Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London and a trustee of Borough Market, on our troubles with horticulture
At a time when some politicians are urging the UK to vote to leave the EU, it is alarming to note the poor state of our country’s horticulture. Despite being blessed with a climate and soils well suited to growing fruit and vegetables, the amount we import continues to grow.
Between 1985 and 2014, the area given over to growing fruit and veg in the UK declined by 27 per cent. Currently, of the vegetables we eat, just 39 per cent by value are grown in the UK, while the figure for fruit is even more extreme: just 18 per cent. We spend £7.8 billion more per year on importing fruit and veg than we make from selling our own to other countries.
As a nation, we need to eat more fruit and vegetables, but if government guidelines—the famous ‘five a day’—came anywhere close to being met by the bulk of the population, our reliance upon imports would be even greater, as the capacity for UK horticulture to meet any increase in demand simply isn’t there.
Weak links in the chain
So why is this? Weak links in the chain include low wages, reliance on migrant labour, poor investment and low returns and a waste of land and resources—all of which need more attention from outside voices such as academics and civil society but also horticulturalists and traders.
Dairy farmers have been understandably noisy about the risks posed by rising costs and powerful supermarkets, but the public need to be more aware of a not dissimilar situation in fruit and veg.
The government’s strategy seems to be to allow the rest of Europe to feed the UK with fresh produce while our own food industry focuses on exporting alcohol and over-processed, sugary, fatty foods.
Part of the solution is to grow more here, using sustainable methods, but this needs political leadership. The public says it wants to eat British, chefs encourage it, but it’s the government that needs to listen and lead.