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🇬🇧 Is Lack of Labour the Biggest Threat to the Agricultural Supply Chain?

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We often hear in the media about the threats to agriculture and UK farming. Usually it is climate change, or new government policies, the challenges and changes caused by Brexit, or new trade deals. But is the biggest threat something else? Is our agricultural supply chain under threat from lack of labour?

How many people are needed to fulfil the supply chain?

Recently there have been changes to the UK workforce. Lower unemployment rates across Britain, slow administration of visa applications and a reduction in access to workers from the European Union are contributing to this. The UK’s agricultural supply chain has many links in it from farmers and food processors to retailers and consumers. It is invaluable to the UK economy with consumers spending £240 billion on food, drink and catering in 2021. With the size of the supply chain, recruiting and reatining a plentiful workforce is a challenge.

A lack of labour will directly affect food availability and therefore prices consumers pay. Not having enough people working to produce British food prevents British companies from growing. This is turn, makes us more reliant on imports and reduces our food security.

To keep the UK’s agricultural supply chain going, 4 million people are employed, a staggering 13% of the entire UK workforce. Whilst the catering sector has increased since the year 2000, employment in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors have declined by 23% and 11%, respectively.

The meat sector is feeling the effect of labour shortages. It is difficult to automate the sector because of the skill and judgement required along certain stages of the production line. Currently, sixty-two percent of its workers are EU nationals covering a wide variety of skill levels in the meat industry.

What are the ways the shortage of labour might be addressed?

Greater accessibility for non-domestic workers:

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) asks the government to relax the requirements for non-British workers to access jobs. The introduction of the points-based immigration system in 2021 requires a number of things of freign workers. Workers need a certain level of English, have the desired skill, have a UK sponsor and earn a minimum annual salary of £26,200. This severely restricts the number of people who are eligible to work in the agricultural supply chain, where average wages are often less.

The BMPA wants butchers to be put onto the government’s Shortage Occupation List. This is a compilation of professions where there is a shortage of workers within the UK. For these positions, immigration rules are relaxed.

Using more of the domestic workforce:

British workers are either reluctant to take up the type of work on food production lines or there are low levels of unemployment in areas where food processing plants are. It takes two years to train as a skilled butcher, for example. Therefore, is campaign to recruit more apprentices today, would still have a delayed effect.

Moreover, median pay within agriculture is low, although UK farmers were one of the top earners after Denmark in the EU, according to a study from 2015.

For farm owners and managers, retention is also a challenge. Reticence about workers enhancing training and qualifications and then using them to garner increased wages through a pay rise at their current farm or by moving to another, is not just apparent within agriculture.  However, longer-term training plans and aligning plans to KPIs and contracts is a way to aid this. It may also help the industry to be a place of aspiration for workers, when weighing up which sector to work in. After all, wages in the agricultural sector are lower than other industries except for hospitality.

Is the image of the sector also a challenge? It is mostly made up of men over the age of 55. So how can we encourage a younger workforce to choose agriculture?

Agriculture is not an easy sector to automate.

Some automation and less reliance on manual labour is still possible through technological improvements. In some areas this is not possible, for example, thinking about animal welfare standards. technology can help, but not replace. Within processing, there are mote developments. However, replacing humans with machines requires significant capital investment and funding for the development of the technological advances but it could address our shortage of labour issues.

How else could food security be encouraged if not through UK-supply?

There are ways in which food retailers, the catering industry, and consumers can help with the UK’s food security. One of these ways is by reducing food waste. The UK throws away 9.5 million tonnes of food waste annually which could feed 30 million people a year. It also costs food retailers over £50,000 to send this waste to landfill.

By shopping local and buying British produce, consumers are supporting the British agricultural supply chain. This helps British companies to grow, adds to the economy and reduces our reliance on imports. The UK will be less vulnerable to global fluctuations in both produce availability and price.

Incentivising and encouraging more sustainable farming practices can reduce the impact of climate change on farming. Moving away from the more intensive forms of agriculture makes farming more resilient to the unpredictable weather. Floods and droughts can decimate entire harvests but some actions such as planting more trees, intercropping, or sowing mixed swards can reduce their impact. Similarly, mixed farming is less susceptible to disease and pests compared to monocultures. Native species of livestock are often more resilient to the British weather.

Commitment is key

With the global population now at 8 billion and climate change making more of an impact year on year, global food supply is increasingly under pressure A lack of labour in the UK agricultural supply chain is another challenge that is threatening our food security. However, if exceptions are made for foreign workers to access UK agricultural jobs and if we all commit to reducing our food waste and buying local produce, we can go some way to reducing that threat.

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