Interview - Will Sibley, Chairman, East Malling Trust

It could be just around the corner. And if a new breakthrough in molecular markers is to be found, scientists at East Malling Research (EMR) will find it - if Will Sibley can find the money.

Will Sibley, Chairman, East Malling Trust - image: HW
Will Sibley, Chairman, East Malling Trust - image: HW

The recently appointed East Malling Trust chairman says he is a born optimist, which is handy. Stories of cash droughts in horticultural research are not for the pessimistic. Defra funding, for example, has gone from £4m six years ago to loose change now. Sibley says EMR, based in Kent, is down to its last £100,000 of Government cash.

So if he and colleagues at the trust, tasked with supporting horticultural research, are to help the scientists at EMR do their world-renowned research, he has cash to find. The trust supports research to about £1m a year from renting property, selling fruit and equity investments, but it needs more.

The trust needs its optimist. "We have to be careful how we look at funding," says Sibley, with a nod to other sources such as the Government's Technology Strategy Board, levy-funded Horticultural Development Company and research councils. "Defra funding has dropped but we have a good relationship, so funding is not a complete wipeout and is by no means a desperate picture."

The last round of funding from the strategy board resulted in success for three research projects out of six bids - "a very good hit rate" - and a crucial source of funding for the future, says Sibley. EMR also struck lucky with a predecessor, HortLink, and never lost a bid. So much depends on the bidding team if EMR is to thrive beyond this, its 97th year.

There is, of course, industry funding. An ironic spin-off from the closure of scientific facilities around the country is that the ones to have survived are more attractive for funders. Sainsbury's, for example, teamed up with EMR several years ago to launch the so-called concept orchard, a creative masterstroke that owes much thanks to Sibley.

Experts, worried about competition from Holland and Belgium, use the orchard to trial modern technology to hone yields, sizes and taste. Sibley makes no apology for private-sector partnerships with firms interested in their business and no-one else's. And anyway, he points out, the concept orchard is used by the industry as a whole.

"We research lots of world crops and have associations across the globe, resulting in research for the public good," says Sibley. "East Malling is probably the most famous name in fruit and its legacy is this: 90 per cent of all deciduous fruit is grown from root stock created at East Malling. At its height, in the 1950s, 400 researchers worked on everything from tea to cocoa and rubber."

If the centre's past is illustrious, its future needs illuminating. The team will continue to "maximise assets", a strategy that prompted a restructuring earlier this year. East Malling Ltd was set up to "commercialise all activities" on the 230ha site, the jewel of which is Bradbourne House, a Queen Anne mansion used for conferences and weddings.

"Inevitably we will see stronger focus on industry-funded research because of the multiple funding streams, but this dependence is a strong point. Having industry partners gives you very focused areas for research. We are a somewhat unique institute because we go from the high-end molecular and genetic level to near-market research."

High-end, or blue-sky, research is crucial because only breakthroughs at a molecular level can cascade down to near-market level and inform research. This is where collaborative partnerships with Stockbridge and, most recently, the University of Reading help in the areas of breeding and genetics. Reading, curator of the National Fruit Collection, is working with EMR on molecular markers to tackle issues of food security and drought resistance.

"We are also looking at working with Reading on joint PhDs. Stockbridge and EMR, meanwhile, draw up proposals with industry funders for cash bids. Our UK family of researchers has become smaller, so it's very important for the surviving institutions to work together closely. There is no earthly point in trying to paddle your own canoe in the future."

One possible future was spelled out by Conservative Lord Taylor in a report sympathetic to the sector. In it he threw much emphasis on the kind of high-end research held so dear at EMR. Sibley welcomes the review, written when the Tories were in opposition, but has no idea whether it will be implemented. He remains, as ever, upbeat.

"I'm optimistic. Opportunities for growers, industry and researchers are extraordinary. What used to be orchard upon orchard of field trials at East Malling has given way to labs and computer modelling. Where we once used 70 tonnes of water to produce one tonne of crop, we now use only 10 tonnes of water. The excitement and enthusiasm of scientists is amazing and imagining what's just around the corner is remarkable."

1968: Leaves school at 16 and works at a nursery in Chelmsford
1974: Contract budder and grafter for six years in Europe, Australia,
New Zealand and USA
1980: Starts own contract nursery in Kent
1997: Joins East Malling Trust
2006: Master of the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers
2010: Chairman, East Malling Trust

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in

Read These Next

Can Defra's reframing of farming policy work in growers' favour?

Can Defra's reframing of farming policy work in growers' favour?

The Government calls it a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to shape the UK's farming and environment policy. So what is likely to come out of Defra's current consultation?

What are the benefits of diffuse light in tomato production?

What are the benefits of diffuse light in tomato production?

Diffused light can increase the production of tomatoes by up to 10%, even when this brings a drop in the overall light transmission into the glasshouse, according to a report by Wageningen University & Research (WUR).

What measures are showing most promise for SWD control?

What measures are showing most promise for SWD control?

For soft- and stone-fruit growers, the threat of spotted-wing drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii) continues to loom large.