Top fruit sector at risk from reduction in research base, expert warns growers

The reduction in the research base for top fruit is one of the greatest threats to the sector, the Earl of Selborne has warned.

Selborne, a top fruit grower and former chairman of the Agricultural Research Council, said in his keynote speech at Prognosfruit that all growers are dependent on research for breeding new varieties and rootstocks, improving flavour, pest and disease resistance, yield improvements and precocity.

He called for GM technology to be pushed higher up the agenda - despite admitting that the prediction he made in the 1980s that GM crops in Europe "were just over the horizon" was wrong.

He said: "We may not need GM technology but in 10 years' time I hope for a rational debate in Europe. After all, most of the rest of the world is eating GM foods."

UK growers, he added, have to rely on New Zealand and Dutch research - proving that there is an interdependent community of growers worldwide with exchange of varieties and extension and research ideas. Apple and pear growers in both hemispheres should therefore work together and keep the research base strong.

He also said consumers' "irrational" concern about the health risks of agrochemicals - as opposed to natural toxins - was a "self-evident truth" affecting top fruit growers across the world: "We will be required to reduce agrochemical usage still further, a fact we will have to live with."

Selborne added that all fruit growers are heavily dependent on seasonal labour and that finding new sources was becoming increasingly difficult.

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