Planning for the future of potato industry after levy

The UK’s entire potato industry stands at a turning point following the precipitous wind-up of the research and services offered to the sector by AHDB Potatoes in the wake of the levy payers’ ‘No’ vote.

Archie Gibson of Agrico
Archie Gibson of Agrico

With years of research, experience and facilities – and £6 million annual funding – in the sector being brought to a swift end, the focus at yesterday’s major industry event ‘Potatoes in Practice’ outside Dundee was on securing a surviving legacy for work already carried out and ensuring that investment in research necessary to keep Scottish and UK producers at the forefront of the global potato market continued.

Scientists and industry commentators shared the view that while commercial organisations were likely to continue some of the near market work required to translate research into on-farm applications, collaboration within the industry was needed to avoid the risk of such an approach leading to fragmentation, duplication and poor targeting of resources.

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Dr Phil Burgess, head of Scottishpotato.org, the partnership organisation of the potato activities of The James Hutton Institute, the SRUC and SASA, said that a Twitter poll carried out in the run up to the event showed over 50 per cent of respondents wanted independent research work to continue and that such a scheme should be backed by some form of grower-led organisation.

Industry expert, Archie Gibson executive director of Agrico and a backer of the Better Growers Group which hopes to maintain a concerted industry approach to future near-market research work, said that there was a desperate need for leadership within the sector to maintain cohesion.

He said that the Scottish Society of Crop Research and NFU Scotland had spoken to producers to see which of the AHDB services had been valued by the sector and to target which areas of work were most important to the industry.

Gibson said that particular emphasis had been placed on maintaining the services which provided growers with regular forecasts of the threat levels of two major scourges of the sector - potato blight and virus diseases spread by aphids:

“And the importance of these services are such that we will be asking the UK and Scottish Government’s to provide funding to support this work - which has a direct and immediate effect on growers’ management - for two years until a new industry-backed scheme can be set up to fund it.”

He said state investment in stop-gap funding of around £280,000 over the two years represented excellent value on productivity and environmental fronts.

Gibson revealed that there had also been strong support for retaining the world-leading work carried out on potato storage. While the Sutton Bridge site which focused on this work was due to be wound down and sold off, satellite sites around the country could take advantage of some of the equipment, including the proposed potato quality facility planned for Forfar.

But he warned that although some collective industry funding would be required, the term ‘levy’ should be avoided.

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