Interview: John Palmer, Fourth Earl of Selborne

With more than 40 years in overseeing horticultural development, the Earl of Selborne has seen many research bodies come and -- more often -- go.

John Palmer, Fourth Earl of Selborne. Image: HW
John Palmer, Fourth Earl of Selborne. Image: HW

"I am glad to see HW championing the research funding issue," he says. "The problem is that Defra, which underpins the agriculture and horticulture sectors, is always short of funding."

He describes the pre-Thatcher era, when there were 28 research institutes — six of them covering horticulture — as "halcyon days". Unfortunately, he says, they all became dependent for funding on the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food.

"They were OK for two or three years, but then the money dried up and those institutes that relied on it were up a creek without a paddle," he says. "There were one or two exceptions like the then John Innes Institute, that developed things like micropropagation and gene sequencing. But research institutes need a funding stream they can rely on."

He welcomes the bringing together of agriculture and horticulture levy boards into a single organisation. "[A unified levy board] can say, 'this is what we need to make us competitive and to meet government objectives'," he says.

"But it needs an over-arching strategy and there's an obligation on industry to fund part of it. The levy system is key — growers should pick up their share of the tab. Yet, across science as a whole, spending doubled between 1997 and 2007 — it's done pretty well, even while departmental budgets have been cut."

Selborne, who sits with the Conservatives in the House of Lords, says the industry should not get its hopes up about a change of government. "I wouldn't hold my breath," he says. "A new government will take over an alarming financial situation and won't willingly spend any more. But with more joined-up thinking you could get more for your money.

"We are living off innovation, new technology, new markets and products — agriculture and horticulture are in that category. There are some dynamic businesses but they rely on overseas R&D."

The earl's own business, Hampshire-based Blackmoor Nurseries, has some debt to the old research network as it used only East Malling Research-approved rootstocks when founded by the Earl's grandfather in the 1920s.

The 100ha nursery has continued to be a source of nursery stock as well as fruit for retail. "We are doing well over the web from the grow-your-own boom," the earl says. "But we rely on Dutch research, whereas 20 years ago we would have turned to East Malling or Long Ashton. They are still doing excellent work, but their funding is hand-to-mouth. Others, like the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute and Efford, have gone completely."

What money there is for research is, he says, "guided by public policy issues rather than production". But he adds that this should not mean horticulture gets left out entirely.

"It can contribute to our current preoccupations of ageing, obesity and the quality of the environment," he says. "We are a green industry — or should be. Horticulture has an enormous contribution to mental health. There's also some brilliant horticulture at the Olympics.

"When it's research that aims to bring a profit, it's more appropriate for the industry itself to pay for it. But funding from the taxpayer is much more important in the fundamentals."

Indeed, as chairman of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's board of trustees, the Earl of Selborne takes a keen interest in the funding of basic science and has spoken out on the need to maintain government funding here. "Systematics is not very fashionable — even some scientists think of taxonomy as a sort of stamp collecting," he says.

"But how one organisation relates to another is fundamental if you want to work out why it's under threat — whether it's habitat change, a pathogen or whatever. And if you don't keep it up, you will find you have no expertise, and when making commitments to biodiversity you find you have lost the evidence base.

"Yet in Britain we have many of the type of specimens that other countries need — we have a responsibility that we can't walk away from. We have the opportunity to do a lot more, like putting more information on the web. But without a new generation of people who can identify things, it will be difficult to use the collections we have."

Selborne played his own part in this, lending support to the merger this year of Kew's fungi reference collection with that of CABI, bringing 1.2 million specimens together — the largest in the world. "Maintenance is still an issue," he says. "We used to have much stronger funding for unfashionable areas of science like mycology — people don't understand that agriculture, horticulture and ecosystems depend on systems of which fungi are an element in decay, in nitrogen-fixing and as pathogens."

Inspiring the young will be key to producing the next generation of plant researchers, he says, pointing to the Save Our Seeds campaign by Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Project as a way of achieving this. "If we can enthuse people at a young age, they will understand what growing plants is all about."

1969-73 Member, Apple & Pear Development Council
1978-82 Chairman, Hops Marketing Board
1982-89 Chairman, Agricultural & Food Research Council
1987-88 President, Royal Agricultural Society of England
1991-97 Chairman, Joint Nature Conservation Committee
1993-98 Member, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution
1997-2000 Chairman, Royal Geographical Society
2003 to date Chairman, trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

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