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Horticultural Sector

Volume 824: debated on Thursday 13 October 2022

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to support (1) careers in the horticultural sector, and (2) the role of that sector in protecting the environment.

My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gardening and Horticulture—quite a mouthful. I shall refer to it only as a “group” in future. When I first took on the role, some years ago, I do not think that I appreciated the whole role of horticulture. I knew about the craft of gardening and production of plants; what I had not appreciated was that it embraced cell science, inquiry into new plants and how they might be developed, particularly those able to deal with climate change, arboriculture, dealing with amenity trees—quite distinct from forestry—landscaping and gardening design, and so forth.

This came to the fore in 2019 when an independent group, the Oxford Economics group, brought forward an interesting report which gave a very good indication of the scope of horticulture in 2019. I am not very good with figures, so I shall read them very carefully. In 2019, horticulture contributed £28.8 billion to gross domestic product and jobs numbered 674,000. Much more interesting was the scope for development that the report saw, provided that the Government and the horticultural industry co-operated. It reckoned that, by 2030, GDP could be £41.8 billion and there could be 763,000 jobs. If the watchword of the new Government is “growth, growth and growth”, I give them horticulture, on a plate, as a wonderful way of increasing growth to everybody’s benefit.

There are a number of worries in the horticultural world at the moment. One is that employers feel held back by a shortage of skilled workers. That includes not just the lower skills but many of the higher skills that are well paid. We certainly need to address this. I believe that, for young recruits, a lot of the problem lies with schools and careers services, which seem to me woefully inadequate in their knowledge of what opportunities there are for young people. Indeed, it is worse: sometimes I fear that they give a clear indication that they think gardening is only for those who are idiots and cannot do anything more. I put that bluntly, but I believe it to be the truth.

What they do not seem to understand is that a variety of qualifications lead up to degrees in horticulture. Recently, I went to the land-based Plumpton College in East Sussex, where there are a variety of qualifications at different levels, the last one being a degree, and every single person there, the principal assured me, would have a job at the end of the course. Clearly, there is scope for young people. There is another stream, of course, for those who are career changers, who perhaps need slightly different qualifications, but there is not enough time now to deal with that aspect.

To look at it in more general terms, I think it could be very helpful if the Government recognised certain facts which seem to me perfectly obvious but do not always seem so in government circles. First, all jobs in horticulture are by their nature green jobs—and we are supposed to attach great importance to that. Secondly, we need to ensure that the Office for National Statistics, which at this moment is consulting on the definition and classification of green jobs, includes horticulture in its calculations. Thirdly, the Government need to recognise that in the great 25-year environment plan, with its various goals, horticulture contributes to at least half of them, so it has a very important role to play.

I shall deal now with one or two more specific ways in which horticulture could be helped. Research funding for horticulture has declined in recent years to a scandalously low level, and it seems to be very much the poor relation to agricultural research. However, if it is to play an even greater role in developing skills and, more importantly, in the environment, it is vital. I hope that the Government will give strong consideration to real research funding. We have had an example in recent days; the new Secretary of State for the Environment has trumpeted a very new scheme which is to help horticulture in edible terms—the crop side—through £12.5 billion of research funding, matched to others, to develop high-tech skills and robotics. That helps deal with the difficulty of finding people to work on seasonal jobs, and ones which require a lot of effort, unless they can be dealt with in new, innovative ways.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of horticulture in its ornamental sense beyond a passing reference to the fact that a new government adviser is to be appointed shortly who will cover both sectors. I have to say to my noble friend the Minister: “This is not good enough”. I expect that horticulture in its ornamental role should have equal access to such funds and I hope very much that he will persuade the Secretary of State to amend somewhat this excellent new scheme as far as it goes, because it does not go far enough. I hope that I will not be pushed into the role in the biblical story of the widow whose just complaints the unjust judge did not want to deal with—in the end he gave way because she persisted and persisted and he could not stand it any longer. But if I am pushed into that, I jolly well will.

Let us look now at other aspects to mitigate climate change, where I believe that horticulture has a very important role. We all know about planting trees, but has anyone looked at the number of private residential gardens that could play a role in this on a small scale? I asked a Parliamentary Question about this: 1.5 million acres—I do not do hectares—in the land are there for the taking and that does not include parks, green spaces and great historic gardens. So, all in all, you have an enormous contributor.

