16 June 1995

Take research initiative now, ARIA told

SOUND core research, constantly a target for cost-cutting politicians, is vital if growers are to make the most of new opportunities, members of the Arable Research Institute Association heard last week.

Far from being an industry in decline, agriculture faces a challenging future, according to Ben Gill, NFU deputy president.

But without solid scientific backing, such as comes from the Institute of Arable Crops Research, the profitability of new ventures is at risk, he told the ARIA meeting at Rothamsted experimental station.

"Were facing the buffers on food production. Shouldnt we take our destiny in our own hands and broaden our outlook on life?" He foresaw the time, perhaps by 2015, when some growers might choose not to grow food at all.

"There are those in government who believe research and development is a waste of time." But farming has shown itself ready to grasp new challenges, becoming more market conscious and diversifying from traditional food production, he said. Under those circumstances it needs the maximum R&D to keep growers going in "uncharted waters".

There is plenty to go at, Mr Gill suggested. Much of the work required and identified by the Agricultural Systems Directorate of the BBSRC is livestock-related. But there is a lot to be done in the arable sector.

A key area lies in gaining a better understanding of the molecular basis of disease resistance. Increased knowledge of the biology of plants could eventually help "guarantee" the quality of crops like malting barley and avoid waste, he added.

ARIA chairman and Norfolk farmer Frank Oldfield echoed Mr Gills views. Following cuts of about £0.5m in ministry backing for the IACR in 1994/95, he believes there is a distinct danger that core arable research may be reduced to the point at which it no longer attracts high-calibre staff on long-term contracts. It might then be unable to maintain the "critical mass" to pull in commercial income and sustain essential work.

"Core funding of arable research is vitally important for the long term survival of the institutes," says Mr Oldfield. "We need the scientists desperately, and that message must be got through to politicians."