Land Science

Where our 'land science' has gone...

30 years ago there was a community of organisations, working freely together; with big research stations doing the practical research, along with smaller ARC Units specialising in particular concerns, University departments looking at the more academic aspects, and all linked with the free 'extension service' which provided advice to and issues from farmers. FE institutions produced (and still do) the next generation of skills. In the last 20 years, land based sciences, the practical stuff, have lost out to life sciences - that carried out in the lab. 

Agricultural and Horticultural  research used to be run seriously by the state. But now, most of the public research has gone, and the privatisation of the work gone virtually unnoticed.Can you imagine if this had happened in the health service? Yet both were considered equally important after the war. It is hard to express the loss of something that I took for granted while being educated. To see the loss of your science takes some swallowing.

Whatever is said  here, it is not a criticism of present work, and there is some good stuff going on, but a recognition of what has been lost. Everybody now talks of the gap between research and field. The internet can make up some of this but does not provide the structure. Here is an attempt to map/sketch what has happened in last 25 years. Somebody needs to paint the whole picture.

RELU Workshop London May 1 2014 Links between Research and Land Professionals



University of Warwick looking to develop the 450 acre Wellesbourne site.

January 2017

Animal & Plant Health Agency to be hit by huge cuts £1.3 m a yerar. Lab services will cease at Sutton Bonington in Nottinghamshire by June 2017, Shrewsbury and Bury St Edmunds will stop by March 2018. Their work will be split thier work into 6 remaining labs. They currenlty have neither the equipment or qualified staff, unless those at the three stations can be persuaded to relocate. even so, this will leave a vast swathe across Central Britain to deal with an emergency animal or plant disease.

March 2016

East Malling Fruit Research has been bought by National Institute Agricultural Botany for an undisclosed sum (Job losses). NIAB is a company limited by guarantee for charitable purposes. For every £1 spent at Malling, which dates back to 1913, £7.50 was returned to the UK economy according to a report by Brookdale Consulting in 2014. They reckoned that East Malling had provided over £9 Billion worth of rootstocks (famous throughout the world) along with controlled storage facilities. Apples:British to the Core

James Hutton Institute (Scotland) threatening to 'loose' 70 joobs, and Kew threatening 150 job losses including the Millenium Seed Bank

The Coalition government have sold 'Food & Envirnment Research Agency a 'joint venture to Capita a day after the Independent reported that the Cabinet Office is investigating claims Capita used a £250m government contract to ‘short-change’ small businesses. This could leasd to commercial concerns being put before public interest.  Announced by Lord de Mauley - he who introduced abolition of AWB. Warwick not involved Newcastle are partners with Capita.

The good news is the bee health inspectors and the plant health and seed inspectorate will remain within the government, But quite what will happen to the Ash Dieback programme, bovine TB research and the Oak caterpillar ravaging London is less clear. What is clear is that this is expected to be a money making operation to provide the funds the government is cutting back on.  This is at a time when there is 'a global invasion of pests', and at the forefront of vulnerability is the UK, according to Prof Susanne Gurr, Bioscience at Exeter Uinversity and Rothamsted Research, who says "“We are not spending enough on research, on training, on surveillance and on biosecurity. Unless we significantly step up our efforts we could be forced to change our diets in the future as crops come and go,” (Independent - although the headline is a bit over the top!). Some good news though. The stalwarts at the Warwick Crop Centre - those remaining after Warwick University shut most of the Horicultural International, are having an Open afternoon Sept 25, called  'Innovation: Better ways of Growing Crops'. In all this I am reminded of this quote: 

Latest from Kew is that 60 , mostly experienced staff gone. 

History…celebrates the battle-fields whereon we meet our deaths, but scorns to speak of ploughed fields whereby we thrive; it knows  the names of the king’s bastards, but cannot tell the origin of wheat. That is the way of human folly.”

This is a quote from ‘The Wonders of Instinct’ (p291 in Chapter on ‘Cabbage-Caterpillar’), written over a 100 years ago by the fabulous and largely forgotten naturalist J H Fabre, commonly called the Insect Man’. It was his books that excited me – along with many other generations of children, to study the natural world. Darwin called Fabre an inimitable observer. Fabre was also a Primary School teacher and said that ‘what matters in learning is not to be taught, but to wake up’.

