Automation in horticulture – we respond to government review

First published: 29 July 2022

A picture of a overseas worker pushing a barrow of stacked baskets full of asparagus during asparagus harvest

The government's review into automation in horticulture clearly highlights the need for a long-term seasonal worker scheme to stabilise workforce pressures. 

Defra has published the results of a review exploring how the horticulture sector can make use of innovative technologies to help with picking and packing of fruit, vegetables and flowers.

The Review of Automation in Horticulture, chaired by Environment Secretary George Eustice and Professor Simon Pearson from the University of Lincoln, supports the wider aim of reducing the horticulture sector's reliance on migrant workers through increased and accelerated use of automated technologies such as:

  • packhouse automation
  • AI enabled robots
  • autonomous guided vehicles

“The review reinforces the need for growers to have access to labour to underpin their businesses while they invest and technology develops.”

NFU chief horticulture and potatoes adviser Lee Abbey

Recommendations

Experts across the industry came together to investigate what would be required to advance automation technologies in horticulture and ornamental sectors. Recommendations include:

  • establishing a consortium that brings together government and industry to drive adoption of proven technologies adopting a mission-led approach to fast-track new technologies
  • the horticulture sector setting up working groups to share novel harvest practices and consider how best to make the industry more attractive for workers
  • developing the sector’s skills pipelines and consider ways to attract and retain staff
  • considering a long-term seasonal workers scheme for edible and ornamental horticulture to help stabilise workforce pressures

Our response

NFU chief horticulture and potatoes adviser Lee Abbey said: “We’re pleased the government has published Professor Simon Pearson’s review and that it confirms our view that the horticulture industry is already incredibly innovative and an early adopter of technology.

“It’s this innovative streak in British growers that has allowed them to become incredibly productive, efficient and sustainable over many decades.

Access to labour

“What the review does also lay bare is that the technology to replace the majority of manual roles that require the dexterity of the human hand are simply not available yet, reinforcing the need for growers to have access to labour to underpin their businesses while they invest and technology develops.

“The NFU has always said there needs to be a longer-term and more viable solution to the labour shortages growers currently face and we strongly agree with the review’s recommendation for Defra to pursue a long-term seasonal workers scheme to stabilise workforce pressures.”

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