Blogs Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap with a horticultural revolution

Bridging the Gap’s second webinar explored how to strengthen the horticulture sector. Kiloran O’Leary outlines solutions and key recommendations from across the four nations.

Credit: Sustain

Credit: Sustain

Everyone has the right to enjoy a healthy, just and sustainable food system. Yet food that is good for people and the planet is currently more expensive than food that is bad for health, and produced in ways that damage the planet. In any drive towards affordability the farmer must still get a fair price for their produce.

Chaired by Sustain’s Will White, Bridging the Gap’s second webinar explored how to strengthen the horticulture sector and why this is so important if we are to bridge the gap.

The state of UK horticulture

Despite the cross-cutting health, social, economic and environmental benefits, UK horticulture has been largely unsupported by government policy.  Both production and consumption of fruit and vegetables are going down, and we're heavily reliant on imports. All of these challenges, coupled with the pressure from supermarkets is leaving growers on their knees. 49% of growers now fear they could go out of business in the next 12 months, as highlighted by Riverford's recent #GetFairAboutFarming campaign.


Bridging the Gap invited a brilliant panel of speakers to recommend some practical ways to reform our horticultural sector for the better: John McCormick, Northern Irish farmer of 30 years; Tenesia Pascal, who runs an organic skincare business Earth to Earth Organics and is starting a horticulture business with support from Ecological Land Cooperative; Carolyn Coxe horticulture advisor at Soil Association; and Rebecca Laughton the Landworkers Alliance.

Governmental leadership

John and Rebecca emphasise that it is essential that growers are paid a fair price. The level of systemic change this requires will need government leadership supported by financial measures. Sustain and the alliance partners have been engaged in consultations with on the Enviromental Land Management Schemes.

The Landworkers Alliance’s Growing the Goods trial has shown there is the potential to connect a good ELMs scheme to a ‘farmer focussed route to market’ approach. Farmers now need to get behind this.

There are currently gaps in regulation which mean that supermarket power is squeezing farmers. We need stronger and expanded regulation across the whole supply chain.

At the demand end, local authorities could also be subsidising the difference in price to purchase organic fruit and veg via their public catering contracts. This approach is being trialled in Wales through the Welsh Veg in Schools pilot. Join our procurement webinar in April for more on this.

Removing barriers to new entrants

As Tenesia described, accessing land involves jumping through hoops and overcoming numerous barriers. Passion is often what drives farmers because it is not easy.

This makes collaboration and working in partnership so important. Organisations like the Ecological Land Cooperative are a lifeline supporting landworkers, like Tenesia, to access land and we need more organisations that can offer this level of support to entrants.

Other factors, such as an opaque planning system, create barriers for new entrant growers.

‘It needs to feel less challenging.’

For John, there needs to be more education colleges, particularly in Northern Ireland, and support for people getting into organic farming. Organisations like Soil Association offer technical advice and cross scale work which could be scaled across all nations.

Increasing demand

Increasing consumption could dramatically increase production in the UK. Although, currently, increasing consumption of organic might result in even more imports. 

"Organic farming is stuck at 3% of UK farmland as the market relies heavily on imports, meaning that both UK farmers and the environment are missing out on the benefits of growth in the organic market, and we need government support to help farmers convert/start up.” Organic Grower magazine (No. 66, OGA, p5)

Sean Ruffell of the wholesaler Organic North is clear that organic is still seen as ‘the preserve of the privileged’ due to the internalised costs of production. The Soil Association’s new campaign Organic for All is taking aim at this issue.

It’s vital that organic labels are not used by big retailers as an opportunity to inflate their margins leaving both the consumer and the farmer out of pocket. The recent #GetFairAboutFarming campaign has highlighted this issue and the impact on farmers. 

A further opportunity for increasing demand is through public sector procurement. Securing a minimum organic standard for procurement would be a significant step towards increasing organics in public sector food. In Denmark, public sector kitchens and private canteens have been the drivers behind the development of the food service sector. 2012 saw the launch of the Organic Action Plan 2020, a plan that set clear goals for the development of the organic sector. The aim was for public sector kitchens to become 60 per cent organic. Funds were allocated to help kitchens with the transition and to train kitchen professionals in the buying of organic products without blowing budgets, (see p26 Organic Denmark) 


Farmers who work cooperatively can have greater bargaining power with retailers. In Europe, there are more large and well established cooperatives which the supermarkets have to work with. This ensures a better deal for farmers. As John puts it:

‘We’ve got to take it back into our hands again’.

Farmer focussed routes to market

The Landworkers Alliance’s recently published their “Horticulture across Four Nations report, which sets out their vision for how to achieve a market garden renaissance in the UK. At present, the UK imports 45% of veg, and we can’t rely on that being possible in the future due to climate change making dry countries we import from, like Spain and Morocco even more drought prone. 20% of the £2.7billion we spend on of imports could be substituted by dramatically increasing the number of market gardens, so that 5% of the UK population have access to organic veg through ‘farmer focussed routes to market’, while every primary school child in the UK would have two portions of organic veg with every school meal. The report sets out the policy changes needed in each of the devolved governments to bring about such a change, while illustrating with case studies the work already happening across the UK to make this vision a reality.

Final reflections

In closing we asked our speakers: What do we push forward in our projects on the ground and in our advocacy work?

For Carolyn it is about building on what works and facilitating the sharing of that information through networks of farmers, academics and growing spaces.

Tenesia echoed this with:

‘Education, community and collaboration’

Rebecca implored us to support the ‘representatives who we’re going to be electing over the next year to really understand the potential of organic market gardens’.

‘Win over people’s hearts and minds’

Even inviting politicians and prospective parliamentary candidates out to farms and talking to them about the challenges and the barriers but also about what farmers are already offering them and exciting them.

For John it was exchanging knowledge freely, supporting and helping each other. 

‘Cooperation, that for me is the future’

Published Wednesday 20 March 2024

Bridging the Gap: Bridging the Gap to climate and nature friendly food for all.

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Kiloran joined Sustain in November 2022 as Programme Officer for the Bridging the Gap programme, which aims to demonstrate ways to build better supply chains between climate and nature friendly food and people on a lower income.

Kiloran O’Leary
Programme Officer
Bridging the Gap

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