Research priorities in the UK
1.GM Freeze Calls for Re-Think on Research Priorities as Warwick HRI Merges
2.SpinProfile of Horticulture Research International

NOTE: These two pieces offer an insight not only into the sad demise of the UK government's main testing and development arm for market gardening, fruit and related crops, but also the wider research malaise arising from the diversion of so much attention and resources into the promotion of genetic engineering.
1.GM Freeze Calls for Re-Think on Research Priorities as Warwick HRI Merges
Immediate release, 18 November 2009

Following the announcement that Warwick Horticulture Research International will close and merge with a new "life sciences" department at Warwick University, GM Freeze has called for a "major review of research priorities and reallocation of existing funding to build a strong agroecological research base in the new institution".

The announcement of the closure of Warwick HRI [1] was accompanied by news that it was running a GBP2 million annual deficit.

Last month a Royal Society report [2] called for a GBP50-GBP100 million annual increase in agricultural research and development funding in the UK.

The report also recommended that:

"Universities should work with funding bodies to reverse the decline in subjects relevant to a sustainable intensification of food crop production, such as agronomy, plant physiology, pathology and general botany, soil science, environmental microbiology, weed science and entomology."

These were areas in which HRI used to excel, and Warwick HRI still has many scientists working in these fields, but also has carried out significant research in GM plants. [3]

Commenting Pete Riley of GM Freeze said:

"It is vital that there is a major review of research priorities and reallocation of existing funding to build a strong agroecological research base in the new institution. The last thing the UK needs is to lose expertise in areas such as soil science and biological pest controls following years of under-investment in these areas, which are vital if agriculture is going to produce enough food in the future without wrecking the planet."


Calls to Pete Riley 0845 217 8992 or 07903 341065


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3. See and
2.Horticulture Research International (HRI)
SpinProfile - multiple embedded links

Horticulture Research International (HRI), now part of Warwick HRI, is the UK government's main testing and development arm for market gardening, fruit and related crops. It is said to have the largest single team of horticultural scientists in the world and an income of approximately GBP24 million per annum. It is classed as a non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) and is responsible to the UK's Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA, formerly MAFF). It also receives funding via the BBSRC.

Its former Chief Executive is the controversial GM scientist, Prof. Michael Wilson who became Chief Executive in August 1999 after becoming Science Director at HRI in April 1999. HRI's Director of Research and Deputy Director is Brian Thomas.

Wilson, who told the parliamentary Select Committee on Agriculture that he is frequently called 'evangelical' about GM, moulded HRI in his own image, making it part of HRI's'corporate policy' to promote its views on GM technology to the public. As he told the Select Committee, 'We have issued statements, we have had public meetings, I have written articles in various books, I have appeared in the media in debates on GM issues, as have many of my scientists. We have participated in everything from round-table discussions and debating societies, to radio broadcasts and, as I mentioned before, the Synod of the Church of England have visited HRI. We feel it our obligation to explain the facts and the realities of GM technology; what it can do, what it is based on, what actually happens, and to try and defuse some of the mis-information that has unfortunately prevailed in the last couple of years.' Wilson's evangelical contributions to the GM debate have attracted serious criticism.

Wilson's mission also impacted on HRI's research support for UK market gardening. GM had been put at the centre of HRI's science, as Wilson told the Select Committee. 'We use GM. Genetic engineering, and genetic enhancement, is an incredibly important tool in the research laboratories of HRI across the organisation. It is by far the most definitive technique to use to identify, quantify and qualify the effects of genes and to do experimentation. We are entirely in tune, or the policy of all my senior scientists is that we would support the testing and trialling of GM crops... these crops can offer tremendous benefits in horticulture and agriculture in Europe and the world.'

HRI's GM research has sometimes hit the headlines, eg GM apples to fight tooth decay. To many, this focus on GM has seemed misguided given the lack of commercial interest in GM foods in the UK and Europe, where there is little if any demand for them among consumers. It is the more surprising, given the severe budget deficit HRI has suffered from.

In September 2000 Wilson sort to ease the budgetary situation by publishing HRI's Restructuring Plan. This proved extremely controversial. It involved axing the highly regarded Stockbridge House research station - a move strongly opposed by the horticultural industry and the National Farmers' Union who both complained of a total lack of consultation.

Many saw the move as part and parcel of Wilson's GM agenda. 'A leading research centre is facing closure in a move which has revived fears about scientific promotion of GM crops,'The Guardian newspaper reported, noting how Stockbridge House had pioneered biological pest control, hydroponics and 'other alternatives to genetic adaption of plants.' The article quoted a former director of Stockbridge, Michael Bradley, 'It's a viable site... There's an awful lot of horticultural science about at the moment, but much less work on the practical technology which makes that science useful to growers.'

Bernard Sparkes, who resigned as Chairman of the Horticulture Research International Association (HRIA) over the Stockbridge House decision, told the Agriculture Select Committee in a memorandum, 'I am clearly concerned at the ability of HRI in the future to deliver the R&D to the industry... The industry at large is devastated by this announcement.'

Much of the concern centered on the determination of Wilson and those around him to drive through the decision without consultation. Sparkes told MPs, 'The industry is so concerned at the sheer arrogance of the Board and Chief Executive of HRI in refusing to consult... the present attitude of the board and senior executive of HRI, they have their own agenda and to hell with everyone else.'

For more on Mike Wilson: