Blogs Sustainable Farming Campaign

Horticulture Strategy ditched: a massive backward step for the fruit and veg we need

The Farm Minister Mark Spencer MP recently announced that the Government will not produce the Horticulture Strategy, promised in the Government’s food strategy. Sustain's Head of Farming Vicki Hird vents her huge frustration at this backwards step and sets out why and how such a strategy, a coherent policy package, could deliver so much.

Growing Communities Farmers Market, Hackney . Credit: Vicki Hird/Sustain

Growing Communities Farmers Market, Hackney . Credit: Vicki Hird/Sustain

I can’t pretend I’m not hopping mad. I’ve been here before so I should know better than to be surprised. Promises of food strategies often end up as vague nothings, or weak consultations with little sign of actual action, joined up thinking or new resources.

Visiting our local farmers market this weekend (see photo) reminds me how good it can be but such fresh produce should be available for everyone, everywhere all the time.

But the recent announcement by Farm Minister Mark Spencer MP is one disappointment too many. He announced that a new Horticulture Strategy - promised last year in response to the Dimbleby National Food Strategy demand for a 'world-leading horticulture strategy for England'- will not actually happen.

I’m angry for the lost opportunities but also on behalf of the great growers I meet who do so much to deliver healthy products and address environmental and other issues. But they are under such huge stress – from labour shortages, energy prices and punishing contracts with the supermarkets. 

Why a horticulture strategy is not a top governmental priority baffles me given the shelves empty of veg earlier this year and the very high probability that this will reoccur, and with greater frequency, as climate instability starts to play havoc with our supplies here and overseas.

Why a strategy makes sense

It’s perfectly possible to see how a joined-up strategy - with a vision for growth in the sector - to ensure a well-managed increase in both production and consumption of sustainably produced fruit and veg would be beneficial. Doing piecemeal bits of policy and support is useful but we had that already and it’s not enough. As Defra even notes, in its response to the current House of Lords Horticulture Inquiry, the huge range of challenges and how this needs collaborative policymaking..

To clarify just a few of the benefits of a joined-up strategy:

Enterprise and economy – Horticulture is worth over £5 billion, far more per hectare than other farm sectors and employes over 50,000.  UK horticulture and potatoes account for less than 2% of farmed land but delivers nearly 20% of the farmgate value according to the NFU. Yet we import so much we could produce here. That enterprise and wealth could be circulating locally. 

Jobs – Horticulture has high labour demands so a growth in production and supply could boost local job opportunities provided these come with good working conditions and wages, and family-friendly work hours – not often possible in the ‘just in time’, low price system currently dominating retail.   

Public health – Fruit and vegetables are high in fibre, vitamins and minerals – vital micronutrients we all need - making them a key part of a healthy diet. The UK produces 35% of the total supply of fruit and vegetables. To meet dietary recommendations, promote health, and prevent disease, we need to increase massively the amount of fruit and vegetables we eat (by 86%). The UKs many studies show the UK’s supply of fruit and vegetables and the quantity being eaten is far below the requirements needed to be healthy.

Environment – horticulture has a tiny land take so its impact on nature is overall small, but it does use a large volume of water, energy and chemicals so could have a positive impact with reducing these and focusing on highly productive agroecological systems. Defra has funded trials on how to support this transition – they need to be implemented. More fruit hedges can also create great wildlife habitats and help retain soils. And we NEED MORE TREES - sustainable orchards and agroforestry can deliver many more trees as well as fruit, nuts and fodder and carbon sequestered and stored, soil saved and more.

Urban renewal - Sustain coordinate the Fringe Farming campaign - all about growing peri-urban market gardens enterprises. There’s much appetite in communities and even local authorities for this given the proximity to markets needing fresh produce and the opportunity to build skills and enterprise and create new jobs. They also deliver natural capital benefits such as water storage, nature refuges and city cooling. It could have been a core part of the new strategy.

A sector ignored

I’ve been a member of the Fruit and Vegetable Alliance - a diverse group of producer organisations and charities unified by a desire to get the nation eating much more fruit and vegetables - for several years now. We’ve been regularly meeting government in roundtables over that period with Defra teams and sometimes with Ministers.

We’ve all worked hard to show how we could do more as industry, as civil society and as government. All need to play a role but with such poor returns from the marketplace, as our Unpicking Food Prices report indicated less than 1% profit and British Apples and Pears recent research showed just how little producers make. And despite costs rising they are not getting a fair response from their buyers. Government action on fair dealing is needed urgently.

And the sector gets little public support (horticulture doesn’t benefit as other farm sectors from a major subsidy regime - on average only £3,900 in basic payments, compared to an all-farm type average of £28,400).

The F&V Alliance recently made huge efforts in developing and presenting short and long terms actions to inform the Horticulture Strategy they’d been promised last year. All that time and effort appears to have been wasted.

It feels like the much-praised independent National Food Strategy process is almost dead and this is one of the final death throes.

What we need now

We need to have a clear, urgent strategy – joined up between relevant government departments. The paper developed by the broad Fruit and Veg Alliance has a great wealth of ideas and suggestions, urgent and longer term. Labour, energy, fair dealing, environment support, sustainable productivity and healthy consumption policies and more are needed. We will continue to press for its recommendations to be adopted in full.

Published Tuesday 9 May 2023

Sustainable Farming Campaign: Sustain encourages integration of sustainable food and farming into local, regional and national government policies.

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Vicki Hird MSc FRES is an award -winning expert, author, strategist and senior manager who has been working on environment, food and farming issues for over 30 years. Vicki’s book: Rebugging the Planet is a homage to insects and other invertebrates, why they are so essential to our ecosystem and what we can do to help them.

Vicki Hird
Strategic Lead on Agriculture for the Wildlife Trusts

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