British farmers welcome manifesto pledges to support domestic food security but raise concerns over agri-funding and seasonal labour

UK farming bodies have expressed mixed feelings about the agriculture pledges included in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat general election manifestos published this week.

The NFU and UK produce groups said they welcomed the recognition by all three main political parties of the importance British farming to national food security in their manifestos. But several horticulture associations voiced concern over the Conservative’s “tapered” seasonal worker policy, and the NFU expressed dismay at the absence of a specific agriculture budget from Labour’s pledges.

Commenting yesterday (13 June), the NFU said it particularly welcomed both the Lib Dem and Conservative commitments to increasing a protected UK agriculture budget by £1 billion.

The English farming union also praised Labour’s promise to promote “the highest standards” when it comes to food imports, and the Conservative pledge to introduce a legally binding target to enhance UK food security.

In other areas, the NFU welcomed all three parties’ commitments to support British food producers by increasing public sector sourcing from British farms – with the Conservatives and Labour promising to source at least 50 per cent of public sector food locally.

Yet, NFU President Tom Bradshaw said it was “deeply disappointing” that there is no mention of an agriculture budget in the Labour manifesto.

Meanwhile, horticulture bodies the British Growers Association, British Apples and Pears (BAPL) and British Berry Growers told the FPJ they were very concerned by the Conservatives’ pledge to move away from the reliance on seasonal migrant labour with a five-year visa tapered scheme.

BAPL executive chair Ali Capper said: “Every country is reliant on seasonal labour to pick fruit and veg. The explicit plan to move away from reliance on seasonal migrant labour is highly political, completely impractical and will entirely undermine growers’ confidence in the future of their business. We are disappointed that the Conservative party continue to play politics with a fundamental policy for our sector.”

British Berry Growers’ chairman Nick Marston added: “There must be recognition that robotic technology is not yet able to replace – and might take several more years yet to come close to replacing – seasonal workers who are picking fruit. As a result, our growers must be able to recruit the numbers of seasonal workers they need to harvest their fruit via the visa scheme. We also need the length of the seasonal agriculture workers visa to be extended from six to nine months to allow growers to recruit for the duration of the season.”

CEO of the British Growers Association, Jack Ward, agreed. “I am relieved to see from their manifestos that the [main] political parties are taking food production and food security seriously in this election,” he said. “But, at some point, politicians need to realise – however unpalatable it may be to them – that we need seasonal migrant labour in this country to harvest our fruit and veg because those circa 1.5 million people not in employment in the UK simply do not want to do this kind of work.”

The British Tomato Growers’ Association (BTGA) added that it was disappointed not to see mention of a long overdue national action plan for pesticide use in the political party manifestos.

“We will continue to seek engagement with government on the challenges and opportunities for the sector, and advocate for the support tomato and protected edible growers need,” a BTGA spokeswoman said.