Potato investment – new chances

23 July 1999

Long-term project loss fears with LA closure

By Andrew Blake

LESSONS to be learned from long-term experiments, especially those on integrated crop management, at IACR-Long Ashton must not be lost in the transfer of research to Rothamsted, Herts.

That is the initial reaction to confirmation that the Bristol-based institute, which celebrates its centenary in 2003, is to close then (Arable, June 18).

Long Ashton is well known for its research on ICM and disease control, primarily through the 10-year-old Less Intensive Farming and the Environment programme. It has also pioneered work on short rotation energy coppicing and is home to the National Willows Collection.

Under a £19m investment programme LA research is to be wound down over four years and some of it moved to Rothamsted. An early priority, in what BBSRC says will be a carefully managed withdrawal, will be new laboratories and glasshouses to accommodate the work. But there will be some redundancies, the council acknowledges.

"Its devastating news for the young scientists here," says Vic Jordan, LIFE project co-ordinator who has worked at Long Ashton for 40 years. "We have pioneered ICM in the UK. But it will be very difficult to transfer this work because the information cannot be immediately generated elsewhere. The long-term benefits of soil conditioning take time to work through, so effectively it will mean starting all over again."

Frank Oldfield, chairman of the Arable Research Institute Association and the HGCAs oilseeds research and development committee, says the decision to concentrate on Rothamsted is "regrettable but inevitable" reflecting ongoing cuts in basic funding. "But the arrangements put in place should ensure that the good science is not interrupted."

HGCA chief executive Paul Biscoe is keen to see that valuable LA plant pathology research survives. "If we are going to use inputs correctly we must know the best time to apply them. This sort of work has to be protected."

The NFU fears the support that LA provides to south-western farmers in particular could dry up. "We mustnt forget that there is a fair chunk of arable farming in the south-west," says policy director Ian Gardiner.

"We also need to be sure that the closure timetable does the least damage possible to long-term projects like LIFE and the willows."

For the LA staff Tony Bell of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists believes BBSRCs decision will disrupt and damage key projects and break up teams.

"We have pledged to fight the closure and will present alternative options to the BBSRC in October."

GMhas young sceptics

EUROPES young farmers remain deeply sceptical of new genetic engineering technologies, despite biotechnology firms claims that the products are safe and form the basis of the next green revolution.

Promises of higher yields were not always realised in practice, Spanish farmer Javier Sanchez told delegates at a recent GM conference in Brussels organised by Europes young farmers organisation, CEJA.

Cost equations

And claims of reduced chemical costs may also be offset by higher seed costs, he added.

For example, the Novartis maize, which has been grown commercially for two years in Spain, increased by 8% in price last year, he claimed, and by 15% this year.

And when it came to harvest, some of the transgenic crops grown by his co-ops members held up to 8% more moisture, leading to processor penalties.

His greatest concern, however, was the marketing risk of growing GM crops. A contract his co-op was negotiating with a French processor, looking to supply Coca-Cola with sweeteners, had fallen through when it was realised they could not guarantee to be 100% GM-free.

As a result of these experiences, Spanish smallholders union COAG, of which Mr Sanchez is president, was seeking a five-year moratorium on new GM releases in the EU.

Technology questions

Other European farmers also questioned the new technology, raising fears about environmental impact and the dangers of cross-pollination to neighbouring farms and species.

But these concerns were dismissed by biotech company representatives. Colin Merrit of Monsanto insisted the new technology was safe to humans and the environment – 15 years of testing, much of it more rigorous than for conventional plant breeding, had proved it.

Three years of commercial use in the US had led to 20% reductions in herbicide use in soya and up to 80% in cotton, he said. And controlling corn borers by using GM varieties had cut the level of fungal disease associated with the insects by 90%.

But these explanations did little to address the problems of consumer concerns. "The scientists all told us meat and bonemeal was safe, until we had the BSE crisis," said CEJA vice-president, John Martin. "We cant just leave science to the scientists, as has been suggested. It is the consumer who is king."

Next wave

But Mr Merrit insisted that the next wave of GM products would have more obvious benefits to the consumer. Moving forward only onthe basis of perceived consumer opinion would be a mistake.

"With GMs we now have the techniques to know at the molecular level what the end result of plant breeding will be," he said. "Until now we have been changing genetics in ways we did not understand. For example, there are over 1700 crop varieties in 52 countries which have been produced using gamma-radiation to force the changes."

Potato investment – new chances

FRESH opportunities for potato growers are said to lie behind two recent investments totalling £7m.

Greenvale AP, which claims to be the UKs biggest fresh potato business, plans to open a £5m processing factory next January at Wisbech, Cambs, to make dehydrated potato flakes. And Jepson Potatoes has opened a new £2m packhouse at Cranage, Cheshire – nearly three times the size of its former premises at Smallwood, near Sandbach.

At full capacity the Greenvale plant is expected to convert 100,000t of raw potatoes into 16,000t of finished product for the snack industry. It follows the recent merger of Greenvale Produce and Norfolk-based growers co-op Anglian produce.

"Its a first for us and all part of our investment in adding value to the crop," says marketing director Mike Richards.

The development will offer the firms existing growers another outlet for some of their crops and also create a demand for produce from new growers, he says. "We are always looking for new suppliers."

Jepsons general manager Bob Oldham says the new packhouse should place the firm among the top 10 of Britains packers, leaving it well placed to serve the biggest supermarkets.

The plant, with its automatic electronic processing system, can grade, size, wash and pack up to 150t/day into a range of containers, says Mr Oldham. Much time and energy has been spent developing a UK-wide nucleus of growers prepared to produce the specific varieties and skin finishes required, he adds. "But we are always looking for more growers."

&#8226 Greenvale AP is to be sole marketing agent for potato seed co-op SE Growers 1999 crops of Maris Bard and Pentland Squire. The SE group, mainly Scottish growers, produces, stores and packs about 9000t/yr of its two exclusive varieties.

Julia Gadd and Mick Hoare test Soissons moisture content at Richard Gadds Fitzleroi Farm, near Pulborough, W Sussex, last Sunday. "By the end of the day it was down to 12.6%," says Mr Gadd. Yield at 7t/ha is typical for a second wheat, but he fears proteins could be low. Harvest coverage: pages 61-63.

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