25 December 1998

Strong R&Dis crucial for UK root industries

By Andrew Blake

STRONGLY focused research and development is essential if the UKs sugar beet and potato industries are to compete successfully with European producers beyond 2000.

That was the message from both Clive Francis, deputy managing director of British Sugar, and David Walker, chairman of the British Potato Council to the Association of Applied Biologists annual conference in Cambridge.

Both speakers highlighted big changes in recent years requiring the backing of sound, scientific research properly interpreted for growers to put into practice. Whatever the subject, the outcome must increase industrys competitiveness, they stressed.

From being well down the European league on sugar yield in the 1970s, the UK rose to become third last year, said Mr Francis. "There has been a dramatic increase in performance which is very good news." But with World Trade Organisation talks and EU expansion threatening future crop support close co-operation between growers and BS is important, he maintained.

R & D absorbs about £2m a year equally of BS and growers cash. "There will be continuing pressure for that investment to deliver. There needs to be a very strong determination on the part of the whole industry to focus on innovation and on-farm application."

Potato research to serve a rapidly re-structuring industry must be very clearly directed, Mr Walker stressed. "Yield per se is valueless when quality is driving the price."

In 1960 there were 80,000 growers. Now there are under 10,000. Today just 2500 farms produce 80% of UK potatoes, he said. "I see that dropping to 1500 over the next five years."

The ratio of fresh to processed potato consumption is changing fast, the former dropping 1% a year, the latter rising 4-5%. If the trend continues processed will outstrip fresh by 2007, he explained. Supermarkets market share, currently up from 50% to 70% in five years, is likely to be 80% in the next millennium. "They are a very demanding part of our supply chain. They are the marketing arm for our industry and we must work with them rather than against them."

Improving the quality of UK produce to avoid processors re-locating factories elsewhere in Europe is a key aim. "Our challenge is to drive costs down while maintaining quality."

Growers have learned to live with the "widget-like" specifications of supermarkets on fresh produce. But 600,000t or 10% of the market goes to fish and chip shops, he noted. "A higher quality chip and better marketing could help take a bigger share of the pizza and fast-food sector."

Roots research

&#8226 Fast changing industries.

&#8226 Priorities shifting.

&#8226 EU challenges.

&#8226 Competitiveness driver.

ROOTSRESEARCH

&#8226 Fast changing industries.

&#8226 Priorities shifting.

&#8226 EU challenges.

&#8226 Competitiveness driver.