Good work for a thriving economy

10th October 2018

Food, Farming and Countryside Commission roundtable discussion paper, October 2018

This paper is the result of a roundtable discussion that took place in July 2018 at the RSA on the theme of ‘The future of work: Sustainable livelihoods in rural communities’. The discussion formed the basis of our thinking about the changing nature of work, and of how to generate and sustain good and meaningful work in the food and farming sectors and in rural communities. Combined with insights gained from the bike tour and call for ideas, this paper helps to show how we arrived at the content of our progress report, and in particular the proposals in Chapter 3: ‘Good work for a thriving economy’.


The prospect of Brexit faces the food and farming industries with an acute labour crisis. This compounds their long term difficulty attracting UK workers into both lower and higher skilled jobs. While the recruitment challenge facing these sectors is particularly steep, other rural businesses, including in tourism, leisure and local services, have also struggled with low-pay, seasonality and remoteness.

These challenges loom large in media and policy debates about food, farming and countryside beyond Brexit. They matter to us all, as they could affect the availability, quality and price of food, as well as reverberating across our economy, highstreets and countryside. They are also key concerns people have shared with us, about their businesses, livelihoods and communities. As our Commission has toured the UK, fruit farmers told us about the downturn in seasonal labour since the referendum, for example, and residents on the Isle of Skye described how seasonal tourism posed barriers to year-round employment.

Yet, from our review of existing policy proposals and the submissions we received to our call for ideas, there seem to be significant gaps in thinking about solutions. The gaps are not for want of ideas or initiatives; there are bucketsful: about maintaining migrant labour, developing skills and investing in automation, in particular. Rather, the gaps appear when you set this silo of activity within the food and farming industries alongside parallel debates, including on the rural environment, rural development or the future of work beyond these sectors.

In particular, in farming and food, the focus is on labour as a factor of production. Yet work delivers public value as well as private gain, social and cultural as well as economic capital — its effects spill out of the workplace into homes and communities. “Decent work for all” is a Sustainable Development Goal. What does it look like to recognise this, just as policy and industry are recognising the public value farming delivers through environmental benefits like clean water, as rural development policy recognises the value of micro enterprise, or as the wider employment debate focuses increasingly on the quality of work?

This discussion paper explores those connections. The first section sketches the landscape — who does which jobs across food, farming and rural communities; major trends and current challenges. The second section looks at proposals to solve those challenges, starting with the farming and food industries then casting wider. The third, final, section sets out some possibilities and questions that come from bringing these worlds together.


Who works in food, farming and the countryside?

Across the UK as a whole, just under a fifth of people live in rural areas. In England, rural residents aged 16–64 are more likely to be in work than their urban counterparts.¹ However, as there are more retired people in rural areas, the overall share of over-16s not working is higher.²

In England, 70% of rural workers are employed in small or micro enterprises, compared with 40% of rural workers.³ These range from start-ups to long-established farming partnerships. The rural economy is highly diverse, including high-tech and creative industries, financial services, caring, manufacturing and public agencies, as well as typically land-based activities.

Agriculture, fishing and forestry account for 7.5% of people employed in rural areas, compared with 0.2% in urban areas (Figure 1).⁴ However, beyond rural towns and their fringes, that share doubles, and rises to almost a third of employees — the majority employer — within small settlements in sparse settings.⁵

Manufacturing, including food processing, is more evenly distributed between urban and rural areas.⁶ Food service and accommodation present a similar picture. In total, the food system, from farmers and supermarket managers to catering staff — employs 1 in 8 of the UK workforce.⁷ Education, health and social work, and work with motor vehicles, are each bigger overall rural employers than agriculture, fishing and forestry, manufacturing, or accommodation and food service.

