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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
food waste

UK labour shortage causes unpicked food to rot in fields

Ukrainians had temporarily partly filled the gap but since the Russian invasion many have been stuck in their homeland.

MORE THAN €71.2 million worth of food went to waste in Britain in the first half of the year for want of people to pick it, the UK’s National Farmers’ Union said today.

“It’s nothing short of a travesty that quality, nutritious food is being wasted at a time when families across the country are already struggling to make ends meet because of soaring living costs,” said NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw.

According to a union study of farmers, 40% complained they had suffered losses owing to a shortage of pickers with some €26 million (£22 million) worth of fruit and vegetables alone lost from January to June.

Those questioned said they needed recruitment to rise around 14% and added 17% of pickers failed to turn up for work while a further 9% left before their contracts expired.

Brexit has contributed to the shortage by making it more difficult for farms to employ workers from EU member states, with freedom of movement ended following Britain’s exit from the bloc.

Ukrainians had temporarily partly filled the gap but since the Russian invasion of their country in February many have been stuck in their homeland.

To overcome the shortages, Britain has had to cast its net far further afield to recruit from countries including Indonesia, the Philippines and Uzbekistan as well as South Africa.

“At the same time, the prolonged dry weather and record temperatures have created a really challenging growing environment for our fruit and veg,” said Bradshaw.

“Every crop is valuable – to the farm business and to the people whose plates they fill. We simply can’t afford to be leaving food unpicked.”

The union says expanding Britain’s Seasonal Workers Scheme is vital to ensure the country does not see a repeat of what Bradshaw called this year’s “devastating level of food waste next year”.

Britain this year authorised some 38,000 visas for seasonal workers but the sector says it needs around double that at nearer 70,000.

To counter the problem the NFU wants to see the visa scheme expanded to permit a minimum five-year rolling scheme, pointing out horticultural growth is a plank of the government’s National Food Strategy.

“This survey has demonstrated just how crucial it is for fruit and veg growers to have access to the workforce they need,” said Bradshaw.

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