They described an announcement from food and farming minister Lord Whitty, that the proposals in a recent review of Horticulture Research International have been broadly accepted, as a crushing blow to Britain’s rural economy.
A quinquennial review of HRI late last year recommended closing down or merging its site at East Malling, Kent, and cutting its links to DEFRA, its parent body. The review team also called on HRI to embark on a stringent cost-cutting exercise.
The East Malling research station is Britain’s leading centre of expertise for growing soft fruits, employing 130 research scientists, PhD students and farm workers.
On behalf of staff at HRI, Tony Bell, Prospect national secretary, said: "The government is delivering another body blow to Britain’s rural economy and putting thousands of jobs at risk. On the one hand DEFRA acknowledges the need for a national strategy for horticultural R&D while on the other it is forging ahead with plans to fragment the one UK body that could drive this policy.
"If HRI is passed to Warwick University the government will be cutting adrift vital support for the UK’s horticultural industry - an industry that employs over 150,000 people in the UK and grows £2 billion of produce annually.
"Britain’s apple and pear industry is in a bad way and desperately needs expertise to diversify into alternative crops, for example other soft fruits. But these need research, such as the work undertaken at East Malling, to be economic in the UK because of late frosts and early drop-off before harvest time.
"Without investment in the future of their industry, UK growers will eventually be crowded out by foreign competitors."
The DEFRA review called for HRI to cease to be a non-departmental public body sponsored by DEFRA; turning its headquarters at HRI Wellesbourne into a company and eventually merging it with Warwick University; and merging HRI Wye with the Imperial College at Wye.