A new report from the inter-university Food Research Collaboration (FRC) shows the weak state of British fruit and vegetable production and urges policy-makers to give more attention to rebuilding UK horticulture.
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According to the briefing paper, strengthening the sector would both reduce the food trade gap and benefit public health.
This is a practical issue which cuts across the current Brexit vs Bremain debate, according to Professor Tim Lang, of City University London, and FRC Research Fellow Dr Victoria Schoen.
The pair argue that horticulture ought to be central in the Government’s forthcoming 25-year food and farming plan, which is understood to commit to increasing food exports to pay for the huge £8billion food import deficit.
In a statement on the report’s release, Co-authors Professor Lang and Dr Schoen said “We worry that government strategy looks a bit like allowing Europe to feed the UK with good healthy produce – fruit and veg – while our food industry exports less desirable elements – alcohol and over-processed, sugary, fatty foods.
“Actually, horticulture offers something relatively simple to improve matters. Grow more here, but make it sustainable production only.”
The report,Horticulture in the UK: potential for meeting dietary guideline demands, paints a sober picture of a mismatch between supply and demand in the UK, particularly in light of public health advice to eat more fruit and vegetables.
There has been a big decline in the area given to UK horticultural production. From 1985 to 2014, there has been a decline of 27% for fruit and vegetables combined. The area growing vegetables has declined by 26% and the area growing fruit by 35%.
Fruit and vegetables are by far the greatest source of imports in the UK food system. The trade gap in horticulture has risen to £7.8 billion a year, about 37% of the UK’s total food trade gap of £21 billion in 2014.
Although some growers have extensive growing operations in Southern Europe and further afield, this makes sense for them as commercial enterprises but still does not resolve the serious lack of UK horticultural output.
Some imports (e.g. pineapples, avocados) cannot currently be grown in the UK but others which could be UK grown (e.g. brassicas, mushrooms, lettuce, apples, pears) have seen serious drops in production.
The proportion of the adult population (over 16 years) in the UK consuming five or more portions of fruit and vegetables per day peaked in 2006 at 28% of males and 32% of females.
Only 9% of 11-15 year olds achieved an intake of five-a-day or more in the period 2008/09-2011/12, and only 14% of 16-24 year olds.
The Consumer Price Index for food items as a whole has shown a significant increase of 35% in 2007-2013. Within this, the price of vegetables has increased by 27% and fresh fruit by 26%, less than the average for the food sector as a whole. ■