Of course there is tremendous biodiversity with garden plants. It is very interesting: the RHS did a survey and found about 400,000 ornamental plants growing in gardens in the UK alone, but only 50,000 food crops worldwide. That gives an indication of the diversity that can be utilised in gardens. We are very worried about the decline in insects, because it has such implications for food production. I believe that gardens and green spaces could have a very good contribution to make. You have only to look at the Chelsea horticultural show and the number of insects that gather around the new gardens. I hope that that will be taken on board.

I will make one final point in the time that remains. I am concerned that new developments will often make short shrift of landscaping and the maintenance of plants. It is usually there in theory, but by the time they get to the end of the development, there is not enough money left. I suggest that there should be a special fund into which the developers have to put their money and then it will not be sent out to them until they start on the actual landscaping and maintenance of plants. We certainly do not want to see the scandal repeated of 100% of trees dying because nobody thought to water them in this hot summer.

I see the clock flashing so, although there are many other points I would wish to make, reluctantly I will have to rest my case here.

My Lords, I declare my farming interest as set out in the register and my membership of the Gardening and Horticulture APPG, so ably chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, whom I congratulate on bringing about this important debate. It is sad that there are so few speakers, as this touches on key, long-term issues such as skills and training as well as the overarching issue of the environment. Like others, I have received some very good briefing papers from the House of Lords Library, the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group and the Horticultural Trades Association. The Library briefing helpfully covers the actions of the Government to address the issues of labour and skills, and innovation funding, as well as the 25-year environment plan. Of course, there are issues with the scale and timing of some of these measures, particularly in relation to long-term access to seasonal workers, but, broadly, we are moving in the right direction.

This afternoon I want to concentrate on developments in the horticultural industry caused by increasing and changing consumer demand that have implications for the sustainability of production and hence the environment, as well as careers and investment as we enter this new world. Horticulture is a very diverse sector, with many different crops, cultivars, growing media and planting material. It also involves processing, storage and distribution. Labour and land costs have driven much production offshore. This obviously gives rise to less stringent production techniques and more food miles, as well as less reliance on domestic production. The 2022 agriculture land use census indicates a 5% drop in the horticultural acreage and a 9.1% drop in the potato acreage. The best way to address this fall and associated environmental issues through increased horticultural imports is through affordable technology, a skilled workforce and innovation to meet demand. However, it is crucial that our new production practices meet sustainability requirements and environmental concerns.

At the same time, consumer demand is increasing with the desire for year-round supply of horticultural products. This is a further challenge to sustainable production. Two huge issues are increasingly important. The first is water availability, as drought conditions can either kill or severely affect the yield of crops and cause growers to leave the sector, or can lead to overextraction and environmental damage. The building of reservoirs, water usage efficiency and development of drought-resistant cultivars are obvious solutions. The other issue is that of soil fertility and health. Developing and implementing the best management practices to promote carbon sequestration and reduce harmful emissions is crucial, as well as introducing sustainable growing media to replace peat. This will not be welcome to some, but integrated pest disease management is crucial. Research is needed to explore innovative methods of dealing with new and existing pests and diseases, bearing in mind that consumers will not accept pesticide residues in food and toxicity in benign organisms.

Other issues facing horticulture are the rise in demand for fresh rather than frozen food, which has implications for produce restoration and hence quality. This involves much science, innovation and skills, as well as now the more problematic matter of energy usage. Associated with this is that customers expect year-round supplies of fruit, flowers and vegetables, which further increases the demand for storage and transportation. This will, I hope, lead to the development of new cultivars and production systems to extend the production season.

Your Lordships can now see the way this is all going, with the increasing need to invest in new and safe technologies. Automation is crucial. The use of robotics for repetitive tasks will reduce the unskilled labour requirement and the use of artificial intelligence will assist timely crop management. There is a huge role for research and development and the resulting technological improvements must be accompanied by the training to provide the necessary skills to operate in this new world. In this respect, I welcome the Government’s farming innovation programme and the formation of the institute of agriculture and technology, the brainchild of the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, which is due to make a presentation to parliamentarians on 24 October.

The other vastly important area in the horticultural world is breeding new varieties with precision techniques. The breeding cycle is currently around eight to 15 years, so the introduction of targeted gene editing is immensely important but must be accompanied by close liaison with the regulatory authorities.

Finally, coming back to the environmental element of this debate, it is essential that we move quickly towards net zero in horticulture to address climate change risks. In order to do this, the development of the innovative methods I have outlined requires Defra to supply baseline data on the environmental footprint of individual processes of primary production and subsequent management, such as storage.