Figure 1: percentage of people employed within local units by industry and rural-urban classification, in England, 2016–17 ⁸

How secure is work in these sectors? Rural workers are less likely than urban workers to be on zero-hours contracts.⁹ Government’s Labour Force Survey finds workers in food service and accommodation are more likely than average to be on zero-hours, whereas those in manufacturing and agriculture are less likely to be.¹⁰ However, this survey excludes seasonal migrant workers, also with insecure roles: out of 466k workers in UK agriculture, ONS estimates there are 64k-77k (14–17%) seasonal, casual or gang workers, of whom 98% come from elsewhere in the EU.¹¹ They work an average of five months, peaking in June.¹²

Food manufacture and food service also rely heavily on migrant workers, mainly from the EU. Food manufacturing employs 116k other EU nationals, and hotels and catering employ 230k.¹³ Sub-sectors that rely on people from other EU countries for more than 20% of their workforce include the processing of fruit and vegetables (47.6%), meat (44.4%) and fish (37.6%) (Figure 2).¹⁴

Figure 2: our fruit and vegetables are largely produced by workers born outside the UK ¹⁵

Trends: two-speed communities, two-track jobs

Over the past decade, employment has fallen in UK food manufacturing and agriculture, and risen in the catering and hotel industries.¹⁶ This reflects trends across the economy, and the long-term shift in employment away from primary production and manufacturing into the service sector (Figure 3).

Figure 3: percentage of people working employed in each UK industry group, 1841–2011 ¹⁷

These trends have affected the mix of jobs within the rural economy as well as, historically, being associated with migration to towns and cities. Now the flow of people between rural and urban areas presents a mixed picture, which Mark Shucksmith, from the Centre for Rural Economy at the University of Newcastle, describes as a “two-speed countryside”.¹⁸ There is a growing gap between better connected and better-off rural communities, attracting young families and retirees, and more remote areas that suffer from declining services, poverty and a brain drain.

As we tour the UK, we have been hearing first-hand how the high ratio of rents to earnings, long commutes, unaffordable housing and hard-to-reach services weigh on people finding work and finding staff. In Norfolk, for example, a quail farmer told us how difficult it is to recruit managers when there is no local school. We heard from micro and small businesses how hard it is to hire, particularly seasonal workers, where there are no public transport links.

Within agriculture and the food chain, the evolving jobs mix could in turn be described as two-track. As investment in inputs, mechanisation and farm consolidation have shrunk the workforce and increased labour productivity (Figure 4), it has given rise to management and technical roles that are increasingly valuable to a business.¹⁹ There has been a succession of initiatives to attract and retain staff, and develop the skills of managers and technical staff.²⁰ At the same time, these sectors have become more reliant on agency workers — permanent as well as the seasonal workers described earlier — particularly for lower-paid roles. While there is much good practice in agency employment there also continue to be cases of abuse and modern slavery.²¹

Figure 4: partial factor productivity indicators for UK agriculture (1973 = 100) ²²

What has driven the trend towards agency work and, among agencies, towards EU workers? In reports for the Food Research Collaboration, Michael Heasman and Stephen Devlin describe the demands on farmers and food processers supplying a powerful, consolidated retail sector.²³ These are not only for low prices, but also pressures for just-in-time production and extended growing seasons. These have extended previous daytime activities like picking and packing into the night, and stretched seasonal employment beyond student holidays. On our tour, one of the most common comments from employers was that the work proved too hard for locals; a farmer in Galloway told us, “we hired someone local to lift potatoes, but he didn’t like the work so quit after two days — people don’t aspire to do physical, manual labour on farms anymore.”

