The future of the horticulture sector looks bleak without urgent steps to safeguard its future, a cross-party House of Lords committee has warned.

The Horticultural Sector Committee this week published a report entitled "Sowing the seeds: A blooming English horticultural sector" calling on the Government to act. It said the sector is at a crossroads and is unappreciated by policymakers, leaving holes in the UK’s food security and ability to meet net zero goals.

UK growers have been hit hard by rising fertiliser and energy costs due to the ongoing impact of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine, the committee said, adding that the sector is also struggling to attract new talent which has led to a reliance on seasonal migrant labour.

The Northern Farmer: Growers fear for future as rising costs and workforce shortages impact horticulture sector

The committee also heard evidence of discrimination and exploitation of seasonal workers, including the non-payment of wages and over-crowded, substandard accommodation.

Whilst the sector must do more to reduce its emissions, it can help to mitigate the impacts of climate change through improving biodiversity, carbon capture and urban greening, said the committee. However, the adoption of new technologies to support the transition to more environmentally-friendly, less labour-intensive growing methods is dependent on an effective R&D landscape and a secure skilled labour supply.

The committee was particularly critical of the role of supermarkets, saying loss-leader strategies squeeze grower returns in favour of low prices for consumers.

The report calls on the Government to take steps to safeguard the future of the sector by publishing a horticulture strategy for England, back horticulture jobs by putting horticulture on the curriculum, and produce a workforce strategy. Other recommendations to the Government include publishing its review of the seasonal worker visa route, giving more support to amateur and professional growers to help them transition to environmentally friendly practices, urgently conducting and publishing its review of fairness in the supply chain, and reviewing the R&D landscape to support innovation.

Lord Redesdale, chair of the Horticultural Sector Committee, said: “Horticulture is a multi-billion-pound industry employing over 50,000 people, but it is too frequently overlooked by policymakers. In the face of a cost-of-living crisis, supermarkets are battling to keep prices down, but this squeezes UK growers out of the market in favour of cheaper imports. This fundamentally threatens food security and the domestic market for ornamentals.

“Our report calls on the Government to publish the ‘world leading’ Horticulture Strategy it promised over a year ago and get on with its review of fairness in the horticulture supply chain.

“As part of this, it must secure the skills pipeline by boosting the place of horticulture on the curriculum, draw up a clear workforce strategy, and urgently address reports of exploitation linked to the seasonal worker visa.

“Amateur and professional horticulturists alike must be supported to transition towards more environmentally friendly practices, and the R&D landscape must be reviewed to ensure it backs British growers to innovate.

“With the confidence and support of Government, the horticulture sector can realise its limitless potential.”

In response to the findings, a Defra spokesperson said: “The domestic horticulture sector is crucial to the resilience of our food system and an important part of the wider economy.

“We are hard at work supporting the sector with the challenges they face – which is why we have provided 45,000 seasonal workers to help pick crops next year, and why at the Farm to Fork summit we announced a comprehensive range of measures to support this essential industry, including our forthcoming consultation on the fairness in the horticulture supply chain.”

It is understood more information will be released this autumn on how the sector can access the labour it needs, with the consultation on fairness in the horticulture supply chain launching before the end of the year. The number of seasonal workers available for horticulture in 2024 will remain at 45,000 with the potential for a further 10,000 visas should the demand be proven.