The cave dwellers of south Staffordshire

The weather was glorious – again – today. In fact, it’s more like early summer than the end of March (although the forecast is for low temperatures once again this weekend).

So we took the opportunity to make another National Trust property visit, and this time headed off northwest from Bromsgrove to Kinver Edge in south Staffordshire, only about 16 miles away.

Kinver Edge is a red sandstone escarpment where, in centuries past, there was a small community of residents who carved homes from the soft sandstone. The cave dwellings, known as the Holy Austin Rock Houses, were occupied until the 1930s, after which they fell into disrepair. There are records of occupation in the 1700s, but it’s believed that the caves were occupied much earlier than that.

The climb to the top of Kinver Edge is quite fierce, and the slopes are very steep indeed. But the view from the top is worth it, looking out over Staffordshire (and Wolverhampton and Dudley) to the north, Shropshire to the west, Worcestershire and Warwickshire to the east, and south towards Worcester, the Malvern Hills, and Severn Estuary beyond. It was a little hazy today but nevertheless we had some good views.

Click here to view a web album.

Déjà vu, again?

A rather interesting experiment was reported on the BBC TV news at 6 o’clock this evening. Tree scientists in 12 European countries will assess the response of many different tree species at 37 locations along a 1600 mile stretch of Atlantic coastline. The saplings planted at all sites come from the Mediterranean, eastern Europe, California, and beyond. The experiment will last for decades as scientists monitor the growth and health of the trees.

Multilocation field trials of this type are essential if we are ever to get a handle on how plants (and crops) respond under a changing climate, and what germplasm (and in the case of trees, for example, which provenances) should be tapped to maintain productivity.

It’s not only response to increasing temperature that will be critical. It’s that we’ll be experiencing higher temperatures under existing daylengths (or photoperiod). So experiments over a wide range of latitude can begin to investigate some of these temperature x photoperiod relationships.

In December 1990 (while I was at the University of Birmingham) I presented a paper on crop networks and global warming [1] at a joint EUCARPIA/IBPGR symposium, held in Wageningen, the Netherlands. I put forward a proposal to establish a network of field trials of barley (Hordeum vulgare) landraces from a very wide geographical range across Europe, to cover the broadest distribution of both latitude and longitude. Since barley is a weakly buffered genetically – it has 2n=2x=14 chromosomes, and is a self-fertilizing diploid – most of the genetic variation in any line should be expressed.

The barley germplasm exists, as do the databases. Click on the image for an interesting link.

In this way I suggested that we could use the power of multilocation trials to help identify germplasm traits for use in breeding under climate change. Needless to say, the idea went down like a lead balloon, and I didn’t pursue it further; in any case I moved on and joined IRRI. Quite a number of the symposium participants told me that my proposal was not worth pursuing, simply because climate change was not a reality. Now we know different. But just think how much further we would be ahead today if multilocation trials had been started a couple of decades ago.

When I joined IRRI in 1991, I had, as head of the Genetic Resources Center, overall responsibility for INGER – the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, but not day-to-day management. At one early meeting I suggested that perhaps a new model for multilocation testing should be adopted with proper randomized and replicated trials at carefully selected locations – but only where collaborators would be willing to conduct rather more sophisticated field trials, as well as collect accurate weather data. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that this was not INGER, and despite my best efforts to bring about change and inject some science, the network continued on its merry way, collecting volumes of data of little use to anyone. Another opportunity lost!

So it is rather heartening to see that, at last, some scientists have bitten the bullet – and a big one at that, since the trials will last several decades. Now that’s what I call commitment.

[1] Jackson, MT, 1991. Global warming: the case for European cooperation for germplasm conservation and use. In: Th.J.L. van Hintum, L. Frese & P.M. Perret (eds.), Crop Networks. Searching for New Concepts for Collaborative Genetic Resources Management. International Crop Network Series No. 4. International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, Rome, Italy. Papers of the EUCARPIA/IBPGR symposium held in Wageningen, the Netherlands, December 3-6, 1990. pp. 125-131.

Genetic resources – the impact of the University of Birmingham

The University of Birmingham, a major English university, received its royal charter in 1900, although a predecessor medical college was founded in Birmingham in 1825.

