Ministers call for UK immigration and food prices to rise

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

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

The Guardian understands that there is a battle between 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 because 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 farm workers, but a senior Defra source said Braverman is “ideologically opposed” to such a move.

Defra sources expect Sunak to admit publicly at Tuesday’s meeting that more workers are needed, which will push the Interior Ministry to accept more visas.

The talks are expected to cover inflation and food security issues in the UK food and agricultural sector. While the Treasury has been telling supermarkets not to raise prices, even as costs to suppliers rise, Defra ministers have signaled that bankruptcy for farmers and food suppliers would be more inflationary than a modest increase in food prices.

Food prices in the UK are lower, the ministers say, than in the whole of Europe, and British consumers spend less of their income on groceries than other Europeans.

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

The National Farmers Union (NFU), BRC and Morrisons are believed to be among the sector heads 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 a minimum the target must be kept at 60%, which is estimated to be the current figure.

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

“A start would be a serious government commitment to keep Britain’s food production self-sufficient to 60%, with a statutory duty to report on domestic food levels and use powers under the Food Act. Agriculture to make supply chains fairer.”

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

Guy Singh-Watson, a farmer and founder of the Riverford organic vegetable company, said he agreed that food prices had to go up: is it cheap? Most people spend four times as much on rent as on food. Food cannot be produced at current price levels and certainly cannot be cheaper: farmers are going out of business.

“We have a government that is completely ideologically attached to the market, providing solutions to everything. Unless it becomes a real election issue, they’re just going to leave it to the supermarkets, who will continue to screw with the growers, and we won’t have much of an egg or horticultural industry left.”

He added that without more visas for food collectors in the coming years, there was a risk of failures in the supply chain.

“The reality of the conditions for many of those who work in the fields collecting our food is quite abhorrent,” Singh-Watson said. “I really don’t like the reliance on foreign workers who are inevitably treated badly. But in reality, for the fruits and vegetables to be harvested in the next few years, we need more people to come from abroad to save the industry that we have left”.

A government spokesman said: “The Home Secretary is clear that overall migration should be reduced. At the same time, seasonal work is an integral part of the UK rural economy.

“No other sector in the UK economy has the level of access to seasonal labor that the food supply chain enjoys. We continue to support our farmers through the temporary worker visa route and have now provided 45,000 visas through it, with the potential for another 10,000 slots.”

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