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Food wasted and healthy animals slaughtered – and only Brexit to blame

With a lack of foreign labour in Britain’s fields, crops are rotting and thousands of healthy pigs are being culled unnecessarily

The Pick for Britain campaign saw as few as 5% of Britons took up offers to work a seasonal farm job - Credit: PA

A photograph of a lettuce went viral in Australia earlier this month. The reason? Its price tag – an incredible A$11.99 (£6.90). Floods in Queensland and New South Wales have ruined crops, leading to the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, dubbing KFC’s decision to replace the green with cabbages in its Zingers “crazy”.

Meanwhile, in Brexit Britain, farmers lacking the labour to harvest them are simply letting their lettuce, and many other crops, rot.

“We’ve probably wasted between 20% and 50% of this year’s crop,” Nicholas Ottley of Kent-based LJ Betts told the Euronews channel this month. The Eastern Europeans who were predominantly picking the baby gem lettuce pre-Brexit did not return following the pandemic and the UK’s departure from the EU.

For the second harvest since Brexit there are simply not enough seasonal workers to do the picking and processing of food grown in British fields. The experienced Poles and Romanians who used to do it either don’t want to, or are prohibited by paperwork. The Ukrainians who filled the gaps last year must now stay at home to fight. Despite the increasing mechanisation of many other forms of farming, crop-picking is still overwhelmingly done by human hand (although there were reports in April the government was looking at the possibility of “robots to pick fruit”). Now crops are simply ploughed back into the fields, while farmers look further afield.

A government scheme gave growers access to visas for up to 30,000 seasonal workers, expanded by 10,000 more last week (June 13). But the industry says this is simply not enough.

“If you look at our and also the NFU’s work on the falling numbers of pre-settled status European workers who were coming here, we believed that a minimum of 50,000 visas would be required,” Nick Marston, chairman of the industry body British Berry Growers, told The New European.

“We actually have 40[,000]. And in addition to that, the businesses that have access to those visas have been expanded, initially to the ornamental sector – so flowers and what have you – and now 2,000 of those to the poultry sector.

“There will be labour shortages across the whole of agriculture and food processing, without a doubt.”

The consequences are wasted crops. British Berry Growers’ survey of its members from last November showed that in 2020 the industry wasted £19m of berries, which growers simply could not harvest since they were short of labour. In 2021 that had more than doubled to £39m. And Marston expects that amount to increase again this year. “Inevitably,” he says.

Last week Tom Bradshaw, the National Farmers’ Union’s deputy president, echoed this, telling The Times: “We’ve already seen lettuces wasted, tomatoes not harvested. The [labour] shortage has been the worst anyone’s ever known. There have already been quite a lot of crops wasted, and we’re going to need the staff here for picking berries [and other crops] in August, September, October. Unless we get the visas imminently, it’s going to be too late.”

It’s not that Westminster is unaware of the issue. In April the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee warned that the UK’s largest manufacturing sector faced permanent damage if the government failed to address the lack of workers, citing threats to food security, the welfare of animals and the mental health of those who work in the industry.

The chair’s committee, the then Conservative MP Neil Parish (who has since resigned after being caught viewing pornography on his phone in the Commons), said: “In 2021 farmers faced an extraordinary situation – crops were left to rot in the fields and healthy pigs were culled due to a lack of workers. This has serious implications for the wellbeing of the people who put food on our tables today and in the future. The government’s attitude to the plight of food and farming workers was particularly disappointing.

“While some of the reforms put forward by the government have helped in the short term, and we agreed that we must look to expand the domestic workforce – this won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, it must use the powers available – including over immigration policy – to support the sector. Otherwise we will export our food production and import more of our food.”

The reference to pigs is to a separate but similar issue. Earlier this year it was reported that 40,000 – the figure is probably much higher – perfectly healthy pigs had so far been culled and more than 200,000 were awaiting slaughter because there was, and is, a lack of butchers to process them. Britain’s pig industry has long been heavily reliant on a foreign workforce – 60-80% of the workforce in most large plants, with the largest group coming from the EU’s easternmost member states.

The difference compared with the fruit and vegetable pickers, though, is that butchery is skilled work – the starting salary is at least £26,000. But the problem is that the English-language requirement is similar to that which would be expected of a doctor or vet. A spokesman for the industry body the National Pig Association told The New European: “I absolutely understand why you have higher English-language requirements for those people-facing roles, but in manufacturing I think we can be a little more lenient.”

Fruit and vegetable farms do not have this extra hurdle to clear, but there are other challenges. For example, when they do get access to visas, it is being complicated by recruitment agencies having to look further afield than the Eastern European countries they have been accustomed to working in. Agencies are turning to Nepal and former Soviet countries in central Asia such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan – countries in which they have little experience of recruiting and thus find it difficult to guarantee how many people may actually turn up. Besides, farmers say, first-time seasonal workers are inevitably less productive than those who have turned up year after year and require no training.

“It’s put a substantial delay in the system,” Marston says. “It also means that all those people are inexperienced, whereas a lot of the folks coming back from Ukraine would have been experienced, they’d have done it before, so they’re much more productive from the word go.” He puts the difference in productivity at 13%.

And what of the “land army” of British workers who the environment secretary, George Eustice, called on to take to the fields and fill the gaps?

“We have a very tight labour market and it is not practical to recruit anything like the number of UK resident workers that the industry needs,” says Marston.

“If you look at the level of unemployment in rural areas particularly, which is where farms are, it’s extremely low. So if you look at the number of jobseekers in the areas in which these farms exist, it’s a tiny fraction of the number of people that they have to recruit each year. And then secondly, at the end of the day this is seasonal work. Clearly a full-time job, a permanent job, one that you know that you’ve got for as long as you want to do it, is more attractive to a UK resident than a seasonal job.”

Meanwhile, in the fields, millions of pounds worth of crops rot.

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