David Payne: ugly fruit

David Payne An apple farmer in Conservative MP Laura Sandy’s Kent constituency gets just £80 a tonne for bruised and mis-shapen fruit rejected by the supermarkets. When she visits local schools and asks how many children are planning a career in food science and production, teaching staff say they don’t want them picking beans out in the fields.

The UK food sector employs 400 000 people, but the workforce has shrunk by 22% in nine years and 96% of food companies emply less than 250 people. It is the UK’s biggest manufacturing sector by jobs and revenues. Sandy has a solution for the fruit farmer – setting up a company called “ugly fruit” to take on the supermarkets. But what to do about the food industry’s image problem among young people?

Addressing a City University food policy symposium in London earlier this month, she said: “Food is a very sexy and exciting opportunity for young people. In the US there used to be a Future Farmers Foum for everybody in urban areas. We need to connnect back to where our food comes from.”

Not everybody working in the food industry wanders around in a lab coat, of course. Much of it is still picking crops, milking cows, often in freezing conditions with a working day starting at the crack of dawn. Migrant workers have flocked to “factory farms” in the eastern counties of England. Last year a BBC documentary asked if jobless Britons are scared by hard work, visiting Wisbech, a Cambridgeshire market town.

In the past six years 9,000 immigrant workers have passed through. But unemployment is 40% above the national average. Fellow symposium speaker Charlie Clutterbuck, a research fellow at City University, probably had towns like Wisbech in mind when he said: “Nobody is asking what will happen when half a million eastern European workers don’t want to come to this land and work in crap conditions for shit wages.”

Farming is facing a demographic timebomb. Half of all UK farmers are aged over 65, according to Cluttberburck. Recruitment and retention suffered a fresh blow in October, when MPs finally voted to scrap the Agricultural Wages Board, set up 63 years ago to set the wages of 150 000 farm workers, part of the coalition government’s “bonfire of the quangos.”

“How do you determine whether food production is ethical or exploitative?” asked Cluttberbuck. In October last year seven Romanian children were taken into care after a Gangmaster Licencing Authority raid found them picking onions with around 50 adults in a freezing field.

Supermarket chains, fearful of brand damage, can provide important leverage in such cases, he told the symposium. Their intervention can halt exploitative practices. It’s a shame they can’t be persuaded to sell ugly fruit.

David Payne is editor, bmj.com