Richard Harrison  -  Where next for soft fruit in the UK? Addressing the yield gap and providing a path to 500 t/ha.

Worshipful Company of Fruiterers
Worshipful Company of Gardeners

I began my scientific career with a degree in Biological Sciences at Lancaster University, followed by a PhD at the University of Manchester. Following this I was awarded an MRC fellowship in Biomedical Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. These experiences provided me with a thorough training in genetics and bioinformatics which I then transferred primarily to the study of plants and their pathogens, when I took up a group leader role at East Malling Research in 2011.  

East Malling proved a good fit for me and the weather in Kent was a welcome break from life in the North! In the six years I have worked at East Malling, there have been tremendous positive changes both in the industry and the institute. Working under the direction of Prof. Peter Gregory, I grew a research group of about twenty PhD students and postdoctoral researchers who continue to work closely with the UK industry on topics such as developing resistance to fungal and oomycete diseases in crops such as apple and strawberry. 

Following the merger of East Malling with NIAB in 2016 I was invited to lead the genetics department which now has around 30-35 full time and visiting staff and encompasses a wider remit, including groups working on imaging, technology development, bioinformatics and crop breeding. 

My wife Nikki and two children Millie and Thomas, all love life in Kent. We have recently swapped our ‘project’ from an orchard (which proved too hard to handle with our busy lives) to a 17th century farmhouse, which requires a little modernisation! We hope to be able to grow vegetables in the local allotment and finally plant some of the heritage apple trees that have followed us around the country for the past seven years! 

I am very grateful both The Worshipful Company of Fruiterers (who incidentally funded my first ever research project in horticulture) and the Worshipful Company of Gardeners for jointly sponsoring my project.

The title of my project “Where next for soft fruit in the UK? Addressing the yield gap and providing a path to 500 t/ha” sets out an ambitious target for the soft fruit industry. 

ThegeneralissuesthatIam addressing in this study revolvearoundhowtoimproveefficiencyandproductivityinthefaceofincreasinguncertainty (political, environmental, economic) inthesoftfruitindustry using a combination of cutting edge genetics and agronomy. 

Despite the rejuvenation of the soft fruit industry and its currently impressive performance, Brexit is hastening the manifestation of some of the key issues across this sector of horticulture and therefore innovation is vital for the maintenance of competitive advantage.

Principally these issues revolve around the availability of labour and the cost of production, though other drivers such as invasive pests and diseases, more variable weather conditions and volatility in the supply chain are also placing severe pressure on profitability.

There remains a significant gap between the production of scientific knowledge and its deployment on farm, despite the clear promise of boosting yield, efficiency and competitiveness.

I would like to quantify the benefits on farm of some of the key developments in research and technology, estimate the actual cost of deployment on farm and identify the barriers to the technology being adopted and potential solutions. In doing so this work will provide a roadmap for innovation for the next ten years.