On the BBC Radio 4 ‘Food Programme’ broadcast 20 and 21 May, Lord Rooker made the astonishing statement that a decision to move the National Fruit Collections had been taken a year ago. For those reaaders who have not had a chance to listen to the broadcast we print a transcript of the interview between, Sheila Dillon, the presenter, and Lord Rooker, Minister Responsible for Horticulture
SD = Interviewer, Sheila Dillon
LR = Lord Rooker
SD: Lord Rooker we’ve heard in the programme about the role of the Brogdale Collection could play in halting the decline in fruit varieties in this country and yet there’s no requirement from DEFRA in this new contract to make it accessible to the public or even build links with the food industry – why not?
LR: nobody’s ever raised with me from the food industry that they’ve never been able to have access for research purposes and the plant breeders have never raised that issue with me, to the best of my knowledge they have … its a unique
SD: but what about the future.
LR: well it is a unique collection of the ….. it has got a future we are under international obligations irrespective of our own desire to maintain this unique collection of massive numbers of varieties, now they all moved of course in the 1950s ‘cos they were at Wisley originally. There’s a need to relocate them to be honest simply because of the lease and access to the particular site so we’ve had a bid out for tendering to relocate and to curate the site so the site is looked after.
SD: so you’ve already decided that its going to move?
LR: well yes, the decision was taken to move the Collections sometime ago, in fact in last year simply because the lease runs out in 2016 so we have to make some preparations for this.
SD: but the landlord has offered to renew the lease till 2050.
LR: well that may be so but that’s part of because of what was happening between the landlord and the Trust, DEFRA owns the Collection but we don’t own the land. We took it upon ourselves to go out and test the market to see if we could relocate the site and have it curated properly elsewhere with a longer term. Now at that time I have to say the issue of 2050 wasn’t on my desk or any other ministers’ desk so the decision was taken to move it.
SD: I think that will be news to many of the people involved in Brogdale. You mention….
LR: no, no, no with respect, with respect it is not a surprise, it has been an open tendering system that’s been open and acknowledged to be open, so that there is no surprise about that that we asked for tenders for looking after the Collection and to make sure it’s curated properly.
SD: but my understanding is that at least one of the tenders is that it continues at Brogdale, they take up the landlord’s offer to extend the lease and remain there because as we heard in the programme from Dr Joan Morgan one of the big issues is that you have 50 odd years of records and at a time of climate change you have this astonishingly valuable record which will be lost, you’ll have to begin all over again wherever you move the site to.
LR: well I quite agree but the point is as I’ve said DEFRA owns the collection of the trees, the Trust do not have security of tenure on the site and in fact they had to vacate in March 2007 following difficulties with the landlord, so that this isn’t straightforward and we have to secure the future …
SD: …. Don’t know … I mean … we’ve heard … no indeed but we heard it, it wasn’t straightforward but there’s still is this difference and one of the bids is to extend the lease with the current landlord and stay on the Brogdale site because of the scientific value of the records that have been kept.
LR: yes but I can’t possibly say here and now that that would be a preferred option because competitively other bids might have come in and I can’t be in a position of pre-judging what has been a legitimate lawful tendering process, I don’t know about any of the details of the bids that have come in, even what you’re telling me and it would be quite wrong of me to comment on one particular bid when quite clearly other bids were collected by the mechanism of the competition.
SD: well how committed is DEFRA to keeping a living national collection of fruit trees because in the last year you’ve nearly halved the amount of money you spend on maintaining the Collection, you’ve commissioned a study on how to preserve fruit varieties relying on lab techniques more than on real trees and in this new contract in the new bid you’ve asked interested parties to make the case for keeping certain species in the collection, so does that mean that we’re going to see a scale down collection in the future?
LR: well the current costs of the Collection to the tax payers is about £150,000 per year
SD: which is down from £250,000 from the year before…
LR: yes but we have a further £105,000 for the curation, we’ve got the maintenance cost down, what I mean we’ve got to look for value for money after all but I’ve made it quite clear though we have looked and explored ways in the past of preserving the Collection by cryopreservation but then it’s not a currently reliable technique, DEFRA is committed to keeping a live collection.
SD: you’ve talked about the international obligation on the UK Government to keep the Collection but that only applies to apples doesn’t it, so what is going to happen to the thousands of varieties of pears, cherries, gooseberries, quinces and all the rest that currently make this, this world site, this most important collection of fruit in the world?
LR: well to the best of my knowledge the international treaty on plant genetic resources for food and agricultural goes somewhat wider than apples. Our commitment is to keep and maintain a live collection that we’ve got at the moment as I said which is apples, pears, plums, cherries there is over 300 varieties of bush roots, there’s a smaller collection of nuts and vines I understand as part of the collection but we’re committed to keep a live collection.
SD: Minister for Food and Farming Jeff Rooker, many thanks.
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