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East Anglia Future 50

Vegetable grower fears food shortages and businesses going bust if government fails to stump up under Brexit

PUBLISHED: 08:59 21 March 2019 | UPDATED: 16:23 22 March 2019

Andrew Francis, farms director at Elveden Farms, who wants to see home-grown produce supported under Brexit  Picture: ELVEDEN FARMS

Andrew Francis, farms director at Elveden Farms, who wants to see home-grown produce supported under Brexit Picture: ELVEDEN FARMS

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A large-scale Suffolk grower warned he can 'realistically see' food shortages ahead under Brexit Britain as UK government officials fail to recognise the finely balanced nature of UK production.

Elveden Estate grows about 6% of the UK's onions  Picture: TUDOR MORGAN-OWENElveden Estate grows about 6% of the UK's onions Picture: TUDOR MORGAN-OWEN

Andrew Francis, farms director at Elveden Farms, argues the UK should support home-grown production over and above imported foods, and sees an opportunity for this if government works more closely with growers and producers. However, Andrew, who stressed these were his personal views, fears politicians will still opt for cheap food imports instead, putting the viability of UK food operations at risk.

The estate he runs, which is owned by Guinness heir Lord Iveagh, grows a variety of crops including 6% of the UK’s onions and a large proportion of its rye, as well as potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips and cereals, across around 10,000 acres of Brecklands farmland on the Suffolk/Norfolk border.

MORE – UK organic farmers face dramatic falls in crop value in event of ‘no-deal’, Suffolk organic farmer warns

“My crystal ball suggests the next few months and years will be very turbulent and I can realistically see food shortages as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the market place just don’t understand how finely balanced production is,” said Mr Francis.

Andrew Francis at Elveden Farms with his onion crop  Picture: TUDOR MORGAN-OWENAndrew Francis at Elveden Farms with his onion crop Picture: TUDOR MORGAN-OWEN

“I think the end point of sale will have to invest and support production with heavy capital investment loans just to keep food in the production system.”

Supporting home-grown produce

He argues that “a nation with a stronger view of national pride” would support home grown production over and above imported food products, and sees “a great opportunity” for DEFRA and the Chemicals Regulation Division (CRD) to back UK food production by working more closely with growers and producers to optimise the productivity of UK agriculture without the “millstone of European legislation” tying their hands.

“Unfortunately we are on a dangerous precipice which could see DEFRA and CRD gold plate UK environmental standards so high to win home votes and appease non-governmental organisations – wrongly without evidence – whilst allowing in foodstuffs produced to lower welfare standards or using products currently not approved for production in the UK.”

The UK food production is 'finely balanced', says Andrew Francis. Pictured is some Elveden Estate produce  Picture: GREGG BROWNThe UK food production is 'finely balanced', says Andrew Francis. Pictured is some Elveden Estate produce Picture: GREGG BROWN

This has been happening for years even inside the European Union (EU), he said, in order to support cheap food.

This would happen either because the UK sector is too expensive because of all the restrictions, or has “gone bust through loss of market place”.

“The UK government is happy to talk about high food standards, but when it comes to walking the walk they are happy to export that morality and not face up to the current barriers to improved productivity and environmental sustainability,” he said.

“Food tariffs are a double edged sword and I can’t see any evidence of bringing us out on the right side of any potential trade war.

“It would appear to my simple mind that the EU are lining up to give us a good kicking as an example to other members and I suspect we will be a big loser.”

Building home markets

However, if Brexit is handled well, he had “a level of optimism” that home production could displace the high level of imports in the crops we currently grow.

“We do not produce many crops for export, so a stronger home market and easier access to it would be beneficial to us. However, a large number of our inputs come from inside the EU and I fear input costs will rise far higher than the home market will be able to support through price correction,” he said.

Despite being a large-scale vegetable grower he says he doesn’t “overly fear” a labour shortage as machine technology will replace them, he predicted. However this would involve a “higher than affordable entry level investment”, and believes ‘heavy’ financial support will be needed to enable UK farmers to adapt.

“I think the end point of sale will have to invest and support production with heavy capital investment loans just to keep food in the production system,” he said.

Sector’s ‘massive’ challenges

The potato industry – along with all other sectors – are facing “massive challenges” to continuity of supply, he said.

Issues included finding a suitable method of setting skins on potato crops, and challenges around storage and chemical usage which made all year round supply of UK potatoes “very unlikely”.

“Each of these issues in isolation is a massive challenge alone and could see a business drop out of supply, yet we are having to deal with them all at the same time,” he said.

“If you proposed potato growing as a business model with the outlook over the next few years then nobody would say it was viable.

“It’s only that so many people are invested in it that it will stumble on for a few more years. Overlay a potential massive rise in input prices and a very disrupted market place and a naïve set of standards to work to in the current climate and it could spell disaster for several businesses.

“The land will go out of production and investment will stop before the government realises it has signed the death warrant of its home production and exposed itself to a poor negotiating position because it can’t supply home produced food.”

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