Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the NFU, has expressed real concern that the government isn’t going to “heed the warning signs” around seasonal labour shortages as Brexit approaches.
Speaking at a press briefing ahead of National Fruit Show Live, he said he was getting “more and more worried” that there won’t be a substantial expansion of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) until the UK’s “ideologically-driven” government has “seen the problem” play out after Brexit.
With a total seasonal labour requirement of around 70,000 workers, the NFU is calling for an urgent decision on the expansion of SAWS to ensure businesses have enough workers in 2021.
“We have an immigration system which at the moment is not fit for the future of the food and framing industry,” he said.
“I think Defra understand and have been fighting the corner of the industry to have a substantial expansion of the seasonal workers’ pilot, but politics are getting in the way of this and we are now dealing with Number 10 to try to unblock the issues…
“I am hugely concerned that we have an ideologically driven government that aren’t going to heed the warning signs. I’m more and more worried that until they see the problem, they won’t react. And we’ve seen that so many times in different policy areas that they have to see the problem before they make a U-turn.”
‘Support our growers’
Faced by these mounting concerns, NFS chair Sarah Calcutt stressed how important it was to raise awareness of “the issues facing the top- and soft fruit industry and how we are working together to respond to them.”
She said: “Growers are still battling with the prospect of large swathes of their orchards being left unpicked as the ongoing labour shortage problem rumbles on into 2021.
“Growers still have no confirmed access to a flexible work permit scheme for non-EU workers that would allow them to come to the UK at harvest.
“With Brexit around the corner the labour question and the threat of unfavourable trade deals are by far, the biggest headaches for growers right now.
“Without support, British growers will be unable to compete with foreign imports as post-Brexit trade deals threaten even further the fragile relationship between British growers, retailers and consumers.”
Tackling the health crisis
Away from the seasonal labour issue, Lord John Krebs, founding chairman of the Food Standards Agency, emphasised the opportunities for Britain’s fruit industry to tackle the national obesity crisis.
“There is a major opportunity for growers and the fruit industry to play their part in revolutionising the way we address the current poor state of the nation’s diet,” he said in his opening speech to delegates at National Fruit Show Live.
“We currently have a food system that is stacked against the notion of a healthy diet. The opportunity exists for the fruit industry, already an innovative sector, to help to increase the pace of change, fully embrace new technologies, and improve the nation’s health, while protecting the environment and meeting the challenges of climate change.”
Topfruit growers are selling their produce into a changed market this year as a result of coronavirus, with changes in shopping behaviour benefitting apple and pear producers – volume sales rose by six per cent in the 12 weeks to 4 October 2020.
The pandemic has seen shoppers switch to larger weekly shops, with shopping frequency down 30 per cent and basket size up 60 per cent, according to Kantar. Meanwhile, online sales rose 76 per cent in the first six months of the year.
Messages around healthy eating messages have also boosted apple and pear sales, as has the fact that they have a longer shelf life than other fruits.