Fight for funding - the UK's research and development capability

What research and development capability exists and can British growers profit from it? Geoff Dixon investigates.

Impatiens mildew - image: Stockbridge Technology Centre
Impatiens mildew - image: Stockbridge Technology Centre

Horticulture thrives on research and development (R&D), which is quite literally clinging on by its fingernails. Capacity has substantially diminished, with a lack of funding for facilities maintenance and staff development.

Industry needs more R&D and it is the key funder, with the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) a main provider. At the same time, there are national needs for and benefits stemming from having a viable horticultural industry and these justify support from public sources. That can only be achieved in a time of economic austerity by cogently spelling out quantitative social trade-offs. These include reduced spending on the NHS, mitigation of climate change, increased social cohesion, safeguarding food security, enhanced environmental safety and the preservation of biodiversity.

Recently, the Biotechnology & Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) proffered support with £6m likely to be available for basic research.

It will be regulated by the BBSRC's own strict rules demanding high-quality science of international standing. Industry support of at least 10 per cent is required, of which five per cent must be in cash.

Government concern for national food security, climate change and the health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption possibly underlies this gesture. Maximum value will come from collaborative projects, as seen with the highly successful LINK programme.

Warwick-Wellesbourne

Elsewhere, research continues at other industry-centred providers. The University of Warwick's Crop Centre, directed by Dr Rosemary Collier, undertakes applied R&D reflecting Wellesbourne's internationally excellent research record.

Pests and pathogens are the single biggest call on HDC funds, says business development manager Stephen Tones. They are also a big part of the Crop Centre's business. Soil-borne pathogens increasingly cause huge losses and the lack of resistance genes and limited availability of fungicides make control difficult. Biological control can help and recently onion white rot (Sclerotium cepivorum) and wilt Fusarium oxysporum fsp. cepae have been combated with a fungal antagonist Trichoderma viride.

Disease forecasting is vital for controlling foliar diseases in brassicas. Spore-release forecasts guiding fungicide timing improve white rot (Sclerotinia sclerotiorum) control in lettuce and carrot. Viruses badly damage carrots and transmission requires the vector willow-carrot aphid (Cavariella aegopodii). Tracking and forecasting migrating aphids carrying viruses into carrots from willow - the overwintering host - and weeds such as cow parsley are needed for effective and environmentally safe insecticide use. Detailed knowledge of insect biology is essential for forecasting and managing pest control.

Building and maintaining collections of cultivars, wild relatives and breeders' lines - gene banks - is vital investment, safeguarding future food supplies. The nation's genetic investment in brassicas, onions, carrot, lettuce and leek is held in Wellesbourne's Genetic Resources Unit. Breeders use it for increasing nutrientand water-use efficiency, raising yields and finding resistance to pests and pathogens. Recently, Wellesbourne found wild lettuces with much lower fertiliser and water requirements and resistance to the aphid Nasonovia.

Stockbridge Technology Centre

Established as a self-financing trust, Stockbridge Technology Centre has expertise in agronomy linked with pest and disease control, winning the Grower of the Year Award for Science into Practice (2007). Its close relations with the Food & Environment Research Agency aids in developing molecular diagnostics. They identified a very damaging downy mildew of impatiens, a plant that has a market value of £40m-£45m a year.

Similarly, they identified Stemphylium on hebe causing leaf spotting and gained control by adjusting the fungicide programme. Mycosphaerella gummy stem blight in cucumber is returning as a major cause of financial loss. Here, forecasting by spore trapping and immunoassay techniques offers routes for improved control. Agronomic research is exploiting LEDs to reduce energy costs, giving cool illumination for multi-tier cropping in urban farms and warehouses.

John Innes Institute and Institute of Food Research

Science minister David Willetts recently said: "Bioscience is a key growth sector, which is why we announced a £70m investment in BBSRC research campuses in Norwich and Cambridge".

The University of East Anglia Norwich houses the John Innes Institute (JII), which excels in genetic and molecular biology studies and wins 50 per cent of all its grant applications. Its neighbour the Institute of Food Research (IFR) is the UK's largest food studies centre. Developing controlled degradation of food waste has provided IFR with composting systems that produce a viable alternative to peat. This work won the Most Promising Innovator 2011 Award.

Collaboratively, JII and IFR developed the new broccoli variety Beneforte, which has significant potential benefits for human health. It contains two-to-three times more glucoraphanin compared with standard varieties.

Working with the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital, IFR scientists found that men who ate a broccoli-rich diet could benefit from lower cancer tumour survival and growth. Data suggests there was a reduced risk of aggressive prostate cancer. British-grown Beneforte broccoli is currently in Marks & Spencer stores on a trial basis and will be widely sold from this summer.

This research gained plaudits from Willetts, who said: "This is a fantastic achievement and testament to the quality of research we have in this country and its ability to drive growth. This excellent work has led to the development of a highly commercial food product that will be both grown and sold in the UK, giving a real boost to agriculture, our personal health and the economy."

East Malling Research

The East Malling Trust is a long-standing source of financial strength. East Malling Research has our largest critical mass of horticultural R&D expertise and it is led by Professor Peter Gregory with strong links to the University of Reading.

Malling is internationally renowned for fruit R&D and well placed as consumer demand for home-grown fruit rises. Its research supports growers' need for high-quality fruit that stores well and attracts consumers. The new Pear Concept Orchard is planted with Conference at very high intensity. The closely targeted irrigation system saved 50 per cent in water consumption and maintained yields of class-one fruit. This research aids a resurgence of English top fruit. Commercial applicability is being tested by growers' trials.

Soft fruit production is a British R&D success story. Continued success demands maximum efficiency in the use of resources. Crop monitoring in strawberries saved 36 per cent of water use and improved berry firmness and flavour. Studies as part of valuable HortLINK industrial partnerships raised water productivity - cubic metres of water used per tonne of class-one fruit - by 50 per cent.

Universities

Working with industry is one of Government's challenges for our universities. The University of Reading is a serious horticultural R&D provider, not least by providing the molecular and genetic basis for the National Fruit Collection.

This collection is another element in the country's vital biological heritage. Lancaster University has a formidable international reputation for R&D, studying water requirements in plants. Its knowledge of irrigation demand, water conservation and techniques for phased root zone drying is applied worldwide.

Horticultural Development Company

The Levy Board is now pivotal for generic R&D procurement. Its recent business analysis provides an understanding of why, how, where and when it commissions R&D. Such strategic thinking is essential particularly because of its slim resources.

Currently, the HDC commissions a large number of very small projects, frequently less than £30,000. This solves very immediate and critical issues. The strategy worked well when wider problems could be solved with tax-derived funding. That is no longer the case and the strategy is therefore no longer feasible either for the HDC or its R&D providers. Changing strategy reduces office costs and access to pooled administration within the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board strengthens the pursuit of levy avoiders.

The specific off-label approval programme and more recently Sustainable Crop & Environment Protection - Targeted Research for Edibles (SCEPTRE) demonstrate benefits accruing from a generic systems approach and from outsourcing project management. SCEPTRE seeks new insecticides and bio-pesticides for cabbage root fly, aphids, caterpillars and thrips. Led by the HDC, this is an excellent example of collaboration across R&D providers with industry support.

Project commissioning will move to larger and broader issues with significant funds committed over longer terms. Funds may then be subdivided by outsourced coordinators on the basis of greatest industry benefit and audited openly and independently. Some larger companies are keen to undertake their own in-house studies. These inevitably focus confidentially on specialised issues relevant to that company's interests.

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreneGene international


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Professor Geoffrey Dixon

GreenGene International chair Geoff Dixon on the business of fresh produce production
 

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