Wellesbourne celebrates 70 years of research

Prof. Tim Lang, President of Garden Organic and Head of Food Policy at City, London University, emphasised how horticultural research was just as important now as it was 70 years ago when the National Vegetable Research Station was first formed at Wellesbourne.
In December 2019, Warwick University celebrated its 70th anniversary of crop research on the Wellesbourne site. Garden Organic has had a long standing relationship with the organisation, having had collaborative projects and long term research trials on their site. In fact, the decision to move to Ryton in the 1980s was partly influenced by its close proximity to the research station at Wellesbourne.
In his engaging speech, Tim Lang emphasised that in today’s climate of political, social and environmental turbulence, research into growing vegetables was more important than ever.
He warned that UK food security is facing dangerous times ahead. The current populist attitude is that we want cheap food but we don’t care how it is produced or where it comes from.
However there is a glimmer of hope. A major achievement was persuading the environment secretary that a review of UK food systems and their impact on the environment was long overdue. In fact this is the first time in 75 years that an exercise on this scale has been carried out. Fruit and vegetable production is going to have to play a central part in any such review.
Currently, only 50% of food consumed in the UK is produced here, and 30% is imported from the EU. In order to increase self-sufficiency, Lang argues that we will have to reduce our meat and increase our fruit and vegetable consumption. This will have big benefits for both our health and the global environment. Wasteful practices of growing cereals and pulses to feed to livestock will have to stop, in order to free up land. For example, of the total market for peas grown in the UK, £18 million is fed to animals and only £3 million fed directly to humans. Decreasing meat consumption is also essential for reducing our CO2 emissions. A high meat diet typically results in 7 kg CO2 a day, more than twice the 3 kg from a vegan diet.
The UK imports 13.5 billion kg vegetables annually, with a water footprint of 560 million m3 (from cultivation and preparation). Around three quarters of the water used comes from countries that are water vulnerable. We simply cannot depend on, nor is it morally right, to draw on such resources in the future.
We also have a £9 billion trade deficit on fruit and vegetables which puts us in a very vulnerable position.
We also to have to place more value on the growers and producers themselves. In a typical food supply chain in the UK, the grower only receives 5% of the final price of the product. Growers need to be valued more highly and have a louder voice.
Most important of all, we need a vision our food policy. It is vital that food security and its impact on the environment is at the forefront. Any such policy needs to be planned and not arrived at in a state of crisis.

The history of Wellesbourne
In 1948, directly after the war, food security in the UK was considered of high importance and Dr. James Philp was tasked with finding a site for a new research station to improve UK vegetable production. The following year, after surveying 38 sites, he finally plumped on Wellesbourne. A second-hand hut was erected as his office, and the National Vegetable Research Station was born. Within 10 years, laboratory buildings, glasshouses and trial sites were established along with many major research programmes including crop breeding, soil science, and pest and disease control.
A major milestone was setting up a gene bank. In the 1980s a group of individuals, including members of Oxfam and HDRA expressed concern that modern plant breeding was narrowing our genetic base for vegetable growing and threatening food security. They lobbied the government to set up a national gene bank to store varieties of seed for conservation at Wellesbourne. Today, the collection currently houses 14 000 samples from 47 different vegetable crops originating from 108 countries. Samples of each variety from Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed library is also deposited there as a back up.
However, from the late 1980s onwards, research into growing vegetables in the UK was given lower priority by successive governments. The National Vegetable Research Station was renamed Horticultural Research International and the network of 7 horticultural research sites around the UK were closed one by one, until Wellesbourne was the only the site remaining.
In 2004, the government decided to no longer fund the site, and it became a department of Warwick University. Departments now had to compete for short term grant contracts, resulting in reduced funding opportunities. Projects were discontinued and many skilled researchers were made redundant. Today, research continues at the site, but on a much reduced scale.
Current projects include:
  • Working with seed companies to breed improved varieties. Techniques for improved gene sequencing have made it easier to identify useful traits in crops and speed up breeding programmes using conventional, non GMO varieties.
  • Implementation of a gene bank. Varieties are stored under dry conditions at -20oC. Large numbers of varieties have been screened to identify useful traits such as pest or disease resistance.
  • Improving understanding of persistent soil borne diseases such as club root in brassicas and white rot in alliums. This has led to the potential of using biological control and improved varieties and reduced dependence on fungicides.
  • Improved recommendation for soil management. A better understanding of soil processes such as the effects of weather on soil leaching and the break-down of crop residues has produced improved predictive modelling tools for growers and advisors. More precise recommendations can greatly reduce wasteful fertilizer use.