Dixon on...Focus on crop health seen as welcome boost

Pests and diseases are priority problems across all sectors of horticulture. A few blemishes will render fresh produce unacceptable in the supermarkets, causing waste. Meanwhile our gardens, parks and larger landscapes are continually damaged by old and new foes. So Defra’s recent supportive statements are most welcome.

Secretary of state Elizabeth Truss included "crop health" in her list of priority policies at the Oxford Farming Conference. Using this term rather than "disease control" suggests that emphasis has shifted to environmentally sensitive methods.

Integrated control demands the whole-husbandry approach and rejects using one-off magic bullets. It fits with Defra’s desire for increased environmental care in the way food is produced.
Success in this policy needs increased R&D. Integrated control uses ecological principles meshing each element of husbandry into an effective whole. That is neither quick nor cheap research. Nor can the costs be handed on to levy payers via AHDB Horticulture projects — industrial relevance is not immediately achieved.

Hopefully the term "crop" will not ignore the desperate need to develop integrated controls for the environmental sector. Plant losses in rural and urban gardens, parks and landscapes have removed much of their structural integrity. That, as some research implies, exacerbates climate change.

Solutions will come from horticultural scientists skilled in plant pathology. Few such experts exist and the training of new ones is fragmentary. The thrust of university education is set against delivering graduates and postgraduates who might join the current diminishing cadre.

AHDB Horticulture is underwriting the education of a modest excellent few. But enlisting more requires the excitement and social relevance of this work to be impressed on potential students before university. This approach is succeeding for engineers and mathematicians. Why not horticulture?

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene international

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