The government has confirmed what many in the industry had begun to suspect – that it has abandoned all intention of drafting a strategy for the horticulture industry in England, as had been promised last summer.
In a parliamentary written question shadow minister for climate change Kerry McCarthy asked when the decision was taken not to develop a horticulture strategy, for what reasons and who was consulted.
Answering on May 2, farming minister Mark Spencer said the government was ‘committed to an increasingly prosperous horticulture sector’ but would not be taking forward a published strategy for horticulture as originally put forward by its food strategy.
“The sector operates in a complex, ever-evolving commercial and political landscape,” he said. “As such we are prioritising work that maximises impact through multiple avenues including the seasonal worker visa route, the labour review, automation, the Farming Innovation Programme and the Farming Investment Fund, and working across government on energy support and planning.”
He said his answer reiterated a response made by Defra in January to a question asked in the House of Lords.
NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman Martin Emmett said Defra’s statement was disappointing. “Of course we welcome the attention being given to the individual issues mentioned by the minister,” he said.
“But we will be missing out on the benefits of what we had been told would be a world-leading holistic strategy, championed within government, that would have created a more stable business environment and give growers the confidence needed to invest.”
Consultant John Hall, who chairs the Farming and Rural Issues Group South East, described the decision as extraordinary, especially coming as it did in the week that it was announced a food and farming summit would be held at Downing Street on May 16 to discuss barriers holding back home-grown food production.
“Commercial horticulture growers are the most innovative, productive and unsubsidised UK food-producing sector,” he said.
“There has never been a more important time to produce a horticulture strategy and I implore ministers to reconsider their decision.”
Vicki Hird, head of farming at food campaign group Sustain, said: “This is an appalling, backwards step given the huge need for coherent and cross-departmental action on production and consumption of sustainable fruit and vegetables.”
She said huge efforts had been made by the Fruit and Vegetable Alliance – a group of producers and trade associations formed in 2018 – in developing and presenting short- and long-term actions to inform the horticulture strategy. The Alliance has since resigned from Defra’s Edible Horticulture Roundtable in protest.
She added that the gains from having a strategy would be enormous for public health, the environment and nature, good jobs and enterprise in new businesses.