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 Drawing on official and unpublished data, the report shows that there has been a big decline in the area given to UK horticultural production.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.”