How the labour squeeze is changing the food we eat

Martin Emmett had thought Britain's army of food and plant growers was well prepared for the busy picking and packing season.

Weeks before Vladimir Putin initiated war, farms across Britain were awaiting the arrival of tens of thousands of workers. The expectation was that, as with last year, around two thirds of the 30,000 seasonal workers granted visas would be coming from Ukraine. A further 8pc were expected to come from Russia.

Almost overnight, everything changed. As Russia invaded, agencies were racing to try to re-recruit from other countries - turning to nations such as Nepal.

Emmett, the chair of the National Farmers Union’s horticulture and potatoes board, says the months since have been a struggle. Workers sourced from other countries have “not been able to make it or there’s been a delay in their visas.”

The recent Ukraine refugee scheme has led to Home Office hold-ups in processing visa paperwork. In some areas of Britain, estimates suggest just one in four seasonal workers have turned up.

As the labour squeeze only intensifies, the food on offer in Britain’s supermarkets is starting to change.

Some crops are completely going to waste, with farms ploughing them back down into the ground for lack of pickers. Others, including meat processors, are quickly rethinking how they should use the workers they do have, and whether any processes - such as chopping or assembling - can be stripped out.

Lee Stiles from the Lea Valley Growers Association, whose members produce about three-quarters of Britain’s cucumber and sweet pepper crop, says several fresh produce lines are already evolving over struggles to get enough workers in greenhouses and packhouses.

“Some supermarkets are no longer requesting half portions of cucumbers as this involves additional labour and increased costs with packaging,” Stiles explains.

Offering customers less choice within a range is another way of cutting back on labour costs.

Tomatoes are a good example, he says: “There are over 200 lines for tomatoes of different varieties, weights and packaging.”

This is just one area where supermarkets are starting to reduce what is on offer, to simplify the packing and stocking process.

“They’re also considering ditching the traffic light pack of three sweet peppers and replacing this with loose sweet peppers to reduce labour, plastic packaging and food waste as not everyone uses all three peppers in time,” Stiles says.

The recent heatwave is only making the situation more tense.

Jack Ward, head of the British Growers Association, says: “There are people desperately on the phone saying, ‘when are the workers coming? How many have you got? Can you get me some more?’ Because the hot weather will have brought on strawberry crops and if you can see they’re ready today, they might still be ok tomorrow. But by the day after, well, they’re no good. That’s your salary for the year gone up in flames.”

He adds there is “massive uncertainty about which workers are actually coming and to be honest, you can’t relax until they actually turn up”.

It has led to conversations about which crops to prioritise across the horticulture industry, according to Emmett.

“Farmers will be looking carefully at the crops which have the highest and lowest labour commitment, and evaluating that because there is this shortage.”

The cost of living crunch is also likely to prompt supermarkets to rethink what they are stocking. Figures from NielsenIQ last month showed more squeezed shoppers were turning more to canned goods in the four weeks up to April than a year earlier.

It is not yet clear what the ripple effects will be for farmers. Many have taken heavy losses from spiralling costs this year, and watched crops go to waste from labour shortages.

In Whitehall, noises are positive that the industry will get much needed support. Ministers laid out a new food strategy last week, with ambitions to bolster the farming sector and spur a boom in ‘home-grown’ produce.

Yet, many in the industry say labour is a hurdle they simply cannot surpass - and which, so far, ministers have yet to truly solve.

“We’ve got the soft season coming into full flow, and then the apple picking season, and then it’s ornamental sectors,” says Emmett. “The aspiration to increase fruit and vegetable production here is welcome. But it needs to be understood that there’s a limiting factor here. And, quite clearly, that’s labour.”

Source: Telegraph