Rishi Sunak announces a raft of support for horticulture sector at Farm to Fork Summit as government publishes its first UK Food Security Index

Rishi Sunak addressed the 2024 NFU Conference in February

Rishi Sunak addressed the 2024 NFU Conference in February

Image: Jonathan Hipkiss / Exposure Photos

The government has published its first annual UK Food Security Index, with the Prime Minister vowing to go further to support farmers and growers and secure domestic food supply.

The index was announced by Rishi Sunak at the second Farm to Fork Summit at Downing Street today (14 May). It will allow the government, industry and farmers to monitor the impacts of external factors, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and extreme weather events.

The index sets out how government will track UK-wide food security on an annual basis, by monitoring domestic food production, land use, input costs and farmer productivity.

This year’s report shows that the UK farming sector is at its most productive since records began. But it also highlights the UK’s heavy reliance on imports, especially in fruit and vegetables.

Currently the UK produces the equivalent of just 17 per cent of the fruit and 55 per cent of the vegetables that end up on British plates, significantly lagging behind meat, dairy and grains.

Boosting the fresh produce sector

In a bid to rectify this, a new blueprint has been announced to help grow the UK fruit and vegetable sector and improve the country’s food security.

As part of the government’s plans, a new Horticulture Resilience and Growth scheme is set to replace the retained EU Fruit and Vegetables Aid Scheme.

Through this new scheme, the government said it will look to double the amount of funding given to horticulture businesses, taking it to £80 million per year.

Up to £10m will be made available to help English orchard growers access equipment, technology and infrastructure to support the growing of British fruit.

The Prime Minister will also launch a review into the barriers the horticulture growers face to upscale their businesses, including promising to cut red tape around the building of glasshouses.

A further £15m will be invested in Genetic Improvement Networks to boost access to more resilient crop varieties that require fewer inputs and therefore cut farmers’ costs.

The government said it would also support farmers to get a fair price for their products by laying new regulations on ‘reasonable and transparent contracts’ in Parliament for fresh produce, eggs and pigs. This follows similar action for the diary sector earlier this year.

A new supply chain adjudicator, Richard Thompson, will also be appointed, to help ensure fairness in the supply chain.

The message from government

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “This package of support will help farmers produce more British food, delivers on our long-term plan to invest in our rural communities, and ensures the very best of our homegrown products end up on our plates.

“I know for many farmers, the impact of adverse weather in recent months has made working the land even harder, but my message is clear: our support for you is unwavering and we will be with you every step of the way.”

Environment secretary Steve Barclay added: “This announcement will turbocharge the growth of our horticultural sector, supporting the building of cutting-edge glasshouses and innovative farming techniques to put British fruit and vegetables on our plates all year round.”

Industry reaction

Reacting to the government’s new blueprint, NFU horticulture and potatoes board chair Martin Emmett said: “It is great to see the UK horticulture sector so well recognised in the Prime Minister’s announcements. Since its launch last year, the NFU Horticulture Strategy helped set the agenda for the government and has shaped many of the discussions since. It is therefore very pleasing to see the government now follow our lead by publishing its own blueprint to grow the sector.

“We welcome the commitment to legislate to improve contractual relationships, and I look forward to working on the detail of this to ensure we get the balance right for our sector.

“We are also pleased that the government has taken on board our calls for a bigger and more accessible replacement for the EU Fruit and Veg Aid Scheme. However, we now need to see the detail of how the Horticulture Resilience and Growth offer will be made available to all growers and how this will promote growth in the sector, all at a time when so many are facing a crisis of confidence and facing serious cashflow issues.”

NFU president Tom Bradshaw added: “The impact of this exceptional extreme weather on farm businesses and farmer confidence means they need immediate support to rebuild resilience. We’re talking to ministers and offering them solutions we think will work – we hope that door remains open.”

Meanwhile, Ali Capper, the executive chair of British Apples & Pears, said topfruit growers would be “absolutely delighted with this much-needed announcement” and “especially heartened by the announcement of up to £10m for English orchard growers to access equipment, technology and infrastructure”.

She also welcomes the doubling of funding for the new Horticulture Resilience and Growth scheme but said “we will need to look carefully at the detail to ensure it doesn’t add more red tape with any new structures”.

EFRA Committee chair Sir Robert Goodwill urged the government to keep its commitment to enshrine the requirement to publish the index in law and to do so at the earliest opportunity.

He welcomed the appointment of a tenant farming commissioner to “provide a strong voice for tenant farmers”, saying it is essential to protect their rights.

Goodwill also welcomed the announcement of a new supply chain adjudicator and said “we look forward to hearing how they will work with the Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure greater fairness and transparency throughout the whole food supply chain.”

Weather resilience

More than 70 businesses and producers attended the Farm to Fork Summit, including various farmers, Fischer Farms, Tesco, Aldi and McCains. They discussed the challenges facing the sector, including recent adverse weather conditions.

The past 18 months have been the wettest on record in England, and the second wettest six months across the UK. The weather conditions have severely hampered crop production and put further pressure on growers.

At the NFU Conference in February, the PM set out how a £75m fund to support internal drainage boards will be used to protect agricultural land, including horticulture businesses, and rural communities from flooding.

The hope is that this will make them more resilient to climate change through two funds – one for repairs and one to help build assets that boost resilience, such as pumping stations.