R&D: now ministers must play their part

This week's pledge from East Malling Research (EMR) and Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC) to work together to provide integrated applied science resources to the horticulture industry has rightly been heartily welcomed by the sector.

The move will give these vital organisations - run by industry on behalf of the industry - the strength they need to move forward and develop in the face of the ongoing research-funding crisis.

The news is a ray of hope in what has otherwise been a rotten 12 months for horticultural research. From last summer's decision by the University of Warwick to close HRI Kirton, to this January's passing of EU plant protection legislation which at a stroke has wiped out years of development work in crop protection - the prognosis for applied R&D in horticulture at this moment couldn't be much worse.

And this despite two key reports, published during the same period, which have highlighted the absolutely critical role of R&D in the sector's success, the damage that has been caused by the fall-off in public funding - and the great opportunity that is awaiting government if it can be persuaded to rethink its approach to applied R&D.

Calling for a new vision for UK agricultural R&D, the Commercial Farmers Group last summer warned of a significant decline in the rate of growth of UK agricultural productivity, in its competitiveness with other countries and, as a consequence, in food self-sufficiency since the mid-1980s. "This period of decline has coincided with reductions in public-sector funding support for agricultural R&D and undoubtedly this has been a significant influence," it concluded.

Meanwhile, the National Horticultural Forum's review of the provision of UK horticultural R&D forcefully argued that a successful, innovative horticulture industry can help deliver the Government's public policy aims from climate change to public health and food security.

Its recommendations included seeking efficiencies in managing R&D and knowledge transfer, both within the horticultural research world and that of the wider Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board - issues which the collaboration by EMR and STC shows are being addressed.

No one can deny that industry has more than done its job. Now, so must the Government - by reversing the damage done when it cut our industry's R&D lifeline. STC chief executive Graham Ward's call for pound-for-pound match-funding by the Government of the HDC levy would be a very good place to start.


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