Although strong in the various biological sciences – with leading botany, zoology, microbiology, and genetics departments (now combined into a School of Biosciences), Birmingham never had an agriculture faculty. Yet its impact on agriculture worldwide has been significant.

For decades it had one of the strongest genetics departments in the world, with luminaries such as Professor Sir Kenneth Mather FRS* and Professor John Jinks FRS**, leading the way in cytology, and population and quantitative genetics.

In fact, genetics at Birmingham was renowned for its focus on quantitative genetics and applications to plant breeding. For many years it ran a one-year MSc course in Applied Genetics.

The head of the department of botany and Mason Professor of Botany during the 1960s was Jack Heslop-Harrison FRS*** whose research and reviews on genecology would make such valuable contributions to the field of plant genetics resources.

Professor Jack Hawkes OBE succeeded Heslop-Harrison as Mason Professor of Botany in 1967, although he’d been in the department since 1952. Jack was a leading taxonomist of the tuber-bearings Solanums – potatoes! Since 1938 he had made several collecting expeditions to the Americas (often with his Danish colleague JP Hjerting) to collect and study wild potatoes. And it was through his work on potatoes that Jack became involved with the newly-founded plant genetic resources movement under the leadership of Sir Otto Frankel. Jack joined a Panel of Experts at FAO, and through the work of that committee plans were laid at the end of the 1960s to collect and conserve the diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives worldwide, and establish an international network of genebanks.

The culmination of that initiative – four decades later – was the opening in 2008 of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault by the Global Crop Diversity Trust).

Jack wondered how a university might contribute effectively to the various genetic resources initiatives, and decided that a one-year training course leading to a masters degree (MSc) would be the best approach. With support from the university, the course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources took its first intake of four students (from Australia, Brazil, Candada, and the UK) in September 1969. I joined the course in September 1970, alongside Ayla Sencer from Izmir, Turkey, Altaf Rao from Pakistan, Folu Dania Ogbe from Nigeria, and Felix Taborda-Romero from Venezuela. Jack invited many of the people he worked with worldwide in genetic resources to come to Birmingham to give guest lectures. And we were treated to several sessions with the likes of Dr Erna Bennett from FAO and Professor Jack Harlan from the University of Illinois.

From the outset, Frankel thought within 20 years everyone who needed training would have passed through the course. He was mistaken by about 20 years. The course remained the only formal training course of its kind in the world, and by 2008 had trained over 1400 MSc and 3-month short course students from more than 100 countries, many becoming genetic conservation leaders in their own countries. Although the course, as such, is no longer offered, the School of Biosciences still offers PhD opportunities related to the conservation, evaluation and use of genetic resources.

The first external examiner (for the first three years) was Professor Hugh Bunting, Professor of Agricultural Botany at the University of Reading. Other examiners over the years have included Professor Eric Roberts (Reading) and Professor John Cooper FRS (Aberystwyth) and directors of Kew, Professor Sir Arthur Bell and Professor Sir Peter Crane FRS. Students were also able to carry out their dissertation research over the years at other institutions, such as Kew-Wakehurst Place (home of the Millennium Seed Bank) and the Genetic Resources Unit, Warwick Crop Centre (formerly the National Vegetable Genebank at Wellesbourne) where the manager for many years was Dr Dave Astley, a Birmingham graduate from the 1971 intake.

And what has been the impact of training so many people? Most students returned to their countries and began work in research – collecting and conserving. In 1996, FAO presented a report, The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources, to the Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources held in Leipzig, Germany, in June 1996, and published in 1998. Many Birmingham graduates attended that conference as members of national delegations, and some even headed their delegations. In the photo below, everyone is a Birmingham graduate, with the exception of Dr Geoff Hawtin, Director General (fourth from the right, at the back) and Dr Lyndsey Withers, Tissue Culture Specialist (seventh from the right, front row) from IPGRI (now Bioversity International) that provided scholarships to students from developing countries, and guest lectures. Two other delegates, Raul Castillo (Ecuador) and Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), are not in the photo, since they were occupied in delicate negotiations at the time.

