UK households face an increased risk of carrot and leek shortages this year as the domestic farming sector struggles to adapt to more extreme weather and higher input costs, the chairman of the National Farmers Union has warned.
Minette Batters said on Wednesday that rising energy bills and labor shortages meant there was a “real risk” of the UK losing horticultural expertise and becoming “increasingly” dependent on food imports. That would leave it more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and increase the likelihood of supermarket shelves being empty, he added.
“Leeks, cauliflowers, carrots, parsnips. It has grown much less this year because of these challenges,” Batters told the Financial Times. “So we have become more dependent on imports. . . with weather, disease problems, you don’t have to have a lot of things go wrong and create a shortage.”
Batters’ comments followed a warning from leek growers last week that extreme weather had reduced the harvest by “between 15 and 30 per cent”. Tim Casey, president of the Leek Growers Association, said supplies of home-grown leeks would run out by April, leaving the country dependent on imports.
The NFU on Wednesday urged the government to provide more support to growers in light of the recent glut of produce such as tomatoes and cucumbers from supermarkets.
He repeated his call for ministers to add farmers to the list of “energy-intensive” industries requiring extra help with costs, which the government rejected last week.
When the current energy bill relief scheme ends for businesses at the end of March, the industry will lose its price cap, with suppliers receiving a discount on their bills if costs exceed a certain threshold.
The NFU also called for a five-year rolling seasonal worker scheme with no “unrealistic” cap on numbers – a pressing demand since workers in eastern Europe stopped coming in the same numbers after Brexit.
According to NFU estimates, in the first half of 2022, 60 million pounds of food rotted in the fields due to the lack of labor.
Post-Brexit seasonal work schemes have been plagued with problems, including allegations of exploitation of Nepalese migrants, which led UK farmers to stop recruiting from the Himalayan country.
The government said it would issue 45,000 farm worker visas in 2023, with a contingency of 10,000 more.
Butters said post-Brexit red tape had contributed to shortages of salad items in supermarkets in recent weeks, leading five of the six biggest supermarkets to introduce rationing.
Her remarks contradicted the view of Spain’s agriculture minister, who yesterday acknowledged that bureaucracy was a problem but said it was not the reason for the shortages.
“Brexit has added a layer of complexity and friction and cost to these trading relationships,” Batters said. “We are a difficult market. A last resort purchase for some [suppliers].”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it agreed with the NFU that “the home gardening sector is vital to the resilience of our food system”.
“Although there are currently some problems with the supply of fresh vegetables, caused by the bad weather in Spain and north Africa, the UK has an extremely resilient food chain and is well equipped to deal with the disruption.”