The opening session of this year’s event in Evesham saw an impressive cast of industry leaders discuss key produce sector challenges

From l-r: Martin Emmett, Nigel Jenney, Nick Marston and Jack Ward

L-r: Martin Emmett, Nigel Jenney, Nick Marston and Jack Ward

The opening session of Festival of Fresh 2024 brought together an impressive line-up of industry leaders to debate the pressing issues facing the UK fresh produce industry.

The event kicked off with a high-level panel discussion featuring NFU Horticulture & Potatoes Board chair Martin Emmett, British Growers’ CEO Jack Ward, British Berry Growers’ chair Nick Marston, and Fresh Produce Consortium CEO Nigel Jenney.

The fresh produce leaders tackled labour issues, industry challenges, government support, post-Brexit border arrangements, and the industry’s general election wish list in a lively Q&A session chaired by FPJ contributing editor Michael Barker.

Financial sustainability, securing seasonal workers and navigating the country’s new border strategy were highlighted as the biggest challenges facing the UK fresh produce sector.

The produce association bosses stressed the strain growers and businesses are under this year due to production cost hikes, retail price pressures, weather shocks and “horrendous” post-Brexit border delays and charges.

British Berry Growers chair, Marston, said the sector is seeing “large-scale casualties”, with many businesses across the entire fresh produce industry under “massive pressure”.

Asked by Barker what message they would give to Keir Starmer if elected as Prime Minister on 4 July, the panel stressed the critical importance of food security to the nation.

“I would tell him to take the time to understand, respect and support our industry,” said FPC CEO Jenney.

Marston added: “I would echo that the critical issue is food security and maximising home production. We are talking about food, the staple of life. That should drive all other agriculture policy, whether that’s seasonal labour, whether it’s grants, whether it’s a producer organisation schemes.”

Ward said: “Food production is for the public good. But up until now, it has been left to the vagaries of the market. That needs to change.

“We shouldn’t have these endless arguments about seasonal labour, for example. We need food on the shelf. Let’s just accept that this is the way things need to be done.”

NFU Horticulture and Potato Board chair, Emmett, said he wanted to see the government get involved in securing fairer, longer-term retail contracts for growers and suppliers. “We want to see the [Groceries Supply Code of Practice] golden rules put in legislature,” he said.

Replying to a question from the audience on food security models to emulate from around the world, Ward referenced Hort NZ in New Zealand as a good example to follow for joint-funded fresh produce research and development.

Jenney cited The Netherlands as a huge produce grower and exporter. “If we can get the overall government strategy correct, we could export a huge amount too.”

Emmett concluded the discussion saying the UK needs to recognise its responsibility ”to produce a lot more food”, since the UK now has one of the best climates for food production in the world.