If the UK’s agricultural sector is unable to source migrant labour from the European Union (EU) after the UK leaves the trading bloc, the country’s food and drink industry will “be forced to downsize”, according to the president of the National Farmers Union (NFU).

Meurig Raymond, president of the NFU, told a Brexit conference in London today:

As many as 250,000 non-Brits are involved in the food industry, whether that’s in pack houses or dairy farms.

With the UK jobless rate at 4.3 percent, a 42-year low, the country is more dependent than ever on EU labour, because domestic demand for jobs is so limited.

“A senior economist told me recently that any developed country with unemployment of below 5 percent has full employment,” said Raymond. “That’s because you need to take into account the number of people on sabbatical, the disabled, as well as those who have retired or do not need to work.”

It remains unclear whether or not the UK government will reinstate existing free movement agreements for agricultural workers from the EU.

Raymond said that the NFU will continue to put pressure on British prime minister Theresa May and her cabinet to provide clarity on the status of EU workers in the agricultural sector.

We’ve won the argument with Michael Gove [UK environment secretary] and Defra [Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs] but the Home office and No 10 will be the challenge when it comes to making sure we have access to EU labor.

May should make the future of the UK’s agricultural sector, which currently employs an estimated 3.8m people, much more of a priority.

Such a shift in the UK government’s agenda necessitates a change in the way workers in the food and drink sector are perceived.

Vocabulary matters

“I get annoyed by word unskilled,” Raymond said. “If you are picking fruit or working in a meat processing plant, you are not unskilled or low-paid.” 

He added that he dislikes the term “migrant labor,” preferring “non-British labor” instead.

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Words matter because “the agricultural industry needs to improve its image,” particularly if Brexit means that recruitment will be limited to the UK’s domestic pool of talent, according to Raymond:

When I visit UK colleges and universities, I do sense that more students want to be involved in our sector but we need to increase that level of enthusiasm even more. Young people are encouraged to rack up debt by going to university instead of going into vocational agriculture-based work.