The price of strawberries and other British summer fruit will soar if Brexit negotiations fail to secure access to seasonal labourers from Europe needed to cultivate and harvest our crops, a new report has warned.
It will become harder for consumers to buy British, increased dependence on imports will impact our balance of payments and a hugely successful horticultural industry could be crushed.
That is the bleak outlook outlined in The Impact of Brexit on the UK Soft Fruit Industry report, commissioned by British Summer Fruits from Andersons the Farm Business Consultants.
Over the past 20 years, soft fruit production in the UK has grown by 131% — largely as a result of an increase in home-grown strawberries — and as a result, the industry is now worth more than £1.2 billion. What was once a fleeting treat, to be enjoyed for the few weeks around Wimbledon, has become a staple supermarket buy. Sales continue to increase year-on-year with a prediction of a further 6% increase in production this year.
But Brexit is already exacerbating a worrying shortage of the seasonal labour which sustains this horticultural success story, and MPs have been warned that losing access to European workers will have a “disastrous and cataclysmic” impact on the industry.
Prices for strawberries and raspberries could rise by up to 50% and with soft fruit now accounting for almost a quarter (22%) or one in every £5 spent on fruit, this will undermine the five-a-day healthy eating campaign and could impact the nation’s health.
Price is the single most important factor in food purchases, with 36% of consumers ranking cost as their number one consideration and DEFRA figures show that between 2007 and 2012, when fruit prices rose by 34%, low income households cut the amount of fruit they bought by 25%. 
Laurence Olins, Chairman of British Summer Fruits, the industry body which accounts for 97% of all berries supplied to UK supermarkets, warns: “This is as extreme as it gets. If we do not have the pickers, we do not have a soft fruit industry.”
He says: “It is inconceivable that people who voted to leave the European Union wanted to destroy an iconic and incredibly competitive British horticulture industry, and see the end of buying British produce.
“But if we cannot ensure access to the seasonal workers needed to produce soft fruit in Britain, that will be an unintended consequence of Brexit — along with soaring prices and increased reliance on imports.”
His concerns are echoed by key grower, Harry Hall of Hall Hunter Partnership, who warns: “Britain has a thriving, fast expanding berry industry, growing the best berries in the world. We should be driving it forward in or out of Europe. There is no doubt that if the Government chooses to stop the 29,000 hard-working migrant labour force working on our farms and Nurseries it will be an unfathomable and astonishing form of national self-harm.”
Alison Capper, Chairman of the National Farmers Union’s Horticulture Board, argues: “Farmers and growers need a commitment from government that they will have access to the workforce they need up to, and after we leave the EU. It’s vital that the crucial importance of migration for low-skilled work is recognised. Until now, high skilled migration has received priority treatment. We challenge why this should be the case, when vital sectors of the economy – such as food and drink – rely heavily on large numbers of EU workers.”
While Professor Tim Lang, from the Centre for Food Policy at City University of London says: “The situation created by the British vote to leave the European Union is momentous for UK food.”
The Impact of Brexit on the UK Soft Fruit Industry, a report by John Pelham (The Andersons Report), predicts:
Prices for strawberries and raspberries will rise by 35 to 50%
A slump in Government revenue from income tax, corporation tax and National Insurance
Falling soft fruit consumption
Less soft fruit being grown in the UK
Soft-fruit growers going out of business
Significantly reduced food self-sufficiency
A negative shift on the UK’s balance of payments as a result of increased imports
Soft fruit growers employ around 29,000 seasonal workers a year — but British workers do not want these jobs. A House of Commons Committee of MPs investing the issues reported: “A core problem for the sector is its difficulties in attracting UK staff.”
As a result, around 95% of seasonal workers currently come from the European Union, primarily Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, and demand is expected to rise to around 31,000 by 2020 if the industry continues to grow.
If access to seasonal workers is not ensured, we could see fruit being left unpicked in fields or growers moving their operations to countries with a ready supply of labour.
However there is a simple solution — a Seasonal Agriculture Permit Scheme which would allow labourers from Europe to enter the UK on fixed-term contracts to fill the jobs UK citizens shun.
Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, says, “As an industry, we believe the need for a Seasonal Workers Permit Scheme has been identified. If we are going to be out of the Single Market by 2019 we will need a Seasonal Workers Permit Scheme agreed by September 2018 to allow us to hire people. Without it, an incredibly successful soft fruit industry, which contributes millions of pounds to the UK economy, will be crushed.
“Failure to secure the future of soft fruit production in the UK will have a negative impact on the economy, family budgets, the nation’s health, UK food security and the environment.”
 The Anderson Brexit and Seasonal Labour Report, Andersons Midlands LLP.
 Kantar data
 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report, Feeding the nation: labour constraints
 Kantar data
 Food Statistics Pocket Book 2016, Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs
 EFRA Committee report; Feeding the nation: labour constraints, paragraph 5