The horticulture industry has no generally accepted assessment tools for conducting analysis, known as LCA or life cycle analysis. Can the Minister assure us that an LCA tool will be available to the industry which will quantify the environmental footprint of the horticultural processes so that we can develop and optimise crop production innovations that improve productivity and contribute to net zero horticulture? Getting this right is as important to the environment as trees, green spaces, gardens and those ELMS. With the issues of labour availability, government encouragement of automation technology and support from the farming innovation programme, farming and horticulture are looking at technological solutions, but they are greatly hindered, particularly in relation to sustainability and net zero, without adequate measurement tools. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, for securing this debate and introducing it in an informative and lively way. I join the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, in regretting that we do not see more Members of your Lordships’ House in this debate. Perhaps if I point out that there were excellent briefings from the Wildlife Trusts, Buglife and NFU, that might encourage a few more to engage next time.

I had cause this morning to be reminded that on 1 November I will have an Oral Question on the importance of philosophical education at all levels of education for critical thinking. Had the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, not secured this debate, I would have been tempted to do something similar for food growing because while this question focuses on the importance of education for careers, I assert that in this age of shocks, with resilience needing to be uppermost in Government’s mind, everyone in our society being able to grow their own food—food security at its most personal and basic level—is a crucial skill. This would truly be education for life not just exams.

I say that as someone who has an agricultural science degree—admittedly I specialised in animal husbandry—but it was only in my 40s that I grew some of my own food and learned all sorts of useful things, such as that brassicaceae and slugs really do not go together and that if you put beer traps in a garden with a Staffordshire bull terrier who loves beer, it does not work out very well either.

This is not just a food security issue. It is also an issue of public health. In 2018, only 28% of adults were eating the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. The average was 3.7 portions and only 18% of children aged five to 15 ate five standard portions of fruit and vegetables per day. Horticulture is a public health issue. Indeed, this is recognised in the National Food Strategy, which has a target of a 30% increase in fruit and vegetable consumption in the UK by 2032, but that raises a key question. Where are these fruit and vegetable crops going to come from?

One aspect that has not yet been touched on is the potential for urban horticulture, which is largely overlooked in the national food strategy. However, it was historically important. In the UK during the “Dig for Victory” campaign, 18% of fruit and vegetables that the population ate were grown domestically in allotments and gardens. With more than 84% of the population in the UK now living in cities and towns, this is an area we need to look at, and that requires education. A study in Sheffield, admittedly a very green city, showed that if domestic gardens and potential and existing sites for allotments and community gardens were utilised, Sheffield could be 122% self-sufficient in vegetables and fruit.

Education does not necessarily have to be in a formal context. I credit the organisation Incredible Edible with having done an enormous amount. There are now more than 100 groups in the UK and many around the world educating people in food growing through informal elements. But when we are talking about education for commercial growing, I want to focus, too, on the excellent work done by the Kindling Trust in Manchester. Its figures and those from the Royal Horticultural Society show that the number of applicants for work-based training programmes have reached the highest numbers in decades. There is a huge demand from people who want to get into horticulture, but many of them, rather than simply seeking a job in horticulture, want to set up their own small businesses or join a co-operative with a small number of like-minded people to produce vegetables and fruit. Doing that requires one crucial thing—access to land. Access to land to be able to start those small businesses for people to develop those skills is a huge, pressing issue that desperately needs to be addressed.

We need to think about the human resources. We have long been stuck on the idea of finding people jobs, but that thinking is being turned around in all sectors. Earlier today in your Lordships’ House, we were talking about the shortage of people for the social care sector. The human resources of time, energy and talent are scarce resources and we need to use them well, and horticulture is a space where we can do that. Maybe we need a large-scale training programme to convert financial sector workers into fruit and vegetable growers. That would be a good use of human resources in an age where we have so much danger from our financial sector.

The UK is only 18% self-sufficient in fruit and 55% self-sufficient in fresh vegetables. The vegetable figure has declined 16 percentage points over the past two decades. We must ask ourselves what right we have to rely on other people’s scarce water supplies to produce our fruit and vegetables in ways that may destroy other people’s soils and involve human rights abuses and abusive labour conditions. There is a huge responsibility for us to take the kind of actions that the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, outlined. The Food Foundation calculated that if everyone in the UK ate five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, we would be 2.1 million tonnes annually short of the supplies that we need for the UK. Yet as work from Sheffield shows, it is perfectly possible to grow enough vegetables and fruit here in the UK: we have simply not devoted the land or human resources to doing that.

