The House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee has called for "urgent steps" to safeguard the UK's horticultural industry, valued at £5 billion. This appeal was made in a comprehensive report released today (6 November).
The committee's investigation into the industry has brought to light its neglect and undervaluation by those in government, which has resulted in vulnerabilities in the nation's food security and its capacity to achieve carbon neutrality.
Entitled 'Sowing the seeds: A blooming English horticultural sector', the report draws attention to the principal obstacles the industry faces and proposes solutions to address them.
Among the identified challenges are the absence of interdepartmental collaboration within the government, fierce competition among supermarkets, a persistent gap in skills and education, inadequate implementation and communication concerning the upcoming peat prohibition, insufficient long-term research funding, and a lack of recognition for the mental and physical health advantages of community gardening.
A key recommendation from the report is the publication of the long-anticipated Horticulture Strategy for England to provide direction and assurance to cultivators.
Lord Redesdale, the committee chair, in a discussion with The Grocer, emphasised the need for a dedicated minister for horticulture to streamline the sector's oversight, which is currently scattered across various departments.
He further stressed the necessity for the government to carry out and disclose its assessment of equity within the horticultural supply chain, a task that has been continually postponed and undervalued.
The committee's report was particularly critical of supermarkets' role, with Lord Redesdale indicating that the government must intervene to ensure fairness between retailers and growers.
Redesdale described the ongoing issue as a "horrendous, circular argument" where the demand for inexpensive food leads to supermarkets pressuring for lower costs, which in turn results in inadequate profit margins for growers, causing them to hesitate in planting certain crops due to financial uncertainties.
Despite numerous invitations, Tesco was the only major retailer to provide public testimony to the committee. In contrast, Morrisons, Waitrose, and Asda engaged in private discussions, and Marks & Spencer provided written input.
Redesdale pointed out the lack of accountability evident from the difficulty in obtaining evidence from these retailers.
The report also calls for the creation of a workforce strategy and the release of the government's review of the Seasonal Worker visa route. Redesdale highlighted the political sensitivity of the issue of seasonal workers and the necessity for more dialogue with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to understand the actual needs of farmers.
The committee also explored how the sector could contribute to climate change mitigation through biodiversity enhancement, carbon sequestration, and urban greening. It urged for a more robust R&D framework to facilitate the adoption of new technologies.
Redesdale criticised the current reliance on grant applications through the Innovate process as unsustainable and advocated for a review of long-term research funding to ensure stability and effectiveness.
He also underscored the importance of water management in the face of changing rainfall patterns due to climate change, which poses a significant challenge to horticulture.
The committee, established in January 2023, conducted 24 oral evidence sessions, reviewed 96 written submissions, and made four site visits.
Following the report's release, the government is expected to respond to the recommendations, which will subsequently be debated in parliament.