Richard Harrison

Richard Harrison

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.


Study Overview

Horticulture is often highly productive and uses cutting-edge technology to find new and innovative ways of extending cropping seasons. High value crop production is often energy and resource intensive, especially in our cooler northern climate. I conclude that through the use of new genetics tools, designing higher yielding plants is possible and has the potential to make environmentally sustainable yield gains, especially in soft fruit crops such as strawberry that lend themselves to intensive production systems. Scientists and breeders have more tools than ever before and the UK is well placed to lead in this area.

However, it is also clear that nationally and globally energy consumption, including in horticulture, is rising, driven by increasing demand for year-round supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, growing populations, increasing affluence and relatively low-cost energy. In intensive horticulture, heat predominantly comes from the combustion of natural gas, without a widely deployable, cost effective renewable alternative. New production systems must ‘design to avoid’ fossil fuel usage; current systems founded on what makes ‘economic sense’ do not fully integrate the true externality of costs. If this problem remains unaddressed, it is possible that in the short-term, horticultural-associated emissions will rise not fall, and in the long-term, total energy demand and cost (at least in the UK) may render intensive horticulture uneconomical. This would be disastrous for both food security and for access to affordable nutritious food. As a consequence, improved tools and analyses, such as dynamic life cycle assessment (LCA), coupled to novel modelling and digital twinning approaches, are urgently needed to quantify externalities of production and provide evidence for where research efforts and potential interventions to enable low carbon, low energy alternatives should be directed. In a new policy landscape there could be further, evidence based, direct incentives to lower fossil fuel energy and transfer to renewable energy usage through a ‘produce or reduce’ incentivisation scheme, as used in other areas of the world.

More generally, I conclude that every consumer is responsible for our current food system, but we are largely unaware of our actions, or are unable to act, either due to cost or lack of high-quality information. Technology could help both address the latter issue and raise awareness, facilitating a shift in consumer behaviour, but it is also necessary that there is a greater joining up of policy, to ensure that the many unintended consequences of our current interconnected food and infrastructure network are mitigated. This requires coordinated action from the whole food chain, otherwise it is highly likely that as a nation we will miss our targets for decarbonisation and climate change mitigation despite the potential to sustainably intensify domestic production.

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