What do the latest statistics say about the state of UK fruit & vegetable growing?

Last year efforts to increase UK self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables slipped, though fortunes differed between crops, according to new data published by Defra.

Image: Ricardo Vacapinta (CC-BY-2.0)
Image: Ricardo Vacapinta (CC-BY-2.0)

Long-term trends

Home production of vegetables contributed to around 54% of the total UK supply in 2016, 4.6% lower than in 2015. "Over the last 20 years total production of vegetables remains fairly constant between 2.5 and three million tonnes," the report notes, though production was higher in the previous decade. Meanwhile, throughout this time, almost without exception, volumes of imported vegetables have increased steadily year-on-year and now stand at more than three times the figure 30 years ago.

Home fruit production, on the other hand, has been increasing steadily over the past 15 years after a prolonged period of decline, and although 2016’s figure of 777,000 tonnes represents a slight dip on the previous year it is still almost three times higher than 2003’s historic low of 271,000 tonnes.

At this low point, UK growers were supplying just 8.5% of the home market, and although 2016’s figure for fresh produce self-sufficiency slipped a little due to lower volumes, 17.2% is still twice that 2003 share.

Together these point to an overall figure of UK self-sufficiency of 36.5% — down two percentage points on 2015. So has the NFU’s campaigning to boost UK fresh produce self-sufficiency been in vain? Not entirely — since the publication of the initial Catalyst for Change report in 2012, a year in which UK self-sufficiency fell to a historic low of 32.7%, this figure rose in each of the three subsequent years. Returning to the days of more than 50% self-sufficiency, as was the case before 1995, still seems a distant prospect, however.

There will always be a need to import produce, particularly fruit that cannot be grown in the UK. According to the EU’s Eurostat data, one-fifth of the 5.6 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables the UK imported in 2016 was accounted for by bananas, which amounted to 1.15 million tonnes.

While consumers are regularly warned they are still not eating enough fresh produce, the figures point to a steadily rising total supply — of 23.5% in vegetables by volume since 1988 and a remarkable 82.1% in fruit, compared with a rise in the UK population of 15.3% over the same period — though as waste campaigners frequently point out, a high proportion of fresh produce continues to be wasted at both pre- and post-consumer stages.

Winners and losers

Home-produced vegetables were worth £1.3bn in 2016, up 7.5% on 2015, although overall production fell by 5.2%. There were contrasting fortunes between field-grown and protected vegetables, with field vegetables rising £107m in value to £990m, while protected vegetables fell £13m to £353m.

Despite this, home production of carrots and cabbages as a percentage of total supply both dipped slightly in 2016 but were still higher than 90%. Home production of tomatoes, by contrast, accounted for 20% of the market.

In fruit, the picture was less rosy, with home production falling 3.7 per cent in value to £670m, with production at the same level as last year. The fall in value was largely driven by price with a fall in the value of soft fruit due to a later start to the soft-fruit season and a fall in production when compared with 2015, according to the report.

Perhaps the brightest news for the domestic industry came from apples, where home-produced dessert fruit topped 180,000 tonnes, the highest figure since 1989 and valued at just under £100m. While this led to an increased share of the market of 42%, this was not entirely due to increased home production because exports also dropped by some 3,000 tonnes compared with 2015. Hectarage stood at 5,893ha, having increased in all but one year since the historic low of 4,873ha in 2007.

Bramley’s and other culinary apples continued their long, slow decline, however, to under 3,000ha for the first time, having stood at 7,000ha in the mid 1980s, and yielding fewer than 80,000 tonnes for the first time in recent decades.

Pears showed a slight rise to 1,524ha, although this is still less than half the figure of 30 years ago. By contrast, cider and perry pears continue a trend in the opposite direction, hitting a historic high of 7,685ha, well over twice the figure of 30 years ago, and yielding 326,000 tonnes.

The area of cherries overtook that of plums for the first time, rising to 721ha, but these had a poor year, yielding just 1,700 tonnes, barely a third of the 2015 figure.

Viewpoint: Fresh Produce Consortium communications manager Siân Thomas

"Much of the high volumes of imports are of products which cannot be grown here in the UK. This reflects UK consumer demand for a wide range of fresh produce — around 800 products — many of which are available all year round and therefore sourced from a number of different countries during the year.

"It’s vital that the UK Government secures beneficial trade agreements post-Brexit, not just with the EU but with a wide range of third countries from whom we import, in order to maintain a sustainable supply of fresh produce throughout the year."


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