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Ministers call for immigration and UK food prices to increase

<span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty</span>
Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty

Immigration and food prices must increase to solve the food crisis, ministers are to say at a summit.

Rishi Sunak will be joined by ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as well as farmers and industry leaders at the meeting at No 10 on Tuesday.

The Guardian understands there is a battle between the home secretary, Suella Braverman, and Defra over immigration.

Fruit and vegetables have been rotting in the fields, and some farmers have gone out of business, as there are not enough people willing to pick them.

Farmers and Defra ministers have been lobbying the Home Office to increase the number of temporary visas for agricultural workers, but a senior Defra source said Braverman was “ideologically opposed” to such a move.

Sources at Defra hope Sunak will publicly concede at Tuesday’s meeting that more workers are needed, thus pushing the Home Office into agreeing to more visas.

Related: UK risks sleepwalking into food supply crisis, says farmers’ union

The talks are expected to cover issues of inflation and food security in the British food and agricultural sector. While the Treasury has been telling supermarkets not to increase prices, even as costs to suppliers increase, ministers at Defra have pointed out that farmers and food suppliers going out of business would be more inflationary than a modest increase in food prices.

Food prices in the UK are lower, ministers point out, than across Europe, with British consumers spending less of their income on groceries than other Europeans.

In many cases, supermarket items are sold at less than the price of production. However, food prices are increasing with inflation, and last week there was a record 17.8% increase in the cost of fresh food year on year, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

The National Farmers Union (NFU), BRC and Morrisons are believed to be among the sector chiefs likely to attend the event.

The NFU will urge the government to set a food self-sufficiency target for the country. Its leader, Minette Batters, will say that at the very minimum the target should be maintained at 60%, estimated to be the current figure.

She said: “The past 18 months have been a stark reminder of how vulnerable the nation’s food security is. It has been a wake-up call for the importance of a secure domestic supply of food, and it is vital that the summit delivers actions, not just words.

“A start would be a serious commitment from government to maintaining Britain’s food production self-sufficiency level at 60%, with a statutory duty to report on domestic food levels and utilise powers under the Agriculture Act to make supply chains fairer.”

The BRC has also called for a proper policy on labour, with immigration to match the needs of growers. Andrew Opie, the organisation’s director of food and sustainability, said: “Retailers will want government to commit to sustainable UK food production – that includes a coherent labour policy, more focus on carbon reduction, and minimising the financial impact of incoming regulations.”

Guy Singh-Watson, a farmer and founder of the Riverford Organic vegetable company, said he agreed food prices had to increase: “It drives me up the bloody wall – why don’t the government put the same amount of effort into making sure rent is cheap? Most people spend four times as much on rent as they do on food. Food cannot be produced at the current price levels and it certainly cannot be any cheaper – farmers are leaving the business.

“We have a government that is completely ideologically wedded to the market providing the solution to everything. Unless it becomes a real electoral issue, they are just going to leave it to the supermarkets, who will continue screwing growers, and we won’t have much of a horticultural or egg industry left.”

He added that without more visas for food pickers over the next couple of years, there was a risk of supply chain failures.

“The reality of the conditions of many those who work in the fields picking our food is pretty abhorrent,” Singh-Watson said. “I really don’t like the dependence on foreign workers who are inevitably treated badly. But in reality, to get the fruit and vegetables picked over the next few years, we do need more people coming from abroad to save the industry we have left.”

A government spokesperson said: “The home secretary is clear that overall migration should come down. At the same time, seasonal labour is an integral part of the UK’s rural economy.

“No other sector in the UK economy has the level of access to seasonal labour that is enjoyed by the food supply chain. We continue to support our farmers through the seasonal workers’ visa route and have now provided 45,000 visas though it, with the potential for a further 10,000 places.”