Horticulture Research International (HRI) is the UK government's main testing and development arm for market gardening, fruit and related crops. It is said to have the largest single team of horticultural scientists in the world and an income of approximately £24 million per annum. It is classed as a non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) and is responsible to the UK's Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA, formerly MAFF). It also receives funding via the BBSRC .
Its Chief Executive since August 1999 has been Prof. Michael Wilson who had been Science Director at HRI since April 1999. HRI's current Director of Research is Brian Thomas.
Wilson, who told the parliamentary Select Committee on Agriculture that he is frequently called 'evangelical' about GM,
has moulded HRI in his own image, making it part of HRI's
'corporate policy' to promote its views on GM technology to the public. As he told the Select Committee , 'We have issued statements, we have had public meetings, I have written articles in various books, I have appeared in the media in debates on GM issues, as have many of my scientists. We have participated in everything from round-table discussions and debating societies, to radio broadcasts and, as I mentioned before, the Synod of the Church of England have visited HRI. We feel it our obligation to explain the facts and the realities of GM technology; what it can do, what it is based on, what actually happens, and to try and defuse some of the mis-information that has unfortunately prevailed in the last couple of years.' Wilson's evangelical contributions to the GM debate have attracted serious criticism .
Wilson's mission has also impacted on HRI's research support for UK market gardening. GM has been put at the centre of HRI's science, as Wilson told the Select Committee. 'We use GM. Genetic engineering, and genetic enhancement, is an incredibly important tool in the research laboratories of HRI across the organisation. It is by far the most definitive technique to use to identify, quantify and qualify the effects of genes and to do experimentation. We are entirely in tune, or the policy of all my senior scientists is that we would support the testing and trialling of GM crops... these crops can offer tremendous benefits in horticulture and agriculture in Europe and the world.'
HRI's GM research has sometimes hit the headlines, eg GM apples to fight tooth decay . Too many, this focus on GM has seemed misguided given the lack of commercial interest in GM foods in the UK and Europe, where there is little if any demand for them among consumers. It is the more surprising, given the severe budget deficit HRI has suffered from.
In September 2000 Wilson sort to ease the budgetary situation by publishing HRI's Restructuring Plan. This proved extremely controversial. It involved axing the highly regarded Stockbridge House research station - a move strongly opposed by the horticultural industry and the National Farmers' Union who both complained of a total lack of consultation.
Many saw the move as part and parcel of Wilson's GM agenda. 'A leading research centre is facing closure in a move which has revived fears about scientific promotion of GM crops,'The Guardian newspaper reported, noting how Stockbridge House had pioneered biological pest control, hydroponics and 'other alternatives to genetic adaption of plants.' The article quoted a former director of Stockbridge, Michael Bradley, 'It's a viable site... There's an awful lot of horticultural science about at the moment, but much less work on the practical technology which makes that science useful to growers.'
Bernard Sparkes, who resigned as Chairman of the Horticulture Research International Association (HRIA) over the Stockbridge House decison, told the Agriculture Select Committee in a memorandum, 'I am clearly concerned at the ability of HRI in the future to deliver the R&D to the industry... The industry at large is devastated by this announcement.'
Much of the concern centered on the determination of Wilson and those around him to drive through the decision without consultation. Sparkes told MPs, 'The industry is so concerned at the sheer arrogance of the Board and Chief Executive of HRI in refusing to consult... the present attitude of the board and senior executive of HRI, they have their own agenda and to hell with everyone else.'