The value of UK vegetable exports reached record levels last year, according to figures released by Defra.
Vegetable exports were worth more than £111 million, Defra's Horticulture Statistics 2017 revealed - an increase of 1.8 per cent on the previous year and the highest value on record, although the volume of exports was down on 2016. Volume fell by 16 per cent from 155,000 tonnes to 130,000 tonnes.
Exports of fruit increased even more by value - up by 34 per cent to £155 million in 2017. Fruit exports were also up by volume - as much as 25 per cent from 142,000 tonnes in 2016 to 177,000 tonnes in 2017.
The new figures came as the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) revealed that exports of food and drink overall were up by 5.5 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2018.
Despite the increases in fruit and vegetable exports, the figures were still dwarfed by the level of imports into the United Kingdom in 2017. The Horticulture statistics for last year show that, although the volume of vegetable imports was down by 7.6 per cent, they still amounted to more than two million tonnes.
The value of vegetable imports increased by four per cent to £2.4 billion in 2017. The three key imported vegetables were tomatoes, sweet peppers and mushrooms. The majority of tomatoes and sweet pepper imports came from Spain and the Netherlands, while the Irish Republic accounted for over half the mushroom imports.
Fruit imports were valued at £3.9 billion in 2017 - a 6.3 per cent increase on 2016. Key imported fruit were bananas (Colombia and Dominican Republic), grapes (South Africa and Spain) and apples (France and South Africa). The key fruit imported from Spain and South Africa were grapes and citrus fruit.
Despite the large volume of imports, the Defra report produced some encouraging figures on home production.
The value of home produced vegetables increased by 3.3 per cent to £1.5 billion in 2017, and volume of home production increased by 4.9 per cent to 2.7 million tonnes.
There was an increase in the value of field vegetables, which rose by 4.2 per cent to £1.1 billion - a £44 million increase - whilst the value of protected vegetables increased slightly by 0.8 per cent to £356 million. This was an increase of £2.7 million.
Home produced fruit rose in value to £765 million - an improvement of 9.2 per cent compared with the previous year. Volume was down 5.1 per cent at 743,000 tonnes. The value of cherries was up by nearly £17 million to £24 million and raspberries increased by £15 million to £136 million.
The FDF figures for the first quarter of 2018 showed that exports totalled £5.2 billion compared with £5 billion in the first three months of 2017 - an increase of 5.5 per cent. The FDF reported positive growth in all of the top ten products (including whisky, chocolate, cheese, wine and beef) apart from salmon and beer.
EU market growth
The figures show growth was much stronger in exports to EU markets - up by 8.2 per cent - compared with a 1.2 per cent increase in non-EU markets.
This will add weight to the demand by the food and farming industries that the UK should not lose access to EU markets following Brexit.
Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly insisted that the UK will be outside both the Customs Union and the Single Market following Brexit.
The FDF and NFU have been calling on Government to maintain a close relationship with the EU following withdrawal to protect their European export markets. They were amongst 100 organisations from across the nation's food supply chain to recently launch a joint manifesto setting out a series of post-Brexit objectives.
They said in the manifesto, "In 2016 60 per cent of UK exports and 70 per cent of UK imports in food, feed and drink were with countries in the EU. Working towards a mutually beneficial trade agreement is a clear priority for the UK food supply chain, one which guarantees tariff free trade and with as limited a number of non-tariff restrictions as possible.
"It is imperative that the EU and UK reach an agreement that maintains continuity in existing trade arrangements as far as possible, including the avoidance of a hard border in Northern Ireland."
The FDF says in its first quarter export report that it is working with Government to secure an ambitious sector deal for the food and drink industry following Brexit. It is also looking at how to target other markets.
One of these markets is Japan, where UK exports of food and drink have grown over the past ten years, but at a rate below the average growth rate of exports from EU27 nations. In the first quarter of 2018, exports to Japan rose by five per cent on the previous year to £56.7 million.
“Food and drink exports showed continued growth in January-March 2018. This growth was based on robust demand for the UK’s high-quality products. Much of the demand comes from nearby markets, as demonstrated by strong growth to EU27 countries," said Ian Wright, chief executive of the FDF.
"There are also significant opportunities further afield. However, these require more specialist in-market support. For example, a recent trip to Japan highlighted the strength of demand that exists for quality UK products and the desire to build trading relationships.”
Elsa Fairbanks, director of the Food & Drink Exports Association (FDEA), said of the export figures: “We are greatly encouraged that 2018 has got off to such a strong start across a wide range of countries both established markets within the EU and emerging markets in Asia. Growth in our largest market, Ireland, highlights the need for a frictionless border between North and South."
The Food Supply Chain Manifesto has called on the Government to maintain free and frictionless trade with the EU and secure the benefits of existing EU preferential trade arrangements, at least until government can replace them with acceptable alternative arrangements.
It wants ongoing access to an adequate supply of permanent and seasonal labour. It wants to maintain existing high environmental, health and animal welfare standards.
It wants an "efficient and proportionate" regulatory system centred on scientific evaluation - one that incentivises innovation and competitiveness.