Amid these intense pressures, and despite many migrant workers’ positive experiences of working in the UK farming and food sectors,²⁴ there is evidence that their lower expectations of pay and employment have contributed to their growing role in the workforce. A survey by CIPD reported one in seven employers saying they hired EU workers because of lower expectations.²⁵ Other research and investigations suggest that the respect agencies attest for migrants’ “stronger work ethic” may be hard to disentangle from experience that they will be less demanding on pay and less aware of their rights.²⁶

Current challenges

There is a tradition of civil society thought and campaigning that challenges the long-term trend for farming to shed jobs. Colin Tudge, for example, questions why losing jobs in agriculture is seen as progress when more labour-intensive types and methods of farming can provide greater social and environmental benefits, whether comparing horticulture to arable cropping, or monoculture to agroecology.²⁷ To this thinking, a policy focus on driving labour productivity is misplaced, at least unless productivity is radically redefined.²⁸

For the business owners and workers we met on our tour, the challenges were more immediate. Given the high dependence on EU migrants within horticulture, food manufacturing and food service, it is no surprise that access to these workers post-Brexit — and, for those workers, the future of their jobs and lives in the UK — dominate current debates about the future of work in these sectors.

It is already an issue. In September 2017, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) labour survey showed a 29% shortfall in seasonal workers for horticulture businesses.²⁹ More than two-thirds of labour providers were expecting to struggle to meet food manufacturing labour demands in 2018.³⁰ This has been attributed to Sterling weakening against the Euro, making other destinations more attractive, and reports of xenophobia.³¹

The challenge of filling the roles that EU migrants currently do is expected to intensify. Even if people from EU countries continue to be allowed to work in the UK, the costs and bureaucracy of doing so are expected to rise. Even if the reported xenophobia dissipates, a weaker currency may be here to stay. Meanwhile, the demand for seasonal and agency jobs has been on the rise: in 2016, the NFU was projecting a c.20% rise in seasonal workers in horticulture by 2020,³² while the British Hospitality Association anticipates a recruitment gap of over a million people by 2029 unless it can replace EU workers.³³ KPMG estimates that food and drink manufacturing is more than twice as exposed to EU labour as any other sector, while restaurants and agriculture, though less reliant on EU workers, are particularly vulnerable due to high proportions of low-paid and temporary work.³⁴

For the subsectors and businesses that rely on EU workers, these constraints could have as profound an effect as future changes to farm payments or trade deals. Research commissioned by Scottish Government found nearly two-thirds of farmers saying they were likely to switch to other agricultural activities without access to migrant workers, with over half saying they would diversify out of agriculture.³⁵ With horticulture businesses saying they were highly likely to downscale their business or cease production, the UK’s already limited capability to grow a balanced diet is on course to shrink further.³⁶

Proposals and developments

Brexit has brought questions about the future of work in the food and farming sectors to a head. Long-term trends have morphed into acute challenges which, for some businesses, pose existential threats. While these sectors are not the largest employers in rural communities, the effects could be profound, and exacerbate existing polarisation. So what to do? The potential remedies people have suggested, from within the industry and beyond, in turn range from the immediate to the long term.


The immediate priority for employers, industry associations and others with an interest in ensuring that business continues in these sectors unimpeded, is to maintain current access to migrant workers.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) believes the best solution is “to retain the free movement of labour without disincentives for people coming to the UK to work”.³⁷ The NFU has called for “a clear and unambiguous commitment from Government that farmers and growers will have access to su­fficient numbers of permanent and seasonal workers from outside of the UK where necessary after the UK leaves the EU”.³⁸ It envisages an approach similar to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme (SAWS) that allowed farmers to employ migrant workers for up to six months, which closed in 2013.³⁹

This call for a new SAWS was echoed by MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, as a key theme for witnesses to their 2017 inquiry into labour constraints.⁴⁰ Others demanding this include health campaigners at The Food Foundation, who launched a Fruit & Vegetable Alliance to champion “farming for five-a-day”.⁴¹

Government has been equivocal. Ministers told the EFRA Committee in 2017 that they would keep the potential for a new SAWS “under review”.⁴² Since, Michael Gove has told industry that he sees a compelling case for a new SAWS scheme, but is unable to deliver it from within Defra as the powers to do so lie in the Home Office.⁴³ EFRA has launched a follow-up inquiry in 2018, which has heard how labour constraints are biting and reiterated industry demands for clarity.⁴⁴

