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As global apple industry competition intensifies, apple-producing countries often seek to boost their competitiveness.

One way to improve performance is through new growing strategies and scientific research, says Dr. Gordon Brown, director and principal researcher at Scientific Horticulture, a private research company based in Tasmania, Australia.

To gauge the state of apple research in major apple-producing countries, Brown looked at the number of Commonwealth Agriculture Bureau International (CAB) abstracts and searched for the number of research papers in 17 different countries, for each five-year period over the last 30 years.

He found that worldwide, the number of scientific papers on apples nearly doubled since 1976, from slightly more than 300 papers per year to slightly more than 600. No country dominates apple research, Brown said, although about one-half is generated in the United States, China, Poland, and India combined.

Brown’s findings, published in Australian Fruitgrower magazine, indicate research has remained static or increased slightly in many apple-producing countries, including in the United States. Research has decreased in a handful of countries, including Australia. But it has surged dramatically in several countries, led by China, whose research has grown nearly 200-fold since 1976.

Dominate

Apple research activity in China has grown 185-fold over the last 30 years, Brown said. "If the growth in their research activity continues, [China] could eventually dominate the generation of scientific knowledge," Brown wrote. "This could potentially give that country an additional competitive advantage."

Brown found that Korea’s research activity increased 5.5 times, while New Zealand’s output increased 3.8 times, followed closely by India (3.7), Chile (3.7), Hungary (3.4), Japan (3.0), and Italy (2.9). South Africa, Poland, and France about doubled their research activity. The United States and Canada posted modest increases in research output. Germany had a slight decrease. Research output in Australia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom dropped almost in half.

Brown looked only at the generation of information in the public domain. In some countries, especially in recent years, there has been an increase in private research, Brown said in an e-mail response. "Due to patents and confidentialities, information is not made public, and this activity is difficult to assess," he said. It is also difficult to determine how much research in each country is government funded, because there are various ways government funding is handled, he added.

Grower funding for research is becoming increasingly important, he said. For example, in Australia, as in Washington State in the United States, growers pay a levy or assessment that is used for research. "This has become a critical component of almost all apple research now as, even in government agencies, while their salaries are paid, there is little spare cash for performing research or employing technical assistance," Brown said. "This forces government researchers to apply to the growers’ fund for operational money."

Relying on grower funds is leading to "extremely applied research" on topics that growers believe are critical to their survival, such as growing systems and new apple varieties, he said. That may mean research projects are short term. It also means researchers must follow the money, and some researchers have had to change crops and specialty areas.

No experts

"In Australia, it is now nearly impossible to be an expert, and our research community is becoming more general," Brown said.

That could be an advantage in that researchers could be viewed as more in touch with industry and more well rounded. But, he said, it brings up questions of succession planning for researchers who leave government employment and who are not replaced. In some areas, the research community has both aged and declined in numbers.

Although it’s hard to gauge the correlation between research and competitiveness, Brown said that he has no doubt the correlation exists, based on anecdotal –evidence as well as his own gut feeling.

Some countries will have to rely on research conducted in other countries, but there’s a downside to that, he noted. "Results from one country definitely do not directly transfer to another country. I’m sure that even in the United States, there must be research that has been found to work in Washington State but not in the eastern regions."

The solution isn’t easy, Brown said. "When governments reduce research funding, the results are not felt in industry for about 15 years. Hence, if government comes back three years after reducing spending, they cannot see any impact on industry, so it is easy to reduce spending some more." The cycle can continue until no funding is available for research.

Growers often don’t see the lack of research as a reason for economic –problems, and the situation is compounded when improvements through research aren’t seen for 15 years, and a feeling sets in that the research didn’t help, Brown said.

"Unfortunately, for countries where research has been in decline, there needs to be a true global disaster leading to a lack of safe food for governments to increase spending again. Conversely, in countries where governments are still investing in research, any attempt to reduce spending, even for a year, should be avoided."