Investing your levy to support horticulture research innovation

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Professor Rosemary Collier, University of Warwick, is a leading entomologist and a specialist in Integrated Pest Management strategies for vegetable and salad crops. We spoke to Rosemary about the impact a reduction or removal of AHDB funding would have on scientific research and innovation for the UK horticultural industry.

About Warwick Crop Centre

  • Part of School of Life Sciences, University of Warwick
  • Based at Wellesbourne where a centre for horticultural research was established >70 years ago  
  • Main focus on outdoor vegetable and salad crop research, but also support protected edibles and ornamentals
  • Hosts the UK Vegetable Gene Bank (funded by Defra) 
  • Leads Vegetable Genetic Improvement Network project (VeGIN) (funded by Defra) 

The need for innovation

“The UK horticulture industry is going through a period of massive change, and we need experienced scientists to help drive the innovation required to meet that challenge.

“This includes threats such as; the loss of conventional pesticides, pressure on fertiliser and water use, impacts of climate change and problems with invasive pests and diseases. This is in addition to the need for innovation in the sector such as; crop protection and IPM including the development of biological control and crop breeding, use of robotics and AI, as well as support for farms delivering a range of ecosystem services in addition to food production (a focus of the new Environmental Land Management scheme).

Loss of research expertise and capability

“Our unique vegetable crop research expertise covering key disciplines such as entomology, plant pathology, soil science and plant breeding, has been built up over decades.  Our research specialists at Warwick work on some of the most significant and damaging vegetable pest and disease problems, including Fusarium, diamondback moth and aphids. We also lead some of the industry’s flagship research projects such as AMBER – improving the effectiveness of bioprotectants, and SCEPTREplus – securing new plant protection products and developing IPM strategies.

“Our research is underpinned by a range of specialised facilities including; glasshouses with containment for pests and pathogens, unique quarantine areas for soil pathogens and space for the development of pest populations, including carrot fly and large narcissus fly. We also have thermogradient tunnels for work on climate change, an insect suction trap (part of the UK’s pest monitoring network) and controlled environment facilities for maintaining insects and pathogens for research studies. We use all of these facilities in work for both AHDB and the wider horticulture industry.

“Our specialist researchers and unique resources are necessary for finding solutions to pressing industry problems, but can only be maintained by secure sources of funding. Without research income from AHDB, there will be a significant and permanent reduction in our national capability for research on vegetables. Loss of staff with experience in the sector, facilities, resources and training will all have a large impact on the research ecosystem’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances and opportunities. No other funder will fill the space.

Loss to the industry of other sources of funding

“AHDB collaboration and co-funding allows us to access far greater amounts of funding for research on vegetables. This amplification of levy funds, as well as a significant number of vegetable-focused projects, will be lost without AHDB input. The most significant recent example of this was the BBSRC’s Horticulture and Potatoes Initiative (HAPI). The £40,000 contribution from AHDB to Warwick led to BBSRC funding a £620,000 project on Fusarium disease in onion and pea crops, £471,160 on Sclerotinia diseases and laid the groundwork for subsequent projects on Fusarium diagnostics and disease management which benefit multiple horticulture sectors.

“AHDB has also supported projects in the SARIC initiative, as well as EU projects such as the recent H2020 Thematic Network ‘Smartprotect’. At Warwick, we also work directly with agrochemical, biopesticide and seed companies, often employing techniques and approaches developed through AHDB funding. This leads to the development of new plant protection products and new crop varieties. 

“If funding for horticulture within AHDB was reduced or ceased, this would have major and adverse impacts on the future success of biological research and innovation for the horticulture sector.

Loss of expertise

“Warwick Masters and PhD students often go on to key roles that support the horticulture industry. The absence of AHDB support would result in fewer PhD students working on strategic issues related to horticulture, and lead directly to fewer highly-trained students taking up careers in the sector.  Without students trained in the special skills necessary for advancing innovation in horticulture, the sector will stagnate.” 

This article was written to provide levy payers with information on how their levy is invested to support current and future research priorities and capabilities.

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