Local labour

Government has been more bullish in suggesting ways that farming, in particular, can “become less reliant on migrant workers and [use] more UK workers”.⁴⁵ Defra and immigration ministers told the EFRA Committee last year about initiatives including reforms to the benefit system, increasing skills and qualifications, trebling the number of apprentices, changing stereotypes of the sector and educating children about food.⁴⁶ Since, justice secretary David Gauke has announced plans for prisoners to work in horticulture to help with labour shortages, and The Times reported that Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, was preparing “myth-busting guidance to help jobcentre advisers explain to unemployed Britons the benefits of spending the summer in a polytunnel harvesting strawberries”.⁴⁷

As a long-term ambition, there is some support from the farming industry for efforts to draw in more local staff. For example, the South West Rural Productivity Commission recommended that the region’s Local Enterprise Partnerships should aim to match rural job opportunities with urban job-seekers.⁴⁸

However, farm businesses are sceptical that this strategy offers any kind of quick fix for their current concerns, highlighting that the jobs and job-seekers are in different places.⁴⁹ They also stress that that the pressures on the industry mean unpredictable shifts and sporadic long hours, often in difficult conditions, and their experience is that permanent staff of any origin will not do that work. Witnesses to the EFRA Committee inquiry were “unanimous that, no matter what policies the Government adopted, there would always be some need for temporary, migrant labour in the sector”.⁵⁰ In effect, even if the ratio shifts, the industry sees two-track employment as here to stay.

Pay and conditions

If tough conditions, long hours and low pay are part of the problem, what about addressing those? This is a theme for unions and food justice campaigners, who mourn the loss in England in 2013 of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), which previously set minimum pay levels for the sector.⁵¹ It was retained in Scotland on evidence that abolishing it would increase poverty.⁵² Campaigners in England have called for the AWB to be re-established, while those in Scotland have called for the scope of their existing board to expand to include food workers.⁵³

One of the limits on collective bargaining, whether via the AWB or unions, is how far employers can afford to invest in higher pay or better conditions in sectors that often operate on low margins. That a fifth of farms made a loss even before accounting for family labour and capital is an indicator of this.⁵⁴ On our tour, we heard how current uncertainties mean that even businesses which could invest are holding back. Those campaigning for stronger collective bargaining have therefore also called, alongside the NFU and FDF, for measures to curb the size and power of the major retailers, which contributes to these pressures on farming and processing businesses.⁵⁵

In common with wider research into agency work and the gig economy, by the Resolution Foundation,⁵⁶ the Taylor Review⁵⁷ and Sir David Metcalf’s Labour Market Enforcement Report,⁵⁸ food justice campaigners also stress the need to enforce existing rights and protections, and preserve them post-Brexit. However, in one of a slew of cases testing whether gigging contractors have workers’ rights, Deliveroo’s food delivery riders have been ruled self-employed, unlike Uber cab drivers.⁵⁹ Sustain’s Vicki Hird points to data showing that businesses can expect a labour enforcement inspection once every 250 years, and says the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has too few staff to do its job.⁶⁰ In the circumstances, she argues, union membership is especially important.


For industry bodies, skills development has been a bigger theme than pay and conditions. There has been a succession of sector-wide initiatives to improve qualifications and clarify career paths, driven by the challenge of recruiting staff to cope with churn and evidence that lower skill levels play some part in the UK’s lagging productivity.⁶¹ The latest of these reports, the Agri-food Industry Workforce Skills and Development Strategy published in June 2018, calls for a new professional institute to develop a professional framework and education strategy, recruitment and CPD.⁶²

How does this focus on skills connect with businesses’ acute concerns over the availability of seasonal and migrant labour? Sometimes, the debates seem to be on parallel tracks. Over the 37 pages of the new agri-food skills strategy there is no word of migrant workers and only one mention of seasonal work.⁶³ Instead Brexit looms as a trade challenge, requiring British industry to up its game on productivity, relying on skills, and is absent as a limit on access to labour. Is the implication that professionalisation and skills development will attract UK new entrants, increases labour productivity and shrinks the need for temporary and migrant workers — if so on what timescale? Or is it that qualifications, skills development and CPD should be equally accessible to temporary and migrant workers, only likely with explicit, targeted efforts to tackle the barriers they face to engaging in?

