The impending closure of Kirton by the University of Warwick could be seen as part of the long goodbye from Defra concerning horticultural research and development (R&D).
The privatisation of former Horticulture Research International (HRI) stations to Warwick and others was bound to leave establishments like Kirton exposed as the Defra dowry money runs out. Views might differ on this government policy in general - and on the Kirton decision in particular - but it leaves production horticulture the loser in research terms.
This also provides timely evidence of the seriousness of the problem for horticultural R&D, highlighted by the latest report from the National Horticultural Forum (NHF), A Review of the Provision of UK Horticultural R&D, prepared by Brian Jamieson & Associates.
This report indicates that the current Defra farming and food science research programme, introduced in 2006, focuses on public policy issues of climate change, resource use, biodiversity and the sustainability of farming and the food chain. Unlike the previous horticultural crop science policy it replaced, this programme has little direct impact on the technical problems growers currently face. This change in R&D funding policy has serious implications for capacity for strategic/applied R&D underpinning production horticulture. Transitional Defra funding to Warwick HRI and East Malling Research delayed the full impact of the shift in funding. It is now biting.
The model whereby the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) uses growers' levies to support applied R&D projects feeding off a foundation of Defra-funded strategic R&D in horticultural crop science is no longer functional.
The NHF report concludes that market forces will encourage some R&D providers to respond by adjusting their capabilities to compete for work that addresses Defra's new science priorities. This may help to sustain individual institutions. However, it will mean a drift away from R&D capacity that is relevant to horticulture.
Those institutions and R&D groups that have traditionally addressed growers' practical problems face a bigger challenge: survival means finding alternative revenue sources and capital funding for strategic and pre-competitive R&D of relevance to growers. Partnerships with other institutions might be one way forward.
The NHF sees the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) as having a responsibility for the health of the UK plant science base. Equally, Defra has an interest in the competitiveness of the horticulture industry, as part of the food chain.
But although they both provide competitive funding to individual institutions, neither organisation appears to accept responsibility for the health of the horticultural R&D base. They rely instead on competitive market forces to meet their needs for scientific knowledge, technology and trained scientists.
Their assumption is that there will always be sufficient capacity for their needs, even overseas if necessary. But is reliance on foreign researchers really what we all want to encourage?
Role of the HDC
By default, concern among public funders for the health of the horticultural R&D base now largely falls to the HDC. But it lacks the mission and the resources to assume full responsibility for sustaining the national capability.
Yet the demand for strategic/applied R&D for horticulture is undiminished. Production horticulture has a continuing need for a programme of applied R&D that is mainly crop-specific - supported by grower levy and managed by the HDC - and strategic R&D, beyond the scope of levy funding, addressing the broader challenges of environmental impact and resource efficiency, increased technology capability and infrastructure, and sustaining human health and well-being.
The report also analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the horticultural R&D base, both in terms of the human skills and the physical facilities.
This R&D base is quite strongly concentrated. Fewer than a dozen major providers - research centres, groups within universities and commercial concerns - constitute the main capacity.
There are also many small groups with relevant expertise, often in universities, which engage in horticultural R&D opportunistically, as and when they win R&D grants and contracts.
In terms of facilities, the overall health of the UK horticultural R&D base appears to be mixed. Largely reflecting past investment, some institutions still have facilities that are largely fit-for-purpose. However, others suffer due to insufficient revenue and capital funding to maintain capacity.
Some facilities are beginning to lag behind the increasing technical standards in the industry. If the present trend continues, serious difficulties lie ahead for a number of UK horticultural R&D providers. The survey confirms that several traditional skills are in short supply, notably ones in agronomy, plant pathology and weed science. Expertise is too often only skin-deep while succession planning is universally weak, or even non-existent, because of reduced and uncertain funding.
Indeed, several providers report they have little hope of recruiting at all in the foreseeable future. In addition, the ageing profile of scientists in these research areas is a cause of concern.
Recommendations for the future
The report identifies detailed recommendations for the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (under whose umbrella the HDC now sits) and for research providers, including an engagement with the Regional Development Agencies, with retailers of horticultural produce, and with the Government's Technology Strategy Board.
The report concludes there are several other initiatives that could improve matters. At a political level, the industry needs to emphasise that there are undoubted synergies between its priorities for strategic/applied R&D for the horticulture industry and the Government's needs for science and knowledge to inform public policy issues.
The NHF believes that an innovative horticulture industry can help deliver the Government's policy aims.
Recent concerns about food security suggest that it is now timely for the industry's collective leadership to present a new agenda to Government to promote R&D for horticulture that is also compatible with public policy goals of climate change, the environment, rural sustainability, diet and health, and food security.
- The full report can be found on the IoH, RHS, HTA, HDC, Stockbridge Technology Centre and East Malling Research websites. Comments on the report should be sent to the NHF at email@example.com.
Andrew Colquhoun is chairman and Susan Woodhead is senior executive of the National Horticultural Forum.