Let's grow our own

By Martin Yarnit

7th July 2020

Boosting home production of fruit and vegetables is one of the key recommendations of Our Future in the Land. Here, in the first of three contributions, Martin Yarnit analyses the pressures on small producers and identifies the measures that could make horticulture flourish.

Currently, as we head for the uncharted waters of a WTO Brexit, we import about half of our food, most of it from the EU. Without the imperial might of the old Royal Navy, Britain’s food supplies are exposed to threats that government seems indifferent to or unaware of. In his magisterial, Feeding Britain [1], Tim Lang proposes a comprehensive agenda for change, endorsing the recommendation of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission that we grow more of the food we eat, especially fruit and vegetables, the centerpiece of the plant-based diet that medical opinion is convinced is key to a healthier population with a lower incidence of obesity and diabetes.[2]

As it is, we are dangerously reliant on a very few sources of fruit and vegetable imports - Spain and the Netherlands supply most of our imported vegetables.[3] By contrast, a quick glance around the fruit and vegetable shelves of your local supermarket shows how few UK producers are represented and how narrow is the crop range. There may be one or two English apples when a domestic garden might well have five or six different varieties. Little surprise to find that 69% of our apples are imported. [4] East of England Coop is one supermarket chain that has made a point of sourcing locally since 2007. But out of a turnover of £348.5m in 2018-19, its Sourced Locally fortnight in June generated sales of just £1m. of all products including fruit and vegetables.

To boost the fortunes of our horticulturalists is a very tall order. Of the six million hectares of cultivatable land in Britain, only 160,000 hectares are used for fruit and vegetables.[5] At a time when we need more people to make a living from the land, our small producers are a dwindling band, mostly dependent on subsidies or diversification schemes like farmers’ markets and box schemes. The trouble is these still account for only a tiny proportion of the UK’s annual grocery spend of £160bn. So what is to be done?

To answer that question demands an understanding of what’s wrong with the current situation and how to remedy it.

The goal for larger UK fruit and vegetable producers is a contract with an intermediary: a supermarket chain, a wholesaler, a catering supplier or a processor. Once the contract is secured the producer is at the mercy of the weather, acts of god or the commercial fortunes of a Tesco, a Costco, a Compass or a 2 Sisters (for chicken). Sophisticated supply chains based on just in time storage, big promotional budgets and slender profit margins add up to a constant downward pressure on costs for the intermediaries, and therefore what they pay the producers. The gross valued added (GVA) of the food supply chain is massively unbalanced: just 8% of the total GVA goes to agriculture.[6] Producers have little choice but to comply with onerous quality specifications and tighter pricing or risk losing perhaps their major source of income. Old fashioned, pre-liberalisation mechanisms like the Milk Marketing Board had their defects but as a Sheffield dairy farmer explained, 'An individual farm like ours can't negotiate fairly with a multi-national corporation. You need strength in price negotiations.[7]

While returns are low or uncertain, the incentives for becoming or remaining a horticulturalist, as in much of British farming, are also low. These pressures go some way to explain why the UK is not self-sufficient in onions, potatoes, cabbage, apples and pears - all classic temperate climate crops.

Tackling this problem requires a combination of measures aimed at enabling market access, strengthening the bargaining position of producers and improving their incomes. In addition, more land must be identified for horticulture alongside a new focus on horticultural professional development. A big agenda that I will grapple with culminating in a plan of action that some may feel touches the outer limits of credibility. But, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing’.

[1] Tim Lang (2020), Feeding Britain: Our food problems and how to fix them, Pelican

[2] FFCC (2019) Our Future in the Land, p.13

[3] Garnett, P., Doherty, B. & Heron, T. Vulnerability of the United Kingdom’s food supply chains exposed by COVID-19. Nat Food(2020). Accessed at https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-020-0097-7

[4] https://gro-intelligence.com/insights/articles/brexit-reveals-uk-dependence-on-eu-fruit


[6] Based on table in Lang, p.362.

[7] Independent, 24 August 1994 – accessed at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/milk-marketing-board-dairies-alarmed-by-free-market-for-their-product-abolition-of-an-institution-1385383.html Mr. Mosley’s dairy farm no longer exists.

Martin Yarnit has had a career in education innovation. He now focuses his research on sustainable food production and distribution. He has built a cooperatively run village shop and local food centre and received Winston Churchill Memorial Trust funding to study food hubs and cooperatives in the U.S. and Italy.