Food security brings pressure for action

News that University of Warwick bosses have been "summoned" to a meeting with environment secretary Hilary Benn - as the university races ahead with plans to fold HRI Wellesbourne into a new life sciences school - will raise hopes that the one-time "jewel in the crown" of horticultural R&D may yet be in with a chance.

The reality is that the "Warwick juggernaut" that, according to its own published deadlines, is at this very moment carrying out assessment and selection of academic staff for redundancy in preparation for the establishment of the new school as early as September, would prove a tough one to halt.

This is a view that last week's extraordinarily overdue meeting between the amalgamation's driver Professor Stuart Palmer and concerned industry representatives did little to dispel, focusing instead on a "modest" proposal for an industry-led unit at the site.

While we don't know what is on Mr Benn's mind, his last-minute intervention after months of lobbying by the production horticulture community, no doubt reflects mounting pressure on Defra to turn its new-found focus on food security and the need to expand UK production of vegetables and fruit into action. As last summer's report of the inquiry by the influential environment, food and rural affairs committee into food security put it: "Defra must recognise that calling for more domestic food production is one thing, but it cannot order that this be done. It must, however, lay out clearly what role it has in helping the UK food and farming industries to achieve this objective." Tackling applied horticultural R&D would of course be a critical first step.

As we noted last November when news broke that Warwick was to press ahead with its life sciences plan, with applied horticultural R&D its most likely sacrificial lamb, while the university's handling of the move had been poor, ultimately it was not to blame for the mess. The prime cause was years of cuts in government funding for horticultural R&D, exacerbated in recent years by Defra's decision to put production horticulture on a back burner.

Now it appears the fog is starting to clear in Whitehall, the fearmust be whether intervention now will be too little, too late.

www.HorticultureWeek.co.uk/leader for recent leaders.


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