Willetts put on the spot over research cash

Minister urged by industry figures to ramp up government financial support for horticulture research during visit to centre.

David Willetts was opening a new facility in Stockbridge (R with Graham Ward) - image: HW
David Willetts was opening a new facility in Stockbridge (R with Graham Ward) - image: HW

Government minister David Willetts was criticised for failing to support horticultural research during a visit to Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC).

The minister for universities and science was at STC to open an experimental facility that uses LED lamps to boost the production of plants.

However, leading figures in the horticulture industry complained to him that the Government had done almost nothing to promote research and development.

During a question-and-answer session, crop consultant Derek Hargreaves told Willetts: "You are not doing enough. This was a Government-funded horticultural research and development unit - now it is industry-funded. If we are to produce good-quality food, a unit like this will need Government funding. It will certainly need your support."

Salad grower David Piccaver added: "There isn't a facility to do applied research. That has all been destroyed. It is true that there needs to be a commitment from industry, but we also need more commitment from the Government to help the process along."

Piccaver told Willetts that it was almost impossible for horticulture to get funding through the Technology Strategy Board, explaining: "You have to put in bids for funding. Horticulture does not have the organisation to put in serious bids."

He added: "Ever since the Horticultural Research Institute was sold off, we have not had a major centre of excellence. Therefore we have also been singularly unsuccessful in competing for EU funds."

Horticultural Development Company chairman Neil Bragg, who represents the group on the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, said there was a real need for some kind of organisation to ensure academic research was more closely linked to production.

Willetts responded by arguing that industry had to play a bigger role in development. "The Government can't do it all. We need co-investment. Industry should prepare roadmaps for development," he said.

He told Horticulture Week: "We need to find a constructive role without spending money we can't afford."

Stockbridge Taking the lead in LED

The grower-run Stockbridge Technology Centre in North Yorkshire raised £350,000 for the LED unit, which was opened by science minister David Willetts on 19 July.

"This could be the future of horticulture. We will be able to grow cucumbers in the horticultural equivalent of a multi-storey car park. The ultimate beneficiary will be the consumer," he said.

Only now is the technology becoming cheap enough to make it a commercial proposition for the growing industry, according to Philips Lighting, which provided the lamps.

Philips' Erik Jansen said: "In 2008, around eight per cent of domestic and industrial lighting was LED. By 2020, we expect it to be more than 75 per cent."


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