In 1969, two new members of staff were recruited to support the new MSc course. Dr J Trevor Williams (shown on the right in this photo taken at the 20th anniversary meeting at Birmingham in November 1989) acted as the course tutor, and lectured about plant variation.

Dr Richard Lester (who died in 2006) was a chemotaxonomist and Solanaceae expert. Trevor left Birmingham at the end of the 70s to become Executive Secretary, then Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (which in turn became IPGRI, then Bioversity International).

Brian Ford-Lloyd (now Professor of Conservation Genetics and Director of the university Graduate School) joined the department in 1979 and was the course tutor for many years, and contributing lectures in data management, among others.

With the pending retirement of Jack Hawkes in September 1982, I was appointed in April 1981 as a lecturer to teach evolution of crop plants, agroecology, and germplasm collecting among others, and to supervise dissertation research. I eventually supervised more than 25 MSc students in 10 years, some of whom continued for a PhD under my supervision (Susan Juned, Denise Clugston, Ghani Yunus, Javier Francisco-Ortega) as well as former students from Peru (René Chavez and Carlos Arbizú) who completed their PhD on potatoes working at CIP while registered at Birmingham. I was also the short course tutor for most of that decade.

IBPGR provided funding not only for students, but supported the appointment of a seed physiologist, Dr Pauline Mumford until 1990. This was my first group of students who commenced their studies in September 1981. Standing are (l to r): Reiner Freund (Germany), Pauline Mumford, and two students from Bangladesh. Seated (l to r) are: Ghani Yunus (Malaysia), student from Brazil, Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Margarida Texeira (Portugal), student from Indonesia. Missing from that photo is Yen-Yuk Lo from Malaysia.

MSc students from Malaysia, Germany, Uruguay, Turkey, Portugal, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Dr Pauline Mumford, seed physiologist, stands in the second row.

The course celebrated its 20th anniversary in November 1989, and a group of ex-students were invited to Birmingham for a special workshop, sponsored by IBPGR. In the photo below are (l to r): Elizabeth Acheampong (Ghana), Indonesia, Trevor Williams, Yugoslavia, Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), India, Carlos Arbizu (Peru), Philippines, ??, Andrea Clausen (Argentina), Songkran Chitrakon (Thailand), ??.

We also planted a medlar tree (Mespilus germanica); this photo was taken at the tree planting, and shows staff, past and current students.

After I resigned from the university to join IRRI in 1991, Dr Nigel Maxted was appointed as a lecturer, and has continued his work on wild relatives of crop plants and in situ conservation. He has also taken students on field courses to the Mediterranean several times.

I was privileged to attend Birmingham as a graduate student (I went on to complete a PhD under Jack Hawkes’ supervision) and become a member of the faculty. The University of Birmingham has made a very significant contribution to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources around the world.

Graduation December 1975
L to r: ?, Bryn ?, me, Trevor Williams, Jack Hawkes, Jean Hanson, ?, Jane Toll, Steve Smith

Today, hundreds of Birmingham graduates are involved daily in genetic conservation or helping to establish policy concerning access to and use of genetic resources around the world. Their work has ensured the survival of agrobiodiversity and its use to increase the productivity of crops upon which the world’s population depends.


* Mather was Vice Chancellor (= CEO) of the University of Southampton when I was an undergraduate there from 1967-1970. After retirement from Southampton, Mather returned to Birmingham and had an office in the Department of Genetics. In the late 1980s when I was teaching at Birmingham, and a member of the Genetics Group, I moved my office close-by Mather’s office, and we would frequently meet to discuss issues relating to genetic resources conservation and use. He often told me that a lot of what I mentioned was new to him – especially the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet, which had been the basis of a Genetics Group seminar by one of my PhD students, Ghani Yunus from Malaysia, who was working on Lathyrus sativus, the grasspea. Mather and I agreed to meet a few days later, but unfortunately we never met since he died of a heart attack in the interim.

** John Jinks was head of department when Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse applied to the university in 1967. Without a foreign language qualification it looked like he would not be offered a place. Until Jinks intervened. Paul Nurse often states that had it not been for John Jinks, he would not have made it to university. Jinks was the head of the Agricultural Research Council when he died in 1987. He was chair of the interview panel when I was appointed to a lectureship in plant biology at Birmingham in April 1981.