I thank the noble Baroness for stressing the environmental aspects of horticulture, as well as the need for skills and education. Buglife’s briefing focuses particularly on the risk of invasive, non-native species and risk of the trade in pot plants. We tend to focus on fruit and vegetables in horticulture, but growing trees for the reforestation that we need and even growing the plants that enliven our homes and public spaces is crucial. We currently import £1 billion-worth of live plants and planting materials. That is not only a lost economic opportunity for the UK; it presents an enormous threat in terms of imported diseases and species. Buglife notes that the invasion of non-native flatworms risks reducing local earthworm populations by 20%. People knowing about these things and replacing our supply systems from overseas with local systems are crucial.

Peat is an area of absolutely crucial environmental concern in terms of both climate and nature. We need to look at education, research and development to ensure that we end all use of peat in horticulture. The endless foot-dragging on the peat sales ban is an enormous government failure of this past decade. As an example of the positive alternatives, Dalefoot Composts takes 100% of its inputs from the Lake District, including bracken, sheep’s wool and comfrey. This is an agroecological approach to producing inputs for our horticultural sector. This is the kind of innovation, technology change and social innovation that we need, and it requires input of not just physical resources but human resources—time, energy and talents.

Finally, I also note the importance of real development in paludiculture. Even if we leave the soil sitting there on the peatlands, we must not allow them to dry out. We can be growing different fruits and vegetables—a diversity of crops—on those lands if we put the human resources in.

My Lords, I thank the Grand Committee for allowing me to speak in the gap. I should declare my interests. My family business is well known for its daffodils and bulbs. I am no longer active in that business, but noble Lords should none the less be aware that I was a professional horticulturalist before I came to this place.

We also grow a substantial acreage of brassicas and potatoes. There is a link between horticultural products in my part of the country, which is England’s Holland, or Britain’s food valley, and agriculture. As president of the Institute of Agricultural Management, I am very aware that science and technology that support horticulture and agriculture are key factors in the future growing techniques to address food security, not just in this country but throughout the world. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Curry, who is my friend but sits in the other part of the House. I am delighted with the work that he has done in this area.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister can see that the horticultural industry is part of the growth economy. It involves smallish businesses but they have great potential, as my noble friend Lady Fookes, and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said. The industry will need the support of the Government as they question things such as supply and skill sets for those engaged in it. Those in the industry certainly see themselves as key to maintaining and protecting the environment, making this world a better place to live in. They are indeed green jobs.

My Lords, I apologise for failing to register my name for this important debate and thank noble Lords very much for the privilege to speak. I will be brief.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Fookes, and the noble Lord already mentioned the potential for the horticultural sector. It is regarded by those in agriculture and horticulture as one of the most successful sectors in terms of its innovation and ability to very efficiently produce crops and the range of products already referred to. The scope is huge. It is almost irresponsible of us as a nation not to seek to encourage the further production of horticultural crops to fill the huge gap in our trade of horticultural products. If we were able to expand production here at home we would also contribute to the reduction of carbon and climate change, the use of water globally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said, and the carbon impact of global travel.

There are three key factors required. One is the labour/skills issue, which has been mentioned already; the second is science; the third is investment. As has been mentioned, I have been involved in the skills area through the establishment of TIAH; I am sure the Minister will refer to that. I chaired a really important meeting last week on careers in agriculture and horticulture in that regard.

Secondly, the need to invest in science is a constant process. We have fallen behind in our investment in science. A recent study that I have been involved in, which we will discuss in November at a breakfast, demonstrates that one of the reasons is the fragmented nature of the British science structure. It has led to a lack of communication and delivery of knowledge. We need to do something about that, and I believe that the Government have a responsibility for investing more in science.

The final bit of investment is that we on our farms and our horticultural production units need to continue to invest. The ability to use robotics is increasing all the time, but we are not there yet in terms of having robotic solutions to many of our harvesting challenges. I was in France on holiday in the Bordeaux area. Due to the shortage of labour—it is not just in Britain that there is a shortage of labour; there is a shortage of labour in harvesting crops right across Europe—many have now made enormous strides in harvesting grapes through robotics and new machinery. It is only in those vine-growing areas where selective harvesting is necessary because of the quality of the wine that they still use labour. We need to be able to do that ourselves in time; in the short term, we are heavily reliant on migrant labour. The Government need to address that issue.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap. In France, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, alluded to, there are at least four top-class horticultural institutions. I know of two horticultural institutions in this country that made great use of exchanges of students, up till Brexit. They came very well trained and worked extremely hard; they were very easy to get on with and, most of all, they provided opportunities for their colleagues to come from their respective institutions. The Irish, being a resourceful people, both north and south—I speak obliquely here—have ways in which to address this problem, but it is just not possible on the UK mainland. I hope that the Minister will bring this to the attention of Home Office colleagues, as this is one of the skill areas that needs to be addressed in future negotiations with the European Union.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, on securing this important debate on the plight of the agriculture sector and its role in the environment, and on her excellent introduction. I am grateful for the many briefings that I have received from various sources. It is important to become self-sufficient in food production in the country and to eat what we produce, rather than exporting it and then importing replacements to meet the home market. The noble Lord, Lord Curry, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised that issue. To do this, we need a domestic skilled workforce.

