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“Once it’s gone it’s gone”: Growing calls to save leading potato research centre

Ray Andrews, managing director of Norfolk-based Crop Systems Limited, is urging MPs and the potato industry to help save Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research, which is set for closure as AHDB Potatoes winds down.

Image: AHDB

AHDB’s recent announcement that Sutton Bridge CSR would stop all new research projects with immediate effect – and cease all research activity by May 2022 – has prompted concerns over the potential impacts on growers.

SBCSR is the primary independent centre for potato storage research and advice for the GB potato industry. Highly regarded around the world, it has dedicated facilities for potato storage and diseases and has been completing potato research since 1964.

After a yes/no ballot in March, which saw the potato industry vote to scrap the AHDB levy, AHDB Potatoes announced it would begin a ‘managed wind down’ of its activities during 2021/22. The programme is subject to ministerial approval, expected by summer 2021, but parliament is expected to respect the ballot.

Multi-million-pound levy payer investment has been made in new potato stores as recently as 2017, but these could now be demolished and sold for warehousing or other uses, Mr Andrews warned.

Similarly, major investment in potato storage research from levy funds over the past 3-4 years will be stopped in its tracks. Mr Andrews warned that it appears work to find successful commercial storage treatments with a new range of sprout suppressants is being stopped immediately – with no more testing of new options such as SmartBlock, DMN and other new actives.

Approval data will need to be generated overseas, leading to more delays for UK growers. Efficacy and residue data will be needed if any company is to register a new sprout suppressant. However, the CRD may request data that is specific to UK varieties and conditions, but without SBCSR prospective approval, holders would struggle, which would leave the UK potato industry at a disadvantage.

Based on the list of ORETO (Officially Recognised Efficacy Testing Organisation) companies listed on the HSE website, Mr Andrews noted: “We are not aware of anyone that provides the facilities, expertise and equipment to carry out the required studies to the appropriate accredited standard”.

Additionally, all SBCSR store servicing work has been cancelled for 2021, indicating that there will be no more trials.

AHDB Potatoes has revealed it will cost more than £7 million to meet all liabilities through a wind-down then wind-up process, but there are only £1.2m in reserves. Over the last three years, the sector has run an annual deficit, reducing its reserves. AHDB says reserve levels were never set to fund a sector specific wind-down situation and the future policy for sector reserves targets is now under review.

Around 140 staff are set to be made redundant as a result of the wind-down.

Mr Andrews is calling for the SBCSR to be given charity status, allowing it to apply for grant funding, with the AHDB releasing the premises at a peppercorn rent for five years to an SBCSR grower research group. It would be funded via a small potato research levy through Defra or a members’/shareholders’ scheme.

‘Currently we are in a position of being in no man’s land. Once SBCSR is gone it’s gone for good, it will be a huge loss to potato growers and the industry that supports it,’ Mr Andrews wrote in a letter to MPs.

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