The agri-food skills strategy has involved businesses and industry bodies that have been vocal elsewhere about their dependence on seasonal migrant workers. However, in farming and food manufacturing, these appear to be treated as distinct job tracks facing distinct challenges and solutions, on contrasting timescales. This is different from the restaurant and hotel industries, where the British Hospitality Association had seen the delayed Catering and Hospitality T-Level playing some part in recruiting new people to the sector to fill the gap left by EU workers.⁶⁴


Swapping labour for technology has been central to the long-term decline in farming and manufacturing employment, and goes hand-in-hand with the growing skills needed for many of the jobs that remain. The potential of rapid advances in artificial intelligence and robotics to displace a new wave of jobs has attracted significant attention in recent years.

Within agriculture and the food industry, the debate has run along the two familiar tracks. Developments in precision agriculture and robotics are already affecting the skills requirements and working experiences for permanent staff, with change expected to accelerate. While the jobs currently done by migrant workers, such as picking, are also targets for robots, these are seen as hard to automate.⁶⁵ The conclusion is that they generally won’t be automated soon enough to pre-empt the fallout from Brexit. Indeed, the investment that automation requires is a major barrier to uptake⁶⁶ and, as businesses told us on our tour, the current economic uncertainty is holding them back from the kind of capital investment that would drive this change.

In the wider debate on automation beyond these sectors, the conversation takes a philosophical turn. What will people do when robots take their jobs? Where does automation create or curtail public value? Many commentators echo the findings of a panel convened by Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, which concluded that “technology destroys jobs, but not work”.⁶⁷ According to Tim Jackson, one of our Commissioners, automation contributes little to our growing need for care and repair, where human work will remain vital:

“… in tasks like care and education, where human interaction matters most. Or in renovation and refurbishment, where making and repairing calls on skills that are resolutely human rather than machine. Or they are jobs that could brighten our lives and our hopes for the future, giving voice to our creative side and stimulating the imagination with skills and artistry only poorly reproduced by machines. In short, this economy is one potentially rich beyond our dreams in the need for human labour.”⁶⁸

For the RSA’s Matthew Taylor, who led Government’s gig economy review, automation and artificial intelligence open up new possibilities not only for organising work but also structuring business:

“We could see, I think, the rise of mutuals and cooperatives, and new business models based on the fact that you don’t need a headquarters and all the bureaucracy that goes with it. You can just have a place and an algorithm.”⁶⁹

Work quality

One destination for wider debates on the future of work in a world of automation is a focus on the quality of work. This is informed not only by the questions Tim Jackson raises of what work is for when machines can do more of it for us, but also by the evidence that young people place growing priority on finding purpose — meaningful work — when job hunting: 63% of millennials expect their employer to contribute to a social cause and 90% think policies that prioritise a good work-life balance are one of the best things about their job.⁷⁰ Other studies find that employee satisfaction improves company performance.⁷¹

While skills and career progression may help give work meaning, and fair pay and conditions are necessary foundations, centring on work quality looks different from the farming and food industries’ primary current focus on professionalism for productivity. It emphasises workers’ experiences, how they can shape their terms of work, and how they can share in the purpose of a business. It implies inclusion — not a two-track approach — and recognises flexibility as a quality people value, even as it also presents risks of exploitation. According to a recent project by the Soil Association, which took millennials to visit big veg growing businesses, engaging with these values will be vital to the success of efforts by horticulture and agriculture industries to become employers of choice.⁷²

