Urgent need for answers

Features Posted 09/11/20
A radical rethink on the country’s food system, swift answers on overseas labour, a focus on technology and a fit-for-purpose regulatory system for plant protection products were all demanded at the National Fruit Show Live.

Hard-hitting speakers Lord Krebs, who opened the National Fruit Show Live, and NFU Vice-president Tom Bradshaw used the opening sessions of the virtual show to stress the urgent need for answers with just a few weeks to go before the Brexit deadline of 1 January 2021 and the chaos that could follow.

Tom Bradshaw hinted at the message he was going to deliver when he told an online press conference ahead of the opening that the government’s immigration policy was “not fit for the future of the industry”. He said the NFU and others were calling for an extension of the seasonal workers pilot but that “politics was getting in the way”.

Referring to the crisis that could face growers next year if the Government did not shift its stance and allow more overseas workers into the country for the picking season, he said: “This ideologically driven government believes UK workers will fill the gap” – something the industry has said simply won’t happen on the evidence of this year’s intake.

Adding that he was “incredibly concerned”, he said it appeared ministers were determined to wait and check out the problem for themselves “before making a U-turn”.

The press conference also heard from Teresa Wickham, President of the Marden Fruit Show Society, who said the online show had “exceeded expectations”, with a strong line up of speakers, a busy exhibition hall, an impressive display of fruit to judge and a good turnout of visitors.

Referring to the decision to press ahead with a virtual show in the light of the pandemic, she explained: “Walking away would have damaged the industry and shown a lack of confidence.”

In his opening address, Lord Krebs said that the ‘Five a Day’ campaign introduced 20 years ago had failed, with the National Diet and Nutrition survey showing no increase in the amount of fruit and vegetables eaten across the country. He said that in 2008/09 the nation was eating on average 102gms a day. Ten years on, the figure was exactly the same.

Pointing out that the food system was “stacked against” fruit consumption and a healthy diet, he pointed out that of the £300m a year spent by manufacturers and retailers on advertising, just 3% of that went towards promoting fruit and veg.

Lord Krebs pointed out that healthy food costs three times as much as ‘junk’ food and said the poorest 10% of the population would have to spend three-quarters of their disposable income to follow the Government’s own healthy eating guidelines. The cost in health terms to individuals and the NHS was “massive”, he said, and amounted to £27bn a year in NHS spending.

He said that the Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and Environment, which he chaired, had called for a radical rethink of the system in order to promote a healthier diet and fix the failures in food, although its nearly 50 recommendations had been met with “an insipid response”.

The good news, he said, was that the Government had committed to producing a national food strategy which would build on the work being done by Henry Dimbleby. It was, he said, a broad commitment that “leaves lots to play for”, adding that as part of that strategy the Government needed to “take on the business interests that make their money from selling unhealthy fat, sugar and salt disguised as food”.

Lord Krebs also praised the innovation being shown in the fruit sector but stressed the need to “bring the consumer with us”, a point that was taken up by Tom Bradshaw, who reinforced the message that society needed to be part of the decisions.

Pointing out that innovation meant some strawberry producers were now growing nearly 10 times as many strawberries on the same area of land, Tom warned that in some cases – such as genetically modified food – people had not been party to the debate and felt threatened by it. “We have to bring society with us,” he stressed.

Welcoming the support of the House of Lords and the one million people who had supported the NFU’s standards petition, he rejected the idea that making food cheaper would solve the problem of increasing access to healthy food, with the country already having, he said, the third cheapest food in the world.

On labelling, he pointed out that lots of online retailers already had a “British” button but said a better option would be for sites to offer a “standards” button that would only offer buyers food that had been produced to the UK’s “world-leading” food standards and cut out imported food that did not meet them.

Turning to the challenges facing growers next year, Tom said labour availability was a critical issue, with the industry still no clearer about what it would face from 1 January 2021. The current policy was not fit for farming or food production and there were “grave concerns” around the continuation of the seasonal worker pilot scheme, he said. Meanwhile, he went on, free movement will have ended with the UK’s membership of the EU.

Tom said the lack of clarity was putting food supply across the country at risk. Last year’s pilot scheme “hit all the right KPIs” and so there was no reason not to expand it, he said, adding that DEFRA was “fighting our corner hard”.

There was, he said, a similar lack of clarity around trade with Europe post-Brexit, with importers and exporters not knowing what the future looked like.

Tom said a no-deal exit would have real implications around the imposition of global tariffs of between 2% and 15%, which would increase food prices, something he said the country could not afford on the back of the pandemic. He added that the situation “brings into question the future of the global tariff”, but warned that “if we abandon that then we throw away our negotiating power”.

Tom also called for a ‘water framework’ to allow the country to capture rainfall in winter and use it for irrigation in summer, pointing out that with the Government keen to invest in national infrastructure projects, such a system “should not be beyond the wit of man”.

On plant protection products and agrochemicals, he said UK growers already used products carefully, protecting the environment while supporting productivity, but added: “When we need to use these products, we need to use them.”

At the moment the industry did not know what registration would look like beyond 1 Jan, while emergency approvals were currently taking months to come through and sometimes approved too late and after they were needed, he said. Farmers and growers, he stressed, needed a regulatory system that understood the importance of products and allowed the industry to maximise productivity.

Referring to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim that he wanted to “unleash the power of our world-leading bioscience sector”, he said that now was the time, but pointed out the industry needed evolution rather than revolution.

“We cannot produce a resilient food supply system without profitable businesses that can reinvest,” he said. Referring to “huge opportunities around technology and innovation”, he said there were many decisions that the Government first had to get right to give growers the confidence to invest in the future and feed the nation.

<a href=”https://issuu.com/kelseygroup/docs/sef12dec20/27>Click here to read the full National Fruit Show review

Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic

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