Government to launch £13m fund for crop protection R&D in wake of EU legislation

The Government's Technology Strategy Board will announce later this month that it is to launch a £13m collaborative R&D fund to develop new crop-protection solutions in the wake of January's decision by the European Parliament to pass tough new pesticide legislation, Horticulture Week can reveal.

The announcement will be made at Innovate '09, a Technology Strategy Board event on 13 October with the competition for prospective projects to secure monies from the fund, which covers horticulture, arable, grass and biofuel crops opening on 18 January next year. The deadline for receipt of full applications is 29 April and decision on projects will come on 4 June.

The news follows intensive lobbying by industry, including HW's high-profile Save Our Science campaign that, with the backing of key crop associations, has been calling for greater government funds for R&D specifically in response to the crop-protection crisis.

The initiative aims to help meet new and existing EU regulations on pesticide approval and use. In a summary sent to industry figures last week, the board said the decision will help growers "respond to the dual challenges of increasing the productivity of crops while reducing the environmental impact of crop protection".

The £13m investment includes £7m from the board — which sits within the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills — £3.5m from Defra and £2.5m from the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The projects can last up to five years.

Welcoming the "significant sum" involved, plant health adviser Paul Chambers of the NFU - which has lobbied hard on crop protection - said a combination of government concerns over EU legislation, campaigns including the NFU's Why Science Matters and HW's Save Our Science "all going in the same direction" and concerns about food security lay behind the move.

The key now, he said, would be coordination between the sectors.

David Gwyther, director general of the HTA, which has also lobbied within political circles on the issue, said the fund was "very good news, particularly in these troubled times". Gwyther said the HTA would be assisting partners on a bid addressing ornamental crops.

The horticulture industry's dedicated research stations said the focus on genuinely applied R&D was particularly welcome. Stockbridge Technology Centre chief executive Graham Ward said: "This is a response to the noises we've been making over the past 12 months. [Government chief scientist] Professor Beddington's team has listened to us."

Saying he was "delighted" about the plan, East Malling Research's Dr Chris Atkinson said the move was "evidence that the Government has been listening, taking note and is now acting with respect to UK food production by providing vital funds for crop protection R&D".

Processed Vegetable Growers Association director Tim Mudge echoed comments by many in the industry over the need for the board to liaise with crop associations' technical specialists.

Dr Colin Ruscoe of crop protection body BCPC said it was gratifying to see the board, Defra and the BBSRC working together. "For too long, Defra and other relevant funding bodies have been focusing on environmental protection and basic plant science, neglecting this area of applied R&D. We applaud their response to the emerging consensus for supporting UK food production - and to mitigate the impact of EU legislation, now rapidly restricting the armoury of pest control products without reference to risk/benefit assessment."

West Sussex Growers Association chairman and Fargro director Dr Paul Sopp welcomed the link between the productivity of crops and the requirement for crop protection and "the stated expectation that the funds will mostly be allocated to applied R&D, a new direction for government funding".

Horticulture Week features editor Gavin McEwan was interviewed by Radio 4 on the horticultural R&D crisis at this year's Four Oaks Trade Show as part of the Save Our Science campaign.

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