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Sutton Bridge potato storage research centre faces uncertain future as owners look to open market

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The future of a pioneering potato research site in Sutton Bridge looks uncertain due to plans by its owners to invite tenders for its experiments.

Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research (SBCSR) is owned by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), a body sponsored by Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) to support farmers, growers and food producers in the UK.

Members of the AHDB Potatoes Board announced in August 2019 that they were "considering the long-term future and succession plan for potato storage research in Britain", with plans to invite outside organisations to bid for research contracts.

In a statement issued last month, AHDB director Dr Rob Clayton said: "The AHDB Potatoes Board has been considering the long-term future and succession plan for potato storage research in Britain.

"We have recently concluded a process of market engagement with agri-science research institutions and the exercise has shown that there are a number of organisations interested in playing a more active role in storage research in the future.

"There will now be a number of research tenders launched on the open market and depending on the quality of tender responses we receive, this summer will see storage experiments taking place at external research institutes, alongside activity at Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research (SBCSR).

"We plan to monitor the performance carefully so that, over a period of time, we can begin to move to a new model where storage research is commissioned, rather than completed in-house.

"We plan for this to happen in a staged way and AHDB will continue to deliver storage research findings, resources and advice to the industry in the long-term.​

SBCSR, which is believed to employ up to 12 people, was opened by Baroness Mary Soames (daughter of Prime Minister Winston Churchill) in April 1964 with the aim of improving the quality of potato produce with the help of 42 controlled environment storage rooms at its site off East Bank.

Dr Clayton said: "We know that storage research has never been more important and our existing projects that are under way at SBCSR will continue.

"Because of the size of SBCSR, and the number of scientists we employ, we are not eligible to capitalise on the research funding that comes through the biological research councils.

"Geography and distance from big academic hubs make it difficult to attract new scientific talent to potato research at Sutton Bridge.

"That means our succession planning is always a risky business and we lose out to more established and vibrant research hubs.

"Also, AHDB is not built to manage a research facility and as SBCSR is the only research facility owned by AHDB, it is hard to justify the personnel required to write and manage bids, seek out commercial customers and other overhead-type activities other research institutes pick up with their greater scale of operations.

"SBCSR will stay open until we are confident that external providers can meet the needs of the industry."

A spokesman for the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership (GLLEP) : "We are committed to the growth of the agri-food industry in Lincolnshire and recognise the importance of research, including crop storage research, in supporting growth in the potato industry.

"Within this the GLLEP is aware of the world-leading work which SBCSR has performed for the industry and we are keen to see this work continue in Lincolnshire.

"With over 13 per cent of England’s potato crop grown in Lincolnshire, as well as major potato processors such as Produce World, Branston, McCains and Pepsico, Lincolnshire is a natural home for this work."

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