*** Heslop-Harrison became Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1970-1976.

Perú – país precioso

I can’t remember why I had always wanted to visit Peru. All I know is that since I was a small boy, Peru had held a big fascination for me. I used to spend time leafing through an atlas, and spending most time looking at the maps of South America, especially Peru. And I promised myself (in the way that you do when you’re small, and can’t see how it would ever happen) that one day I would visit Peru.

Just a few months after I had begun my graduate studies at the University of Birmingham in October 1973, my head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes, returned from a 2-month trip to Bolivia to collect wild potatoes, and had spent time in Lima with Dr Richard Sawyer who became the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) in October 1971. He was looking for someone to work at CIP for one year from September 1971 to look after a large collection of native Peruvian potato varieties while a young Peruvian took his MSc degree at Birmingham.

To cut a long story short, I didn’t go in 1971, but landed in Lima at the beginning of January 1973 after a long and gruelling flight on B.O.A.C. from London via Antigua (in the Caribbean), Caracas, and Bogotá.

Until I was able to rent an apartment, I stayed in the Pensión Beech (a boarding house) in San Isidro for about three weeks. Arriving at night, I was driven through the darkness to the pensión and hadn’t a clue where I was or where I was going. The following morning I woke to a bright summer’s day, and was amazed at the beauty of Lima gardens, particularly the stunning bougainvilleas that seemed to be growing everywhere, as well as bright red poinsettia shrubs (small trees actually), a plant I had only ever seen growing as a pot plant!

Eventually, I found a one bedroom apartment in the center of Miraflores, next to the Todos supermarket (I wonder if it’s still there?), and then, once my wife had joined me in July 1973 (we were married in the Municipalidad de Miraflores in October 1973) we rented a 12th floor apartment on Av. Larco near the corner with Av. Benavides (there was an ice cream parlor on the ground floor – 20 Sabores). But the 12th floor is not ideal place to be when an earthquake struck, as they did with increasing regularity after the massive quake of October 1974 (measured at 8.1 on the Richter scale at La Molina where I was working, and lasting for more than 2 minutes).

Peru is a country of amazing contrasts. Just click here to view a web album of photos I took during 1973.

First there is the geography: the long coastal desert stretching north from Lima to the border with Ecuador, and south to Chile where it merges with the Atacama Desert. It hardly ever rains on the coast, but the sea mists that are prevalent during the months of July-September do provide sufficient moisture in some parts (lomas) to develop quite a rich flora. The Andes mountains take your breath away with their magnificence. The foothills begin just a few kilometers from the coast, and the mountains rise to their highest point in Huascarán (6,768 m), the fourth highest mountain in the western hemisphere.

And to the east of the Andes is the selva, the vast plain of tropical rainforest, dissected by huge rivers, flowing north towards the River Amazon, and, thousands of kilometers later, eastwards to the Atlantic Ocean.

Second, Peru is a country of cultural diversity and a rich archaeology. Everyone has heard of the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu, ‘discovered’ by Yale professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. But throughout the country there are many sites that demonstrate the long cultural development of different groups, especially along the coast oases where rivers flowing westwards from the Andes brought life-giving water to the coastal desert. And there is also considerable evidence for the range of plants and animals that these peoples domesticated: the potato, beans, cotton, peanut, and llamas to name but a few. Fortunately this rich history has been preserved and Lima boasts some of the best museums in the world.

From north to south, different peoples wear different dress. In Cajamarca, the typical dress is a tall straw hat and a russet-colored poncho. In central Peru, the women wear hats like the one shown in the photo on the right. The south of Peru, around Cuzco and Puno is more traditional still.

Peru is also a country of great handicrafts – from the leather goods made  in Lima, to the carved gourds or mate burilado, clay figures of farmers or religious effigies, to a wealth of brightly colored textiles.

Lastly on this short celebration of Peru, I have to mention some of my favorite food – and I’ve learned that in recent years Lima has become one of the top gourmet capitals of the world. If I had to mention just a couple of dishes they would be ceviche (fish marinated in lime juice and hot chili peppers, and served with sweet potato) and papa a la huancaina, made from sliced yellow potatoes, and boiled eggs, and covered with a spicy sauce.

