Defra minister George Eustice has described farmers as “hidden heroes”, as the government considers extra help to feed the nation during the coronavirus pandemic.
It comes as the government look at ways to ensure farmers have the support and additional workers needed ahead of the busy harvest months.
In an open letter to the food and drink industry, Mr Eustice said the coronavirus pandemic was perhaps the greatest health challenge the country had faced in our lifetime.
“I want to pay tribute to all those who are working around the clock to keep the nation fed,” he said.
This included people working “in our fields, processing plants, factories, wholesalers, stores and takeaways and all those moving goods around the country and to our homes”.
Mr Eustice also said he had been speaking with the industry about the “critically important issue” of seasonal workers, who usually come from Europe to pick fruit and vegetables.
“We need to mobilise the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people’s plates over the summer months,” he added.
Some 70,000 seasonal workers are needed to work on UK farms annually – prompting concerns that a labour shortage could see food left to rot in fields.
Mr Eustice said: “There are already brilliant recruitment efforts under way by the industry, and I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up.”
“We will also be looking at other ways to make sure farmers have the support they need ahead of the busy harvest months, while also keeping workers safe and protected.”
In the letter, Mr Eustice said the past three weeks had been stressful and difficult for everyone working to feed the country and provide them with other essential items.
“Food retailers have faced an unprecedented increase in demand,” said Mr Eustice.
“Those working in food production and distribution have had to work harder than ever to ensure that food and drink are kept on the shelves.”
Mr Eustice said he was in regular dialogue with the food and drink industry, with government guidance to employers to ensure staff could do their jobs safely.
“The advice from Public Health England is that there is very little risk of the virus being spread on food or packaging,” he added.
“Everyone working in the food and drink industry has rallied in an extraordinary way to respond to this unprecedented challenge.
“Having worked in the food industry myself, I am personally enormously proud and thankful for all the work you have done in recent weeks, and will be asked to do in the weeks ahead.
“In many cases you are the hidden heroes, and the country is grateful for all that you have done.”