 months later, having decided that this diversification would be both challenging and rewarding. Their herd now numbers 200 breeding female Boer goats.
Their agri-food business, Moat Goats, operates from farm to fork with home-bred kids reared by their dams. The male kids are finished for meat and the females are retained to increase the size of the breeding herd. Grass is grown both for grazing and for silage, with surplus sold for extra revenue. Mixed leys with herbs are also being tried to exploit health and production benefits.
Talking about a usual day on the farm Meg said: “We start by feeding the goats, checking and observing that they are ok, then it’s on to bedding down and we also spend time on farm work such as fieldwork and farm maintenance tasks. We also aim to post a picture or post on social media every day, as well as answering phone calls, responding to emails, and making sure that we market the business properly.”
As the male kids fatten and finish, Meg and Damian organise the slaughter in Maesteg, Bridgend and butchering of the carcasses locally at Cig Lodor, Rosebush. They then promote and sell the product online and started selling goat kid meat direct from the farm in October 2016. Now they supply meat boxes to customers throughout the UK via courier delivery, using social media for marketing. They have also supplied several local butchers with their goat meat, such as Chris Rogers in Carmarthen, T.G.Davies in Newport, Andrew Rees in Narberth, Gary the Butcher in Llandysul and DMS Llanelli and sell from the farm itself.
Speaking about the need to diversify, Meg explained: “We were aware that we needed to diversify in farming as we didn’t have enough land or time to compete with dairy, beef, sheep farmers.
“We experimented at home with jam making, cheese making, bought some heritage pigs before falling in love with 2 pet Boer cross goats and deciding to make a business from this interest.”
Meg and Damian exploit every opportunity to raise awareness of their quality produce, devising recipes, posting photos of the goats and the meals online and also supplied meat for a cookery demonstration at the 2017 Pembrokeshire County Show.
The business is going strong but there were some challenges the couple faced when setting the business up. Damian said: “The biggest challenge has been learning how to feed, handle and manage a goat herd – they require attention to detail which we have learnt through trial and error. Juggling farm and business commitments with family life and work off the farm remains an ongoing challenge especially with our young baby.”
Not ones to sit on their laurels, the couple are very aware that there are challenges the sector and their business faces. “Marketing and increasing our customer base remains a top priority for us but it’s also about raising awareness and promoting the benefits of goat meat – it’s low fat, low cholesterol, and high in iron.
“But of course, farming goats in north Pembrokeshire there is always the concern of a TB breakdown. So we take care of complying with all the necessary biosecurity and work hard to minimise contact with other herds,” said Meg.
Damian added: “We will deal with all of these challenges as a family unit and will continue to raise awareness of our business and the nutritional value of goat meat through social media. That way we hope to be selling more carcasses to the retail customer. We also intend to expand the business and therefore retain all the female kids for a few more years. Currently, we’re aiming for a herd of approximately 400 breeding females.”
It is clear that Meg and Damian are passionate about their produce and they encourage everyone to give goat meat a try.
“Goat meat is really tasty! It’s similar in texture to lamb and really easy to cook. Try something like pulled shoulder of goat kid or a simple quick-cook recipe such as chops, cutlets or sausages and have a look on our Facebook page for inspiration,” said Meg.
Reducing nitrogen emissions from cattle
SCIENTISTS at Aberystwyth University are leading a new international research project to find ways of reducing nitrogen pollution from dairy production.
The Horizon 2020 funded CowficieNcy project involves the exchange of staff between commercial and academic partners to upgrade and implement dairy cow diet formulation models, to increase the efficiency of nitrogen use on dairy farms.
Scientists at the University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) are working with four industry partners that consult on thousands of European dairy farms, and five prestigious European and American academic institutions.
Dr Jon Moorby is leading the work at IBERS: “Dairy cows are good at producing highly nutritious food for us from feedstuffs that we cannot eat. However, they can have negative impacts on the wider environment, by excreting excess nitrogen.
“We know from a scientific standpoint how we can minimise this to reduce pollution from dairy production, although relatively few strategies have been converted into agricultural practice because of the lack of research linking through to on-farm application by the dairy industry.
“The Cowficiency project is addressing this by providing tools that can help the dairy industry shift towards more efficient and less polluting methods”, added Dr Moorby.
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient used by farmers worldwide in both feeds (as protein) and fertilisers.
Used strategically, it increases pasture growth and is a key element in the production of meat and milk.
However, it is continually cycling through the soil, atmosphere and the farm system and its extended use has led to considerable negative effects on the environment.
The Cowficiency team will be working with farms in Europe to familiarize and accommodate them in describing their nitrogen balance situation using two mathematical models, one cow-based, and the other herd-based.
The models will be updated for amino acid metabolism in the framework of the Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System (CNCPS), and include aspects of heifer growth and cattle fertility and economics to encompass the whole lifetime of the animals, increasing not only the accuracy of the models but also their commercial potential.
The final phase of the project will see the implementation of the upgraded models on participating CowficieNcy project farms.
Dr Moorby added: “Increasing the efficiency of nitrogen use in lactating dairy cows will reduce nitrogen pollution from dairy production, and ultimately save the farmer money.”
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