R&D efforts must be increased to help potato growers respond to the increasing challenges of producing the crop – and a fresh attitude to GM is required.
Those were key messages from NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond to his audience at the Potato Council’s West Midlands Potato Day last week.
“Research and development is crucial to ensuring that growing demands for food on a global scale can be met from a limited land area,” said Mr Raymond, who grows 80ha (200 acres) of potatoes in Wales.
“The work carried out by the Potato Council is going to be critical for the potato industry moving forward.”
Highlighting the 45% real cut in public funding for agricultural science between 1986 and 1998, Mr Raymond said the results were already starting to show in a levelling off of cereal yields.
“The NFU Board for Horticulture and Potatoes has made R & D its number one priority this year to ensure the continued competitiveness of the horticultural and potato sectors.”
It wanted to reverse the decline in funding and see government matching the research monies contributed by levypayers to organisations such the Potato Council, he explained.
Growers needed a variety of new tools to address agriculture’s challenges and only R & D could provide them.
“GM technology undoubtedly is one such technology that could offer solutions. However, we will need some significant changes to see this materialise.
“The EU approval system is slow due to the political controversy surrounding commercial use.”
While Europe failed to embrace GM technology, it fell behind other countries growing 125m ha of such crops on over 12m farms.
“There is a serious risk that UK and EU growers will be disadvantaged by having to play catch up.”
Companies had little incentive in developing GM crops for European markets when bureaucracy and consumer perceptions stood in the way, he noted.
BASF’s starch potato was approved as safe for humans, animals and the environment as any conventional variety three years ago by the European Food Safety Authority. But EU Commission approval was unlikely before 2014.
“It’s sad that science and the role of scientists receive so little respect from today’s society, and it’s annoying that their expertise can be undermined so easily by tabloid headlines,” said Mr Raymond.
R & D was one four key areas of responsibility that remained 100% under Potato Council control since it officially became one of six sectors under the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board on 1 April, stressed PC chairman Allan Stevenson.
“Our key aim is to maintain service levels to levypayers.”
Conveying R & D results to growers was a priority in the council’s 2009/10 plan, but Mr Stevenson explained that he was already looking further ahead.
“The 2010/11 planning cycle starts now.”
A small levy rate increase might be needed by then. “It’s not certain and it might be deferred. But we’ve been living on reserves for many years, and we can’t keep using them up.”
Highlighting the council’s strong committee and consultation structure he encouraged grower feedback.
“We want to hear your voice, your views and your support. It’s your Potato Council.”