Tens of millions of pounds’ worth of fruit and vegetables went to waste in the first half of this year because of labour shortages on British farms, according to a major industry survey published on Monday.
The National Farmers’ Union estimated that up to £60mn of produce were thrown away because of a lack of fruit and vegetable pickers. The calculations were based on a survey of 199 growers, about a third of the sector, who together reported £22mn of wasted crops.
British farms have been blighted by staff shortages since the introduction of tough immigration rules on low-skilled workers after the EU’s free movement of people provisions ceased to apply in the UK following Brexit.
The government’s seasonal agricultural workers’ visa scheme, which has been extended until the end of 2024, was introduced to plug the gaps in the workforce, enabling 38,000 visas to be issued to farm workers.
But the survey throws new light on the shortfalls of the scheme, which only provides enough visas to fill roughly three-fifths of jobs in the sector.
Several sectors that historically relied on low-skilled workers from the EU — including agriculture, hospitality and social care — have been hit particularly hard by staffing problems in recent years. Foreign care staff are also eligible for a special visa.
Staffing levels at the growers surveyed were on average 14 per cent below the required levels. Some 9 per cent of workers also left their contracts early, adding to the workforce shortages.
“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,” said Tom Bradshaw, NFU deputy president.
Bradshaw called on the government to increase the number of visas available under the seasonal workers scheme and extend it to at least a five-year rolling scheme. Growers expect a further fall in production next year of 4.4 per cent.
He added that this season’s growers had also had to contend with “a really challenging growing environment” because of the record temperatures and prolonged dry spell.
“With the demand on 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,” he said.
Bradshaw said the survey “demonstrated just how crucial it is for fruit and veg growers to have access to the workforce they need”. This year, 63 per cent of seasonal workers were recruited through the special visa scheme. That number is next year expected to rise to 69 per cent.
“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,” he added.
The Home Office, however, has given no indication that it intends to expand the seasonal worker scheme and plans instead to reduce the number of visas allocated from 2023. The government hopes that schemes to encourage British workers into the sector, together with progress on automation, will make up the difference.
“We will always back our farmers and growers and ensure that they have the support and workforce that they need,” the Home Office said, adding: “We are also working towards attracting UK workers into the sector.”