Dr Mark Else told last week's water security conference at East Malling Research (EMR) that there are plentiful opportunities for growers to cut their water use without facing penalties.
Following on from Defra minister for water Richard Benyon's call for industry to play its part in increasing water efficiency (see p26), Else said: "Growers will have to use irrigation water more efficiently - for example, using scheduling tools to match supply to demand, improving the water holding capacity of the substrate and considering deficit irrigation strategies."
He added: "Eighty per cent of growers, including 76 per cent of soft-fruit growers, are in water-stressed areas. Water is currently cheap and readily available in some areas. But abstraction rates are unsustainable, there is increasing pressure on supplies and water quality is also an issue.
"Meanwhile, growers have to take into account environmental and legislative requirements, as well as those from produce assurance schemes."
Irrigation will soon be controlled by plant-based continuous measuring tools that "will become a reality in the next three or four years", Else forecast.
Meanwhile, EMR is also developing strawberries and apple rootstocks with improved water-use efficiency, he said, adding: "It's not just efficiency - we want to improve yield and quality."
Funding question - Alternative sources
With the Defra-funded Horticulture LINK scheme no longer funding research into water use in horticulture, future funding remains an unresolved issue, the conference heard.
East Malling Research chief executive Professor Peter Gregory said that without Defra funding: "It's East Malling Trust that's now keeping this research going here."
Conference organiser Andrew Colquhoun added: "Defra has suffered the largest cuts so the industry will have to look to other Government departments for funding."