HortLINK programme's abrupt end sparks concerns over ornamentals research in UK

R&D funding programme HortLINK has been abruptly suspended by Defra, sparking concerns for ornamentals research, which is expected to fare less well under a new funding regime that focuses on food security.

Confirmation of the wind-down came after last week's announcement by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills' Technology Strategy Board (TSB) of a £75m agri-food innovation platform to fund R&D over the next five years — a move widely welcomed by industry.

Although expected when the TSB innovation platform got underway, the suddenness of HortLINK's closure has surprised and concerned industry figures. A call for new research proposals went out only last month.

East Malling Research (EMR) head of science Dr Chris Atkinson said: "We didn't expect it to happen so rapidly. We've got two or three projects we were going to put into HortLINK that won't happen now."

The £13m fund for collaborative R&D in crop protection is the first call to emanate from the platform which will address both edible and ornamental crops (HW, 16 October). However, the platform's strong food security focus is, in the longer term, expected to lead to less funding for ornamentals.

Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC) chief executive Graham Ward said: "We understood there would be a longer period of changeover. As far as the edibles sector is concerned it is very good news, but the ornamentals sector would appear to be left out on a limb."

Saying he was "disappointed" by the lack of consultation, Horticultural Development Company chairman Neil Bragg added: "We've known for two years that Defra has been in negotiations with TSB about what might happen, but suddenly it's there in front of us."

Ornamentals, he said, seemed to have been "completely left out".

NFU chief horticulture adviser Phil Hudson said it will be up to ornamentals growers to collaborate on funding bids. "I don't see why it isn't possible to bid for money that will have benefits for food and non-food sectors," he said. "It is about squeezing as much value per pound from funding." But he added: "It is early days and it doesn't seem to be clear where ornamentals will fit in."

The HTA is already working with STC, EMR and innovation network PERA to develop a bid for EUR1m (£908,000) for R&D from the EU.

HTA director general David Gwyther said there needed to be a fundamental shift towards this type of approach. He said: "There is a serious concern ornamentals could be left out. As Defra moves away from funding research, the issue for ornamentals becomes more urgent and it is the right time for us to be thinking of new ways of doing things."

HortLINK projects currently underway, or that have been accepted at concept note stage, are expected to continue under the present regime.

Bragg, Atkinson and Warwick HRI director Simon Bright were set to address the issues at a Westminster meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science & Technology in Agriculture as HW went to press on Tuesday.


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