Britain’s farmers are warning the government risks “sleepwalking” into a food supply crisis unless it urgently provides support to those struggling with the soaring cost of the “three f’s”: fuel, feed and fertiliser.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has said the shortages of eggs could spread to other food products, as UK fruit and vegetable growers and meat and dairy producers come under pressure from soaring costs for energy and animal feed, combined with the challenge of finding enough staff.
Energy-intensive crops including tomatoes, cucumbers and pears are on track for their lowest yields since records began in 1985, the NFU said, as producers leave agriculture in the face of rising costs.
“Huge issues for pigs, for poultry meat, for eggs, for fresh produce,” NFU’s president, Minette Batters, told journalists, warning that more reliance on food imports could further push up price inflation.
She said the domestic horticultural sector is “contracting”, while milk prices are expected to fall below the cost of production, and beef farmers are deciding whether to reduce their herds.
Farmers have faced rising costs since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the NFU said, as fertiliser prices have tripled since 2019, on top of a six-fold increase in wholesale gas prices. The NFU said the UK had lost about 7,000 agricultural businesses since 2019.
Batters called for more fairness and transparency in the food supply chain to help farmers: “It is about cost of production, and it is about sharing that cost equally through the supply chain. At the moment you have got all of the cost, all of the risk sitting on the primary producer.”
The NFU said £60m of food was wasted on farms this year as a result of labour shortages, with ripe fruit and vegetables left to rot, and it is calling on the government to allow 15,000 additional seasonal workers to come from abroad to help pick crops.
Currently, 40,000 six-month visas are available each year, the vast majority for horticulture. Of those permits, 2,000 are intended for staffing the poultry sector during the pre-Christmas rush.
“In the current circumstances many [growers] will sadly go bust and exit the industry,” said Julian Marks, managing director of West Sussex-based grower Barfoots.
“There is still confusion over whether we will have adequate seasonal labour for 2023, and this is for crops where we have committed land, seed, fertiliser and other inputs, we have spent that money,” he said.
The NFU’s press conference came after the farming minister, Mark Spencer, met with representatives from the egg sector, including producers, packers and retailers, to discuss the challenges faced by the industry.
The NFU is calling for an investigation into whether “exceptional market conditions” should be declared after the disruption to egg production, which has been exacerbated by the UK’s worst-ever bird flu outbreak.
Such a move would allow the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to provide support to egg producers facing financial difficulty.
A government spokesperson said the UK’s food chain was “highly resilient” and food security was based on “supply from diverse sources: strong domestic production as well as imports through stable trade routes.”
The spokesperson said the government is in regular contact with the food and farming industries and that it continued to “take all the necessary steps to ensure people across the country have the food they need.”
Egg producer and packer
Victoria Shervington-Jones, an egg producer and packer from south Wales, has 40,000 hens herself, and a further 32,000 on contract, which she packs and delivers.
“The reason we have got a shortage of eggs is because of rising costs in the industry, not because of avian influenza. Avian influenza is obviously compounding the issue but that is not the reason why there are no eggs on the shelves,” she said.
“We have seen a 43% rise in our chicken feed costs – which is terrifying – diesel for our vans, packaging has gone up, energy is absolutely horrendous.”
Former turkey farmer
It is a “very strange” festive season for turkey farmer Michael Bailey, after he and his brother David closed the doors of the poultry business started by their father for good in August.
The run-up to Christmas 2021 was stressful for the Baileys as the brothers grappled with rising costs, the threat of avian influenza and the struggle to find seasonal workers to process the birds.
After the war in Ukraine brought further steep increases in their energy costs and other bills, the Cheshire-based brothers decided the risk of raising turkeys again this Christmas was too great.
“I worked on this farm all my life and built up the turkey and chicken business and the processing unit,” said Bailey, 63, whose father, Jim, first started selling Christmas turkeys in 1952.
“We didn’t do this lightly but when everything is going in the wrong direction with risks getting higher and sales falling, and family issues on top, we had to think ‘what are we doing?’.”
None of Michael or David’s children want to take over the business, so they auctioned off their equipment, helped all 47 staff to find new jobs, and are finishing clearing the site.
“I am not alone on this,” Bailey said. “A number of farmers have had enough and are giving up.”
“There will be another tranche finishing this Christmas, and some are quite big producers. They have made big adjustments to reduce the risk, but have said we are not doing this again.”