The fresh-produce industry offers a wide and growing range of opportunities for life scientists, G's Fresh technical director Ed Moorhouse told delegates at last month's AHDB Horticulture Studentship Conference.
Giving what he stressed was a personal view, Moorhouse said: "Horticulture has an image problem. There is a pay issue in farming but not as bad as you think - in fact, there is some serious money being made."
G's, a specialist vegetable in grower in the UK and overseas market that aims to pass the £1bn turnover mark, is "a vertically integrated operation, from seem to store, with science at every level", he said. "We have enough research projects for 50 years."
Among such technical challenges, he said: "The urban consumer doesn't welcome foreign bodies. We get more complaints about hoverfly larvae in salads than aphids. You could use organophosphates to wipe out both, but the consumer doesn't want those either." Already G's has invested "tens of thousands of pounds worth of kit", including x-rays, to detect foreign bodies. But he added: "We will still need pesticides and will have no choice but to use GM. We will need all the technologies in the box."
The company also requires engineering expertise, having built its own GPS-based automatic planter, and is now developing a vision-based automatic weeder. It aims to introduce a robotic celery harvester, in a process that gained recent impetus with the Government's living wage policy, which Moorhouse explained "will put an extra £4-5m on our wage bill". He added: "We have a 2.4MW anaerobic digestion plant but we don't entirely understand what's going on there or how best to manage it."
Meanwhile, the advent of remote imaging with hyperspectral cameras "will allow us to manage small blocks rather than whole hectares". But he added: "We are still just at the tip of the iceberg." Without knowledge of how to meaningfully interpret and act on such data, he pointed out: "Your drone will stay in its box."
Faced with increasing demands from customers and Government to produce more from less: "Everyone in the industry will have to up their game and we need scientists to drive that process." On the Government's AgriTech strategy, he added: "They have figured out they have a problem."
Being of a certain scale allows G's to "take more risks" in researching new technologies and techniques, said Moorhouse. "We can afford to lose 2ha of iceberg if it doesn't work. We have a capital investment budget of £20m and R&D accounts for large part of that. We are in a low-margin industry and if you don't do volume you won't survive."
G's "will continue to fund" research, including in partnership with AHDB, because "we have had to go back up the research chain to get the information we need", he explained. Pointing to one example where this has paid off, said Moorhouse: "We lose thousands of pounds from splits in radishes. The insights that we got from an HDC studentship helped us manage the problem more effectively." He added: "Soils have been trashed because we haven't figured them out," but that G's "are in it for the long term, and now even retailers like Sainsbury's see the importance of maintaining healthy soil".
Speaking of his own career in the industry, he said: "As I don't own land, the choice for me after agricultural college was to be a farm manager or to go into research, for which I was told I'd need a PhD. Not everyone in research has one, but it opens up a lot of opportunities." He added though that the "roller coaster" of Government funding and policy changes has made charting a career path in research establishments difficult.
Now as a potential recruiter of PhDs, he added: "I don't care if you know nothing about celery - you can learn." Even in less obviously technical roles such as he previously held at wholesaler Mack Multiples: "The experience and knowledge you have help you understand how they operate."
He concluded by saying: "We are in the health industry, growing natural products. We can exploit their benefits but we don't do that very effectively. Few students stay within horticulture, but there is a big future here, and getting bigger."
Session chair AHDB director of crop research Bill Parker added: "In the current funding climate it's not necessarily easy, but that's true of all sectors, and few have such a broad range of opportunities as horticulture. If you have a good science background and some business acumen, you can do very well. There is a demographic gap opening up that will provide major opportunities in science and industry. There will be no one in front of you for 20 years. You can progress very quickly."
Of the 60 students who have gone through the AHDB Horticulture (formerly HDC) studentship programme, just seven are known to have pursued a career in horticulture, according to AHDB Horticulture chairman Gary Taylor.
G's Fresh Skilled researchers required for worldwide business
G's faces the same need for skilled researchers in other parts of the globe, technical director Ed Moorhouse explained. "In Senegal we are building a farming business that's not about smallholders - that's not the answer. They will not all still be farmers. They will say: 'You grow on my land, I'll go and do something else.' So we will operate on a similar scale to here and have the same needs for science and technology."