Polytunnel Code of Practice

Common Misconceptions about Polytunnels

Polytunnels are erected without planning permission

Due to the transient nature of polytunnels, the Courts, who ultimately make planning judgements, have held that numerous temporary structures, including certain types of polytunnels, are not buildings but a use of land and therefore are outside the scope of planning control and do not need planning permission. However planning status is still something of a grey area and in certain circumstances depending on permanence, physical structure and attachment to the land a polytunnel may require planning permission. In cases of doubt a procedure known as a lawful development certificate exists and this may be submitted to a local authority by a grower to establish whether planning permission is required.

Fruit farmers sterilise the soil and make it useless

Sterilisation is not a common practice but fumigation is sometimes used to prevent a fungal pathogen that lives in the soil and which causes a fatal disease known as verticillium.

A fruit farm will fumigate the specific area on which the crop is grown - usually 50% of the field. This destroys organisms 6-8 inches below the surface of the soil. Polythene sheeting is used to protect those parts of the land that are not being fumigated.

Sterilising soil does not cause permanent damage. The soil returns to its previous state within 12 months.

Polytunnels are taking over the countryside

Polytunnels used for growing berries cover 0.01% of UK agricultural land as a whole, and only a small percentage of the land of any one farm. Furthermore they are removed at the end of each growing season and during the season are rotated.

Figures produced by the ADAS Centre for Sustainable Crop Management for 2004 list the total areas of tunneled UK soft fruit farmland as follows:

Strawberries – 1097 hectares (2709 acres)
Raspberries and other cane fruit – 299 hectares (738 acres)
Cherries – 92 hectares (227 acres)

UK soft fruit growers must comply with a code of practice which seeks to minimise any interruption of a neighbour’s views by screening polytunnels with the planting of hedgerows and trees.

Meanwhile manufacturers are developing plastic sheeting that is less reflective and many fruit farms have allied with environmental agencies to implement conservation projects.

Polytunnels damage the environment

British Summer Fruits represents 98% of all British soft and stone fruit growers supplying supermarkets, all of whom adhere to British Retailer Consortium standards of agricultural practice. This guarantees high levels of safety in all areas of production, including responsibility to the consumer and to the environment. All growers and pack houses are members of the Assured Produce Scheme which promotes safe and environmentally friendly production of fruit, salads and vegetables. Personal accountability is assured both by independent audits and by packaging which bears the name and address of the farm.

Many growers are also members of Tesco’s Natures Choice, Marks & Spencer’s Field to Fork, the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, FWAG (Farm Wildlife Advisory Group) and LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming). The latter organisation implements independent audits to ensure its own standards are met.

Research conducted by Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose in 2004 found that customers wish to buy locally grown produce. Members of the public know that fresh foods offer more nutritional value and local delivery ensures less environmentally damaging ‘food miles.’ Freight carried long distance by air and road significantly increases global pollution.

Polytunnels use more pesticides

Polytunnels reduce the need for pesticides(see above). Those that are approved by the Pesticide Safety Directorate. The chemicals that are used are the same as those used on other fruit and vegetables. They are regulated by the EU and approved by the Pesticide Safety Directorate, a government body. Residue levels are constantly checked to ensure they remain within acceptable government levels.

The enclosed nature of the tunnels greatly reduces the risk of sprays drifting away from the target crop.

Imported fruit, most of which is also grown under polytunnels, is subject to the rules of the country of origin and may have been sprayed by products not approved for use in the UK.

Polytunnels are not temporary

Polytunnels are portable, temporary structures. Under the Voluntary Code of Practice - which British Summer Fruit growers should adhere to - the polythene covering over the frames must be removed for a minimum period of at least six months in any calendar year.

Cheap labour is exploited

Soft fruit farming is incredibly labour intensive. Every berry must be picked by hand. Students from abroad started to be employed when growers found that they could not recruit from the local work forces.

Seasonal staff from abroad are entitled to the same rates of pay and conditions of employment as British workers. These are set by the Agricultural Wages Board. They are legally enforceable and guaranteed by the legal minimum wage. SAWS operators set standards for accommodation and it is usual for caravans to be provided by the grower. Ethical audits are also implemented where the welfare of seasonal staff is monitored by both supermarkets and SAWS operators.

Excess water causes floods and drainage problems

Polytunnels increase the amount of run-off from sloping fields as rain is shed into the tunnel leg rows. Careful management using drains and gulleys allow this to be diverted into water courses where it is used for irrigation.

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