Following the Covid pandemic and lockdown, many sectors of our society are finding it difficult to recruit to roles that were previously easily filled, including in the horticulture sector. Some of this is due to the reduction in workers coming from EU countries; many returned home after the vote on Brexit and have left gaps in our workforce. Efforts to recruit a domestic workforce have not been successful. Vacancies are not just for those working directly on the land but for those at medium and senior managerial levels. For the industry to remain competitive and productive, it will be necessary to provide skills and training to provide a career path for those currently working in the sector and to encourage others to join the sector.

Providing access not only to levels 2 and 3 but to level 4 and 5 qualifications is essential. The RHS qualification facilitates 12,000 assessments per year through 75 approved centres. This is vital, since apprenticeships and T-levels would not be appropriate for all, but there are others for whom these qualifications would be appropriate. Investment in skills and training is a step in the right direction.

Fostering the correct environment for our UK workforce to prosper is as important as encouraging the overseas workforce to return. However, Defra seems to believe that automation, robotics and technology will solve all our problems—the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, referred to this—and science is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, indicated. Although it is undoubtedly true that machinery, science and technology could greatly increase productivity, many functions can be carried out only by workers in the fields.

During the recent leadership campaign, the Prime Minister stated that she recognises that some jobs simply cannot be replaced by machinery, which is why she is a supporter of reintroducing the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. What progress is being made on this front? Attracting seasonal agricultural workers is important, but it is also necessary to have the correct workers available all year round. There are many instances of middle and even senior management of horticulture businesses starting initially as seasonal workers.

The removal of the SAWS in 2013, followed by the ending of freedom of movement in 2020, has seen a huge reduction in skilled workers in the horticulture sector. An integrated immigration policy is needed. This is affecting not only the large business that the Secretary of State plans to visit but the smaller, but nevertheless vital, businesses providing specialist food, plants and shrubs. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, referred to the importance of smaller businesses.

I turn now to the effects of the shortage of workers on what can be classed as the public realm, including parks, open spaces maintained by local government, woods and copses maintained by the Forestry Commission, estates and gardens—some maintained privately but many in the ownership of the National Trust, English Heritage and other organisations. All require skilled workers who know the difference between a weed and an attractive flowering plant, have the ability to prune correctly and know when to do so. As this sector is not involved in food production as its primary purpose, it could be overlooked by government officials, but its importance is not overlooked by the public. Everyone knows the enormous benefit that can be gained by a family visiting a nearby park or wood for a walk and a game of hide and seek. A wander around a well laid-out garden covered with beautiful flower borders where the pollinating bees are busy on the fragrant blooms is peaceful to the troubled soul. At a time when a large proportion of the population suffers from stress, anxiety and more serious mental health issues, the role of formal gardens should not be overlooked.

For those lucky enough to have one, the domestic garden can also provide relaxation and enjoyment. It also helps create and restore wildlife-rich habitats in rural and urban areas. The rise in the popularity of television garden programmes is witness to the public’s appetite for improving their gardens. The planning and planting of a border can provide relaxation and enjoyment, with many visits to garden centres to choose plants and grow seeds, all contributing to biodiversity. However, my visits to local garden centres indicate that they too are unable to recruit the necessary staff to prick out seedlings and water and tend their plants.

This brings me on to the need for the country as a whole of produce more of its own potted plants rather than import them. During the SI phase of Brexit, many of which originated from Defra, some dealt with invasive non-native species, or INNS. The then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, was eloquent on the need for plant passports for imported plants and the protection they would bring for the horticulture and garden centre business sectors. However, a plant passport does not appear to extend to the soil in which the plant is grown. This soil can be contaminated and harbour many INNS, such as New Zealand flatworms and Spanish slugs, both of which damage garden plants and crops. The imported plant market is worth some £1 billion each year, but the growing material is not regulated. Will the Minister say whether there are any plans to begin regulating the soil in which plants with passports are grown? I am not an experienced gardener by any means and I have no idea when doing a spot of weeding whether I am digging up an earthworm or a flatworm. I wonder whether the robin hopping around looking for a meal knows the difference; perhaps he is cannier than I am.

