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 Drawing on official and unpublished data, the report shows that there has been a big decline in the area given to UK horticultural production.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.”
Payment commitment sought from minister
NFU CYMRU has asked the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs to make an early commitment to maintaining the Basic Payment Scheme in Wales for 2021.
In a meeting this week NFU Cymru President John Davies asked the Minister, Lesley Griffiths AM, to commit to maintaining the Basic Payment Scheme unchanged for 2021.
Speaking after the meeting, John Davies said: “The events in Westminster these last few days mean that our future relationship with the EU remains as uncertain as it has ever been, with the prospect of a general election in the not too distant future, this means further political upheaval, and by extension more uncertainty. The fact that the UK Government’s Agriculture Bill was not carried forward when parliament was prorogued means that the intended legal basis for setting Welsh agricultural policy has now also disappeared, and we are now essentially back to square one.
“At the end of last year, Welsh Government announced that the Basic Payment Scheme would remain unchanged in 2020; we welcomed that announcement as it offered Welsh farming some stability at a critical time. The uncertainty in the intervening period has only intensified, NFU Cymru considers the possibility of a disorderly Brexit to be a very live possibility, either after a failure to reach an agreement at the end of any extended Article 50 period, or alternatively if the UK fails to agree on a future trading relationship with the EU27 during the transition period.
“There are many factors completely outside of our control which considered individually or collectively would have a very detrimental impact on Welsh agriculture. NFU Cymru is very much of the view that this calls for a cautious and restrained approach from the Welsh Government when it comes to developing future agricultural policy. We would urge Welsh Government to take its time and not to hasten to move away from the present arrangements until we have a far clearer picture of the sort of future trading relationship we will have with the EU27.
“We fully respect that the timing and nature of Brexit, the general election and the fate of the Agriculture Bill are all outside the hands of Welsh Government, but what we do ask for is the support of Welsh Government on the areas that sit within its remit. In our meeting with the Minister, we have asked if she will make an early commitment to the continuation of the BPS unchanged for 2021.
“We have also asked the Minister to ensure that the additional £5.2 million per year for the next two years made as part of the UK Government’s response to the Lord Bew review last month is used as a top-up to the BPS. This funding has been allocated to Wales because average Pillar 1 payments have historically been lower in Wales than in some other parts of the UK. We therefore firmly believe that as the Lord Bew review was about correcting this matter then the additional money should be made as a top-up to the BPS and not spent elsewhere.”
Public want food standards maintained post-Brexit
THE GOVERNMENT should ensure that all imported food meets the same high animal welfare and environmental standards in place on British farms.
That’s the overwhelming view of the public according to new research carried out by ComRes on behalf of the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists (BGAJ).
ComRes surveyed the public in September and found 84% support the view that imports should match British standards as Brexit threatens to open the door to imports from low cost producing, de-regulated markets across the globe.
The study found that just 16% would buy food they know is produced to lower animal welfare standards if it was cheaper than food produced to a high standard.
BGAJ President Baroness Rosie Boycott said: “The results of this study are a stark reminder to the government that the public values the high standards of British farming.
“There will always be countries able to produce cheaper food than Britain but it always comes at a cost. It could be the safety of the food, the farmer, an animal or the environment.
“With Brexit on the horizon, we’re on the brink of potentially seeing lower quality food imports flooding into the country.
“The survey resoundingly shows there’s no appetite for it and it’s the responsibility of government and the entire supply chain to put the safeguards in place to protect both British farmers and the consumer, whose heads may still be turned by attractive price deals in tough economic conditions, despite how they have responded.”
The results of the study come at a critical time for British agriculture – a sector which stands to lose more than most if the protection provided by the European Union’s single market is not replicated post-Brexit.
British standards of food and farming are among the best in the world thanks to decades of progress in the areas of production that matter most to consumers.
Many countries which can produce food cheaper than Britain often use production methods which are illegal here and across Europe; chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef being two well-reported examples.
Professor of Food Policy at the University of London, Tim Lang, said: “An overwhelming 84% want imported food to be of the same standard as home-produced food. Gung-ho supporters of yoking the UK to the USA post-Brexit should note this
“The survey suggests the UK public almost certainly recognises the need for the UK farming to tick lots of boxes. It’s got the message that farming is multi-functional. But have the politicians?”
