CEA viability in the UK is dwindling just when it may be needed most

The UK is in the same boat as the rest of Europe with regards to higher energy prices, but a weak pound and a suboptimal seasonal worker scheme have brought some greenhouses to a halt.

The EU-funded food innovation organization EIT Food carried out a consultation at the start of the year with controlled environment agriculture (CEA) stakeholders from Iceland, Ireland and the UK, which was published in the last week of September.

The report focused on the three island nations due to their climates being unsuitable for year-round production of numerous crops and potential to reduce reliance on imports through CEA.

In the case of the UK, which has exited the EU and is now dealing with the corresponding changes in trade relations with its nearest and largest trading bloc as a result, CEA is of particular interest.

The report highlights the well-trodden benefits of CEA, such as year-round supply, close proximity to urban populations and pesticide-free production. But it is the equally well documented challenges of access to labor and high energy costs that are most keenly harming the UK’s long established CEA sector.

The country has a well-established greenhouse sector that produces staples such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Meanwhile British vertical farming business Jones Food Company supplies roughly 15 percent of the UK’s basil and is currently building a new facility in Gloucestershire, which it claims will be the largest vertical farm in the world.

But an unsustainable situation created by Brexit, challenges in accessing migrant labor through the Seasonal Workers Scheme and high gas prices meant the Lea Valley, an area that covers roughly 180 hectares of greenhouses in the southeast of the UK, was largely unplanted at the start of the year when the consultation was being conducted.

Lea Valley Growers Association secretary Lee Stiles said at the time that “it just doesn’t make financial sense to plant.” With more than a third of growers in the Lea Valley having requested planning permission to repurpose 60ha of greenhouses into housing, warehouses and small factories by September, many operators seem convinced it won’t make sense to plant in the long term either.

And the problem is not isolated to the UK. The Netherlands, which has one of the most technologically advanced farming industries in the world that has enabled it to become the second largest agricultural exporter after the US, is also struggling. CEA industry body Glastuinbouw Nederland has estimated that up to 40 percent of its 3,000 members are experiencing financial distress.

So where does CEA go from here? In the first instance, a significant downward movement on gas prices will be required to restore some of the sector’s viability. Additionally, the industry will need to come up with some creative ways to hasten its switch to renewables.

But while EU-based greenhouses can count on access to labor sourced from across the 27-nation bloc, British operators have to contend with a seasonal worker scheme that means training a fresh cohort of workers every six months after their visa’s expire, paid for with a currency that simply no longer has the pull to convince workers to leave mainland Europe.

As things stand, the prospects do not look good for the UK’s CEA sector.