The Government are currently engaged in fostering trade deals with countries with which we have not previously traded. Do invasive non-native species form any part of these negotiations? Does the Minister agree that the phytosanitary requirements of the UK are currently not fit for purpose and allow any number of invasive species into our soil to destroy our crops and insect life?

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, raised the issues of a ready supply of water and gene-editing and I regret that I do not have enough time to deal with them at the moment.

Lastly, I come to the knotty issue of peat. Defra’s consultation showed that 95.5% of people support a peat sales ban. Peat, as we all know, stores 30% of all soil carbon globally. UK peatlands store more than 3 billion tonnes of carbon. Coming from Somerset, I know how important the peat moors on the levels are to the area and to the environment. Can the Minister say when there will be a total ban on imported peat? Until that happens, this issue will not have been tackled sufficiently.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, said, horticulture is capable of delivering five of the 10 key goals in the 25-year environment plan, so it is by no means a poor relation to agriculture. This has been a wide-ranging debate over a number of vital areas. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, for bringing this debate to the Moses Room and for her introduction, which was, as usual, excellent.

As we have heard, the UK horticulture industry is worth more than £5 billion annually but has been facing serious workforce challenges, particularly in relation to seasonal labour shortages and the skills gap. A large proportion of labour has historically been supplied by the European Union. This was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said that EU workers accounted for as much 99% of seasonal labour in the edible horticultural sector, which is why we are seeing so many problems. This spring, this led to record levels of seasonal worker shortages with businesses reporting shortages as high as 40%. This has the unfortunate consequence of fruit, vegetables, plants and flowers being unpicked. That represents a significant financial loss to UK producers, a reduction in our domestic production and poorer choice for UK consumers. If the industry is to remain competitive and productive, we must look at skills development and how we can encourage more people to follow a career in horticulture. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, talked about the scope for development that we have, so what practical support will the Government give the industry to support these aims? We are aware that the Government have previously announced their aim to reduce the sector’s reliance on foreign labour and to attract new domestic workers.

In March, Victoria Prentis, the Minister in the other place, stated that

“the Government has been clear that more must be done to attract UK workers through offering training, career options, wage increases”

and that Defra had been working with the DWP to

“raise awareness of career opportunities … among UK workers.”

Can the Minister provide an update on progress in this area? Have the Government carried out an audit or analysis of the sector to identify clearly how it can move towards growing more and importing less?

The Minister in the other place also talked about the need for investment in increased automation technology. We have heard a lot about this from noble Lords. Earlier this week, the Environment Secretary announced plans to boost homegrown fruit and vegetable production and drive the growth of high-tech horticulture. This is very welcome; the noble Lord, Lord Curry, talked about the need for increasing production and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, talked about issues around increased imports. The NFU’s figures have shown that we are only 18% self-sufficient in fruit, 55% in fresh vegetables and 71% in potatoes.

However, the Government’s review also drew attention to the difficulties the industry faces in workforce recruitment. It stated:

“A long-term Seasonal Workers Scheme would help to stabilise workforce pressures in the sector, helping growers to better evaluate their labour needs over time and incentivising long-term capital investments in automation technology. While a new Seasonal Workers Visa Route has been announced for 2022 to 2024, the length of any future schemes should ideally match the period preceding the feasible mass-adoption of automation technology.”

The NFU clearly spelled out in its helpful briefing the difficulties facing the industry. With increasing competition for UK workers right across the economy, the temporary nature of farm roles and their rural locations make it very difficult to attract enough domestic workers to fill the ever-growing seasonal worker gap. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned that the Prime Minister has said she supports expanding the seasonal workers scheme. I would be really interested to hear from the Minister what action is happening on these aims. What are the Government doing or planning to do to make a difference in this area?

Moving to the role of horticulture in protecting the environment, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, talked about private gardens and green spaces. I absolutely support her comments on this area. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about the importance of food-growing in gardens, how we used to do more of it as a nation and the access to land that will be needed if we are genuinely going to grow more. The Horticultural Trades Association has said that

“policy-makers are under-estimating the significant role that the UK horticulture sector can play in tackling climate change and achieving Net Zero.”

Groups within the sector have encouraged the Government to work with them on this. Can the Minister confirm what the Government are doing and what their commitment is in this area?

