A senior Conservative has urged the Government to increase the numbers of visas for seasonal agricultural workers as the robots developed by one of the largest growers of British tomatoes “won’t be ready for four to five years”.

Conservative former cabinet minister Esther McVey told the Commons about a family-run business located in her constituency, which is one of the UK’s leading producers of tomatoes.

She claimed the director of the company explained “quite clearly” how the horticultural sector in the UK is “desperately short of staff to look after crops and cope during the harvest”.

The MP for Tatton called on ministers to expand the Seasonal Worker Scheme, as despite farmers developing robotics to “cope with the lack of people”, it will take four to five years for the robots to be ready.

Ms McVey made her comments as she opened a backbench business debate on the National Food Strategy and food security, which saw MPs touching on a broad range of issues from food prices inflation to introducing plant-based meals in hospitals.

The ex-cabinet minister said the tomato grower in her constituency “would have expected 1,500 workers out of their peak total of 2,500 from Central and Eastern Europe each year from March to Christmas, but this has not been possible this year”.

She said: “So a question for the minister: can these farmers have more visas for seasonal agricultural workers, rising from the current 30,000 to at least 50,000 as soon as possible and can farmers employ Ukrainian nationals to help deliver an increase to those numbers of seasonal agricultural workers visas as well as other migrants housed now in the UK?”

Ms McVey added: “Farmers are leading the way in technology too, developing robotics for in this case tomato production, starting with harvesting going right the way through to packaging, putting in significant money and research into this development to cope with the lack of people now coming forward who want to work in the farming sector.

“But these robots won’t be ready for four to five years, so they do need help now and for the short term to be able to deliver on their commitment to tomatoes for the country.”

In closing the debate, environment minister Mark Spencer did not address the issue of expanding the Seasonal Worker Scheme, but said: “I think agri-tech and investment in new technologies are going to help us on the way.

“We are taking steps to accelerate innovation by creating a new, simpler regulatory regime to allow researchers and breeders to unlock the benefits of technologies.

“And my honourable friend for Tatton talked about the constituent who is producing I forget how many tomatoes but it was an awful lot… 650 million tomatoes, that’s quite a lot of ketchup.”

Mr Spencer also told MPs “food has rarely been as high on the Government’s agenda”.