Robot fruit pickers could be deployed to stop Britons going hungry

Robots could be used to pick fruit under plans to stop Britain from suffering food shortages.

Ministers have ordered a review into new measures to prevent empty supermarket shelves, after watching the impact of the war in Ukraine on global supply chains.

The upcoming food strategy White Paper has been rewritten to include plans to reduce Britain’s reliance on foreign imports and the impact of soaring gas prices and climate change on farmers.

They could include automation of farms to guard against labour shortages and new investment in “vertical farming”, which would increase efficiency.

Writing in The Telegraph, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, said that Vladimir Putin’s invasion had raised concerns about the security of Britain’s food supply.

“The turbulence on the market has brought into focus, once again, the importance of a resilient global supply chain,” he said.

“Recent events, and the impact of the Covid pandemic, are a reminder that domestic food production matters.”

Although the UK is largely self-sufficient in wheat, a major Ukrainian export, British manufacturers faced a shortage of sunflower oil after the invasion, prompting a nationwide switch to rapeseed oil.

Gas prices have also inflated the cost of fertiliser, making it more expensive for farmers in the UK to grow fruit and vegetables.

Plans to introduce more automation on British farms follow concerns about a post-Brexit shortage of manual labourers.

It is thought that machines could eventually replace human fruit pickers, but current models are too clumsy and easily bruise soft fruits such as strawberries and raspberries.

Ministers are thought to be considering more investment in the technology, as well as grants for farmers to buy new machinery.

They could also invest in vertical farming, where crops are grown in stacked trays in a temperature-controlled warehouse rather than in an open field.

The method is rare in the UK, but has been adopted in Japan.

The food security plans could also include more investment in “agri-tech” that would make farmers less reliant on traditional fertilisers and bring down production costs.

The strategy, due to be announced in the coming months, is also expected to promote “alternative proteins”, including beans, pulses and lab-grown meat.

The strategy follows an independent review by Henry Dimbleby, a restaurateur and entrepreneur, who warned that “eating habits are destroying the environment” and called for more eco-friendly food production methods in the UK.

Ministers have already ruled out Mr Dimbleby’s suggestion of a sugar and salt tax, but are expected to implement other recommendations, including more work on biodiversity and improving soil health to increase the quality of Britain’s produce.

Mr Eustice stressed that Britain has a “high degree of food security”, producing almost 90 per cent of its own wheat and beef and almost reaching self-sufficiency in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes.

However, a source warned that security could not be “taken for granted” after the invasion of Ukraine.

“We will always support our farmers and food producers, and we are designing our new farming schemes in England in partnership with them to ensure they work in their best interests,” they said.

Source: The Telegraph

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