Extension Services

The Advisory Service (ADAS) used to employ 6000 people in the 1980s to share knowledge and information between academic and industrial sectors – for free. Now ADAS has one tenth and their services are run commercially. Gone has that free interchange between research stations, extension services, universities and farmers.

They were helped by The Agricultural Improvement Councils (AICs) to get the results of agricultural research ‘applied in practice’. These were replaced with the Agricultural Advisory Council and the Horticultural Advisory Council, with advisers independent of Ministry. This was lost in mid 70s. The National Institute of Agricultural Botany NIAB (now a company) determined whether some varieties of all crops were better suited to some conditions than others. They were an important part of the knowledge network, issuing recommended lists of varieties for each crop with details of yield variations, disease resistance, suitability for different soils, and so on. Any farmer could join NIAB and so receive these lists. As a farmer in Dorset said: ‘I used to look forward every January to the NIAB leaflets coming out to see what was recommended for the spring planting.’ (Thanks Paul)

There was  a ‘sea of knowledge’ from which farmers could take whatever they could use, according to their capital and abilities. Those involved in agricultural science saw their field as the engine of output growth and the source of new methods and techniques, and in the two decades after the end of the war there seems to have been a consensus around this view. The main reasons for the success of agriculture in expanding its output from 1935 to 1985 was the widespread acceptance of similar ways of thinking, That went in late eighties as it became evident we could produce enough food – and if we couldn’t, we could carry on importing it like we had for 150 years. So why invest in R&D, leave it to the markets - especially the supermarkets. It was part of the neo liberal way of thinking. From the early 1980s the interests of the food industry and agriculture diverged, with the result that food processors and retailers increasingly questioned agricultural policy.

Research Stations

Research Stations 20 years ago

The Barnes Report of the late Eighties [3] drew a line between ‘pure’ research that would be publicly funded and ‘practical/applied' that was supposed to be funded by industry. Clearly the Thatcher government saw this as a way to privatisation

Has anybody got a copy of this Ministerial Report?  I have even tried the then Agricultural Minister – Baroness Trumpington (Check her out on YouTube!) But it clearly did exist according to Hansard

In 1990, these research stations were all flourishing….

(Thanks to Ian Crute Chief Scientist ADHB for this slide) It could also include Monkswood Terrestrial Ecology and Silsoe Agric Engineering.

Do you know of any other stations we’re missing? Please add to 'Comments' And if you have any experience of the following closures, also please let us know...

Now there are less than a quarter of these still going,

Research Now

Picking a few of the research stations…

East Malling (Fruit Research, Kent) is now run on business grounds, and is doing some interesting work (eg check out bumble bees and fungicides). However, it throws up an issue we need to discuss. All round the world you find ‘Malling (-Merton) Rootstocks’ for apples and pears. Yet the station does not receive any license/copyright for them (unless somebody tells me differently!) as they were in the public domain and it was part of the free exchange. It would not happen with private corporates now. However, if they did get some licence from them, they would not be dependent on any other funding now.

Silsoe (Agric Engineering). When Silsoe Agricultural Engineering Research closed (agric engineering Silsoe), any future agric machinery research has to be funded by international companies, like John Deere or International Harvesters. But they are not interested in small developments in this country. The ‘kit’ is very expensive and continually developing; colleges look dated as they have old machinery, which people do not want to learn on. So how do they learn? Cranfield took over Silsoe.

Agric engineering (Silsoe) lives on, In 2004, its main sponsoring body, the BBSRC, decided to cease its support due to changes in its own research priorities. Silsoe Research Institute thus ceased operations at the end of March 2006 after 80 years of operation.

 “The drivers of change in this case are: restructuring of international trade regulations; the demand by consumers for ever cheaper food sourced by whoever can provide it at the least cost; the pressure on research budgets, shrinking in real terms, to fund "new, exciting, and expensive" avenues for science; the demand to educate a greater percentage of the population to university level without a proportional increase in funding; and a redirection of aid funding. Cranfield have received $2.4 million from government and industry to construct a new off-road vehicle dynamics laboratory to aid in our future endeavours. With greater environmental interest relating to soils appear to be gaining in importance, and we hope that this will enable the genes of agricultural engineering to be kept alive! Currently they are training more than 100 farmers and advisers in a series of one-week short courses on the principles of soil and water management. This is to meet the new requirements of the European Union for sustainable soil and water management.