And one of the great ways of serving food is the pachamanca. Of course, all washed down with a good Peruvian beer – Cusqueña, Arequipeña, or Pilsen Callao (my favorite). But I have to mention my favorite drink: pisco sour. Whoever invented that deserves a medal! The only drink better than a pisco sour is a second one.

I was privileged to live in Peru for three years, and have visited there many times since. My work took me all over the country to collect native varieties of potatoes, and to carry out field studies on how farmers adopt and use different varieties. I never lost the excitement of arriving in Lima and waiting to get out into the wild country.

Lima is an enormous city now. It’s been more than a decade since I was last there. In 1973 it seemed there was hardly enough water for a population of about 1.5 million if my memory serves me well. The latest data indicate that Lima now has a population in excess of 9.3 million. I’m told the traffic situation is horrendous.

Certainly the road network around the country has improved – much of my time was spent on dirt roads, hugging the sides of mountains, with precipices up to 1000 m. Not the sort of place to take your eyes off the road.

Given the opportunity I would go back to Peru tomorrow. Although I have seen a good deal of the country, there’s still more to see. I traveled by road, by air, on foot, and on horseback. I slept in schools and a post office, and been eaten up by fleas in a hotel in northern Peru. But I enjoyed (almost) every minute – the friendliness and friendship of Peruvians, and the wonderful paisajes (landscapes), and its illustrious history.

Spring is sprung . . .

My wife and I are members of the National Trust, and this allows us to visit a whole range of historic houses and gardens that the organization maintains. This is a great reason for getting out-and-about – but only if the weather is good.

Well, yesterday, we really did begin to feel as if winter was finally over. After a bit of a disappointing start, the day did brighten, and most of the clouds blocking the sun did disperse. It actually began to feel warm in the sun, even though there was a cold breeze.

And we headed for Baddesley Clinton, a moated house from the 15th century, owned and occupied for over 500 years by the Ferrers family.

They were Catholics at a time in English history when it was not a wise choice – when Elizabeth I and James I were on the throne. The house has three priestholes. Click on the photograph above to view a web album.

The grounds are not extensive, but with the spring flowers (particularly the daffodils, in full bloom – and more yet to flower) they were attractive. No doubt the estate was much bigger in times past.

Today, the weather is even better, and promises a fine weekend – almost BBQ weather. The long, dark days of winter are behind us, the clocks move forward 1 hour tomorrow night, and summer is fast approaching.

Staffordshire oatcakes – a local delicacy

Although I was born in Congleton (in the county of Cheshire), I moved to Leek, in north Staffordshire – about 12 miles away to the southeast – when I was seven.

So, I grew up in the shadow of the Staffordshire Moorlands, and actually think of myself more or less as Staffordshire born and bred. My father was a Staffordshire man who was born in the brewing town of Burton-upon-Trent.

For me, the Staffordshire Moorlands (on the southern edge of the Peak District National Park – and, founded in 1951, the first national park in the UK) is one of the most beautiful parts of England. It’s wild and rugged, but dissected by the deep, wooded valleys of the River Churnet, and the River Dane (which forms the boundary between Staffordshire and Cheshire for about 10 miles). Among the most famous landmarks are the Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks, outcrops of millstone grit, and home for many decades to a feral population of wallabies!

For seven years from 1960 I attended high school in Stoke-on-Trent – the Potteries. In those days, the Potteries were a dark and dismal city, covered in the grime from the collieries (and steam railways) as well as the smoke from the myriad of bottle ovens found in all the factories (known as ‘potbanks’), where world-famous ceramics were made, such as Wedgwood, Spode, and Royal Doulton.

Now, the pits have closed, and the ceramic industry is but a shadow of its former glory (the Wedgwood family is fighting to keep a priceless collection of ceramics together, in danger of being sold off piecemeal to cover the pension fund debts of the parent company that went bankrupt in 2009). The Clean Air Act of the mid-1950s ensured that the pollution that once smothered the Potteries was a thing of the past. And over the past decades the spoil heaps from the collieries have been levelled (in one part of the city they were referred to as ‘the Cobridge Alps’), and whole areas of terraced housing (once occupied by the workers from the potbanks) have been demolished to make way for new developments.

