Free digital copy
Get Speciality Food magazine delivered to your inbox FREEGet your free copy
The NFU survey demonstrated the detrimental impact workforce shortages are having on the food and farming sector, resulting in significant crop losses at a time when the country is experiencing the worst cost-of-living crisis in generations.
As the survey represents around a third of the UK horticulture sector, the NFU estimates the overall value of food wasted accumulates to more than £60 million.
The impact of food waste
This devastating amount of wasted food comes at a time when millions of people across the UK are struggling to put food on the table.
As Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the NFU, explained, “It’s nothing short of a travesty that quality, nutritious food is being wasted at a time when families across the country are already struggling to make ends meet because of soaring living costs.
“At the same time, the prolonged dry weather and record temperatures have created a really challenging growing environment for our fruit and veg. Every crop is valuable – to the farm business and to the people whose plates they fill. We simply can’t afford to leave food unpicked.”
Carina Millstone, executive director at Feedback added, “At a time when many farmers are going out of business and many families are struggling due to the devastating cost-of-living crisis, this is an absolutely unacceptable scandal.”
According to Vicki Hird, head of the sustainable farming campaign at Sustain, the impact of this colossal food waste is also detrimental to climate change efforts. She explained, “The waste that means is totally unacceptable in times of shortage and as climate change starts to bite here and for our overseas suppliers too.
“We need systemic changes ensuring more of the food pound reaches the farmers, workers and the land, more targeted support to create a more diverse farming industry to increase the size and diversity of domestic supplies in ways that protect nature and build resilience against climatic shocks.”
Lack of seasonal labour
As the war in Ukraine has kept Ukrainians in their home country to fight against Russian forces, Britain has been left without its usual influx of seasonal workers – and the impact has been devastating.
Tom explained, “This survey has demonstrated just how crucial it is for fruit and vegetable growers to have access to the workforce they need.
“With the demand for the Seasonal Workers Scheme expected to increase again next year, it’s vital the scheme has the capacity to facilitate the people the sector needs to pick, pack and process the country’s fruit and vegetables.
“This means increasing the number of visas available to meet the sector’s needs and expanding it to a minimum of a five-year rolling scheme to enable growers to have the confidence to invest in their businesses – particularly given the growth in the horticultural sector is a government ambition set out in the National Food Strategy.
“Expanding the Seasonal Workers Scheme will play a vital role in enabling that access and ensuring we don’t see this devastating level of food waste next year.”
Gareth Morgan, head of farming policy at the Soil Association, supported these ideas. “The Soil Association backs the NFU’s call for government action to address the immediate and serious labour shortages that farmers are currently facing. Access to seasonal workers is essential for many businesses.”
Encouraging British workers
But the war in Ukraine has shown that Britain cannot rely so heavily on seasonal workers from across Europe. Gareth explained, “Longer-term, we campaign for a transformation of the UK’s food and farming system with a stronger focus on underlying resilience. This will mean a greater focus on more local supply chains that support local communities with jobs and nutritious, sustainable food.
“We also call for longer-term action by government and industry to make farming and horticultural careers more attractive to the UK workforce.”
For Vicki, this means improving working conditions. “For too long the wages and conditions of workers in our food system have been suppressed to allow for ‘just in time’ systems and ever lower food prices from the supply chain. The hours are not family-friendly and the work is often hugely repetitive and arduous, so few are able to work under those conditions and we’ve had to rely on a flexible overseas workforce.”
“With a reduction in the number of seasonal work visas after Brexit and the uncertainties around this and an unwelcoming image for Britain to overseas workers we have seen increasingly, huge gaps in the availability leading to crises, especially around peak harvest times.”
For Carina, dealing with worker shortages is only part of the solution to combatting agricultural food waste. She explained, “It’s clear worker shortages on farms need to be resolved, but as do the wider systemic problems that lead to waste.
“The first step would be to include larger farms in mandatory food waste reporting, which the government is currently exploring for large retailers and other food businesses. Mandatory reporting will enable the identification of waste hotspots and the development of targeted interventions to support farmers to get more of their produce to market, boost their income and improve the nation’s food security.”