Long Ashton Fruit Research , During World War II a home grown source of Vitamin C was needed and the blackcurrant drink Ribena was developed at Long Ashton.[4]  The Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC, previously ARC) closed research sites including the Letcombe Laboratory (1985) and the Weed Research Organisation (1986) and their staff and programmes were moved to Long Ashton. With Rothamsted it became part of the Institute of Arable Crops Research (IACR) in 1986. Although the new Treharne Library and Fryer Laboratory were built in 1987, as a junior partner in IACR, Long Ashton was now vulnerable in the event of further restructuring, and was closed in 2003.

Terrestrial ecology (Monks Wood), Originated around Max Nicholson became the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in 1973. Their research gained international reputation; in particular work on pesticide poisoning effects on wildlife, on the value of rapidly disappearing hedgerows, and the establishment of a national Biological Records Centre. Closed 2009. Will we ever know exactly why a site with such a good reputation, high research outputs, low running costs, experimental facilities, long-term experiments (some of them over 40 years old), room for expansion and relatively low housing costs was closed? Some 20-30% of staff transferred to other CEH sites; the rest dispersed to the wind. It’s  Director in the 70’s, Kenneth Mellanby, famous for “Can Britain feed itself?” He was my external examiner.

Hops Research (Wye) Closed by imperial College in 2007 – see Wye later. Curious with the rise in interest in local beers, that this has gone just now.

Wellesbourne. The Hotrticultural Research International Station at Wellesbourne was shut down almost entirely by Warwick University in 2010. See Wellesbourne  for much more. The Glasshouse research station at Littlehampton was closed and moved to Wellesbourne. Wellesbourne was government funded until EU CAP became Single Farm Payment. Horticulture was subsidised for first time, so government (Labour) said they don’t need funding anymore and it was taken over by Warwick University in 2004 and closed down by them 5 years later. Warwick Crop Centre remains

The Soil Survey, that was previously housed at Wellesbourne, has gone. Soil now big dispute. One group Cranfield (based on say 12-15% reduction in soil carbon over the last 20 years, other challenge CEH (Nature). DEFRA contract (?SP1101)  Their conclusion is that there isl no conclusion. Also the Vegetable Seed Bank (originally funded with Oxfam appeal in mid 1980s) was vulnerable for a time. It was the vegetable bank for UK - and for some vegetables (Allium) families  - for all Europe. It is still there. Is it safe? Curiously Russia looked like doing away with Vavilov Centre, their Seed Bank, at same time our. Remember 9 scientists starved to death in the war to save these seeds getting into the hands of the Nazis; that is how valuable this stuff is.

Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge 1987 saw its applied research programmes, farm site sold to a private company (Unilever) under the government’s privatisation policy for around £60 million. Sold at the same time was the National Seeds Development organisation who owned all the traits the ressearch stations had developed over many years.. The non-privatised part of PBI was moved from Cambridge to Norwich and integrated into the AFRC’s new Institute of Plant Science Research (IPSR), which also included the John Innes Institute and the re-named Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory, which remained at Sussex. Unilever sold the lot 10 years later to Monsant for about £1/3 Billion (sic!) More - see file at bottom of this page.

Though cereal breeding seemed to become more competitive, as multiple companies were breeding wheat and barley for the UK, it was arguably less innovative. The old public PBIC had pioneered the bridging of disciplines in the 70s and 80s, drawing from biochemistry, genetics, breeding, and food science to develop the first high-yielding wheat suited for bread-making in the UK.  With privatization, the close link between fundamental and applied science was broken, taking 15 years or more to re-build. (Thanks Shawn)

When Hannah Research in Ayr closed, nearly 70 scientific and specialist support staff were made redundant – representing a loss of around 1,000 years of scientific experience related to lactation, breast cancer, obesity, diabetes, food quality and safety.

Veterinary research. Has it also suffered a similar fate? There was a rundown in late eighties.  Did that lead to the BSE scandal? The first BSE cow was diagnosed at the Veterinary station at Wye, but many of the Vet centres have gone. Ongar Research Station played a key part in veterinary research for over 50 years until it closed in 2001.

