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Farmers to slash food production after worker shortage causes ‘unprecedented’ waste

·6 min read
Large retailers are trialling refill stations and removing plastic bags for all loose fruit, veg and bakery products to reduce plastic waste (PA)
Large retailers are trialling refill stations and removing plastic bags for all loose fruit, veg and bakery products to reduce plastic waste (PA)

British farmers are being forced to slash production next year because of a massive shortfall in workers that has caused an “unprecedented” amount of food to be thrown into landfill in 2021.

The food supply crunch is set to come at a time when imports of produce from the EU are under increased strain due to the introduction of a wave of border controls and checks which have been repeatedly postponed after Brexit.

Shoppers are being advised to brace for more empty shelves and significant food price inflation as UK production falls and more goods are imported, increasing the country’s carbon footprint.

The desperate shortage of labour adds to a growing list of problems for UK farmers who are also dealing with soaring costs for shipping, energy and fertiliser while supermarkets battle to keep prices down as they vie for market share with discount chains.

Growers say they have been forced to throw away millions of pounds of produce, including blueberries, raspberries, apples, salad leaves, tomatoes and flowers.

One British salad grower reported that around £1m of premium salad leaves – a third of their annual crop – had been used to make “very expensive manure” because food processing plants do not have enough staff.

Food processing companies have been hit even harder than farmers by a fall in staff numbers because post-Brexit immigration rules mean they are not eligible to hire workers on seasonal worker visas to replace those that have left the UK.

Food industry leaders warned that the situation is almost certain to worsen unless the government urgently extends a pilot scheme which allowed in 30,000 temporary workers this year. The National Farmers’ Union is calling on ministers to allow in at least another 50,000 foreign workers to pick crops, and tens of thousands more to process them.

Action is needed now, the NFU said, because farmers are currently making decisions about what to plant for next year and cannot afford to plant crops that will go to waste.

The food industry as a whole is now estimated to need an additional half a million workers to plant and harvest food, pack and process it, and deliver it to retailers, restaurants and people’s homes.

A survey by the NFU found that fruit and vegetable growers had 34 per cent fewer workers than they needed at the peak of the harvesting season in July and August.

In a worrying early indication of what is to come in 2022, one of the UK’s largest suppliers of daffodils has already chosen to throw 300 tonnes of bulbs into landfill, fearing that they will not have the workers to pick them in the spring.

While ministers have claimed that Brexit has presented an opportunity to create a “high-skill, high-wage economy”, fruit and vegetable growers point out that in horticulture, such a vision is a long way from becoming a reality.

Fruit-picking robots are far less efficient and more expensive than human beings and, even with significant investment, it is likely to be around five to seven years until they are a viable alternative, according to Ali Capper, an apple grower and chair of the NFU’s horticulture board. In the meantime, it is feared that large numbers of agricultural businesses will cease to exist.

“Businesses are reporting worker shortages of between 15 and 40 per cent. When it’s 15 per cent everyone rolls up their sleeves and works harder. When it’s 40, you simply have to walk by and let produce rot in the fields. You have no choice,” said Ms Capper, who grows apples and hops at Stocks Farm in Kent.

“There has been an unprecedented amount of food waste.

There has been an unprecedented amount of food waste... We don’t know where our labour is going to come from next year

Ali Capper, apple grower

“A quarter of this country’s iconic daffodil crop went to waste this year because we can’t pick the crop. Already I know of one large daffodil grower, who should be planting now for January and February, has put 300 tonnes of bulbs into landfill because he can’t take the risk of planting a crop he won’t be able to pick.

“The same is happening in the edibles sector because there is a total lack of confidence. We don’t know where our labour is going to come from next year.”

Farmers believe the government’s mishandling of the post-Brexit transition risks causing long-term damage to the UK’s food supplies, with some producers already deciding to close their businesses.

The worker shortage is expected to become more severe as the number of EU workers with settled status in the UK declines, further depleting an almost empty labour pool.

Around half of non-UK citizens who were eligible for settled status have decided not to stay and work in the UK, according to the NFU’s estimate. One reason is that the Home Office demanded that workers post their passport or worker card with their visa application, something that many temporary workers were unwilling to do.

Nick Ottewell, farm director at LJ Betts, one of the UK’s largest salad growers, estimated he will have to cut production by 10 per cent next year.

Half of the company’s goods are bagged up, branded and sold through retailers such as convenience stores. That part of the business has held up because LJ Betts has access to seasonal workers who fill 40 per cent of the farm’s jobs.

The other half of the company’s produce is sent to a large processing factory which washes and chops salad for sale at big chains including Tesco, Aldi and McDonald’s.

“That supply chain is completely dysfunctional,” said Mr Ottewell. “It has been a complete car crash.

That supply chain is completely dysfunctional... It has been a complete car crash

Nick Ottewell, farm director

“They haven’t got access to the seasonal worker scheme because the factory runs 12 months of the year, washing and chopping, bringing salad in from wherever it can bring it in from all year round.

“It’s not a seasonal business like ours so they can’t access visas, they can only take permanent staff.”

In mid-July it stopped fulfilling orders for supermarkets because it didn’t have the staff. The company bought 70 per cent of what Mr Ottewell had forecast. “The best part of a million pounds of produce, they didn’t buy. It was used to make very expensive green manure.”

LJ Betts is now discussing with the processing company how they can improve things next year, but Mr Ottewell said he is not optimistic.

“At the moment I can’t see how it improves, I can only see how it gets worse for them,” he added. “Their only real access to labour is through migrant workers on pre-settled or settled status.

“That is a finite number that is going to reduce each year as a percentage of those people do not to come back and they can’t be replaced.”

Food processing firms are “frantically” trying to find ways to automate, Mr Ottewell said. “They are throwing millions at it, but the social dynamics are moving faster than automation technology is.”

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