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February news round-up

Labour market uncertainty putting 'huge pressure on horticulture sector'

The UK's commercial horticulture sector is under huge pressure because of continuing uncertainties over its future workforce, the NFU has warned.

Speaking to Reuters, NFU president Minette Batters said fruit and veg production could fall unless ministers take steps to boost the availability of migrant workers.

"If you haven't got an availability of people to come and pick and pack and plant and grade those fruit, vegetable and flowers, you will potentially see the sector shrinking," she commented.

Ms Batters acknowledged that technologies that could eventually replace migrant workers does exist, but said it is "so slow [that], in order for it to be comparable to the human hand, it will take significant investment".

Furthermore, she said a big outlay on this technology could be hard to justify, given that fruit and vegetable prices have not gone up in the last 15 years.

Ms Batters has called on ministers to help "put Britain on the global map when it comes to farming".

In her first official speech, Ms Batters said she wants the industry to be involved in Brexit trade negotiations and for farming to be "the first to take its place in this new buyers' market".

However, she stressed that the UK farming sector cannot afford to turn its back on the EU market, as it "remains crucial" for British farmers.

Indeed, she said 40 per cent of the country's lamb, 80 per cent of its dairy exports and 75 per cent of its wheat and barley exports currently go into Europe. 

Ms Batters said it is therefore vital that Britain has "zero-tariff, frictionless trade with the EU marketplace".

She added that since ministers have promoted British industry and defence interests abroad, they should now stand "shoulder to shoulder with farmers and push British agricultural goods".

Nearly 1 in 3 evening meals in Britain are vegan or vegetarian

Almost a third of the evening meals now consumed in the UK contain no meat or fish, a new study has found.

According to Kantar Worldpanel, 29 per cent of evening meals eaten in the 12 weeks to the end of January were vegan or vegetarian.

This reflects a much longer-term trend, as 26.9 per cent of evening meals eaten in 2014 were vegetarian, while the figure stood at 27.8 per cent in 2016.

As a result, demands on fruit and veg growers in the UK could be set to increase further over the coming years, as interest in meat-free diets continues to grow.

Sales of spinach, for example, have gone up by 43 per cent in the last year, while sales of aubergine have risen by 23 per cent.

Government to invest £90m in agri-tech

Business secretary Greg Clark has confirmed £90 million is to be invested in areas such as AI and robotics to make the agri-food sector's supply chain more resilient.

Money will also go towards Earth observation, as satellite imagery and digital data collection has helped farmers safeguard crops from threats such as weeds and pests.

The £90 million will be delivered through the new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, with the intention of making it easier for food and agri-businesses to incorporate the latest technology into their operations.

Mr Clark noted that the agricultural sector is the biggest industrial sector in the UK, as it employs almost four million people and is larger than the automotive and aerospace sectors combined.

However, he said the industry needs to be profitable and the conditions must be right for investment in the future.

"With the technological revolution that is happening, the skills of the farming workforce need to keep pace," Mr Clark continued.

"New technologies require new abilities and today’s modern British farmer is a Swiss-Army-Knife of skills; an engineer, an environmentalist, a data scientist a biochemist, an energy producer, a tourism entrepreneur, and an investor too."

Mr Clark added that farming is "foundational" both to the economy and the whole country, as providing the food and drink that people depend on means "there is no more essential industry".

Environment secretary calls for farm payment reforms post-Brexit

The government could end direct payments to farmers based on the amount of land they have after Britain leaves the European Union.

According to environment secretary Michael Gove, up to £150 million in support payments could be reallocated from the wealthiest farmers to environmental schemes post-Brexit.

This would mean that farmers may be rewarded for considering the environment, perhaps by encouraging biodiversity or taking steps to improve air quality or soil health.

A two-year transition period between the new systems would be put in place, to help ensure the introduction of the reformed system goes smoothly.

Speaking to BBC News, Mr Gove said: "It's been the case in the past that we have put too much emphasis on trying to generate a form of farming that is neglectful of the environment.

"Now the balance has shifted and this command paper today backs farmers who want to do the right thing.

"We're not going to give you money simply on the basis that you've already got a big estate."