Science base - A crop of innovations

All areas of horticulture will need scientific expertise in the years ahead, says Gavin McEwan.

Horticulture offers multiple career choices for the scientifically minded - image: HW
Horticulture offers multiple career choices for the scientifically minded - image: HW

Horticulture is sometimes seen as a career route for the less academically inclined. But it actually offers opportunities for advanced research in many areas that are set to grow in importance given the ongoing pressures of rising global population, environmental degradation and an unpredictable climate.

According to Horticultural Development Company chairman Neil Bragg: "Not many people appreciate the opportunities there are - horticulture hides its light under a bushel. Most people currently working in science are in their 40s and 50s.

"We have been neglectful, but now we do need to get more graduates in. If you are interested in biology in plants, the opportunities are phenomenal, in both the food and 'green' side."

That said, horticultural research is not as rich in scope as it might be, with several institutions losing funding and being cut back or closing completely in recent years. In addition, "whole-organism" courses are becoming fewer in number at universities as their life-science departments focus more on the genetic and molecular level.

In part, this is attributable to the small scale of most horticultural businesses, which are unable to support the kind of big-budget, ongoing research of which the pharmaceutical industry is capable, for example. Meanwhile, government funding has concentrated in recent years on pure research - the argument being that applied research should be paid for by the industries that benefit from it.

But horticulture meets many public policy objectives, from the livability of our towns and cities, to healthy eating and food security. It also has to contend with the ever-tighter regulation of chemicals that have in the past prevented pest and disease outbreaks.

According to British Crop Production Council chairman Dr Colin Ruscoe: "The production of carrots, brassicas, peas and potatoes could become uneconomic if the few key pesticides are banned. Work is urgently required to find replacements, and/or alternative crop protection technologies to prevent this."

Given these concerns, there is likely to be continuing pressure on the Government to pay for at least some of horticulture's ongoing development. Horticulture Week has campaigned for the Government to pay its share by matching contributions levied on horticultural companies that pay for research into applied plant science, which has won widespread support among both industry bodies and politicians.

Close-to-market research does continue at institutions such as Campden BRI, whose work at three separate UK sites supports the food and drink industry, and The John Innes Centre in Norwich which conducts research in areas such as plant metabolism and environmental adaptation.

Plants in progress

There are opportunities in seed and plant testing, both to establish their quality and provenance, and also in the competitive world of licensing new plant varieties. And, while still controversial, the approval earlier this year of the first genetically modified (GM) potato for growing within the EU could lead to a boom in the development of other GM crops, which is well under way in other parts of the world.

Aside from dedicated horticultural research agencies, several universities have specialist units, ranging from Cranfield University's Centre for Sports Surface Technology to the University of Aberdeen's Department of Plant & Soil Science, which provide an opportunity for advanced study and for industry-funded research after graduation.

Post-graduate research has also received a boost with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's current Advanced Training Partnerships programme, which will provide £15m in funding to bring on new researchers in the agri-food sector. Bragg adds: "It's all aimed at getting more scientists into the industry."

SIX OF THE BEST JOBS

Here are six science-based jobs in the horticulture world. How many had you heard of before reading this article?

- Plant pathologist Monitors the response of plants to different stimuli such as light, temperature and nutrients.

- Botanical archivist Maintains and updates records in a botanical collection such as at Kew Gardens.

- Sports surface technologist Develops and maintains turf to the highest competitive standards - there are opportunities for this in several sports.

- Tree risk assessor Gauges the likelihood of a tree, or part of it, falling and causing an accident, and therefore the assessor decides whether or not the tree ought to be removed.

- Crop trials analyst Checks the behaviour of a crop to see if, for example, it is consistent or can be marketed as a new variety.

- Forensic ecologist Analyses evidence of plant, insect and soil traces, which can help in solving crimes.


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