Fresh Produce Consortium chief executive Nigel Jenney has claimed Prime Minister Boris Johnson has "fundamentally failed to understand the importance of our normally seamless food supply chain" after his appearance on the Andrew Marr Show.
When questioned about the current labour crisis that is disrupting the supply chain, Johnson reinforced his refusal to turn to migrant labour, saying “the country is going through a 'period of adjustment' to a higher-wage economy after Brexit. The way forward for our country is not to just pull the big lever marked ‘uncontrolled immigration'.”
But Jenney said the lack of workers has affected every aspect of our lives. “We are a highly productive, and highly competitive market, driven by consumer expectations of being able to obtain high-quality produce at a reasonable price," he pointed out. "This system is now seriously under threat.
“What we’re requesting is that government supports and values the entire food supply chain, through a range of measures including a visa system during this period of transition. There’s no point in having lorry drivers who have nothing to deliver."
'Heart breaking and avoidable'
The current position of the pig industry has amplified the huge pressure on the whole supply chain, with Marr pointing out to the Prime Minister that the likely destruction of a huge number of pigs would be “the single biggest cull of healthy animals in the history of British agriculture.”
Jenney described the situation as "heart breaking and totally avoidable", adding: "The fallout from the pandemic, coupled with the many challenges that Brexit has brought about, will continue to affect the supply chain for many months, if not years, unless we can find solutions now.
“This is beyond the industry’s making, it’s beyond our control. The food industry wants to provide a great service but it needs support to ensure there aren’t empty shelves for many months to come.
“The FPC has worked with its members to develop innovative new solutions for the industry. They lie in making agriculture ‘smarter’ by developing and adopting the new technologies and innovations that can dramatically enhance productivity and reduce its high labour demand and by making the various sectors more attractive to a new generation.”
Elephant in the room
Jenney went on to describe the topic of new industry blood as "an elephant in the room" and reaffirmed how the food-growing industry is desperately lacking a new generation of workers.
“FPC has been proactively looking at new ways to bridge the disconnect between the next generation of agricultural and horticultural workers and the perception of the industry as a whole," he said. “We believe we’ve found some solutions.
“There needs to be a fundamental shift in the perception and overall infrastructure of our food supply system.
“We believe in educating the industry about how both agriculture and horticulture can be made smarter through the incorporation of technologies such as AI, IoT, robotics and automation, along with the development of new growing systems and practices, all designed to promote long-term sustainability."
With that in mind, the FPC has developed two new, free-to-attend industry events. The new events - FPC Future and FPC Careers - will be jointly held at Lincolnshire Showground on 4 November, and have been developed in partnership with the University of Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology (LIAT).