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Food and Drink

Jack Ward

Jack Ward is CEO of the British Growers Association (BGA).  The BGA represents & promotes UK growers of horticultural crops, in particular vegetables & salads by providing representation, expertise and support services for British growers, their marketing organisations and specialised crop associations. They maintain key relationships with Government departments, working alongside complementary industry representatives and research bodies. Prior to taking up the position, Jack worked as CEO of a commercial business and is the Former Chairman of the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust.

One business success

  • About 14 months ago I had a conversation with the team writing the National Food Strategy under the Chairmanship of Henry Dimbleby. The substance of our conversation was about how the Government could best support the fresh produce industry now that the UK was free from the constraints of the CAP. I offered several ideas based on the fact that as a nation we don’t consume enough fruit and veg and as a country, we don’t produce enough fruit and veg. In some cases, the UK grower share of the UK market is alarmingly low. Around 8 out of every 10 tomatoes are imported and around 60% of our mushroom market is supplied by overseas suppliers. The importance of fruit and veg production was picked up in the original National Food strategy together with several helpful recommendations. 11 months later we eventually saw the Government’s response to the strategy. Encouragingly they accepted the message about supporting the UK fresh produce industry and are planning of setting up a new horticulture strategy for England. There is still a long way to go before words get converted to actions, but we are headed in the right direction (at last).

Two challenges for the sector

  • Like many businesses involved in agriculture, the fresh produce sector has got its fair share of challenges. British Growers has recently compiled a report documenting the cost increases for the selection of veg crops. Increases in the cost of labour, fuel, energy, fertiliser, and packaging have pushed the overall rate of inflation to well above 20%. The question challenging many growers is how to recover these increases from the market. The situation has been made more difficult by the relentless downward pressure on prices over the last few years. Talk of increases in the cost of vegetables is often misleading. In many cases, the cost of veg today is significantly lower than it was 5 years ago. We are already starting to see growers cutting back or exiting the sector which at a time when we should be looking to increase output, feels like a retrograde step.
  • Seasonal labour has dominated the news for several years. Since the referendum in 2016, there has been a steady decline in the number of people looking for seasonal work. The reliance on staff from Eastern Europe is well documented. For them, the seasonal nature of the fresh produce industry has several attractions. An opportunity to earn good money over a relatively short period and then return home when the season is over. The cumulative effect of no longer feeling welcome in the UK, changes in immigration rules and Covid restrictions has diminished the appetite to come to the UK for seasonal work. Recognising the impact lack of labour could have on strategic food supplies, the Government introduced the Seasonal Worker permit with a limit of 30,000 permits with the option to increase this to 40,000. In 2021 the permits were predominantly taken up by Ukrainians supplemented with smaller numbers from Belarus and Russia. Suddenly in February 2022, it was evident that the excellent staff from these countries who came in 2021 were no longer available and the process or recruiting a whole new cohort had to begin again just weeks before the start of the fresh produce season. Staffing fresh produce business for the 2022 season has been a massive challenge. Before seasonal labour became the dominant challenge in the fresh produce industry, crop protection and how to safeguard crops with an ever-reducing range of products was top of most growers’ agendas. The problem hasn’t gone away. In fact, it gets worse year by year as increasingly tough environmental and other regulations mean fewer products get through the registration process. This leaves growers with either a limited range of products or in some extreme cases no products at all. The crop protection legislation allows growers to apply for emergency use authorisations. This process was carried out by AHDB Horticulture funded by a compulsory research levy imposed on all growers. In 2021 the industry voted to end the compulsory levy. The AHDB has committed to continuing to provide this service to the industry till 2023, thereafter the industry is on its own. It is vital that this activity continues and a race is now on to find an alternative system and an alternative funding stream.

Three forecasts for the sector

  • All the signs are that the area and volume of veg and fruit production are likely to decline over the next few years unless there is a dramatic change in the current level of returns to growers. We are already getting reports of brassica production declining by 10 – 20%. And this at a time when the advice is to eat more veg. The UK relies heavily on imported product, and reducing the volumes grown here can only lead to increased imports.
  • The robots are coming. Most events in the fresh produce sector feature ingenious machines to automate the harvesting of crops. I am not sure we are quite there yet but the ‘behind the scenes work to produce automated systems is in full swing. Private companies and govt funded research establishments are poised to transform what has been a purely manual process into something done by machine. There is a real opportunity for the UK here. Virtually every western fresh produce economy is struggling to find sufficient labour and a real opportunity awaits the company that can offer a cost-effective solution to the shortage of seasonal labour.
  • On the eat more veg, grow more veg theme, we should be entering a golden era for the fresh produce sector. For the reasons listed above this is not happening – but it should be. The recognition by Govt that the fresh produce sector is strategically important and warrants its own strategy is a significant step in the right direction. Armed with the right policies and targeted support from govt, let’s forecast that we can get through the current difficulties and that a new era of sustainable, profitable vegetable production is not too far around the corner.

July 2022