Future of UK horticulture sector 'looks bleak', Lords report warns

UK growers have been hit hard by rising fertiliser and energy costs, along with UK withdrawal from the EU
UK growers have been hit hard by rising fertiliser and energy costs, along with UK withdrawal from the EU

The future of the horticulture sector 'looks bleak' without urgent steps to safeguard its future, a new House of Lords report has warned.

Horticulture, the UK's £5 billion industry focussing on fruit, vegetables and ornamental plants, is 'at a crossroads'.

The sector is 'under-prioritised and unappreciated' by policymakers, 'leaving holes' in the UK’s food security and ability to meet net zero goals.

These are among the findings of the report, published on Monday (6 November) by the cross-party House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee.

UK growers have been hit hard by rising fertiliser and energy costs due to the ongoing impact of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine.

The sector is also struggling to attract new talent and is perceived as unattractive and inaccessible, leading to a reliance on seasonal migrant labour, which has also declined since the pandemic and Brexit.

The Committee also heard evidence of discrimination and exploitation of seasonal workers, including the non-payment of wages and over-crowded, substandard accommodation.

And whilst the sector must do more to reduce its emissions, it can help to mitigate the impacts of climate change through improving biodiversity, carbon capture and urban greening.

However, the adoption of new technologies to support the transition to more environmentally-friendly, less labour-intensive growing methods is dependent on an effective R&D landscape and a secure skilled labour supply, the report says.

The Committee was particularly damning on the role of supermarkets, whose loss-leader strategies squeeze grower returns in favour of low prices for consumers, and which prioritise cheaper imports over UK-grown produce.

The report calls on the government to take steps to safeguard the future of the sector and harness its potential to deliver on critical food security and environmental goals.

The government needs to make good on its promise to publish a horticulture strategy for England, announced last year, to set direction for the sector and give growers confidence.

It must also back horticulture jobs by putting horticulture on the curriculum, producing a workforce strategy, and publishing its review of the seasonal worker visa route.

And more support must be given to amateur and professional growers to help them transition to environmentally friendly practices such as using peat-free growing media.

Lord Redesdale, chair of the Horticultural Sector Committee, said horticulture was too frequently overlooked by the government and policymakers.

He said: “In the face of a cost-of-living crisis, supermarkets are battling to keep prices down, but this squeezes UK growers out of the market in favour of cheaper imports.

“Our report calls on the government to publish the ‘world leading’ Horticulture Strategy it promised over a year ago and get on with its review of fairness in the horticulture supply chain.

“As part of this, it must secure the skills pipeline by boosting the place of horticulture on the curriculum, draw up a clear workforce strategy, and urgently address reports of exploitation linked to the seasonal worker visa."

Lord Redesdale added: “Amateur and professional horticulturists alike must be supported to transition towards more environmentally friendly practices, and the R&D landscape must be reviewed to ensure it backs British growers to innovate.

“With the confidence and support of government, the horticulture sector can realise its limitless potential.”