We have heard about non-native invasive species. Our trees and landscapes are under unprecedented threats from both new and established pests. Whenever I go back to Cumbria, I could honestly weep when I see the state of the ash trees. So many are dead and dying. We must look at how we can not only improve our biosecurity for the future but have a co-ordinated approach from government, industry and horticultural scientific research and development to tackle these threats and look at how we can deliver innovative and sustainable solutions where we have these terrible problems.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned Buglife’s excellent briefing on invasive non-native species, so I will not go into further detail, but I stress that it talked about serious concerns around flatworms, ants and slugs coming in on plants. It would be good to see what the Government’s plans are to improve our biosecurity and phytosecurity in these areas.

A number of noble Lords mentioned peat. We know that healthy peatland can sequester carbon and support wildlife habitats, but we also know that it has become a source of greenhouse gases because much of it is in such poor condition. Along with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I urge the Government to act and bring in a ban on peat sales and peat in compost. We also know that two-thirds of the peat currently sold in the UK is imported, so a ban must include imports into this country because they damage global environments. In addition, a ban on horticultural peat sales would bolster the growth of new markets and supply chains in the UK and could create development opportunities in this country. Does the Minister agree that we have a fantastic opportunity to develop a world-leading sustainable horticultural sector in this area?

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in particular, for saying “paludiculture”. It was great to get the briefing on it, but I had never heard of it, so I was not quite sure how to pronounce it. Again, that is a very interesting and innovative technique. Was the Minister aware of it previously—I am sure that he knew more about it than I did—and it is something the Government could support? This has been a very interesting debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register. I will do my best in the short time I have to answer the many questions that have been asked.

I congratulate my noble friend Lady Fookes on securing this debate and welcome the opportunity to respond on the matter of careers in the horticultural sector, as well as on the sector’s role in protecting the environment—a point she eloquently made. She is entirely right, as were other noble Lords, to talk about the wider benefits of this sector in terms of the Government’s growth agenda, biodiversity, net zero, well-being—which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell—and of course for our food security. The Government recognise my noble friend’s commitment to this important sector, including through her work, which she referred to, with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gardening and Horticulture, which she so ably co-chairs. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to say a few words on this important subject today.

We are all aware of the importance of the horticultural sector to our economy both locally and nationally, with production worth more than £4.8 billion in 2021. Our climate allows our talented and hard-working growers to produce a wide range of wonderful fruit and vegetables. I am sure your Lordships will agree that, being a nation of passionate gardeners—there are 30 million gardeners in this country—we need, for want of a better word, to weaponise them for all the good that I referred to earlier which they can deliver, as well as, of course, for the aesthetic beauty of what they produce.

My noble friend Lady Fookes and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned the importance of using unused space in gardens. I saw a wonderful scheme of garden swaps, where people who do not have access to gardens can go to those who have too much garden and grow food. It does not even require the transfer of money; they can pay for the space in fruit and vegetables.

We know that this is a hugely diverse and vital industry which we can justly be proud of, but, more importantly, it is one with enormous potential to grow. None of this would be possible without the hard work of our highly skilled and enterprising growers, and I am constantly impressed by their skill and dedication, which is so evident all around us, not just in the food that they produce but in wonderful parks and gardens and elegantly landscaped urban areas.

Perhaps more important is what they do for our economy. The horticulture sector faces an exciting but challenging, future. It needs to be sustainable and to use modern technology and practices that help the environment. So, it is now more important than ever that we make sure that these skills and this expertise are passed on to the new generation who are entering this exciting area of horticulture and agriculture and that they are progressive, professional and as excited about the opportunities as their predecessors. Attracting bright new talent into horticultural careers and having a skilled workforce in place is vital for the future of UK food and farming.

A career in horticulture is not what some people might imagine, as my noble friend said in proposing this debate. It is grounded in innovation and the use of advanced and ever-progressing technology. To be successful, it requires a good understanding of business management, climate and logistics—goodness me, we have seen that in recent years in trying to get food to market. Those skills too often associated with other professions but absolutely vital in horticulture.

By raising awareness of horticulture as an exciting and attractive career path, people will understand that the opportunities available to them in the industry are worth pursuing. That is where our friends from the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture come in. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the tireless efforts of TIAH’s founding patron, the noble Lord, Lord Curry, in his work driving TIAH from its inception, through to its creation and into its current exciting stage of development. He referred to a meeting that took place last week that brought together this sector with others. We are working together and learning from the success of other sectors in how they stimulate young people to get qualifications that they can take with them through different aspects of their working lives.

