Edible fruit and veg have been left to rot in fields after 40 per cent of farmers faced crop losses due to a lack of pickers, a new survey has found.
The survey of just under 200 fruit and veg growers across England and Wales, who between them employ 22,000 seasonal workers, found around £22 million worth of fruit and veg was wasted in the field directly due to worker shortages in the first half of 2022.
As the survey represents around a third of the UK horticulture sector, the NFU estimates the overall value of food wasted is more than £60 million.
It comes as a recent severe heat and drought has significantly affected the remaining harvest, and new season plantings, bringing fears of a tight supply into the autumn coinciding with a worsening cost-of-living crisis.
“It’s nothing short of a travesty that quality, nutritious food is being wasted at a time when families across the country are already struggling to make ends meet because of soaring living costs,” said NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw.
“At the same time, the prolonged dry weather and record temperatures have created a really challenging growing environment for our fruit and veg. Every crop is valuable – to the farm business and to the people whose plates they fill. We simply can’t afford to be leaving food unpicked.”
The fruit and veg sector has struggled with a long-term lack of pickers, which was worsened by Brexit and end of free movement between the UK and Europe – the primary source of pickers.
Industry trade bodies, including the NFU, have been actively campaigning for an increase to visas allowed under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, with growers reporting 14 per cent vacancies for this season. Over half (56 per cent) of farms said production had fallen, while 17 per cent of recruited workers did not turn up.
“This survey has demonstrated just how crucial it is for fruit and veg growers to have access to the workforce they need. Expanding the Seasonal Workers Scheme will play a vital role in enabling that access and ensuring we don’t see this devastating level of food waste next year,” said Bradshaw.
This year 38,000 visas were made available for the 2022 Seasonal Workers Scheme. The sector requires 70,000 workers, according to the NFU.
Since Brexit, the government has attempted to kickstart a national recruitment campaign for British pickers on fruit and veg farms but the scheme, Pick for Britain, was scrapped due to low take up.