AN ARMY of robot fruit pickets is still a long way off – so if Britain's horticulture industry is to survive, it must quickly be given back the seasonal workers that it lost to Boris Johnson's hard Brexit.

A Defra-commissioned review of automation in horticulture reported back this week with a positive outlook for a future where the back-breaking business of berry-picking can be left to autonomous machines, once the technology is perfected and made affordable.

However, the report also clearly stated that this long-term vision is not here yet, and in the meantime there is fruit needing picked, so Defra should be setting up a new Seasonal Workers Scheme to maintain the flow of human labour while research into automation progresses.

British Berry Growers, the body representing 95% of the UK’s commercial soft fruit growers, swiftly called on the UK Government to heed its own review's recommendations.

Read more: Kubota and Tevel's award-winning robotic fruit picking plans

Commenting on the review, British Berry Growers chairman Nick Marston said: "If implemented, the recommendations in the review can set out a path toward automation that will support our berry growers and secure the long-term health of the entire horticulture industry.

"The report rightly acknowledges that the replacement of fruit pickers with autonomous selective harvesting is a long way off and therefore seasonal workers are essential in bridging this gap. As such, the review’s recommendation calling on Defra to consider pursuing a long-term Seasonal Workers Scheme starting in 2022 is very much welcomed. A long-term scheme will give growers the much-needed certainty they need to plan and grow their businesses.

“However, we are also calling for Defra and the Home Office to not only extend the length of the scheme, but to also increase the number of visas made available," added Mr Marston. "It is essential that farms have access to the seasonal labour they need to harvest their fruit in the years before such automation is a reality.”

He added: “We’d like to thank Professor Simon Pearson, and all involved, for bringing together the findings and putting forward the recommendations in this review. The power is now in the hands of government, and we strongly urge whoever steps into No.10 to fully implement the recommendations put forward in the review.”