Ocado chairman and former M&S boss Lord Rose has called for a national effort to mobilise tens of thousands of British workers to prevent seasonal fruit and vegetables rotting in the fields.
Rose called on young people and university students to volunteer their services and be ready to start later this month when the first wave of crops is ready to be harvested.
He described the strategic effort as a Second World War-style ‘Dig for Victory’ that would avert the disastrous prospect of rotting crops resulting in gaps on shop shelves and prices rocketing.
Call for arms: Farmers face a shortfall in workers needed to pick crops
Farmers are understood to be holding urgent talks with the Government about tackling the looming crisis in the fields by redeploying workers who have been laid off by other firms.
At this time of year around 70,000 seasonal workers normally arrive in the UK to work on farms – often staying in mobile homes and other temporary accommodation on site for the summer.
But the Covid-19 lockdown means migrant workers, many from Romania and Bulgaria, will be prevented from travelling to the UK.
The summer season on farms also used to be a regular haunt for students looking to top up their grant money. But in recent years farmers have complained of the difficulty of attracting British pickers.
Rose, who once ran Marks & Spencer, said the first crops of asparagus would be ready within a few weeks followed by strawberries and other seasonal fruits and salads.
He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The food industry is working very hard but we are now at that very transitional point in the season where we switch from importing a lot of our food to growing our own.
‘As we come into the summer, that is everything from salads, fruit, vegetables – whether it is asparagus, carrots or lettuce.
‘There will be a shortage of labour because the seasonal workforce will not be coming in and the remainder has not traditionally been made up of UK workers.
‘If those crops aren’t picked, the crops will rot and that will mean there will be a shortage of fresh produce. There is nothing to guarantee the shortfall could be made up of European imports and even if it could, there’ll be a cost attached.
‘In normal circumstances there would be a plenitude of produce. But at the moment there is going to be a real struggle to get that into the pack houses and into the distribution system. You cannot mechanise, you cannot do this without human beings in the field.’
The National Farmers’ Union, which has 55,000 members in England and Wales, has begun talks with George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Discussions over recent days are understood to centre on the creation of a registration system for ‘thousands of vacancies’ that allows replacement workers to mobilise. It is understood that the NFU has already had enquiries from pub and restaurant workers who have been furloughed in the crisis. Rose said: ‘I think the Government needs to call on students who are currently at home because they can’t go to college of university – the young ones who appear to be more resistant. Let’s take a bit of a risk and get these young people out into the fields.’
He said it could involve having ‘ten people in a field rather than 100’ to adhere to social distancing restrictions.
Some sources say it could mean bringing in Covid-19 tests to cover emergency crop pickers.
Rose said: ‘As they said in the Second World War, let’s dig for victory. There is always a risk. There is no such thing as ‘no risk’ at the moment. ‘But at the end of the day this would be a calculated risk – a call to arms. Look, get out there, volunteer for a day and help do something and get paid for doing it.’
NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said: ‘Growers that rely on seasonal workers to grow, pick and pack our fresh fruit, veg and flowers are extremely concerned about the impact coronavirus restrictions may have on their ability to recruit this critical workforce this season.
‘We are in talks with Defra Secretary George Eustice to find innovative and creative solutions.
‘It is vital that Government takes the lead in putting in place a range of measures to co-ordinate and support the logistics involved in mobilising the tens of thousands of British people who will be needed to bring in our fruit and veg harvest.
‘This will include a potential system to match interested workers with employers, as well as other incentives that will encourage students and British workers to apply for jobs.
‘We are urging the British people, university students, anyone looking for work, to mobilise behind British growers in this time of national importance and pick for Britain. There will be thousands of vacancies opening up in fields, poly-tunnels, glasshouses and pack-houses across the country in the coming weeks. We need people to help deliver healthy, affordable fruit and veg from field to plate.’
Rose added that ‘the industry is working very hard’ and availability in supermarkets has vastly improved since the stockpiling frenzy of last month eased off. ‘In terms of day-to-day availability on the shelves at the moment, the threat now is contained.
You might find your basket hasn’t got everything you wanted but you are not going to starve,’ he said.
‘The combination of cooperation between the retailers and other logistical providers means those that are unable to get out will be provided for. We all need to continue to work together.’
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