The UK risks food supply disruption as multiple farming sectors shrink amid skyrocketing costs and labour shortages, the country’s largest agricultural lobby group warned on Tuesday.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, said the country’s tomato, cucumber, sweet pepper, pear, beef and egg sectors were shrinking, and called for rapid action to boost the number of overseas farm workers and push more food profits towards farmers.
“We have already seen the egg supply chain crippled under the pressure caused by these issues, and I fear the country is sleepwalking into further food supply crises, with the future of British fruit and vegetable supplies in trouble,” she said at a press conference on Tuesday.
“We need government and the wider supply chain to act now. Tomorrow could well be too late.”
Eggs have been in short supply after soaring costs made production uneconomic for many farmers and avian flu compounded the pressures, resulting in the UK’s flock of laying hens declining by about 6mn since last year to 38mn, according to the British Free Range Egg Producers Association.
Fruit production in the UK has dropped by 111,800 tonnes, or 16.2 per cent, since last year amid post-Brexit labour shortages and the rise in energy prices, the NFU said. The production of tomatoes, cucumbers and pears was expected to hit the lowest levels this year since data collection began in 1985, the union said.
Farmers are seeking the removal of an annual cap on visas made available under a seasonal workers’ scheme after the sector lost access to eastern European workers who had previously worked in the UK under free movement with the EU. The NFU said £60mn of food was wasted in the first half of this year because of labour shortages.
Batters said ministers had been slow in responding to her concerns. “I don’t know that the interface of government is working as well as it should.”
“The danger is that we produce less and less and less of our food here . . . and become increasingly reliant on imports,” she added, arguing that this trend would push prices up further and that some foods would not be available to import.
The NFU is also calling for the government to regulate dairy contracts, reflecting a pledge made last year; to investigate the egg supply chain to see if the shortages merit intervention to support producers; and to introduce and monitor food security targets.
Fertiliser, animal feed and agricultural diesel are among inputs whose prices have risen steeply, with nitrogen fertiliser prices increasing as much as 240 per cent since 2019, the NFU said.
Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that she was working with the home office to determine next year’s visa allowance for seasonal workers.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said Coffey was meeting egg industry representatives on Tuesday, adding that the UK had a “large and highly resilient” food supply chain.
“The government is in regular contact with the food and farming industries to ensure they are well prepared for a range of scenarios, and we continue to take all the necessary steps to ensure people across the country have the food they need.”
The UK produces about 54 per cent of the food it consumes.