A broken system

The Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs select committee (EFRA) has recently published its findings on staff shortages in the UK food industry. It frames the problem as half a million unfilled jobs in a sector with just over four million workers.

The pig industry and field crops are judged to have been hardest hit: government measures to counter a crisis situation were branded as “too little, too late” by those in the sectors concerned and there is little reason to suppose that the government has learnt a great deal from a crisis that is taking agricultural businesses off the map.

The covid pandemic is trotted out as a major contributing cause of the crisis, but as early as 2017, EFRA was hearing evidence from UK veterinary experts that Brexit would cause consequential and structural damage to UK agriculture. This damage is being done, but Brexit is not being blamed for it.

For all the positive noises coming out of EFRA over the government’s welcome measures to make it easier for UK businesses to recruit specialist food industry workers, the stage is set for a chorus to emerge from the wings and narrate the closing scenes of this very public Greek tragedy as it unfolds.

The UK food industry generates GBP 127 billion a year – more than 6% of the Gross Value Added to the national economy. It should be added at this stage that this figure for the sector includes multiple food retailers and their staff.

The National Farmers’ Union reported that a 33% gap in the work force meant that 24% of the UK daffodil harvest went unpicked, while one in ten growers in the Lea Valley Growers’ Association did not sow a third cucumber crop in July 2021, for the lack of people to pick the crop.

Fresh produce producer Riviera Produce Ltd left produce valued at half a million pounds to rot in the fields, while Boxford Suffolk Farms ltd reported that it lost 44 tonnes of fruit due to labour shortages.

The British Meat Processors’ Association warned that its members faced a shortage of more than 15% in staff numbers, while the National Pig Association reported a “…desperate lack of skilled butchers…”, while pig farms were facing serious gaps in their work force. The British Poultry Council went into the summer of 2021 facing a gap of 6,000 staff among its members, in a sector that employs the equivalent of 22,000 in full timers.

There is no reason to suppose that any of these important industry figures is making up or overstating the problems they face. But they all need rather more than a figurative pat on the back and meaningless platitudes.

The report HC713 Labour shortages in the food and farming sector can be consulted online or downloaded at https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/9580/documents/162177/default/

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