Ed Bedington
An independent report has branded Horticulture Research International as unviable and has called for radical change.
A five-year review by consultant Dr Derek Langslow and published by DEFRA recommended the organisation should cease to be a non-departmental public body sponsored by DEFRA.
It should instead receive a stable government contract for four years for carrying out an agreed programme of R&D.
The report said the ministry's handling of HRI had been erratic, and the horticulture industry's links and communication with the body had been poor.
Two of the group's five sites should be closed or transferred to other organisations.
Langslow said government policy was lacking: "DEFRA lacks a strategy for horticulture and this needs to be remedied. The funding and policy from the ministry was erratic and that has made life hard for HRI."
Langslow urged ministers to make up their minds: "If ministers don't want HRI then they should say so and close it down. In our view that would be a waste, but it would be better than continuing as it is."
Comments are now being invited on the report before ministers make a decision but Langslow is hoping for swift action: "It would be good to look to the turn of the year as a decision point."
HRI chief executive Michael Wilson welcomed the report: "We hope this will result in a viable and sustainable future. We're encouraged by the report's model for sustainable funding."
Food and farming minister Lord Whitty said the report's recommendations would be considered but added there was continuing pressure on DEFRA budgets. However, he said research in the horticulture sector was important: "We recognise the high quality of HRI and the need to have a solution that keeps it as a centre of excellence."
HRI was established by the government 12 years ago as the principal UK contractor for horticultural R&D.