Securing a Healthy Future through Horticulture

March 16, 2020

The UK has now left the EU, but under what terms is still to be decided. With predictions that both sides will ‘rip each other apart’, the pressure surrounding this month’s talks is palpable. The very real possibility of a US trade deal, resulting in chlorinated chicken imports from the States and the watered down production standards it represents, is sending panic through the UK farming community. But it’s not just meat. In relation to fruit and vegetables, the importance of these negotiations (both with the EU and with the US) cannot be underestimated. Fruit and vegetables make up our biggest trade deficit when it comes to food – a vast £9.8 billion, and without a favourable deal from the EU, we are looking at importing at much higher costs, both financially and environmentally. With this in mind, surely, it’s time we started growing more on British soil?

According to one report, we import 42% of our vegetables and 89% of our fruit. Almost all our chillies, spinach and tomatoes are grown in the EU, as are our nectarines and peaches, aubergines and blueberries. We even get 74% of our pears from Europe, despite the fact that pears are easily grown on UK soil. It is possible that many of these imports could come from far flung countries like South Africa, Peru and Chile. However, Britain’s relatively small size compared to other trading partners – China and the US in particular – may mean a good deal with these countries could be hard to come by.

There is also the controversial issue of food standards, which incorporate environmental impacts, animal welfare and food safety. The UK and EU are world leaders in these standards and Minette Batters, NFU President, has declared that opening the doors to imports from countries with lower standards would be ‘morally bankrupt’, undercutting UK farmers and effectively hanging them out to dry. EU pesticide levels, for example, are some of the most tightly controlled in the world in terms of protecting human health and the environment and pesticide use is governed by the precautionary principle. If we were to embark on a future trade deal with the US, where almost three times the number of active substances are authorised for use than in the UK, this could be of serious concern. Neonicotinoids, for example, which are banned in the EU, are legal in the States, despite being largely responsible for insect population decline. Unable to compete, UK farmers will either go bust, or our own food standards would need to be lowered.

As I have discussed in a previous article, the issue of embedded water is becoming an expanding concern. We already get most of our fruit and vegetables from water-stressed countries which are likely to get drier in the face of climate change. If we continue to rely on imports from these places, we will be exporting drought as well as damaging the food sovereignty of these countries. Some might argue that buying French beans from Kenya, for example, provides local employment and national revenue. Yet, as Rebecca Laughton from the Landworkers Alliance argues, they are a ‘highly resource intensive luxury crop which uses land that could be used for local people to grow food for themselves.’

Whatever happens, it is extremely likely that fruit and vegetable prices are going to increase. According to the Food Foundation’s report, Farming for Five-a-Day, at least 33 of our favourite fruits and vegetables will be directly affected by new trade rules with the EU. This will increase the cost of five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, from £37.58 to £39.76 a week. This may not sound like much, but if we are to eat the recommended seven-a-day, which on average is an increase of 64% more fruit and vegetables, this cost sky-rockets. ‘Fruit and vegetables make up the biggest inequality when it comes to diet in the UK,’ explains the Food Foundation’s Shona Goudie. ‘Any price hike will have a major impact on the poorest members of our population.’ For the poorest 10% of families, this would mean spending 46% of their food budget on fruit and vegetables, which for many is inconceivable. With the UK’s dismal diet-related health record already a major challenge, these rising costs could have grave implications.

Given the compromises that any future trade deal might require, there is now a unique opportunity to increase horticultural production in the UK and secure our access to healthy food that is good for the environment and the economy. According to the Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, horticulture is already relatively self-sufficient as a result of receiving only 1% of the farming subsidies and could increase its production of many of the fruit and vegetables that we import. We may not be able to grow avocados, but we could grow more tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, onions and cherries, for example.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome before this can happen is labour shortages, which are already a significant challenge in our depleted horticulture industry. As things stand, 35% of the agricultural labour force is made up of horticultural migrant workers, mainly from the EU. Where we get our agricultural workers from, post-Brexit, is a hot topic for growers. An increase in labour costs and the very real possibility that produce will be left to rot in the fields will put up prices and reduce availability, increasing the need to source our food from elsewhere. ‘The labour shortage situation [means] that some large UK growers are planning to shift production to Poland and even Senegal, where there is more labour,’ explains Rebecca Laughton. This has not been helped by the lack of incentives to get more people into horticulture. ‘My view is that for far too long horticulture and agriculture have not been encouraged as career options for school leavers and students, and have been seen as low paid, low-skilled labour rather than a long-term career.’ This is also compounded by high land prices, preventing access to land for those who want to work in the sector.

Alongside this, cheap food and an over-reliance on food imports in the UK has meant much of horticultural land has been turned over to cash crops, including oilseed rape and cereals. The fruit and vegetables we do grow here, are predominantly grown intensively and in water-scarce areas where a lack of public support and a competitive market means margins are extremely small. For some farmers, the only way they can survive is to become increasingly efficient.

Nick Mauro, one of the owners of Valefresco, has been growing salad and oriental greens in the Vale of Evesham for 25 years. ‘All of our growing is intensive,’ he explains. ‘It needs to be, otherwise we would go bankrupt.’ Nick, like many other farmers, is well aware of the detrimental impact intensive farming has on the land, but the reality is that without more support, farmers like Nick are trapped. ‘There’s so much pressure from retailers with price that we have to be intensive with what we do. As much as we would like to rotate our field every two years, it’s not always possible,’ Nick explains. ‘We need to be paid more for what we produce. We’re not a charity.’

Yet the cost is dear. Large yields and continuous cropping, with no rotation requires high levels of nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides, leaving a devastating imprint on the natural environment. Nitrogen fertilisers have been well documented as contributing to global warming, as well as degrading soil fertility and polluting waterways, whilst pesticides have had a devastating impact on biodiversityThere is also some evidence to show an inverse relationship between yield and nutrients in fresh produce. In other words, prioritising high yields has reduced the density of nutrient levels available for consumption. Given that a large proportion of the world’s population is malnourished, including people in the UK, and that fruit and vegetables are high in these much needed nutrients and vitamins, the case for not only growing more fruit and vegetables, but changing the way we grow them, is compelling.

Rather than continue on this downward trajectory where much of our farming is in conflict with the environment and our health, Brexit provides us with the chance to redraw the farming landscape. ‘We need to increase sustainable fruit and veg production in the UK and work to drive up demand and consumption of that produce,’ explains Shona, who is also working with the Food Foundation to do this through projects like Peas Please. She believes public procurement policies could also help with this, where public institutions like schools and hospitals could source more sustainable UK grown produce.

Critical to this change is securing the right support from Government to incentivise more farmers to grow more fruit and vegetables, using agroecological and regenerative practices, in a financially viable way. By doing this, it could be possible for the UK to produce affordable and healthy food that guarantees food security and looks after the environment. What’s more, by growing on a smaller scale such farms could provide the much-needed connection between the land and people, restoring the respect it so desperately needs. In doing so, we could see a resurgent interest in horticultural work, and crucially, a reacquainting of people with the joys of freshly grown fruit and vegetables.

Photograph: Steph French 

Victoria Balfour

Victoria works in communications and as a writer with a focus on food related issues and the environment. Most recently she has worked at the Soil Association and Bristol Food Connections. Previously she was a TV Producer making programmes for the BBC as well as environmental and humanitarian organisations in locations as far flung as Nepal, Uganda and Peru.

Tags: Brexit, Building resilient food and farming systems, horticulture, UK agriculture