What does enhancing work quality look like in the farming and the food chain? Two examples give a flavour of the possibilities. Without a clear successor for the business, the owners of Riverford, the veg box provider, have decided to transfer the company to employee ownership; as of June 2018, 74% is owned by the Riverford Employee Trust.⁷³ Another example is one of the UK’s major supermarkets, looking at phone app that enables staff to work overtime in other stores or know where else they could work in store given their skills; as Matthew Taylor puts it, this “is opening up to lower-paid retail workers the kind of flexibility that middle-age IT consultants enjoy”.⁷⁴ Research on work quality suggests a range of other strategies, such as empowering employees to shape innovations in their workplace, or aligning the customer offer (e.g. opening times) with what works best for staff.⁷⁵

Universal basic income

Finally, a further destination for recent debates on the future of work is universal basic income (UBI). At its purest, this is an unconditional, regular payment to every citizen, irrespective of means and employment status. For advocates including the RSA, it is “a basic platform on which people can build their lives — whether they want to earn, learn, care or set up a business”.⁷⁶ It promises a safety net with minimal red tape, and fosters social innovation in a fast-changing world of work. One downside is the price tag — the RSA’s basic income model would cost an additional 1% of GDP — a large sum but within the range of tax changes made by recent UK governments.⁷⁷

While universalism is central to the idea, there have been more targeted proposals for basic income, including for a rural basic income.⁷⁸ One rationale is that the cost of living rurally is higher than living in towns. Another logic is that it offers a transition from current area-based farm payments that avoids treating farming as a special case within a diverse rural economy. Without taking into account any savings on current benefits and pension payments, the gross cost of paying every resident of sparse or remote rural areas a basic annual income of £4,000 would be £8 billion.⁷⁹

An alternative proposal is for work programmes, which create new publicly-funded employment in strategically important sectors. In rural areas, these would potentially range from horticulture, to care for an aging rural population, to green infrastructure. Advocates argue that this recognises the value people place on work, and is fairer and lower risk than UBI.⁸⁰ Precedents include India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and the US Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s.⁸¹ For some proponents, basic income and a public job guarantee are complementary strategies, which together cater cost-effectively for a wide diversity of needs and circumstances.⁸²

These debates may seem a world away from the current concerns facing workers and businesses in food, farming and the countryside. Basic income and work programmes are not ideas people mentioned on our tour. Yet Defra’s proposals for a transition out of farm payments, where farms receive capped payments with no strings attached, approximate a farm basic income. If farm payments were scaled according to employment, as some have proposed, or if the transition was extended over 10 years, agriculture might unwittingly find itself piloting the concept.

Discussion questions

Workers and employers in food, farming and rural communities face acute challenges, yet they are also grappling with versions of structural pressures and long-term trends that are shared across the economy, and are a focus for policy, business and social innovation. Bringing these worlds together raises provocative questions and possibilities.

A first intersection is between the two tracks of agri-food employment. How far can training to meet the skills needs for permanent roles help to fill the need for temporary labour? There’s scepticism in the food and farming industries that trainees could fill the demanding roles currently played by migrants, and concern it detracts from their training. Yet is this necessarily so? On our tour in Lincolnshire we met neighbouring farmers who teamed up to offer training experiences and use collaborative labour to ensure year-round employment; “we don’t see each other as competition so we can work together to provide greater job security for our workers,” one told us. Apprentices are paid less and part-subsidised, so businesses can afford them to work less intensively. With industry pressuring Government to rethink the apprenticeship levy, could there be more of this? How would the work need to change — shift patterns, job diversity, breaks for tuition — to square students’ and employers’ needs, and would the numbers stack up?

