Government ensures long-term certainty for food labour needs

The government has set out plans to make the UK food supply chain most cutting-edge in the world

The government is tackling labour shortages in the food supply chain, funding technology to reduce the reliance on migrant labour and providing certainty and clarity for farms and other food businesses across the UK.

In its response to John Shropshire’s Independent Review into Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain, the government will implement a series of new measures to support the industry. These include:

  • extending the seasonal worker visa route for five years until 2029 to give businesses time to plan effectively;
  • up to £50 million of further funding for new technology to support fully automated packhouses and more support to follow to bring robotic crop pickers on a par with human pickers in three to five years;
  • creating a comprehensive strategy to enhance skills provision and attract domestic workers.

Recognising the need for farmers and growers to have time to invest in automation and move away from a reliance on migrant labour, the seasonal worker visa route has been extended for five years from 2025 to 2029 to address this immediate need. 43,000 visas will be available to the horticulture sector in 2025, with another 2,000 visas for poultry. Further detail of the number of visas available for 2026 to 2029 will be set out later this year.

The government has ramped up its support for the use of automation in the sector to reduce the reliance on migrant workers whilst introducing measures to promote British workers into agriculture.

This will start with immediate work to fully automate a group of major packhouses in 12 to 18 months, which will improve understanding of the government support needed to make fully automated packhouses universally viable. Information learned from this will help inform our planned £50 million package of packhouse automation funding, with further details to be announced later this year to cover 2024-25 and 2025-26.

The government will also work with technology companies to accelerate the development of robotic crop harvesters – aiming to bring prototypes on a par with human pickers in three to five years. This will help make the UK food supply chain the most cutting-edge in the world. 

The announcement comes after the Prime Minister announced the largest ever round of farming grants at the NFU Conference earlier this year - with a total of £427 million on offer to farmers, doubling the investment in productivity schemes.

It comes ahead of the second annual Farm to Fork Summit, which will be hosted by the Prime Minister in Downing Street on 14 May, bringing together representatives across the UK food supply chain to drive forward work to ensure British farming has the support and backing it needs to thrive for generations to come.

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay said: 

"We have a world-class food and drink sector, and the measures announced today will strengthen this by boosting funding for the cutting-edge technology that will reduce reliance on migrant labour in the long term.

"Businesses do best when they can plan effectively for the future, which is why we’ve extended the seasonal worker visa route until 2029 to give farmers and growers the certainty they need to thrive."

The government will also work to improve the attractiveness of the sector for domestic workers, delivering regional recruitment strategies to support jobseekers into roles in food and farming, and building greater collaboration between government, industry and education providers. This includes:

  • Collaborating with the Food and Drink Sector Council’s Sector Attractiveness Project Group to improve awareness of the diverse range of opportunities and career paths across the UK food chain. 
  • Provided seed funding to establish the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture (TIAH), a new industry body that will support professional career development.  
  • Working with the Department for Work and Pensions to deliver regional recruitment strategies that utilise its Jobcentre Plus network to give jobseekers the skills and knowledge they need to enter roles across the food and farming sector.

From: Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and The Rt Hon Steve Barclay MP