NFU Horticulture Board Chairman, Ali Capper, expresses her deep concern and disappointment at comments coming from the MAC Committee, and explains why access to labour should not be seen as a ‘privilege’.
I’m sure many of you will have been as disappointed as I was to see the comments this week coming from the MAC committee being reported on the BBC.
After all of our hard work securing the pilot seasonal workers scheme it is disheartening to see such comments coming out of the Committee. This is especially so after the MAC report rightly acknowledged farming’s specific workforce requirements and the NFU’s warnings that any reduction in the number of workers would cause massive disruption to the entire food and farming supply chain.
The majority of other EU countries already have access to non-EU labour – a fact which appears to have been overlooked. British growers must not be penalised for simply being put on a level playing field with the rest of the EU.
Some of the comments from the MAC also accused the industry of having low productivity. Let’s be clear, there are NO reliable DEFRA statistics for Horticultural productivity. Again, this totally ignores the major advances we’ve seen in the last 20 - 30 years with yields per hectare for some crops more than doubling, and investment in automation significantly increasing. British eating apples have increased production per hectare by 27% since 1997. British berry growers have increased production per hectare by 5 times in 20 years through the adoption of polytunnels and table top growing systems.
There are also some very exciting developments in robotics, but all of the top scientists in this area agree that these will not be commercially viable for at least another 7-10 years. There is no strawberry picking robot anywhere in the world that can compete with a human and picking is only 40% of the workforce effort - planting and crop husbandry which makes up the rest has not been considered by robotics engineers yet, so the MAC needs to reset its unrealistic expectations.
The point must also be made that productivity and labour usage are not directly linked. If we want to increase UK production and reverse the decline in self-sufficiency, increased productivity can be delivered by increasing our food output while maintaining the same number of workers.
It shouldn’t be a privilege for the public to have access to high quality British fruit and veg. The British public have a right to choose British food, and so British farmers must sustain our current levels of access to seasonal labour. As we await the Government’s Immigration Bill it is essential that we continue our calls for a policy based on both fact and business need, and one that recognises the importance of both permanent and seasonal work at all skill levels to our British food production system.