UK needs foreign workers to keep the nation fed, leading academic warns

Agri-food is the biggest manufacturing industry in the UK economy, and will probably the sector most impacted by Brexit, Lord Tees said
Agri-food is the biggest manufacturing industry in the UK economy, and will probably the sector most impacted by Brexit, Lord Tees said

The implications of Brexit on the nation’s food production are “major” and include the potential diminution of the workforce required to take food from farm to fork.

In his keynote address at the N8 AgriFood International Conference 2018, Professor The Lord Trees, crossbench member of the House of Lords, said that future food security was “a major responsibility of government”.

Lord Tees said the government needed to ensure that affordable food, produced to high standards is maintained after the UK leaves the European Union.

Former Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Liverpool, Lord Tees told around 300 delegates at the annual gathering of some of the world’s leading experts in agri-food and tech.

“Whilst supporting environmental improvement, Government needs to ensure that we continue to produce adequate amounts of food of good quality in an environmentally sustainable way at affordable prices,” he said.

This could be in jeopardy, he argued, partly because of the numbers of foreign workers currently employed across the nation’s food production system.

Lord Tees added: “We are hugely reliant on non-UK EU nationals in various large areas of our economy, particularly in agri-food.

“In terms of my own particular area, in contribution to veterinary activities, but also in terms of labour at all levels in the food chain, particularly the slaughter and food processing stages, in harvesting of crops, vegetables and fruits and so on.

“There are huge implications and the worry is that Brexit is making it less likely that people will want to come, those who are here may want to leave and we will have a labour deficit that will be difficult to cover, certainly without immigration of some sort.”

He added: “This then becomes the responsibility of the Home Office, not Defra, and there needs to be a realistic approach to admittance of overseas labour, there has to be an acknowledgment that we absolutely need these people for our economic development.

“The criteria, as well, need to be realistic. It’s no good saying that of course we are going to allow the brain surgeons, the financial whizzkids in - we need more than just them. I’m sorry, but we need people to do the job on the ground, highly-skilled, manually proficient people who are willing to work hard and harvest our food and process our livestock products.”

Leading experts

The annual conference is organised by the N8 AgriFood Programme, part of the N8 Research Partnership, which aims to maximise the impact of research expertise from the eight most research intensive universities in the North of England.

Its purpose is to promote collaboration, establish innovative research capabilities and drive economic growth.

Hosted, this year, by the Universities of Liverpool and York, the N8 AgriFood conference has attracted leading academics and industry experts from across the global agri-food sector to address the key issues facing the food system, forge new partnerships and showcase innovation.

In his speech, Lord Trees told delegates that the headline implication of Brexit on the sector will be the potential loss of European funding through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which will be replaced initially by domestic public support.

“How that will change in both quantum and qualitative nature,” he said, “is a matter of current debate.”

Therefore the N8 AgriFood conference, he said, was extremely timely: “Agri-food is the biggest manufacturing industry in the UK economy and it will continue to be huge and it is probably the sector most impacted by Brexit in terms of legislation.

“Defra probably has the biggest legislative load to cope with in terms of bringing EU law into UK law and then revising and adapting it for our particular purposes in the coming years.

“There’s a huge legacy of law around energy, environment, farming, so this is very timely and this is a big challenge to the UK economy going forward,” he said.

Participating organisations in this year’s conference include: The Real Junk Food Project, Farm Urban, DEFRA, The Trussell Group, Mathys-Squire, Pepsico, Waitrose, Co-op, William Jackson Food Group, Samworth Brothers, WRAP, Mondelez, Nestle, First Love Foundations, Can Cook Kitchen, the Environmental Change Institute, The Food Domain, the Food Standards Agency, SIME-Darby PLC, Decarbonize Ltd, Living Loud, IFSTAL, Innovate UK and the British Geological Society.