The cost of one of Britain’s most popular fruits may “soar” by up to 50% if Brexit restricts EU seasonal workers from picking, according to an industry body.
A report for British Summer Fruits says around 95% of the 29,000 people needed for cultivating and harvesting strawberries and other soft fruit crops were from other EU nations – mainly Poland and Romania.
It predicted demand for staff among farmers would grow as the industry, currently worth £1.2bn annually, expands but warned that growers were already being hit by staff shortages following the referendum.
The body said a fixed-term contract Seasonal Agriculture Permit Scheme would allow labourers from Europe to enter the UK “to fill the jobs UK citizens shun” if freedom of movement ends.
Laurence Olins, British Summer Fruits chairman, said: “This is as extreme as it gets. If we do not have the pickers, we do not have a soft fruit industry.
“It is inconceivable that people who voted to leave the European Union wanted to destroy an iconic and incredibly competitive British horticulture industry, and see the end of buying British produce.
“But if we cannot ensure access to the seasonal workers needed to produce soft fruit in Britain, that will be an unintended consequence of Brexit – along with soaring prices and increased reliance on imports.”
It warned the Treasury would feel the impact too – with income tax, corporation tax and National Insurance revenues all falling.
A grower, Harry Hall of Hall Hunter Partnership, said stopping the flow of migrant labour would be “an unfathomable and astonishing form of national self-harm”.
The Government has previously admitted that there are sections of the economy at risk of employment shortages after Brexit and it is intending to take advice this year on the reliance on migration.
The Home Office said in April it was looking at plans for “barista visas” to ensure coffee shops and pubs are fully staffed.
A spokesman said on Thursday: “The Government places great value on the UK’s food and farming industries, both as a crucial component of the UK economy and of the fabric of rural Britain.
“Until we have left the EU, the UK will remain a member with all of the rights and obligations that membership entails, and employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors are free to continue to recruit EU workers to meet their labour needs.
“Labour market statistics published in May show that in the period to March 2017 there were 171,000 more EU workers in the UK workforce than the year before.
“We are determined to get the best deal for the UK in our negotiations to leave the EU, not least for our world-leading food and farming industry which is a key part of our nation’s economic success.”