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How can a transition in the UK horticultural sector make us more resilient?

Where are the lettuce, tomatoes and peppers?

How can a transition in the UK horticultural sector make us more resilient to future food supply chain shocks?

In our blog in December, ‘Standing up for Horticulture,’ we wrote about the vulnerable state of the UK fruit and veg sector in the face of the many pressures that growers are having to cope with. In light of multiple external events, outside of our control, this vulnerability showed itself to the general public in the form of empty supermarket shelves. The general public rightly questioned how this had happened – why can’t we access the fresh produce we’re accustomed to eating all year round? Empty supermarket shelves are a clear sign of a broken food system. The UK currently produces only 23% of the tomatoes and 15% of the cucumbers supplied domestically, as noted in the Government Food Strategy 2022.

Man picking tomatoes in polytunnel

So, what can we do in the UK to transition our horticultural sector to make it more resilient to future external shocks?

The horticulture sector urgently needs a strategy that tackles the immediate problems, and a 10–20-year plan to build financial viability and environmental sustainability. Last year the Government Food Strategy promised that they would work with growers to develop ‘a world leading horticulture strategy’ but we have yet to see this. Since then, the issues have escalated.

Solving the issues facing farming will need a joined-up policy approach, prioritising British food and British farmers and growers. Two recently-published reports offer realistic and achievable solutions. Many of the ambitions and asks in these two reports have a lot in common; the issues are not new, and neither are the solutions.

The NFU’s strategy ‘Delivering Growth in the UK Horticulture Sector’ has ten building blocks which they consider to be critical to the future of the sector. These help to illuminate the current issues. UK growers could have planted their winter tomatoes and cucumbers as usual in their glasshouses to meet the demand from consumers at this time of year – they didn’t because the rigid pricing policies of our supermarkets (‘Fairness in the Supply Chain’) meant the supermarkets were unwilling to pay the higher prices the growers needed to cover their costs of production.

Similarly, the recent analysis by Warwick University ‘Growing British – a strategy paper for promoting fresh produce production in the UK’ shows how this ambition is very much achievable if the will is there is political will. They have suggested a 50% increase in the production of UK fresh produce which would be enormously beneficial. Taken as part of a wider strategy, it would mean “up to £126 billion of long-term economic benefits from a healthier, more sustainable UK food system."

These studies are aligned with the ambitions of our own manifesto, ‘Grow Back Better’; we want to see double the market share of seasonal UK fruit, vegetables, pulses and nuts by 2030. We are calling for a comprehensive horticulture policy that prioritises nature-friendly, agroecological growing, provides financial incentives and grants to support farmers to move into the sector, develops policies to improve access to land for diverse new entrants, and invests in skills and research into agroecology.

The value of sustainable, healthy food production needs to be adequately rewarded through the whole supply chain. We cannot secure a robust system while our hardworking producers are given such an unfair deal in our supermarket supply chains. Growers need looser specifications from retailers and a fairer price at the farm gate.

As consumers, we do have alternatives. We can commit to buying more locally, seasonally and organic. During the pandemic, veg box and farm shop schemes with shorter, local supply chains came to the rescue for some people amid supermarket shortages. These are fairer and more sustainable than our current system. From this starting point, we can start to tackle the interlinked climate, nature, public health, and cost-of-living crises.

Shorter supply chains can boost local economies, strengthen food security, and lower carbon emissions. Our schools, hospitals and other public settings should be serving local, sustainable British food. These local systems are recommended by the supply chains report, and they contribute towards a fairer and more sustainable system.

The Soil Association works tirelessly lobbying Government, providing evidence and influencing decision makers to make the UK’s food and farming system work better for farmers, for nature and for consumers. Please consider making a donation to help us continue this work.