A second is between work in farming and the wider rural economy, including other land-based sectors. Within agri-food, there are already examples of counter-cyclical employment, where migrant workers switch from veg picking in the summer to meat-packing pre-Christmas.⁸³ As farms diversify, the opportunities for year-round employment grow. Yet could more be achieved, and could workers livelihoods be more secure, if this was addressed more strategically across the rural economy? How far can investment in green infrastructure, and non-land-based opportunities opened up by rural broadband, prioritise low-season employment? What new skills do they require, including among farmers and land managers, for example in ecology or business management? Can agencies or local partnerships offer year-round contracts across multiple employers and sectors, recognising that different sectors may share skills needs, and individuals may have multiple skills? What scope is there for local partnerships to leverage benefits such affordable rural housing or improve transport — key constraints facing rural businesses and workers — in order to attract staff and revitalise communities?

Training and links to other sectors are attractive in part because they draw in new income streams in a sector where the squeeze of high costs and low prices limits the scope to invest. But will the cost-price pressure on primary production mean upstream and downstream businesses reabsorb any value added — and deny any opportunity to invest in work quality — that is achieved through such diversification? How far does investment in work quality in these sectors therefore depend on regulation, either as it directly affects employment or as it affects supply chain structure?

It is tempting, in low-margin industries, to resist efforts to give workers more power. Yet is there mileage for industry, too, in a rebooted version of the collective bargaining that went out with the abolition of England’s Agricultural Wages Board, where the emphasis is on giving workers more stake in their businesses, and in rethinking their roles for the future?⁸⁴ Could this help businesses protect the value they create from capture by larger players up and down the supply chain?

Third, are the implications of engaging with the wider conversation about work quality. In that feeding people, access to nature and close community can bring meaning to people’s work, food, farming and the countryside are pregnant with opportunities for meaningful work. How readily can the food and farming industries evolve their current focus on skills-for-productivity in this direction? If new infrastructure such as broadband makes rural working more accessible, how will those communities change? As well as creating new opportunities for rural jobs, will better broadband further erode some local services?⁸⁵ As well as recognising the persistent challenge that remoteness poses to the growth of rural businesses, should we equally recognise and invest in the vibrancy of the rural economy as an incubator for small and micro enterprises?

We debated these issues recently at workshop with people from industry, government, NGOs and other sectors with a stake in these issues. They floated some bold ideas. These included: ratcheting up minimum wage levels alongside supporting investment in automation; sharing intelligence and responsibility across agencies to better enforce existing labour standards; and strengthening efforts to ‘rural proof’ policies, which have inadvertently exacerbated the decline of vital services in rural communities.

What kind of work and economy did participants want? Key themes included:

  • Greater diversity among those working in the sector, especially in leadership positions, but also through initiatives such as care farming that promote and value social inclusion.
  • Greater diversification of roles, spreading risk and providing greater task variety for workers.
  • Integration and cross sector migration, with farming embracing synergies with other sectors within the rural economy and beyond.
  • Workers at all scales of farm business — from microenterprises to the largest farms — to be skilled and competent, with some seeing the sector becoming formally professionalised.
  • Sustainable and affordable rural services, including housing, transport, health and care for an ageing population, with the Highlands and Islands cited as an exemplar for rural healthcare.

A final thought from wider debates on the future of work — echoed at the workshop — is perhaps the most liberating for an agri-food industry that has been grappling with recruitment, retention and skills for decades: all solutions will have a shelf-life. The world of work will keep changing. Like all sectors, food, farming and the countryside need solutions for 10–20 years that happen quickly, then to be planning for the next period. How do we build this permanent revolution into training and social policy? How do we recognise that the transition won’t stop when Defra sets an end date, but will keep going and going?

Next steps

We will be commissioning research about how to take some of these ideas further, to ensure that we develop proposals which can generate and sustain good and meaningful work for a thriving economy.


[1] Defra (2018). Rural Economic Bulletin for England, May 2018. Available at

[2] Ibid.

