Interview - Professor Mark Tatchell, senior executive officer, National Horticultural Forum

The National Horticultural Forum was set up 10 years ago to identify the industry's major research and development (R&D) needs and the contribution that the industry makes to society. The group's new senior executive officer Professor Mark Tatchell says the organisation offers a collective view of horticulture R&D to the Government.

Professor Mark Tatchell, senior executive officer, National Horticultural Forum - image: HW
Professor Mark Tatchell, senior executive officer, National Horticultural Forum - image: HW
Q What is happening with R&D right now?

A The politics of UK horticultural R&D have changed enormously over the past few years, with new strategies for food security, health and well-being and production. A coordinated response to the R&D agenda of the Government and its agencies by the country’s growers and the wider industry is essential to ensure that horticulture meets these challenges to society, which is even harder these days given the poor state of the economy.

Q What was your background in the lead up to this role?

A My term as chairman of the Red Tractor Assurance Fresh Produce Scheme comes to an end this autumn. I have extensive experience of the horticultural industry through stints as a research scientist at Horticulture Research International (HRI) and Rothamsted Research. More recently, I developed a consultancy business linked in part to the edible and ornamentals sectors.

Q How bad is funding for research and development?

A The amounts of funding made available for research have gone down in certain areas, but if you dig deeply there is still funding there — it’s just been packaged in slightly different ways by funders, particularly Defra. Research institutes and producers have to realise that it is based on Government objectives and make sure that their work addresses those issues. Yes, funding has declined, but this is not new — look at the demise of the HRI and other research institutes. This reflects a change of Government priorities over a number of decades.

Q Which is faring better — edibles or ornamentals?

A Edibles. A lot of research funding currently piggybacks on the food-security agenda. Here we can build on the work by the Government Office for Science, led by chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington and the Horticulture Round Table. The trick is to fully engage the production and use of ornamentals within this agenda despite the slightly different policy objectives. We are engaging with the HTA and other key stakeholders to clarify the position within the wider environmental and ecological agenda. It also calls for creative thinking; the best commercial and scientific thinking is very creative.

Q What are the immediate challenges for the industry?

A In the short term, we need enough control methods for pests, diseases and weeds to offer effectiveness, flexibility and options for pesticide resistance management. We need to twin this with new integrated cropping systems to reduce reliance on chemical control.

The industry also needs greater understanding of soil management and performance to gain a better understanding of the impacts of carbon, nitrogen and potassium on carbon budgets, biodiversity and performance. Finally, peat substitution — the horticulture industry needs to develop better non-peat-based growing media and improved use of soil-less media in protected cropping. Much of this is being addressed through research funded through the Horticultural Develop­ment Company. Fortunately, the supply chain is imaginative and more often than not delivers what is required — this is another example of creative thinking.

Q How does this differ from the longer-term research needs of the industry?

A The horticulture industry has been very innovative over the years, both in the way it has adapted leading-edge research to its production processes and in the way its businesses and supply chains are operated. The challenge now is to identify and fund those research questions that will contribute to a step-change in the industry in the future. A key group here is the category managers and marketing organisations, which already invest considerable sums in research and development to further their businesses.

However, can they help facilitate pre-competitive research that will be beneficial to the whole industry? There are sources of research funding available to horticulture that may be accessed more successfully through closer involvement of this part of the industry. This may lead to novel groupings of scientists, a broad range of industry stakeholders and research funders to deliver the competitive industry of the future.

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