House of Lords inquiry hears evidence from horticulture industry

A photo of big ben at the Houses of Parliament.

The NFU has played a pivotal role in ensuring that the House of Lords select Committee understands the key challenges facing UK horticulture growers and is calling for greater government support to overcome the barriers to growth.

Through both verbal and written evidence, the NFU is calling for government intervention to address key policy barriers including energy, labour, crop protection, planning and more.  The NFU has also been fundamental in uniting stakeholders to land consistent messaging surrounding these themes.

The House of Lords Horticulture Sector Committee, chaired by Lord Redesdale, has been appointed to consider the development of the horticultural sector.  Since January 2023 the committee has been calling upon witnesses for evidence to understand the challenges, opportunities and risks faced by the horticultural sector.

Priorities repeated and emphasised by industry stakeholders

The NFU Horticulture and Potatoes chairman Martin Emmett took part in a private meeting with the sector committee and shared the NFU’s new Horticulture Strategy which covers 10 key policy priorities.

Written evidence was also submitted by the NFU at this meeting which gave more detail on these challenges, such as setting out the challenging competitive marketplace and outlining policy actions the government could take to address the market failure we currently face. 

During Martin's private briefing, he also described the complexities businesses face with peat free mixes, which the Committee later asked several other witnesses to share their insights on. 

You can read the NFU horticulture growth strategy here: Delivering growth for the UK horticulture sector

Committee hears about market failure

At an oral evidence session in March 2023, NFU President Minette Batters impressed upon the committee the enormous opportunity for growth but said it is being held back by extreme rising input costs, a lack of sustainable farmgate returns from the market and a significant lack of government support to acknowledge or addressing a fundamentally broken marketplace.

Evidence from a recent NFU report on the true impact of cost pressure in the Horticulture sector, supported claims by several witnesses that the sector was contracting as a result. 

In April, the chair of British Apples and Pears, Ali Capper, also raised concerns of growers receiving unsustainable market returns against the backdrop of rising food inflation, leaving growers no option but to scale back orchard production. She backed the NFU’s call for the Secretary of State to launch a market investigation into fairness in the supply chain.

Ali also supported the need for the Groceries Code Adjudicator powers to be strengthened to stamp out unfair trading practices. 

Jack Ward, CEO of British Growers, also agreed with Ali's analysis of the current market situation, which mirror's the results of the NFU's report and what is happening across other edible horticultural sectors. 

He explained how the competitive landscape of the grocery sector is placing more risks on growers as value is being taken away from within in the supply chain, and how growers are no longer willing or able to shoulder this risk.

Access to labour and appropriate planning policies needed

Labour availability has also been a hot topic across the evidence sessions so far. 

Representing the West Sussex Growers Association, Newey Group Director Mike Norris talked about the challenges his business faces with planning policy to expand his accommodation for workers and how a lack of long-term clarity of the SWS (Seasonal Worker) Scheme hinders business confidence.

Both Minette and Ali welcomed the expansion of the SWS scheme. They both also provided clarification on two mistruths often reiterated by MPs, that a) automation is not the silver bullet, and b) the seasonal worker scheme does not contribute to immigration.

The committee heard several times that the sector needs more clarity, such as through a five year rolling programme, to provide more industry confidence. 

Time and support needed for peat-free transition

Both Mike Norris and Martin Emmett, along with other witnesses such as HTA Chairman James Barnes, expressed the complexity businesses are facing with moving to peat-free growing media. They both stated the government must find ways to help growers transition to new alternative materials.

Martin expressed the need for more time to allow businesses to address the complexities in scaling commercial production using peat-free. 

They all wish to see government support to the industry with development of new products and capital grant funds to assist in funding on-farm infrastructure to adapt to alternative materials. But, they warned that peat alternatives are already more expensive, and business are seeing the knock-on impacts of this added expense. These are core policy asks of both the NFU, and the Growing Media Taskforce.

The committee are keen to understand the impact of rising input costs and food supply security, labour and skills shortages, productivity, R&D and ELMs development. It also plans to explore how policy can support the sector in meeting the Government’s ambition for levelling up and post-Brexit trade. 

Further evidence is expected to be provided throughout the year with the final report expected to be published by 30 November 2023.

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