The Royal Agricultural Society of England said a few years ago that we do not have enough soil scientists to keep our soil healthy (RASE  pdf)And when Ash Dieback hit late last year, the Forestry Commission head of research said we did not have enough plant pathologists to deal with possible future invasions More see Footnote [1]

Review of Horticultural R&D 2008 (pdf) says’ The current Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) farming and food science programme, introduced in 2006, focuses on public policy issues of climate change, resource use, biodiversity and the sustainability of farming and the food chain. Unlike the horticultural crop science programme it replaced, this science programme has little direct impact on the technical problems growers currently face, though it clearly has some relevance to the medium and long-term sustainability of production horticulture…The deficit of funding for strategic/applied R&D underpinning production horticulture is growing. The result is that the model whereby the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) uses its industrial levy funds to support applied R&D projects that feed off a foundation of Defra-funded strategic R&D in horticultural crop science is no longer functional. It will mean a drift away from strategic and applied R&D capacity relevant to horticulture. Those institutions and R&D groups that have traditionally addressed grower’s practical problems and which strive to maintain their expertise and facilities face a bigger challenge”


Royal Society  in "Reaping the Benefits"  said: “Universities should work with funding bodies to reverse the decline in subjects relevant to a sustainable intensification of food crop production, such as agronomy, plant physiology, pathology and general botany, soil science, environmental microbiology, weed science and entomology’ But how? Have  the universities the space and facilities to research, monitor and provide emergency response capability into subjects like animal health and welfare, sustainable farming and land use? More see Footnote [2]

Possibly the best agricultural college in the world (mine) Wye College, London University was taken over by Imperial College in 2000 and then closed in January 2008 (Wye Record) . Imperial College, wanted to build a research centre, science hub and lots of associated housing at Wye. After a huge campaign (details at, Imperial dropped the plans in September 2006. After celebrating its centenary in 2006, the Hop Research Station (part of EMR) closed  in 2007 with the loss of 12 posts Latest from Wye. In 1990 Wye College signed an agreement with MAFF to jointly maintain and develop National Fruit Collection at Brogdale. This is now looked after by Reading University. How secure is it?

Plymouth University closed down Seale-Hayne in 2004       

Reading University closed its doors on last Horticultural degree.             

Newcastle University still has an Agricultural Department. But it does not do science any more. Gone: a floor each for Ag Zoology, Plant Science, Soil Science and Biochemistry.

There is a lot relying on Harper Adams…

Several of the post-92 universities now have agriculture faculties/departments because they took over the old county colleges (e.g.Bournemouth and Kingston Maurward), but as far as we know without increasing their research capabilities to the level of the university departments that were closed down.....

These disciplines have all but disappeared

(AHDB to Agri Tech Consultationresults see below)

My first degree (Agric Entomology) is listed there.

But my science 'soil mesozoology' doesn't even get a mention..


Public research can deal with issues common to all growers and farmers – Supermarkets are reluctant to spend money of something that all their suppliers can then supply to somebody else. Tesco have their Sustainable Consumption Institute in Manchester where the research topics “will include resource recycling, freight transport, modes and operation, innovative environmental technologies and novel procurement strategies”. Not much about the land there. There are a few areas where there may be convergence should be explored/spelt out. I came across this when dealing with the problem of soft fruit rot – common where fungicide use is being restricted or decreased. Who funds the alternatives?

This is part of bigger picture of what was called ‘sustainable’.  The word has now only mentioned in terms of ‘intensification’, so that the reduction in water, fertilisers, chemicals is seen in terms of ownership – of land and seeds. The funding to find ways to be more sustainable in the public space just isn’t there. Yet as various local schemes get bigger and more diverse, there will be a need for pest and disease control, as night follows day. But will there be a public research station to do it?

A microscope in a laboratory is much cheaper than maintaining fields or looking after small scale breweries. Life Science dominates, while Land Science languishes. It has to be said that in at least two of the closures (two W’s) there was considerable interest on the part of the University in the land being developed for other things – like expensive houses on good land. The speculators will always trump researchers.

Yet all lab work needs field studies. It was noticeable that in the recent ‘Neonicotinoid’ issue, there was a cry that the lab results should be translated into field studies, before any moves were taken. But there was a paucity of such field studies…especially ones not already contaminated with neonics..

It means there is no public sector to balance the priorities set by private corporations. In the old days, the public sector carried out the generic research individual companies do not want to do. My research examined the effects of ten herbicides (see in soil animals), which would not have been carried out by any one company – they are only interested in their own products.

What are the impacts on ‘scientific culture’ with these shifts?  In the older ‘public space’, incentives were different for collaboration across departments and groups.  There are clearly impacts of breaking up teams, shutting down institutes, etc (witness Hannah) by shredding posts and skills.  For those who remained, the message was clear – stay away from anything too client oriented. This seems to be changing wit forging new partnerships that include business – which is what we were told in the first place. But business does not always see a long way into tho the future.