[3] Defra (2018). Business Digest February 2018. Available at

[4] Reproduced from Defra (2018). Business Digest February 2018. Available at

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Defra (2017). Food statistics pocketbook. Available at

[8] Reproduced from Defra (2018). Business Digest February 2018. Available at

[9] ONS (2017). Level and rate of people on zero-hours contracts, by urban rural classification in England. Available at

[10] ONS (2017). Labour Force Survey: Zero-hours contracts data tables. Available at

[11] ONS (2018). Labour in the agriculture industry, UK: February 2018. Available at; House of Commons Library (2017). Migrant workers in agriculture. Available at The difference between the low and high estimates depends on how many people hold multiple positions during the year.

[12] ONS (2018). Labour in the agriculture industry, UK: February 2018. Available at

[13] House of Commons Library (2017). Migrant workers in agriculture. Available at; Doward, J. (2017). EU migrants make up over 20% of labour force in 18 British industries. Available at

[14] Doward, J. (2017). EU migrants make up over 20% of labour force in 18 British industries. Available at

[15] FFCC Commission (2017). Food, Farming and Countryside Commission: Growing a mandate for change. Available at

[16] Heasman, M. and Morley, A. (2017). Earning a Crust? A review of labour trends in UK food manufacturing. Food Research Collaboration. Available at; ONS (2018). EMP13: Employment by industry. Available at

[17] Reproduced from Devlin, S. (2016). Agricultural labour in the UK. Food Research Collaboration. Available at

[18] Shucksmith, M. (2016). Future Directions in Rural Development? Carnegie Trust UK. Available at

[19] Devlin, S. (2016). Agricultural labour in the UK. Food Research Collaboration. Available at

[20] JD Swalding and AHDB (2018). Agri-Food Industry Workforce Skills and Development Strategy. Available at

[21] Lawrence, F. (2016). Gangmasters agree to pay more than £1m to settle modern slavery claim. The Guardian. Available at

[22] Reproduced from Devlin, S. (2016). Agricultural labour in the UK. Food Research Collaboration. Available at

[23] Heasman, M. and Morley, A. (2017). Earning a Crust? A review of labour trends in UK food manufacturing. Food Research Collaboration. Available at

[24] Scottish Government (2018). Farm workers in Scottish agriculture: case studies. Available at

[25] CIPD (2017). EEA workers in the UK labour market. Available at

[26] Shaheen, F. (2016). In the gig economy, recruitment agencies are the gangmasters. The Guardian. Available at

[27] Tudge, C. (2007). Feeding people is easy. Available at; Devlin, S. (2016). Agricultural labour in the UK. Food Research Collaboration. Available at

[28] Peoples Food Policy (2017). Available at

[29] NFU (2016). Labour Providers Survey 2016 A seasonal labour monitoring tool for Horticulture and Potatoes. Available at

[30] Written evidence submitted by the British Meat Processors Association (2017). Available at

[31] Giles, C. and Fray, K. (2018). The UK economy since the Brexit vote — in 6 charts. Financial Times. Available at; Carrington, D. (2017). arms hit by labour shortage as migrant workers shun ‘racist’ UK. The Guardian. Available at

[32] NFU (2018). NFU welcomes seasonal labour debate. NFU Online. Available at

[33] KPMG (2017). Labour migration in the hospitality sector: A KPMG report for the British Hospitality Association. Available at

[34] KPMG (2017). Brexit: The impact on sectors. KPMG insights. Available at

[35] Scottish Government (2018). Farm workers in Scottish agriculture: case studies. Available at

[36] Scottish Government (2018). Farm workers in Scottish agriculture: case studies. Available at

[37] Food and Drink Federation. Available at

[38] NFU (2017) Vision for the Future of Farming. Access to a competent and flexible workforce: Delivering for farmers and for the public. Available

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[63] Ibid.

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[73] Ibid.

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Note: this paper was originally published on the RSA website (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which hosted the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission between November 2017-April 2020.