R&D funding ideas can't come too soon

In two weeks the National Horticultural Forum (NHF) will publish its detailed findings of an investigation into the strategic options for funding research and development (P&D) in the UK's horticulture industry.

The fresh thinking and direction this promises into what is becoming an increasingly frought and potentially dangerous situation for the sector can't come a moment too soon. Just this month top fruit grower and former chairman of the Agricultural Research Council, Earl of Selborne, warned at Prognosfruit that the reduction in the research base is one of the greatest threats to the sector. And we have the confirmation of the planned closure of HRI Kirton, which has caused real dismay.

Now it has emerged that the research centre at Kirton could become the subject of a rescue attempt by business leaders within the production horticulture community. But finding a solution is going to be tough given the centre's accumulated loss of £1m over the past four years. It's like "walking into a river without a lifebelt on", says the straight-talking director of Stockbridge Technology Centre Graham Ward, who is poised to take part in "exploratory talks" with a number of business leaders in the sector to see what solutions, if any, can be found (Grower, p51).

Lying behind the crisis, of course, is the fall off in government funding that has come from a fundamental shift in Defra's priorities - and all research centres are being squeezed. But even SCRI - safely outside the Defra sphere of influence - could soon be facing a Defra style review by the Scottish Executive, it is feared.

The leaders of the NHF investigation - which began in February with the aim of examining the various research providers and their long-term capacities in terms of facilities and skills - are keeping their findings under wraps until next month. But one area that, rightly, will be put forward is the contribution of retailers. Currently horticulture is in the inequitable position of being the only sector where only the producer pays solely towards the cost of R&D. Said chair of the NHF Andrew Colquhoun earlier this year, this has to be a possibility given the fragmented nature of horticulture with few large players with the ability to finance research.

Email: kate.lowe@haymarket.com.

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