Wellesbourne: Defra must back real talks

Many will ask how it is that the environment secretary - who has shown a very welcome, albeit "11th-hour", interest in increasing UK fruit and vegetable production - could fail to make the link between that and the need to protect the long-term future of applied horticultural R&D, which is moving closer to the brink.

The answer is that fruit and vegetable task forces don't cost much, but with an election due can help win precious votes from a sector more used to being ignored by its designated department, while satisfying growing clamour for action on food security. On the other hand, acting to protect the UK's horticultural R&D base for both edible and ornamental crops requires real commitment.

Nevertheless, nothing short of the latter is what we must continue to demand from all political parties in the wake of this week's revelation from the University of Warwick that it is to press ahead with the absorption of HRI Wellesbourne into a new life sciences department, with applied horticultural R&D its most likely sacrificial lamb.

The announcement of a "consultation" giving the industry just three days to respond is shameful. It shows a complete disregard by the University of Warwick for the support it has received for many years from hard-earned grower funds for this once prime facility gifted by Defra at a knock-down price in 2004. But then, the university has not exactly been forthcoming with the industry for some time over its intentions.

But the university is not to blame for this mess. The prime cause is years of cuts in government funding for horticultural R&D, exacerbated in recent years by Defra's decision to put production horticulture on a backburner.

What must happen now? First, Defra must join industry demands for a robust six-week consultation process on Warwick's proposals. Then it must sit down with industry to start work on the bigger task ahead; namely to thrash out a strategy for applied horticultural R&D that takes the industry beyond last month's hard-won but "one-off" Technology Strategy Board fund for crop protection and towards delivery of a thriving, competitive UK production horticulture industry for both edible and ornamental crops.


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