The Government must fix the supply chain crisis to ensure food security in the UK, a coalition of industry groups has warned.
Food and farming leaders warn the sector has been hit by shortages of workers from seasonal fruit pickers to abattoir staff and lorry drivers, alongside inflation which has driven up energy, feed and fertiliser prices.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which convened a summit of organisations to discuss food security on Tuesday, called for the Government to make a serious commitment to at least keep Britain’s self sufficiency in food production at 60%, and create an environment to support businesses.
Organisations involved in the summit are also calling for action to solve labour shortages throughout the supply chain and ensure a level playing field between British produce and imports.
The Government needs a coherent food policy to maintain UK production, including a clear strategy for solving labour shortages throughout the supply chainAndrew Opie, BRC
It comes as MPs accused the Home Office of failing to supply enough visas for foreign workers in a “timely and efficient manner” amid concerns over food and farming labour shortages.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said the Government department was “not listening” to the industry and called on it to take action urgently to address the problems.
The claims followed a turbulent evidence session earlier on Tuesday when the committee grilled immigration minister Kevin Foster over their concerns.
NFU president Minette Batters said: “Britain’s farmers are world-leaders in producing climate friendly food and, over the past 18 months, have been working hard to keep shelves and fridges full despite many being impacted by severe supply chain issues, particularly worker shortages.
“Government has tried to paper over the cracks with short-term fixes, but if we want to avoid this crisis continuing, long-term solutions are urgently needed to ensure a resilient supply chain that enables us to continue supplying everyone at home with fantastic produce, as well as leading on the global stage.”
She said the commitment to maintaining 60% self sufficiency would be a start, and called for the Government to help create an environment for farm and food businesses to thrive in the future.
The NFU said the summit took place at the end of a year which had seen a mass cull of healthy pigs, a shortage of seasonal workers that threatened fruit and veg being left unpicked in fields, a shortage of lorry drivers, a lack of produce on the shelves and a rise in imports due to supply chain issues.
Dr Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, said: “The UK pig sector is still in meltdown as worker shortages continue to impact our ability to process the number of pigs we already have on farms.
“The entire food supply chain and government must pull together and resolve the backlog now or we will have no independent pig producers left.
“Already 60% of the pork eaten in the UK comes from the EU – it would be a travesty to see this figure increase as more healthy UK pigs are culled on farms and their meat wasted.”
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said food retailers and producers were working hard to adapt to a post-Brexit world.
But he urged: “The Government needs a coherent food policy to maintain UK production, including a clear strategy for solving labour shortages throughout the supply chain.”
Bob Carnell, chief executive of ABP UK (Anglo Beef Processors), said the country was one of the most “environmentally competitive” producers in the world.
“To help deliver and give UK consumers and other markets access to the best beef in the world, we need to attract and retain more skilled workers from home and abroad and ensure a level playing field for quality British meat when compared to imports.”
A Government spokesperson insisted it had acted quickly to tackle the challenges to supply chains which it blamed on “global pressures” including the pandemic and an international shortage of HGV drivers.
“This year we expanded the agricultural Seasonal Workers Pilot to 30,000 visas for workers from across the globe to come to the UK for up to six months, in addition to a range of other actions taken by government to ease supply chain pressures across UK sectors.”
But shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon accused the Conservatives of rushing into trade deals that will undercut the UK’s high standard food production and said their changes to farm payments were putting family farms at risk.
And he said: “On top of failing to prepare for and deal effectively with food sector labour shortages, they have overseen red tape and border delays which have seen food rotting in fields and stuck in queues, and the distress of farmers having to send healthy pigs for wasteful culling.”
Mr McMahon said Labour wanted more food grown in the UK to good quality, not an influx of lower standard food imports.