A report from the Food Research Collaboration (FRC) has called on the Government to put the sector at the forefront of its forthcoming 25-year food and farming plan.
The report, Horticulture in the UK: potential for meeting dietary guideline demands, paints a sober picture of a mismatch between supply and demand in the UK, particularly in light of public health advice to eat more fruit and vegetables.
Statistics show from 1985-2014, there has been a decline of 27 per cent for fruit and vegetables combined. The area growing vegetables has fallen by 26 per cent and the area growing fruit by 35 per cent.
Prof Tim Lang, City University London, who co-authored the report with FRC research fellow Dr Victoria Schoen, said: “We worry government strategy looks a bit like allowing Europe to feed the UK with good healthy produce – fruit and veg – while our food industry exports less desirable elements such as alcohol and over-processed, sugary, fatty foods.
“Actually, horticulture offers something relatively simple to improve matters. Grow more here, but make it sustainable production only.”
Fruit and vegetables are by far the greatest source of imports in the UK food system, the report said. The trade gap in horticulture has risen to £7.8 billion a year, about 37 per cent of the UK’s total food trade gap of £21 billion in 2014.
“Although some growers have extensive growing operations in Southern Europe and further afield, this makes sense for them as commercial enterprises but still does not resolve the serious lack of UK horticultural output,” added Dr Schoen.
Some imports such as brassicas, mushrooms, lettuce, apples and pears can be grown in the UK but have seen ‘serious drops’ in production.
The report also revealed the uneven distribution of horticulture across the country. Although this is partly due to climatic reasons, areas which used to have sizeable sectors, such as the South West, have seen a heavy decline in production.
It called for a ‘re-boot’ of regional strategies to incorporate a review of planning and financial regulations and to rebuild bio-regional resilience where appropriate.