84% of GB adults agree the government should ensure all imported food meets the same environmental and animal welfare standards as food produced in the UK. Only 2% disagree
A majority (53%) of GB adults would not buy food that is produced to lower animal welfare standards if it’s cheaper than food produced to a high standard of animal welfare. Only around one in six (16%) agree
Younger people are less likely to disagree with the statement than older people – it seems attitude to the trade-off between animal welfare and price swings towards animal welfare the older we get (45% disagree 18-34; 52% 35-54; 61% 55+)
62% of the public agree that UK farmers should receive financial support from the taxpayer to ensure a continued supply of food produced by British farmers post-Brexit, compared to just one in ten (10%) who disagree. 68 per cent of rural and 61 per cent of urban respondents agreed
Two in five (39%) GB adults agree that a UK farmer’s primary purpose should be to produce food rather than carry out environmental work, although just under a third (29%) disagree. 33% were not clear (26% neither, 7% don’t know)
CLIMATE CHANGE AND TECHNOLOGY
62% of the public agree farmers have an important role to play in generating renewable electricity from technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels, while around one in twelve (8%) disagree
Just under half (48%) of GB adults agree that a climate change levy should be charged on food with a higher carbon footprint, with the proceeds spent on encouraging carbon-friendly farming methods, compared to fewer than one in five (17%) who disagree
34% agree new plant-breeding technologies, such as genetically modified and gene-edited crops, should be used to grow food in the UK, compared to more than a quarter (27%) who disagree. Young people aged 18-24 are more likely to agree (46%) with the statement than any other age group
Retail and UK marketplace
Only 24% agree UK farmers receive a fair share of the profits made by retailers on the food that they produce, compared to more than a third (36%) who disagree. Rural respondents were more likely to disagree than urban respondents (43% rural vs 35% urban)
ACCESS TO THE COUNTRYSIDE
Almost two thirds (62%) of GB adults agree the public has adequate access to the UK countryside in terms of rights of way and footpaths, compared to just one in 10 (11%) who disagree. Londoners and those in the West Midlands were the least likely to agree with the statement (54% and 55% respectively), whereas those in Wales and the North East were the most likely to agree (both 70%)
Four in five (79%) adults are proud of the British countryside and the rural communities which sustain it, compared to just 3% who disagree. While urban respondents still have a high level of agreement with the statement (77%), almost nine in ten (88%) of rural respondents agree
NFU plans for New Horizons
NFU CYMRU’s annual conference takes place on Thursday, November 7, at 10 am with another stellar line-up of speakers.
To be held at the Metropole Hotel, Llandrindod Wells, the conference, titled, Welsh Farming: New Horizons, will focus on future opportunities for Welsh agriculture.
NFU Cymru President, John Davies said: “We are, once again, looking forward to welcoming hundreds of members to our annual conference. With so much uncertainty within the industry at the moment, this conference will be an opportunity for members to look beyond the horizon line towards future opportunities for the industry.
“Our annual conference has continued to grow and become the must-attend event of its kind in Wales, consistently attracting world-class speakers – and this year is no exception.
“At NFU Cymru we are both passionate and ambitious about the future of Welsh food and farming. We believe that given the right support from the government, we can continue to develop a profitable, productive and progressive agricultural industry. I hope that our expert line-up of speakers will help inspire members and allow them to head home with some thoughts and ideas on how to take their own farming businesses forward.
“We will also use the conference to present the first-ever NFU Cymru Sustainable Agriculture Award, kindly sponsored by Wynnstay. This award seeks to recognise the unparalleled contribution Welsh farming enterprises make to the economic, environmental, social and cultural well-being of Wales, and I’m very much looking forward to presenting this award to the very worthy winner.”
Speakers on the day include:
Lesley Griffiths AM, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Welsh Government
Heather Hancock DL LVO, Chair, Food Standards Agency
Professor Robert Pickard, Food and Nutrition Expert
Professor Michael Lee, Sustainable Agriculture Expert
Dmitry Grozoubinski, Founder and Lead Trainer, ExplainTrade.com
Breffni Carpenter, Agriculture Counsellor, Permanent Representation of Ireland to the European Union
Sam Watson Jones, Co-Founder, Small Robot Company
Dr Andrea Graham, Head of Policy Services, NFU and ‘The Future of Food 2040’ Author
Campbell Mauchan, Head of UK Operations, AgriWebb
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