Alarm bells on the future of storage research

A recent press release by the AHDB that it is consulting on the future of the Sutton Bridge Crop Research (SBCSR) has raised alarm bells within the potato industry as to the future of storage research writes Joe Johnson.

Levy-payers and industry partners have expressed their concerns to The Vegetable Farmer magazine, highlighting the need for levy-payers to receive better clarity from the AHDB about its plans for the facility.

It comes at a time when the storage industry is facing great challenges from the withdrawal of sprout suppressant CIPC, and important work is underway looking at how to best use the remaining options.

There is a feeling that once lost, the expertise and facilities of SBCSR would never be replaced.

Ray Andrews (pictured) of Crop Systems Limited published a letter stating that “AHDB’s announcement should worry every potato grower in this country.

“Too many people in the sector still seem unaware this is happening, so we risk sleep-walking into an uncertain future.

“The excellence of Sutton Bridge Crop Storage’s work is recognised right around the world.

“Since it was launched in 1964 it has built up an outstanding track record for world quality research. It is a jewel in the crown that should be treasured rather than trashed.

“Completing all major research into such a complex subject on one site means it has a unique synergy and level of co-ordination that cannot be achieved if the work were split between multiple sites, no matter how excellent those individual sites may be.

“In addition, this proposal comes when growers are facing a unique triple threat; from coronavirus; from the withdrawal of CIPC and from Brexit.

“The last thing it needs is uncertainty hanging over a unique, world-leading research facility that has achieved so much.

“We need our industry to be strong, and the research done at SBCSR plays a crucial role in providing research on how to best maintain all-important tuber quality throughout the storage period.

“I urge everyone involved in the potato industry to make their voice heard and to protect this unique facility.”

One levy-payer said: “The value of storage to our industry is massive, partly because potatoes can spend more than 50 per cent of their time there.

“There should not be a move towards opting for the lowest cost ways of doing research without levy-payers having the chance to consider the implications for our industry.”

Others highlighted that Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research (SBCSR)  is an internationally-known centre of excellence, and while agreeing that parts of storage research may need to be contracted out, the centre plays a key role as a hub around which the research should be centred.

Fears are that contracting out would be likely to result in consortiums of scientists with different specialisms undertaking parts of projects, but working this way would be unlikely to be able to deliver holistic results levy-payers rely on.

One levy-payer said: “If there is no central hub for storage research, there is almost certain to be duplication across the different research institutes.”

In addition, levy-payers have suggested a lack of commitment to the long-term future of storage, insisting the AHDB needs to be looking at investment of more than three or four years of work.

“If funding were done on a project-by-project basis, it would be unlikely that real investment in the research would be made, because after a three or four year project, the researchers would have to tender for more work, and they might not win again.”

Another said: “Our industry needs more support for pro-active research as it is, rather than just project-based studies that are reacting to current circumstances. For example, we may need to be looking at how to reduce the carbon footprint associated with storing potatoes.”

The AHDB  press release stated: ”We know that storage research has never been more important, and our existing projects that are underway at Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research (SBCSR) will continue. SBCSR will stay open until we are confident that external providers can meet the needs of the industry.”

It explained that: “Because of the size of SBCSR, and the number of scientists we employ, we are not eligible to capitalise on the research funding that comes through the biological research councils. In a practical sense it means that when we fund projects through other research institutes, we can make the levy go up to four times as far.

“Geography and distance from big academic hubs make it difficult to attract new scientific talent to potato research at Sutton Bridge. That means our succession planning is always a risky business and we lose out to more established and vibrant research hubs.

“AHDB is not built to manage a research facility. As SBCSR is the only research facility owned by AHDB, it’s hard to justify the personnel required to write and manage bids, seek out commercial customers and other over-head type activities other research institutes pick up with their greater scale of operations.”

However, as one levy-payer put it: “The facility was bought by levy-payers for levy-payers, so surely the decision should be based on what the levy- payers want.”

There may be a need to consider how manage SBCSR differently, but there is an aversion  to the decisions which appear to have been made by civil servants looking at financial calculations  but not understanding the true value of the work done there.

“Research should be measured by value to levy-payers, not on how much outside funding was won,” said another.

“We would like to know which  avenues AHDB has considered for the future of SBCSR and also a proper breakdown of costs as they are always presented in an amalgamated form.”

“We recognise that potato may be considered niche by other sectors, but given the value that storage brings to our industry, would it not be possible to commit 10 per cent of the levy to storage to fulfil levy-payer needs?”

The AHDB’s full press release can be seen at https://ahdb.org.uk/news/the-future-of-storage-research

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