Britain’s vegetable industry could be under threat as farmers warn they’re not being paid enough to grow stables, including tomatoes, due to soaring energy costs.
Shortage of labour for picking crops is also affecting industry demand within the country, with retailers opting to import produce from abroad.
Energy prices have affected tomatoes in particular, due to the use of heated greenhouses.
Lea Valley, which stretches from Hertfordshire and Essex to north London, produced around 75 per cent of Britain’s cucumbers and peppers in 2020.
The area – dubbed the ‘cucumber capital of Britain – could see production halved from its 2020 figures by next year.
Lea Valley Growers Association secretary Lee Stiles told the Times there will be shortages of British produce next year “across the board”, half of the group’s 80 members opted against planting vegetables due to anticipated financial losses.
Mr Stiles said: “Backing British growers by paying fair prices doesn’t seem to be a priority for supermarkets.
“The amount of British fresh produce on the shelves from our growers has reduced by at least half this year already but consumers haven’t noticed it, or don’t care.”
Mr Stiles said cucumber farmers are losing up to 30p on every sale, as they make just 40p per vegetable while one costs 70p to produce due to rising energy costs - more than they are sold for in some UK supermarkets.
“We are taking all the risks and for a really low price. If the price doesn’t go up, the British cucumber industry will definitely not survive”, he said.
A report from Promar International found that growers’ production costs increased by as much as 27 per cent in the past year – with tomatoes, broccoli, apples and root vegetables most affected.
Energy was one of the main drivers of increased costs, up 165 per cent, followed by fertiliser, up 40 per cent, and workforce costs, up 13 per cent.
Martin Emmett of the National Farmers’ Union said: “The viability of producing fruit and vegetables is under the greatest strain I’ve ever seen.
“A continued lack of a reliable workforce, both in permanent and seasonal roles, combined with sharply rising input costs, particularly for energy, has put many businesses on a knife edge.
“Producers of high energy crops in particular, such as top fruit, root vegetables and crops grown under glasshouses, have severe doubts about their business viability.
“Growers are doing everything they can to mitigate the impacts, but they cannot do it alone.
“If this pressure continues, it will be simply unsustainable for some businesses to continue as they are. In these unprecedented times, stability and confidence are critical.”
He said the Government needs to lift the cap on the seasonal worker scheme and increase the number of visas available in order to “safeguard the future of British fruit and vegetables”.
Fertiliser is also a key component for farmers growing fruit and vegetables – and increasing costs due to it’s reliance on gas – which has seen price hikes due to a range of factors including Russia’s war with Ukraine.
Analysis from Energy and Climate Change Intelligence Unit (ECIU) showed fertiliser bills were up by around £760 million for Britain’s farmers this year and last due to the high gas prices. Over the next two years farms could have to cough up an additional £1.1 billion if gas markets do not calm down.
Nick Humphries, UK director of low-carbon fertiliser company N2 Applied, said Government should work with the industry to explore how to transition away from fossil fuel fertilisers.
“The sky-high price of chemical fertiliser this year is a tipping point – it has shown us that this cannot be where the future lies for UK food production,” he said.
“We can no longer be so reliant on chemical fertilisers produced around the world and must instead find sustainable alternatives that farmers have greater control over.”
News of the agriculture slump comes as one of Britain’s biggest food producers, Cranswick, is flying in 400 butchers more than 6,000 miles from the Philippines to alleviate Christmas shortages after an exodus of staff following Brexit.
The Hull-based meat producer is spending £4 million to recruit the butchers to meet demand after a staffing crisis last year hampered production, leaving Cranswick with 25 per cent fewer staff at its plants in Hull and Norfolk.
65 per cent of Cranswick’s staff were from central Europe before Brexit, but skilled workers left the UK following the referendum to leave the European Union.
Chief executive of Cranswick, Adam Couch, told Bloomberg that it would cost the business between £10,000 and £12,000 for each butcher they recruit from the Philippines.
He added: “Obviously it’s very expensive to bring them over, but it’s far better to bring them over than to curtail production as we did this time last year.”
Couch said despite the costs, recruitment of staff was “absolutely necessary if we want food on the plates”.
Employing staff from the country requires buying a flight to the UK, securing a visa, an English test and accommodation.