A third of this summer’s food harvest could go to waste on British farms because of a chronic shortage of migrant labour caused by the coronavirus outbreak, charities and farmers are warning.
UK farms and food producers rely on a migrant workforce of 60,000 to 70,000 seasonal labourers mainly drawn from eastern European countries including Romania, Bulgaria and Poland.
Within weeks, fruit and vegetable crops will need harvesting but travel restrictions across Europe and the UK, imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19, mean it may prove impossible to recruit overseas staff.
Farm labour charity Concordia, which sources seasonal labourers for British farms, says it is “desperately worried” about the impact on the UK harvest, and warned that UK workers will not fill the gap.
Chief executive Stephanie Maurel told Sky News: “We are extremely worried about what that means for the whole system.
“If there are 90,000 jobs in our sector, that’s usually 60,000 people that might do six weeks here and there, picking strawberries, asparagus, potatoes and so on.
“That’s at least 60,000 jobs, 60,000 people that we desperately need that we won’t find in the UK.”
Concordia is in negotiations with the Romanian and UK governments about providing dedicated flights for some seasonal workers, and is running a campaign called Feed The Nation, encouraging British workers to apply for vacancies.
But Ms Maurel warned that was unlikely to fill the gap, in part because of the government measures announced to cushion the economic impact of the virus.
She said: “One unintended consequence of the employee support scheme is that British workers will be paid 80% of their salaries during the shutdown and may not have the incentive to take other jobs.”
Farmers in some parts of the country are understood to be taking measures to try and slow down crops, including Scottish strawberry growers removing fleeces from their plants.
But that may only buy the industry days rather than the months it may take for the virus to pass.
Stephen Taylor, managing director of Winterwood Farms, Europe’s largest soft-fruit packing company, said the labour shortages could have a devastating impact.
“The pickers that normally come to harvest UK crops, that’s for crops of all sorts, vegetables of all sorts,” he told Sky News.
“With travel restrictions, it may be that people can’t leave the country they’re coming from. Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and maybe the UK borders are closed and they don’t allow people to come.
“I think many British farmers may think that if you offered them 70% of their crop being taken in this summer they would take it.”
Mr Taylor has instituted more than 50 measures, including thrice-daily temperature checks, to slow the spread of coronavirus among the 200 workers at the company’s Kent packing plant.
The plant currently distributes soft berries from Iberia to all the UK’s major supermarkets.
Mr Taylor is also having to manage fluctuating demand, which saw orders equivalent to Christmas when the outbreak began, but have now slowed down as lockdown measures and supermarket policies take effect.
He said: “The usual rules of supply and demand have been altered. With lockdown and people seeing the queues at supermarkets, we are seeing orders actually starting to decline.
“Supermarkets have withdrawn promotions which are designed to even out supply and demand, so we may actually see some fruit not sold.”