Latest UK horticulture production figures show that more edible crops are being sold while the impact of Brexit on the cost of imports is pointing to the opportunity for import substitution across edible and ornamental production for British growers.
But many questions are still to be answered before growers make any investment on the basis that imports will be more expensive. Home-produced vegetables were worth £1.3bn in 2015, 3.9 per cent more than in 2014, driven by carrots, mushrooms and cabbages. Field vegetables were worth £884m and protected vegetables £393m.
The big winners in the past 10 years have been protected vegetables (value up by 58 per cent since 2005) and fruit, which has doubled production since 2005. Field vegetables and ornamentals have not seen growth in recent years.
Home-produced fruit rose in value to £695m in 2015, 9.6 per cent higher than in 2014, driven by demand for soft fruit, larger yields and a longer growing season. Fruit home production contributed nearly 18 per cent of the total UK supply in 2015, 3.5 per cent higher than in 2014, with strawberries, raspberries and cherries all around 10-20 per cent up in value or volume.
Home production as a percentage of total supply of tomatoes reached 20 per cent, the highest level since 2002. Home production as a percentage of total supply of vegetables had a recent peak at 61 per cent in 2010 but since then there has been a downward trend driven by increasing demand and rising imports.
Imports were £2.1bn (vegetables), £3.1bn (fruit) and £1.1bn (ornamentals). Spain was the biggest edibles supplier to the UK. Exports were just £97m (vegetables), £101m (fruit) and £56m (ornamentals). UK ornamentals were worth £1.1bn in 2015, 1.5 per cent lower than in 2014.
UK-grown hardy nursery stock was down 1.7 per cent at £783m, protected crops down 2.2 per cent at £321m and flowers and bulbs grown in the open up 7.8 per cent at £45m. Overall production was £1.149bn, down from £1.166bn. The Netherlands accounted for 75 per cent of ornamental imports, mainly cut flowers, indoor plants and roses.
NFU chief horticulture adviser Dr Chris Hartfield said access to labour, trade barriers, plant health and crop protection are the four big issues that are even more important now for growers in the wake of June's vote to leave the EU.
He said import substitution is a "great opportunity for British growers, and I think we recognise more of an opportunity than exports. Growers need to be focusing on import substitution. I think one thing that will happen post-referendum is there will be an increased focus on self-sufficiency and food security. Our view is that we can produce a lot more."
Hartfield added that before the signing of Article 50 - likely to be early in 2017 - there is a great deal of uncertainty and that will continue right through two years of negotiations. He said some ornamental growers plan production 10 years in advance so need security on issues such as whether trade will be tariff-free, how we can make the most of the benefits of running our own plant health regime and what can be done about the ongoing loss of actives. "Increasingly growers are having problems with resistance to pests. Going forward, will Brexit mean more opportunities for growers in terms of more available crop protection?" He also wondered whether products such as biocides might be brought to market in a better way post-EU.
There is a question mark over producer organisations and subsidies are also an issue, he added. Hartfield said there is a "possibility" of more access to GM crops for growers, which the NFU backs, but bringing in the technology is more about "consumer acceptance". He suggested that the 2015 production figures may be linked to weather-related fluctuations.
Nursery consultant Will George said: "The way the pound is going it will encourage some people not to buy from abroad. The trouble is, growers can't gamble on it. You're growing crops one-to-two years ahead and five years for trees, and you don't want to overproduce. Where the industry went wrong, and why it's in a mess, is because it overproduced and didn't see the decline.
"The general policy I'm urging is conservative. Buyers are getting more fickle. If it's cheap from the continent, buyers will go for that. Some have incredible buying power - almost a monopoly in certain sectors. The only thing that will help the growers is guaranteed markets, but I can't think of a way of doing that."
Lowaters Nursery managing director Ian Ashton said Brexit plus new business pressures from the National Living Wage and pension contributions have confirmed his policy of being "not too adventurous".
Chris Campbell of Dutch plant importer Javado said: "The immediate fall of only around five per cent in the value of the pound against the euro, which is yet to settle out, still leaves imported plants good value. However it may have a more damaging effect on long-term EU imported food prices for the country, which will be more far-reaching for all."
HTA campaigning for horticulture minister to negotiate on Brexit
The HTA is campaigning for the appointment of a horticulture minister to negotiate Brexit. "We’ve always been moaning that the Government did not have the necessary skills and understanding of the industry, to a certain extent because so much was run by Europe they didn’t have to," said HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis-Machin.
"But there is going to have to be expertise during negotiations. There’s a big role for the industry but we’re working hard to get the right Government representation for us."
He added that new Defra minister Therese Coffey has knowledge of areas such as ash dieback, while Pershore-trained George Eustice has been promoted to minister of state at Defra. He was previously a parliamentary under secretary of state.
The Ornamentals Round Table has brought the industry together and given a further platform to present evidence on areas such as import substitution, said Curtis-Machin. Figures he has been given show there was £400m of gains to be made in that area, with potentially more to come.