The other issue is – who do the results belong to? Now we worry who we talk to when every kernel of knowledge gets is part of a market – to outside bidders. Neighbouring labs work in parallel with different clients and nobody wants to discuss the implications of their findings in conference meetings,  lest they give competitors ideas!). If the discovery of DNA was bad enough - where cerebral was matched by terrestrial, that was a tea party compared to today’s dog’s diner. 

There is virtually no public UK fruit breeding. And how secure is the vegetable seed bank ? Most public 'land sciences' now depend on short term funding, which is completely inappropriate for land sciences….


Measurement technologies for agri-food systems

The Technology Strategy Board together with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the Scottish Government, are to invest up to £8.75m in helping businesses develop innovative measurement technologies for efficient agri-food systems. This will primarily involve collaborative R&D projects, with up to £500k of the total funding available for relevant feasibility studies.

The focus of the competition will be on developing new tools for use in the field, to enhance:

·         understanding and application of genomic information

·         management decision-making

·         data capture and integration throughout the value chain.

Many will spend a lot of time competing for these funds. And funds will last 2-3 yr, whereas we were always told need 10-15 years to do any decent ag science.

Example was in mid July - Horticulture Innovation Partnership hosted 'New Opportunities for Agritechnology' a workshop designed to broker partnerships between those working in the horticulture and potato sectors and engineers who may have novel technologies to apply to this industry. This is in preparation for the proposed TSB Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform call for projects on Engineering Solutions in the Agrifood Industry. The programme includes representatives of industry, academia, producer supply chains for potatoes, fruit and vegetables. It will be “Engineering for primary production and processing”.

The future will be in Europe. EIP on agricultural productivity and sustainability: The emphasis in this new tool is very much on overcoming perceived bottlenecks to getting research results adopted on the ground. According to the Commission’s analysis, and hardly confined to them, is the main problem is the insufficient information flow and missing links between different actors (farmers, advisers, enterprises, and researchers). Some complain that this committee is too NGO biased, rather than producer.


‘Cheap’ food costs us dear. Food, in our society, from farm to the fork is undervalued compared to finance. Politicians and economist prefer The Gherkin to growing gherkins. Manufacturing compared to finance in the economy is undervalued. So food manufacturing looses both ways. Within the food chain, farm is recognised and foodservice is mentioned, the manufacturing of food is often ignored. Yet that is where many scientists are now employed – to turn healthy farm crops into profitable products.

In the last twenty years the dominance of ‘neoliberal economics’ –  where the markets rule. Where once the producers dominated, now all the emphasis is on 'consumer choice'.  This translates in the food chain to ‘let the supermarkets rule’. There has been a dramatic decline in publicly funded land research. The main bulk is now carried out in the private sector – mainly among very large corporates. While many of us bemoan about the privatisation of health, the same has been going on in agriculture and horticulture, unseen for the last twenty years with no outcry. It means that where once the public sector ‘balanced’ the private, it is now hard to keep up. 

Britain is worse than many other countries in this regard. It depends on food from overseas – to the tune of nearly £20 Billion for food we could grow ourselves. There is a debate to be had as to how much of that we do want to grow here, whether we want 'sustainable intensification',  and under what conditions (eg ‘Fair for farm-workers’, now that the AWB has been abolished). At least there should be a public debate about what we do with our land (well not really ‘our’ land as most is owned b somebody else, but that is another story) not one ruled by the criteria of international buyers, speculators and supermarket suppliers.

Agri Tech Consultation – As a result, the government announced in July 2013 it is giving 160m aimed at 'bringing science and agriculture closer together that could lead to a step-change in efficiency, profitability and resilience of our domestic farm businesses'. Comments 

But can we start that debate? And take in the research facilities and skills needed, where 'sustainable intensification' fits in, and who is going to own what - when we find it.


[3] I contacted Baroness Trumpington, the Agricultural Minister at the time, to see if she had a copy. She wrote a lovely letter back, now in her 90s but in the House of Lords every day, to say she hasnt got a copy. She was at Bletchley with Turing and reckons that his work saved the UK form sstarvation in the war.
Subpages (2): Backup Wellesbourne
Charlie Clutterbuck,
25 Aug 2014, 03:35