R&D Case Study: Research model

Horticulture needs long-term solutions to R&D. Geoff Dixon asks what we can learn from the Campden BRI approach

Horticulture survives by taking new research and development (R&D) and applying it in line with business demands. The results of industrially relevant R&D are lower costs, better quality and sharper delivery. Research's relevance can be decided only on the industry floor. Yesteryear's unwritten "gentleman's agreement" with the Government, which delivered useable R&D but without asking for subsidies, no longer applies.

The industry still does not want subsidies but does need R&D. Horticulture Week's Save our Science campaign is spearheading the urgent need for crucial short-term support. But, over the longer term, British horticulture must develop its own R&D base separated from political short-termism. There are stable self-governing R&D models that have stood the test of time and that horticulture should consider.

Campden BRI in practice

Campden BRI's approach produces applied R&D spanning from "field to fork". Its work covers all facets affecting food acceptability for increasingly urbanised consumers. The demands of retail customers govern the way food (and ornamentals, for that matter) is grown, harvested, prepared and presented.

This is the "agri-food model" of R&D already applied successfully in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Campden BRI's headquarters is a 6ha campus near Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.

Set up in 1919, Campden BRI provided R&D for fruit and vegetable growers and canneries and the quick-freezing industry, first in the Vale of Evesham, then nationally.

By 1952, Campden was a research association. Aiming to stimulate industries as diverse as steel making, road construction and production engineering, the then government developed the research association partnership model. Every pound invested by industry was matched by government. This imaginative and successful model survived until the early 1960s when public funding stopped. Since then, Campden has survived by serving the whole spectrum of food providers and preservers.

Over the past 50 years Campden has had partners in the beverage industry (1988), milling and baking (1995) and most recently brewing (2008). It has also joined with food preservation R&D in Hungary. Recently, Campden BRI and the International Agricultural Technology Centre (IATC) at Stoneleigh have linked promoting agricultural and horticultural exports (see HW, 19 June). Campden BRI is an independent not-for-profit organisation owned by its constituent member companies.

Structure of research

Campden BRI is "the leading independent research and technology organisation servicing the agri-food chain internationally", according to Chris Knight, head of the agriculture department. "We achieve this by selling independent scientific and technical expertise, training and advisory services," he explains.

All industry sectors gain from Campden BRI through improvements to their product safety and quality, processing efficiency, product, package and process innovation and industrially relevant knowledge.

Campden has more than 2,000 member companies. The majority (90%) come from the UK and Europe and the rest are spread across the Americas, Africa and Middle East and Australasia. Members include: farmers and growers; plant breeders; agrochemical suppliers; food and drink manufacturers and ingredient, equipment and packaging suppliers; distributors and importers; caterers; and retailers.

Research funding comes, in part, from outside contracts. But importantly there is an internal £2m per annum research fund resulting from membership fees. Campden staff bid for this money. Member companies vote on research priorities. All projects are closely monitored by internal and external auditors for progress and the achievement of objectives. This system provides a very effective way of achieving R&D appropriate to industry's needs. Consequently, Campden BRI is "a world-class resource for the agri-food and drink chain", states Richard Stanley of the agriculture department.

Examples of R&D

Across the board, Campden BRI members' research is finding ways of enhancing vitamin, mineral and phytochemical content by changing crop husbandry and cultivars.

Results show, for example, that changes to husbandry increase lutein in spinach, while darker-coloured carrot cultivars have higher falcarinol contents compared with traditional types. Horticultural Development Company-funded work has studied the effect of adding sulphur directly into the watercress bed water with the aim of increasing flavour and PEITC (phenethyl isothiocyanate) content.

Campden BRI studies aspects of consumer choice and is part of the EU HELENA (Healthy Lifestyle in Europe by Nutrition in Adolescence) study. This focuses on choices made by adolescents. Choice is greatly influenced by social factors. This survey showed that "boys are more concerned with the taste of food, while believing their diet to be healthy, whereas girls claimed to prefer choosing healthier options", concluded project manager Chantal Gilbert.

Campden BRI is well equipped to quantify bioactive compounds such as antioxidants using hydrophilic oxygen radical absorbance capacity (H-ORAC) assay or total phenols (TP) using Folin-Ciocalteu reagent.

Growers and food manufacturers benefit from this work. ORAC and TP assay methods are being used by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has published the ORAC and TP contents of over 100 types of foods. This provides a library of comparative reference data that makes studies of food deterioration more meaningful.

Deterioration of fresh produce like green broccoli, tomatoes or strawberries is a very costly loss throughout the supply chain. A Campden BRI member says "tackling losses due to limited shelf-life is a high priority".

Fresh-produce life cannot now be extended with pesticide dips. As an alternative treatment, low-dose (hormetic) ultraviolet (UV) light is being tested by Nick Saunders of the agriculture department. High doses of UV are widely used in the food-processing industry as sanitisation for controlling microbes. Low-dose UV stimulates innate plant defences against diseases, which reduces deterioration. Saunders' research is part of a Defra HortLINK project.

Campden leads in studies into decontaminating organic and inorganic surfaces. Research manager Debbie Smith is developing decontamination methods for the propagation modules used by producers of field vegetable transplants. A collaborative project with John Walsh at Warwick HRI is looking for means of removing from module surfaces the root-invading microbe Olpidium brassicae, a vector of several destructive brassica viruses.

Campden BRI is supporting companies with management of food allergens by avoiding cross-contamination through auditing the efficacy of cleaning, grading and processing lines. In addition to well-known food allergens like gluten or nuts, plants like celery, mustard, sesame and lupin can cause allergic reactions in sensitive people.

Identifying and preventing contamination with allergenic materials when handling fresh produce either in the field or in growers' packhouses is an urgent issue. This is rising up the supermarkets' agenda as proposed labelling legislation is likely to include loose as well as pre-packed foods. Campden BRI biochemist Helen Arrowsmith is using testing methods that identify presence of allergens so that companies can demonstrate robust risk management and avoidance.

Behind the scenes

Analysis is a major part of Campden BRI's capacity. Pesticide residue tests are made for retailers and food companies by chemists Bob Teasdale and Nick Bird.

One of Campden BRI's key talents is in the coordination and management of R&D. It has long and very successful experience in collaboration across the world combining field and laboratory studies.

In this capacity, it could be a managing agent for horticultural studies that involve the production of R&D results from several dispersed and disparate organisations.

Campden BRI survives outside the mainstream of publicly financed horticultural R&D organisations. Its strength is its independence and expertise, which stretches from field to factory to supermarket and on to the customer.

See http://www.campdenbri.co.uk/

Professor Geoff Dixon is director of GreenGene International and senior research fellow at the University of Reading

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Professor Geoffrey Dixon

GreenGene International chair Geoff Dixon on the business of fresh produce production

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