News briefing: Time to rethink R&D funds' distribution

Despite winning the intellectual case for more investment in horticultural research, securing funds remains problematic.

Reports argue more R&D is needed to boost sustainable production - image: HW
Reports argue more R&D is needed to boost sustainable production - image: HW

Great news - the case for greater public expenditure on horticultural research and development has been won. Well, won intellectually at least. Securing the money will be more problematic.

There is a stack of reports arguing that an increase in agricultural and horticultural R&D in the UK is important if we are to increase sustainable production and to underpin the future profitability of our farmers, growers and nurseries.

This is an argument that the National Horticultural Forum (NHF) has been making for years and a cause that Horticulture Week has backed consistently. The NHF has pushed the case for a coherent, properly funded and joined-up research pipeline.

Whether it is the ornamentals sector or edibles, we believe that the long-term commercial success of British horticulture depends in part on a pipeline in which knowledge flows over time. This comes from the research of academic scientists, through applied work, down to the near-business developmental work funded by the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) under the levy system and by individual companies.

And then, of course, we need effective policies for translation so that research findings can get taken up by nurseries and growers.

This is not a new problem. Public expenditure on R&D to support agriculture and horticulture has been declining for at least 25 years. The implicit farming and food policies of British and other governments during that time have been based on a judgement that the market will provide food at affordable prices without too much state intervention.

Those policies meant that it seemed safe to policy-makers to allow the research base to be weakened as they pushed the merger of research institutions in search of greater efficiency.

To be fair, for a long time those policies worked pretty well. Until 2007, the percentage of our disposable income spent on food dropped to historic lows. But then we had the first food price spike of 2007-08, prompting price rises in the UK and riots elsewhere. Already, we are experiencing another such spike.

That first spate of price increases began to change the nature of the debate. Food security was discussed seriously for the first time for more than a generation. Government chief scientist Professor Sir John Beddington predicted the "perfect storm" of global food, energy and water shortages by 2030, driven by rising demand, increased population and climate change. The stack of reports began to grow.

They include Chatham House's The Feeding of the Nine Billion, Defra's Food 2030, Lord Taylor's study, Defra's task force findings and the Foresight report The Future of Food & Farming (see box below).

The intellectual case for more money on research has clearly been accepted in Government and outside. But there is no prospect of additional public funding for the foreseeable future.

The major gap for horticulture is in the area of applied research of the sort that used to be funded by Defra. But Defra has moved away from funding work with commercial potential and has used its diminishing research money to support policy-making. The result is a worrying break in the research pipeline.

Research consumers and producers began to adjust to this reality some time ago. The 2008 NHF report Strategic Options for the Provision of Horticultural R&D advocated that part of the response should be the development of new research partnerships.

This has begun. East Malling Research (EMR), ADAS and Stockbridge Technology Centre have formed an alliance. EMR has signed a research agreement with China. The HDC has explored cooperation with European partners and is likely to work more closely with other bodies in the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board to stretch levy money.

The Scottish Crop Research Institute is being brought together with the Macaulay Land Research Institute and the HTA, HDC and East Malling Trust have jointly created horticultural research fellowships.

The Technology Strategy Board has also become a catalyst for creating partnerships between industry and researchers through its platform for crop protection, which brought some welcome new money last year.

The NHF and other industry representatives have been working with the Government chief scientist to identify priorities for horticultural research when money is so tight. As part of this, the NHF has done "research into practice" case studies for brassicas and strawberries to show how research findings have been taken up by growers.

We are now working on a vision for horticultural R&D that takes account of the new funding realities. But more needs to be done to ensure an effective research pipeline.

Some £400m is spent on agri-food research by the Government and devolved administrations each year. But the distribution of that money is an accident of history. More than half of it is allocated through the research councils and the higher-education funding councils to fundamental research where the criterion is academic excellence rather than commercial potential.

Perhaps the time has come for the Government to take a hard look at the distribution to see whether it is still the one that the country needs if it is to respond effectively to the recommendations in that stack of reports.

Andrew Colquhoun is chair of the NHF.

AGRICULTURAL AND HORTICULTURAL R&D - THE CASE FOR AN INCREASE

In 2009, Chatham House's The Feeding of the Nine Billion called for a green revolution underpinned by R&D. Defra itself set research goals in its strategy document, Food 2030.

Last year's report from Lord Taylor, a major bulb grower and then a shadow Defra spokesman, set out the case for increased agricultural and horticultural research. Defra's Fruit & Vegetable Task Force's findings last October also saw the case for more research.

So too did the all-party parliamentary groups on science and technology in agriculture and on agriculture for food and development.

In January, Beddington's office published the Foresight report The Future of Food & Farming. This too sees investment in R&D as critical and calls for a reversal of the low priority for agricultural research.


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