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Greenhouse farmers call for support for homegrown

Published on 2023-06-03 10:11:21 source:NBC News

A UK salad producer is calling for government support to ensure the country can grow more of its own food.

The Green House Growers says recent shortages of salad crops, caused by unseasonably cold winters in Morocco and Spain, could have been avoided if they were grown in the UK.

The business, which has sites in Ely and Norwich, said there was scope for more local production.

It wants help to become more sustainable and with energy costs.

The government said it was providing financial incentives for all farmers.

This winter, high energy prices led some greenhouse farmers in the UK and the Netherlands to cut production.

The Lea Valley Growers Association - which produces about three-quarters of the UK's cucumber and pepper crops - delayed planting due to high energy costs.

During the winter, the UK imports about 95% of its tomatoes and 90% of lettuces.

Most of them come in from Spain and north Africa, according to trade group the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has also called for more support for UK growers after noting the horticulture sector was not included in the government's recent support scheme for energy-intensive industries.

"There's still a lot of opportunity because in the UK we only produce 20% of British tomatoes consumed, so there's plenty of scope for more production," said Green House Growers managing director, Richard Diplock.

"And cucumbers is probably even less, in terms of British cucumbers in the market, because British consumers eat 660m cues a year, approximately."

The company's greenhouses produce two harvests a year. The plants are grown hydroponically, without soil, and with all the nutrients added to water.

Crops are watered by collecting rainwater, and recycling it, as well as using condensation from the greenhouses.

Mr Diplock said serious debate was needed around the tough challenges facing the industry.

"Food security is extremely important, we've seen more importance laid to it. We've seen in terms of the Covid pandemic, supply chain issues," said Mr Diplock.

"We've now seen a war, we have an energy crisis and of course, we've seen climatic change, so for British growers this is a great opportunity to produce more in the UK.

"We need more support from the government. They've set out a food strategy bill last year but set themselves no targets."

He added staff shortages as a result of Brexit were also an issue for his industry.

reduceting dependence on imports, reducing carbon emissions at site and in transit, and future proofing supply are just some of the benefits of growing food in the UK, which are some of the aims the government said it was trying to achieve.

But Prof Aled Jones, director of the worldwide Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University said: "The UK currently does not have a definition around food security and government strategy is aimed at building resilience through all possible routes with no preference for sourcing.

"So if the UK wants to be more self-reliant on food then it is very true we need to grow more - around half our food is imported at the moment.

"If we want the food to be cheap, then it does need subsidising."

Preyesh Patel and Resh Dui are behind food brand Eat Curious and Syan Farms in Horton, Northamptonshire.

The practising dentists are behind a large-scale "vertical farm" which grows herbs such as wasabi and chillies, hydroponically, using an aeroponic system where roots are grown through a sheet of cloth rather than soil and crops are sprayed with water and nutrients.

Everything is automated, including seeding and harvesting.

Mr Patel said company had been "looking into ways of modernising farming for a while, looking at sustainability and how we can improve that".

He called for produce to be grown "efficiently, more sustainably and locally."

Eat Curious' farm is inside old shipping containers which are powered with a bank of solar panels while underground tanks collect water.

The firm has been trialling a few crops first before full-scale farming later this year.

"You can pretty much grow anything that grows up. You control everything, the humidity, temperature, the amount of water the crops receive and the nutrients," said Mr Patel.

"The most important aspect is the light, so we can control the ratios of the different colours and the wavelengths that the crop receives and that will alter the crop," he said.

Mr Patel added: "Traditional arable farming will continue to exist but this industry will allow us to grow a range of crops anywhere on the planet, as long as you have a renewable energy source, and some sort of water source."

Growing in this way uses less water than traditional agricultural methods, there are no pesticides and no soil degradation.

Crops not normally grown in UK can be produced, saving on food miles.

"The big thing about vertical farming, for it to be sustainable, we have to look at how it can become more efficient, hence the investment in own solar farm," he added.

Mr Patel said he wanted the farm "to become off-grid as soon as possible and there are lots of efficiencies that we will discover to try and reduce that energy burn."

His partner, Mr Dui said whilst government had made available extensive technical support in the forms of grants and education, what was needed currently was more help with energy costs.

"Light and temperature are essentially our enemy," he said.

"We're currently trying to work out how we can grow great crops but with little energy. Once we can do that we can share this technology."

A department for energy security and net zero spokesperson said: "The government has provided an unprecedented package of support, enabling many businesses to pay around half of predicted wholesale energy costs last winter.

"We've pledged further energy support from April onwards through our Energy Bills Discount Scheme.

A Defra spokesperson said: "The domestic horticulture sector is crucial to the resilience of our food system and we know farmers and growers are facing global pressures, including from Putin's illegal invasion of Ukraine.

"Our new farming schemes will support farmers to produce food profitably and sustainably, including £600m in grants for equipment to help farmers become more productive.

"This is part of the significant action we have taken to support the sector so far, as well as allocating 45,000 seasonal workers visas and wider government support on energy bills through the Energy Bills Relief Scheme."

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