Key players in the UK's horticultural research sector have welcomed a call from the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) for greater industry collaboration to ensure that the sector makes the most of today's muchreduced research resources.
Monday saw the launch of a report by the HDC highlighting the substantial contribution to horticulture from Defra's now-defunct HortLINK applied research programme that saw 70 projects over 20 years launched with funding from Government and industry.
As well as flagging the benefits to industry from such collaborations, the HDC urged everyone with a stake - funding bodies, researchers, growers or customers - to work together to stretch the sector's limited resources.
Addressing partners who had collaborated on HortLINK projects, chairman Neil Bragg said while the report drew a line under the programme, the real purpose of the event was to get the participants working together for the future.
"Collaboration is not dead - that is the important message from today," he stressed.
Echoing his comments, HDC director of horticulture Dr Bill Parker said with industry continuing to consolidate and no prospect of increased financial support from the Government, the applied research base was "under some threat" - hence the need to collaborate.
As a first step, HDC plans to scope out future research needs across the production horticulture spectrum in consultation with industry.
"The vision is to provide leadership to crop problems, but also to become the pivotal facilitator to help the industry look ahead," said Parker. He will be assisted in this task by new head of research, Dr Jonathan Knight from Imperial College.
The HDC review will look at six areas - crop genetics, soils and growing media, crop inputs, crop protection, crop systems and plant harvesting utilisation.
A new research and development sub-group will also identify priority areas to be tackled straight away - for example, water use.
Commenting, Stockbridge Technology Centre chief executive Graham Ward said: "Growers and the industry need to understand that if the few remaining research facilities are not supported they will be lost. They can't be run on the basis of spasmodic income and staff spending all their time bidding for projects. There is no stability.
"Hopefully, today means that the HDC will put a bit of that stability back. It can't do it all but it can collaborate with other funders to create a more stable platform."
HortLINK Projects - Research examples
Applied research projects developed under the 20-year HortLINK programme include:
- A series of projects using new knowledge about plant genetics to breed tastier fruit and vegetables that can be grown with less impact on the environment.
- Two projects harnessing food industry expertise to help growers and food processors turn crop wastes into a potential peat substitute.
- Collaborative research helping growers match irrigation to crop needs more accurately, cutting water use and leading to better quality produce.
- Joint projects showing how companion plants and wildflower margins can help protect crops from pests.
- The SCEPTRE project seeking new approaches to crop protection essential to safeguard the future of UK horticultural production.