Proposals for new ways to combine voluntary grower investments with government cash to fund near-market research are central to a strategy for expanding UK fresh produce production published in March by Warwick Crop Centre.
Its ‘Growing British’ discussion paper also outlines other changes, in areas ranging from planning, trade and energy policy to retail supply chain practices, that could support growers to increase domestic production by enough to supply half of the 30% increase in fruit and vegetable consumption the national food strategy calls for.
Lead author Richard Napier, deputy head of Warwick University’s school of life sciences, said the proposals aim to influence the promised horticulture strategy that Defra is working on, and result from discussions held by a fresh produce research and innovation forum, which includes research providers and industry representatives, convened by Warwick.
“There are many pressures on the industry at the moment so there is great room for improvement in how it is supported, including for investment by growers and for the research which underpins the innovation that’s necessary to adapt for the future,” he said.
Central to the proposals is a role for the existing Horticulture Innovation Partnership (HIP), set up in 2013, and the establishment of a new national Fresh Produce Innovation Centre to foster collaborative projects and knowledge exchange and give near-market research a more strategic direction.
“It would represent good leadership if the government could at least kick-start that for the industry,” said Professor Napier.
The Warwick paper suggests one possible new research and innovation funding mechanism could be through the post-Brexit replacement for the Producer Organisation (PO) scheme, also currently on Defra’s to-do list. Under the proposal, if scheme members committed to spending a proportion of their programme on R&D, it would be matched by government funds.
Its second suggestion is to resurrect the HortLINK model, under which Defra match-funded projects led by growers in consortia with researchers. It closed in 2012.
The currently inactive HIP is administered by the British Growers Association, which also looks after a number of the UK’s Producer Organisations. Chief executive Jack Ward points out that POs can already fund certain R&D activity through the scheme. “We are in a new era for R&D so it’s right we revisit the role of HIP and talk about whether R&D could feature more in a PO replacement scheme,” he said. “It’s important that whatever mechanism we have, decisions about whether, how much and what R&D to invest in must come from growers.”
Growers’ investment in productivity could be helped with the introduction of Welsh-style small grant schemes to the rest of the UK, the Warwick proposal adds, providing support to smaller growers with investments of £5,000 to £10,000, while planning reforms could encourage development of ‘urban-fringe’ market-garden style holdings with shorter supply chains.
Other key proposals in the Warwick paper include ensuring new trade deals with other countries don’t undercut the standards UK growers have to meet; improving biosecurity and supporting wider use of IPM; helping growers to reduce food waste through better storage and crop handling; and a more flexible, realistic and co-ordinated approach to crop specifications by retailers.
Defra says it plans to consult later this year on replacing the PO scheme while discussions with industry are still underway ‘to explore a range of policy opportunities and developments’ in relation to a horticulture strategy. But many in the industry fear that, with a general election less than two years away and the recent rapid displacement of Defra ministers, neither will be seen as a priority but set aside to be dealt with by whoever wins the election.