A shortage of pickers has forced farmers to leave tons of fruit and vegetables – the equivalent of 16 million apples – in fields and orchards, it said.
Brexit fears are fuelling a shortage of workers as more EU nationals are leaving the UK amid concerns about freedom of movement and stricter immigration checks, experts say.
A survey of growers, carried out by the NFU, found that 1,147 tons of apples have already been wasted during this year’s harvest – and the union warns the figure is likely to be higher.
“I think it is morally reprehensible that we are allowing this level of food waste,” Ali Capper, chair of the NFU’s horticulture and potato board, told The Independent.
In August, the labour shortage was reported to be 17 per cent. Last month, it was 20 per cent, but experts fear the figure could be even higher this month.
Seasonal workers have been put off by the devaluation of sterling following the Brexit referendum and have left for jobs in other EU countries such as Germany, Netherlands and Denmark, the union said.
On the Brexit effect, Ms Capper said: “It has been about making people feel like they are not welcome here.
“It has been about question marks in terms of future status: ‘Can I come back next year? Will I need a passport? Can I continue to come on my work card? Will I get stopped at the border?’
“Brexit has put a lot of question marks in the minds of EU nationals. The shortages have increased every year since the referendum. The difficulty to recruit – primarily from Romania and Bulgaria – has become really really hard in the last few years. It has got harder every year.”
The NFU is calling on the government to expand a pilot scheme, which currently only allows 2,500 workers from outside the EU to travel for seasonal work in Britain, to help tackle shortages.
A Government spokesperson said: “When we leave the EU, we will have an immigration system which will benefit the whole of the UK, including our growers.
“We are actively engaging with the wider agricultural sector on the future system and the Home Secretary has commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to consider a points-based system.
“As part of this, the Seasonal Workers Pilot is designed to test the effectiveness of our immigration system at alleviating seasonal labour shortages during peak production periods.”
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