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Scientists from the University of Warwick explain how they are helping boost UK fruit and veg production in wake of new government report

The UK has a strong tradition in agriculture, including in growing fruits and vegetables. This sector is essential for the UK's economy, contributing £4.3 billion in 2022 and producing over 3 million tonnes of produce each year. However, the UK only produces 17% of the fruit and 55% of the vegetables it consumes, so there's a big push to increase domestic production and improve food security. Indeed, nationally, we need to increase our consumption of fruit and vegetables even more as, collectively, we’re not meeting the minimum recommendation of 5-a-day.

Researchers at the University’s internationally recognised Warwick Crop Centre are reflecting on a new government report, ‘A blueprint to grow the UK fruit and vegetable sector’, which details plans to support the fresh fruit and vegetable sector.

Research scientist Alex Kelly said: “We strongly welcome the Government’s new commitment to boost the domestic production of fruit and vegetables. In our 2023 strategy paper titled “Growing British”, we outlined the economic, environmental, and nutritional benefits that could be realised in a vibrant, expanding fresh produce sector. By increasing our self-sufficiency in this vitally important sector, the UK is taking steps to safeguard our supply of fresh food and nutrition as more countries struggle with climate extremes.”

Professor Richard Napier, who is Deputy Head of the School of Life Sciences, said: “The government’s new UK Food Security Index shows that home production ratios for vegetables and fruit hold the two bottom rankings. The blueprint recognises that the fresh produce sector has potential to grow and the measures it announces to encourage growth are very good news.

“Part of the package of measures announced was a strong endorsement for growing skills and innovation. Just as in the first green revolution which gave us the first high yielding varieties of cereal crops, much of the improvement in fruit and vegetable crop performance will come from better varieties, especially new lines with ‘inbuilt resilience’ to the stresses of pests, diseases and climate change. This is something we are particularly addressing at the University of Warwick.

“For example, the extra investment in the UK’s genetic improvement networks will help with sequencing collections and will underpin essential crop improvements for our most nutritious crops. Investment now in genome sequencing will make natural genetic diversity accessible to breeding companies and accelerate the much needed green vegetable revolution.”

Professor Rosemary Collier, University of Warwick, added: “A priority, which was not specifically mentioned in the blueprint, is support for the transition from the use of conventional pesticides to integrated pest management (IPM), which reduces the environmental pressure from agriculture. A tailored Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) payment scheme, specifically designed for the fresh produce sector, could help growers adapt, by de-risking the reduction of conventional pesticides”.

“The regulatory system for biopesticides must also be streamlined and altered to encourage an increase in biological control products, which growers need as part of their conversion away from chemicals.

“For vegetables and fruit, cost effective IPM strategies for each crop still need to be researched, produced and detailed. The UK is leading the world in this branch of applied science and further adoption of data science and AI will assist in the development of IPM strategies for growers of fresh produce.

Professor Napier added: “It is pleasing to see that the government’s report recognised the sector's significant value and importance to the country and identified support for some of the challenges faced by the industry.”

The University of Warwick is playing a vital role in championing UK food security. It led the publication of Growing British, a green paper which backs a 30% increase in UK consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables by 2032.

‘Growing British’ also reports on up to £126 billion of long-term economic benefits from a healthier, more sustainable UK food system of which increasing fruit, vegetable and fibre consumption is a core component. This also has the potential to create more than 16,000 jobs in the UK agriculture industry.

Alongside ‘Growing British’, the University’s internationally recognised crop centre celebrates 75 years of operation in July, with events set to reflect on its history and a look to the future of agriculture.

Warwick Crop Centre was founded 75 years ago as the National Vegetable Research Station (NVRS) to address post-war pressure to increase food production. Since then, it has undergone various transitions, most recently being incorporated into the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences. It continues to produce world-class research, contributing to sustainable agricultural practices for the future. The Crop Centre’s aims are to equip the industry with innovative solutions to help tackle the multitude of challenges that lie ahead for sustainable home-grown food production.

Thu 23 May 2024, 11:10 | Tags: Warwick Crop Centre