Dixon on...Skills at risk as home-grown production falls

Vegetable growers' returns are the same as 15 years ago. This resembles the predicament in the dairy industry.

Most vegetable purchases are made in the supermarkets, so they control the supply chain.

The outcome of the price war between the discounters and traditional retailers is being played out in growers’ fields. Rationalisation and specialisation dominate the vegetable industry. Far fewer growers are left.

The survivors are expanding and segmenting into rigorously controlled cost and production centres. Many are operating globally across western and middle Europe, north Africa and the USA, maintaining contracts by supplying retailers year round. Others supply packers and processors who act as gatekeepers between the grower and the supermarkets.

Unsurprisingly, the long-term decline in home-grown vegetable production continues. Fewer than 60 per cent of the vegetables consumed in Great Britain are now grown here. Knowledge and expertise in vegetable husbandry are being eroded. Enterprises "grow" their own technicians, technologists and managers with company-centric abilities. They also commission their own R&D, with results held confidentially.

As automation accelerates, requirements for manual staff will disappear. Vegetable production will increasingly resemble broadacre farming. A few technologists will run entire enterprises with computers, smartphones, GPS and drones.

This seems rosy but is it socially desirable or economically sustainable? Vegetable consumption is recognised as providing major health and welfare benefits. Our supermarkets are awash with good-quality, cheap vegetables. Soon Britain will rely on imports for more than half of its vegetables.

What happens when other nations cannot supply due to climate change or will not supply because of domestic need? Can we resurrect lost capabilities and knowledge? Recent experience with our nuclear power industry suggests not.

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene international

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