February 26, 2018 / 6:13 PM / a year ago

Labour shortage threatens UK horticulture sector - NFU president

* Fruit picking technology not yet as fast as fingers

* EU farm policy seen helping to keep food affordable

By Nigel Hunt

LONDON, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Britain’s production of fruit, vegetables and flowers could fall unless the government takes action to boost the availability of migrant workers with new technologies not yet ready to replace human hands, the president of the National Farmers Union, Minette Batters, said on Monday.

“The uncertainty on the future workforce is I think putting huge pressure on the horticulture sector,” Batters told Reuters in an interview just days after being elected the NFU’s first female president.

One of Britain’s largest berry producers, Haygrove in Ledbury, Herefordshire, said earlier this month it was relocating some raspberry and blueberry growing to China because of uncertainty over migrant labour caused by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

“You have virtually zero unemployment in Herefordshire and yet have a requirement for 2,500 seasonal workers. If you haven’t got an availability of people to come and pick and pack and plant and grade those fruit, vegetable and flowers you will potentially see the sector shrinking,” she said.

Batters said there were technologies that would eventually replace migrant workers but it would not happen overnight.

“We have the technology to pick a strawberry but it is slow so in order for it to be comparable to the human hand it will take significant investment,” she said,

She said it may be difficult to justify such investment given there had been no increase in the price of fruit and vegetable in the last 15 years.

Britain’s decision to leave the EU has also created uncertainty about future access to the most important market for its exports.

“Europe has been an absolutely crucial market for British farmers because it is 500 million people on our doorstep so clarity on what that trade deal looks like is essential.”

Batters said Britain must become more serious about exploiting opportunities in the global marketplace.

“If we compare ourselves with Germany and the Republic of Ireland you’ve had governments there that are ambitious about stretching beyond the European boundaries and really getting their produce out across the world.”

Farmers, who currently receive about three billion pounds ($4.2 billion) a year in support payments, will have to compete with sectors such as health and education for funds once Britain leaves the EU.

Batters said EU support for agriculture had provided significant benefits for consumers.

“It has actually been very good at keeping food affordable for everyone and I think that is hugely important going forward,” she said, adding people in Britain now spend about 12 percent of their income on food compared to 25 percent in the 1980s.

Batters also said Britain needed to have one overarching policy even agriculture is the responsibility of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“It is absolutely vital that we leaving one bureaucratic conglomerate and we want to make sure the four countries do work as one nation,” she said. ($1 = 0.7165 pounds) (Reporting by Nigel Hunt, editing by David Evans)

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