Fears grow of fruit and veg shortage this Christmas

A 16 per cent shortfall in the seasonal workforce could hit supermarkets with fruit and vegetable shortages in the run-up to Christmas. (Getty)

Millions of pieces of fruit and vegetables are rotting due to a lack of EU workers, leaving UK industry leaders fearful that there could be a shortage in the run-up to Christmas.

Supplies of popular winter vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflowers, kale and mushrooms could be affected by the labour shortfall, which is part fuelled by Brexit uncertainty.

Ali Capper, chairwoman of the NFU’s horticultural board and an apple producer, told Yahoo News UK: “The shortages are getting worse each year, but this is the first September/October period that we have had this level of waste.

“There should be a deep concern that there could be less of our traditionally British veg like potatoes, parsnips, carrots, red cabbage, which are all put on the Christmas plate, with the root-crop harvest approaching.”

The crisis is striking the apple harvest the most as growers have been forced to leave 100 tons of fruit unpicked – which amounts to around 16 million apples.

The figures, which emerged in a National Farmers' Union survey, show that farmers are seeing a 16 per cent shortfall in the seasonal workforce and as a result, British farmers could be hit hard financially during the festive period.

The employment slump is leading experts to fear winter food shortages in supermarkets.

In recent years, a shortage of workers from Eastern Europe, who make a reported 99 per cent of the seasonal picking workforce, has caused problems for growers but the situation has worsened this year over Brexit fears.

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Last month, the labour shortage was reported to be 20 per cent, but experts fear this month the figure could be as high as 30 per cent.

EU workers are increasingly choosing to work in countries that pay in euros, such as the Netherlands, Denmark or Germany, because they are apparently put off by the possible devaluation of sterling and confusion over visa regulations.

A grower from the south-west has had to let broccoli valued at £100,000 rot in his fields, according to Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association.

Mr Ward told Yahoo News UK: “Potentially, it could make supplies tight but retailers will pull out all the stops to make sure there will be products on the shelves, the danger is that we start importing products.”

He said that at present the British Growers Association wants the Government to expand a pilot scheme allowing workers from outside the EU, like Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, to travel for seasonal work in Britain.

At present, only 2,500 such work permits a year are granted.

“Frustratingly, everything is on hold because of Brexit,” he said.

The suppliers and retailers will still fulfil orders but there will be huge wastage in British fields and orchards.

The NFU’s Mrs Capper said that there were pockets of problems last year, but this seems to be specific to this September and October and is likely to be across the board, across all crops and regions.

“We are seeing significant waste in vegetables which are being picked. It isn't going to be an easy run coming up to Christmas,” she said.

Industry experts estimate that an extra 10,000 workers are needed.

“The answer's really simple, make a decision, scale up workers,” Mrs Capper has urged the government.