The peril facing Britain's fruit and veg

When you bite into an apple or munch on a carrot, do you consider where it came from? According to a report published last year by the House of Lords Horticultural Select Committee, only half of the vegetables and a mere 17 per cent of fruit consumed in the UK were grown here.

AI/Canva generated image by Mara Galeano Carraro on the 22nd May 2024

Originally written by Ali Ghanimi for SussexByLines

Britain is home to hundreds of apple varieties, at least 30 in Sussex alone. Yet even in peak apple season, you are more likely to find apples imported from Europe, New Zealand and South Africa in your local supermarket.

According to the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), over the last five years, the area producing fruit and vegetables has declined from 154,360 to 141,095 hectares. The UK’s confectionary market alone generates twice the income of home-grown fruit and veg. This is worrying when national statistics show that just 33 per cent of adults and 12 per cent of children are getting their five-a-day. Poor diets are responsible for 31,000 premature deaths and cost the NHS £18bn each year.

While Britain can easily grow a broad range of fruit and veg, horticulture makes up less than 2 per cent of British farmland. Collectively, our gardens take up more space. Much of Britain’s fertile land, which could easily be used for horticulture or field crops to feed us, is given over to grow grains to feed livestock. It’s not an efficient way to feed a nation.

Power of the supermarkets

Supermarkets exert huge pressure on growers. Their loss-leader pricing strategies and relentless “retail wars” with other supermarkets keep prices low and squeeze the growers’ margins. They impose strict cosmetic and size requirements, and will suddenly cancel orders if the weather changes, wasting tonnes of perfectly edible produce. This, together with spiralling production costs, has made some crops unviable. The spike in energy prices, for example, resulted in empty glasshouses because growers can’t afford to heat them.

By putting UK growers out of business, supermarket activity is damaging food security in the UK by further increasing our reliance on cheap overseas imports. Compare a UK farm worker earning £70 per day to a Moroccan one earning a little over £5 per day. A report by Sustain found that UK farmers are often left with far less than 1p profit from the food items they produce.

Government support for the ailing sector is not forthcoming. The Environmental Land Management Schemes, which replaced the Common Agricultural Policy after Brexit, are not financially feasible for most horticultural enterprises. Only 1 per cent of £3bn in direct agriculture payments go to horticulture.

A “perfect storm” of Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine have placed increasing pressure on the horticultural sector, which faces a chronic shortage of workers. In addition, there are the impacts of climate change.

Horticulture and climate change

A third of the fruit and veg we currently import comes from places at risk of climate change, while more than half comes from water-scarce countries like Spain, Morocco and Israel. By demanding year-round access to out-of-season produce we are exporting environmental damage overseas and exacerbating climate change. Such perishable products also rely on low-cost energy for transport and refrigeration, which we can no longer take for granted.

Our changing climate will make growing fruit and vegetables more challenging here too, as we are already witnessing with increasingly wet autumns and winters, followed by summer droughts. Varying levels of water puts stress on trees, exposing them to pests and diseases, while flooding leads to soil erosion, loss of nutrients and physical damage to plants.

Despite this, our country’s horticultural sector has the potential to achieve the Government’s net zero and biodiversity plans if helped to transition to more environmentally friendly farming practices. Stopping the use of peat, for example, can keep carbon locked in the ground. Sustainable orchards, fruit hedges and agroforestry provide excellent wildlife habitats, improve soils, can help reduce flooding as well as sequester more carbon. Growing more beans, which fix nitrogen into the soil, reduces the need for artificial fertilisers that damage soils and pollute our rivers and seas.

What are the solutions?

Focussing on the local and regional supply of organic and agroecological fresh produce throughout the UK could shift 20 per cent of the £2.7bn currently spent on vegetable imports, to domestic production. This would keep an additional £588m circulating in local economies.

Henry Dimbleby used his independent National Food Strategy to demand a “world-leading horticulture strategy for England”. The Government initially promised one, but then did a U-turn.

According to the Land Workers’ Alliance, fairer and shorter supply chains are what’s needed. Selling directly to the public through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), farmers markets, farm shops or directly to independent retailers or caterers can be one solution.

There is a glimmer of hope. According to the Land Workers’ Alliance, since 2013, the number of CSAs in the UK, such as Brighton’s Fork and Dig It and Forest Row’s Tablehurst Farm, have increased six-fold, from 33 to 200, and the majority of these are predominantly horticulture based. Fork and Dig It, for example, has been selling weekly shares of its organic crops to local people since 2011 and has trained over 50 growers. These enterprises have developed with no support from the Government. All in all, there has never been a more important moment to support your local fruit and vegetable growers.

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