That was the warning delivered by the National Farmers Union (NFU) to David Davis, secretary of state for exiting the EU in an open letter this week.
The letter, written by Ali Capper, chair of the NFU horticultural and potatoes board, warned the minister that workers from overseas – both seasonal and permanent – made a key contribution to the UK food supply chain.
“Whether it’s working in the fields, poultry sheds, vegetable packhouses or food processing sites, the reality is you will find a proportion of overseas workers that are integral to delivering great British food, flowers and plants,” wrote Capper.
“This has been particularly driven by the increasing difficulty in recruiting a domestic workforce in recent years and the seasonal nature of agricultural and horticultural production,” Capper told the Conservative Member of Parliament for Haltemprice and Howden.
‘Difficulty in recruiting a domestic workforce’
Speaking at the Fruit Focus event, in East Malling, Kent, the NFU boss said the decision to quit the EU placed huge uncertainty over whether the industry would be able to access non-UK workers.
“They are crucial in picking, grading and packing the crops that provide consumers with the range of quality and affordable British horticultural produce they’ve come to expect and enjoy,” she said.
Capper urged government to work closely with the NFU to solve a potential labour problem that could result in “unharvested crops and swathes of horticultural businesses closing down for good”.
Fears focused on the likelihood of a far more restrictive immigration process in place after Brexit. That could end the free movement of labour from the European Economic Area, would threaten growers and food processors nationwide.
While horticulture had led technical innovation in the UK farming industry, the sector remained “hugely reliant” on overseas labour, particularly for hand harvesting high quality, class one, fresh produce.
‘Hugely reliant’ on overseas labour
“These non-UK workers underpin a horticultural sector contributing £3bn to the UK economy,” said Capper.
The NFU urged the minister to explore all the possible options in maintaining access to horticulture’s vital labour supply. One solution might be some form of visa-restricted access to labour, she added.
Read the NFU letter in full here.
Many EU insiders believe Brussels is likely to insist on the right of EU nationals to work in the UK before granting unfettered access to the EU’s 500M consumers.
Meanwhile, NFU president Meurig Raymond met the new environment secretary Andrea Leadsom yesterday (July 21) to highlight the importance of food and farming to the UK economy.
Raymond told the new minister the farming sector produced the raw ingredients for the UK’s food and drink industry worth £108bn, which provided jobs for 3.9M people.
“We want to help shape a new domestic agricultural policy which is adapted to the needs of our farmers and food production which delivers public goods,” said Raymond. “We want to work together to put in place enablers for improved competitiveness including access to labour.”