TIAH is an initiative we have been supporting aimed at ironing out the fragmentation that exists within the current learning and skills landscape for farming businesses, enabling the industry to drive forward greater uptake of skills. TIAH is developing professional competency frameworks and career profiles to demonstrate the skills required across a number of agricultural and horticultural roles and where to access the training to develop them. It also works to raise awareness about the huge variety of rewarding and exciting career opportunities available in the sector. Currently, only production is within TIAH’s remit, but its long-term intention is to bring other elements of horticulture into scope. Collaboration, however, is at the heart of what TIAH wants to deliver, and the ambition is to ensure close co-operation with the ornamental sector in areas where there are common issues.

My noble friend Lady Fookes will be familiar with the work of the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group and of course its ambitious action plan, Unlocking Green Growth, which she helped to launch at an event at which I was present. This looked at the opportunities and barriers that this dynamic horticulture sector faces in achieving sustainable growth which can be addressed through government and industry working collaboratively. The action plan identifies huge potential for growth in the sector, which could employ an additional 39,000 people by 2030 and be worth, as she said, an astonishing £42 billion to our economy. It goes on to highlight the wide range of potential benefits to society and the environment, including physical and mental health benefits for countless gardeners and all who use green spaces and nature-based solutions to the challenges presented by a changing climate.

We have an industry which, as a whole, can rightly be considered a green economy industry. That is why we in this Government are 100% on its side and are committed to work with the industry to maximise the sector’s potential. Taking up the challenge, my noble friend will no doubt have seen the reference to the development of a horticulture strategy for England in the Government’s food strategy, which we launched in June. This is a rolling programme that will examine the diverse roles of small, large and emerging growing models to increase domestic production and productivity in a sustainable way. While the government food strategy was the vehicle for the announcement, the HSFE will also include measures to support the ornamental sector in increasing productivity and domestic production in a way that enhances sustainability and resilience. We will primarily focus on the time period between now and 2030, but we intend that this work will lay the foundations for long-term impact beyond 2030 and there will of course be opportunities for industry to feed into the development of the strategy.

To award farmers and growers who produce environmental and other public goods and services, we launched the sustainable farming incentive in June this year. In that, we included the arable and horticultural soils standard. We also plan to introduce an orchards and specialist horticulture standard in the not-too-distant future.

As per a commitment in the England peat action plan, we have recently announced our intention—this answers the points raised by a number of noble Lords—to ban the sale of peat and peat-containing products in the amateur sector by the end of this Parliament, and we are exploring how to extend this ban to the professional horticulture sector. I was involved in conversations with the industry a decade ago on this. I was convinced at the time that the right way was a voluntary system. That has been proved wrong, despite wonderful advances by the industry. I applaud it for them, but they have not been good enough and therefore we are going to have to proceed with a ban. We are continuing to engage with the industry on making the transition to peat alternatives as seamless as possible. For example, we jointly funded research with the industry on peat replacements in professional horticulture. We will continue to work with the industry to identify blockages and help those who have not already switched to peat-free to do so.

The lights are flashing, but I gather I have a few more minutes so I will try to finish.

Defra has undertaken a review of automation in horticulture, a point raised by a lot of noble Lords, covering the edible and ornamental sectors in England. In addition to increasing productivity and horticultural-related innovation, automation can also lead to more sustainable horticultural practices. We published the report in July, and the government response will follow in the next few months.

I will refer in passing to a number of different points. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, made a very good point about water usage. The industry is doing an enormous amount of work to try to limit the amount of water used in the production of food right across agriculture and horticulture. This is where government, the private sector and academia can work together.

We take innovation seriously. The farming innovation programme is part of a wider set of measures to stimulate innovation and boost sustainable productivity in agriculture and horticulture. We have invested £70.5 million so far through the new £270 million farming innovation programme for industry-led research. We announced our farming innovation pathways competition in March last year. Across the farming innovation programme, 47 projects are now live and more than a third are horticulture products.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, talked about invasive non-native species. I assure her that this is one of my absolute priorities and a priority of my department. Our plant health experts do an amazing job. She is absolutely right to refer to growing media. I am constantly impressed by the work done to identify and limit potential risks. I am happy to talk to her in more detail later.

We will increase investment in industry-led research and development into solutions to help deliver net zero in agriculture and horticulture, including through the farming innovation programme. The Government are excited to work with the horticultural sector to meet these commitments to safeguard our environment for the future and leave it in a better place than today. His Majesty’s Government recognise the value of a thriving and competitive horticulture sector. I will try to answer any questions I have not been able to answer in the few minutes I have been given to reply. I thank my noble friend for bringing this debate forward and I look forward to further conversations on this subject in future.

My Lords, I should perhaps say to those patiently waiting for the next debate that this debate did start a little late and, on Questions for Short Debate, Ministers are guaranteed a 12-minute response if they wish to use it. I apologise to those waiting.