Government accused of 'failing miserably' as Ukraine war proves 'Europe feeds us'.
In the heart of the cucumber capital of Britain, across a sprawling 75-acre operation, almost 200 workers at Valley Grown Salads are busy picking and packing fruit and vegetables.
Rows upon rows of cherry tomatoes, aubergines and bell peppers fill its vast greenhouses in Harlow, Essex. With the number of bell pepper plants it has, Valley Grown Salads says it could fill almost 18 football pitches.
The produce can be shuttled quickly into British supermarkets “the same day or the next day”, says co-owner Jimmy Russo.
But as the war in Ukraine continues, the cost of everything from fertiliser to animal feed and energy is spiralling. It is raising alarm bells that the farming industry could soon buckle under the pressure, just as supplies are squeezed and the need for self-reliance in food production becomes ever greater.
Russo’s operation could soon be a thing of the past: “If we continue on this trajectory, I cannot see there being an English cucumber grower three to five years from now. I know it sounds doom and gloom, but I’m not going to say that it’s all good and the growers are doing really well, because it’s not and we’re not.”
This is a crazily stupid situation to be in
Similar warnings are being echoed in farms up and down the country. Hopes of many in the sector are now pinned on the Government’s forthcoming food strategy white paper, which has promised to bolster domestic production.
“We will help British farmers fill British fridges,” pledged Environment Secretary George Eustice. “It’s crucial that we do everything we can to support this sector.”
It is an area critics say needed attention much earlier. Since the mid-80s, Britain’s self-sufficiency for food has been in decline. “This is a crazily stupid situation to be in,” says Tim Lang, Prof Emeritus of Food Policy at City University, London. “It makes Britain vulnerable and I have to say, right now, it's Europe that feeds us.”
Some 54pc of food on plates is produced domestically, compared to around 78pc some 40 years ago, yet the situation varies from crop to crop. The UK is largely self-sufficient in barley and oats, for instance, and 81pc self-sufficient in milling wheat - the most significant grain crop for food consumption in the UK.
Only 16pc of fruit available in supermarkets is British, however, while around 54pc of fresh vegetables come from UK farms.
Some argue there are hurdles in Britain being able to feed itself. One supermarket executive warns “we will never be 100pc” as shoppers demand ample choice.
“Although there are some people who are saying it’s bad for the climate and bad for this and bad for that, some of us quite like to eat a strawberry in mid-winter.”
Growers admit the UK “certainly could do better”. Jack Ward from the British Growers Association points to crops such as tomatoes, mushrooms and apples.
While upping production has in part been limited to when crops can be grown, innovations are helping. Newer apple clones, which can be kept in storage for a year, still taste as sweet and have the same bite. Fruit production, meanwhile, has doubled in real term value from approximately £500m to £1bn, while production increased from below 300,000 tonnes in the early 2000s to 657,000 tonnes in 2020 - in part thanks to the development of new varieties and longer growing seasons.
Yet some crops risk being left to rot in the fields owing to a chronic shortage of seasonal workers. A sudden decline in the number of workers last year, largely due to Brexit and the pandemic, meant many crops were left unpicked.
Anecdotally some farmers are missing up to 75pc of their usual staff and are seeking to recruit from farther-flung places such as Nepal, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee warned in April that labour shortages in the food and farming sector were not yet “heading anyone’s agenda, or at the forefront of anyone’s mind”.
The Government has extended the visas of Ukrainians who were already here as seasonal workers, providing some relief. It also said the number of seasonal visas might increase by a further 10,000 during 2022 “if necessary”.
All this risks piling further pressure on farmers who, so far, have not seen higher production translate into higher profits. Many say they have experienced the opposite - risking a mass exodus of producers at a time when Britain is looking to shore up its homegrown food sector.
“The thing is, we've had this relentless drive for very cheap food, which is quite often below the cost of production,” says Russo. “We’ve got to a point where people are asking if it’s sustainable.”
“Some of the prices just do not reflect what's really gone on to produce that food,” says Russo. “You can get pineapples at 69p. Think about it. That pineapple was picked and packed somewhere like Costa Rica, transported in a refrigerated container, sent to a supermarket, and how much do you think the grower gets? If he gets 6p he’s lucky.”
“You’ve got to ask yourself the question, do we want British food going forward? Because the question for growers is, is it economically viable to do this?” Prices, he says, cannot be as low as they have been.
Politicians are keen for this to be addressed in the food strategy white paper.
Sir Geoffrey Cox, the MP for Torridge and West Devon, says: “We should be looking at the dairy contracts that give arguably unfair and imbalanced advantages to processors and supermarkets” to make sure farmers are paid more, and therefore grow more.
In his view, Britain is sorely in need of a coherent agricultural policy, which helps farmers invest and modernise their machinery. “Then there’s the fact that we don't have any export agency for British farmers. Every other country around the world that makes a serious national priority on farming has that.”
Others are similarly keen for major policy changes. More than 100 organisations, including major supermarket chains Aldi, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, have called for “bold food legislation”. More specific demands from the grocers have included a change in the law to allow insects grown on food waste to be fed to fish, pigs and chicken.
Yet there are those who advocate something even more drastic is needed. “The question needs to be what do we want farming to do, what crops and how much,” says City’s Prof Lang. Instead of planting animal feed wheat, he says priority needs to be given to horticulture, which would mean less British meat. “We need to be speaking to soil specialists and nutritionists who are interested in what can be grown on the land, and then revising our dietary guidelines.”
Over in Valley Grown Salads, Russo is preoccupied with what the near-future holds. Policies may be coming down the line, but, quite simply, “we need help and the Government has failed us miserably”.
“I’m a great believer that there should be no subsidies. But if the Government wants cheap food, then they should put their hand in their pocket.”