And one of the businesses affected is The Hole in the Wall.

Well, I guess this means nothing to almost everyone who reads this post. About to close down – on 25 March to be precise – The Hole in the Wall is the last remaining front-room oatcake bakery in Staffordshire.

Oatcakes? These aren’t the crispy biscuits you buy in Scotland. Oh no! They are a delicious, thin, grilled ‘pancake’ made from fermented oat flour, served hot with delicious fillings of bacon, sausages, cheese, and eggs, and have been a traditional Potteries delicacy for decades. Just watch this audio slideshow to learn how they are made (and what is happening to The Hole in the Wall) , and why Potteries folk adore them. It’s believed that the idea of oatcakes was brought back to the Potteries by soldiers of the Staffordshire Regiment who had served in India. They look like the Ethiopian injera, which is made from the indigenous cereal teff (Eragrostis tef). These points are raised in the slideshow and the accompanying article in The Guardian.

I grew up eating oatcakes, and many years ago now, I introduced my wife Steph (an Essex lass) to the delights of the Staffordshire oatcake. And she was hooked as well, found a recipe, and has been making them ever since. And we enjoyed them during the 19 years we lived in the Philippines.

She’s still making them and today, Sunday, we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast of oatcakes and sausages, and freshly-brewed coffee. What a great way to start the day!

But there’s another Staffordshire delicacy – love it or hate it (in my case, ‘hate it’) – and that’s Marmite, a yeast extract by-product of the brewing industry. Marmite comes from Burton-upon-Trent, and the ‘Marmite odour’ is quite rich at times during the summer as you drive through the town.

Investing in diversity . . . the IRRI genebank

During the mid-90s, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) coordinated a major program (funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation – SDC) to collect and conserve rice varieties in more than 20 countries by visiting areas that had not been extensively collected in previous decades. The aim was to ensure the long-term survival of varieties that had been nurtured by farmers and their husbands for generations. Over a five year period from 1996, more than 25,000 rice samples were collected, and stored in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, increasing the collection there by approximately 25%. About half of the samples (some 13,000) came from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). An IRRI staff member, Dr Seepana Appa Rao (formerly with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics – ICRISAT) spent four years traveling throughout the country, alongside Lao scientists, to make the first comprehensive collections of rice germplasm.

Duplicates samples are now conserved at IRRI, but very quickly after collection, Lao breeders started to screen the germplasm for useful traits, and use different materials to increase productivity.

Rice farmers in the Lao PDR still grow thousands of different rice varieties, from the lowland paddy fields with their patchwork of varieties to the sloping fields of the uplands where one can see many different varieties grown in complex mixtures, shown in the photos below. The complexity of varieties is also reflected in the names given by farmers [1].

And germplasm collecting was repeated in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam in Asia, and countries in East and southern Africa including Uganda and Madagascar, as well as Costa Rica in Central America (for wild rices). We invested a lot of efforts to train local scientists in germplasm collecting methods. Long-time IRRI employee (now retired) and genetic resources specialist, Eves Loresto, visited Bhutan on several occasions.

The IRRI Genebank

When I first joined IRRI in July 1991 – to head the Genetic Resources Center – I discovered that many aspects of the genebank procedures and operations were outdated or inefficient, and we set about a program of renovation and upgrading (that has been a continuous process ever since, as new technologies supersede those used before). The genebank holds more than 113,000 samples, mainly of cultivated rice varieties, with perhaps as many as 70% or so unique. Duplicate safety samples are stored at the USDA National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, and at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (operated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust). In fact, the first seeds into the Svalbard vault came from IRRI when it opened in February 2008!

The genebank now has three storage vaults (one was added in the last couple of years) for medium-term (Active) and long-term (Base) conservation. Rice varieties are grown on the IRRI farm, and carefully dried before storage. Seed viability and health is always checked, and resident seed physiologist, Fiona Hay (formerly at the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew) is investigating factors which affect long-term storage of rice seeds.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – so rather than describe how this genebank runs, do take the time to watch a 14 minute video which shows all the various operations for both cultivated and wild rices.

In 1994 there was a major review of CGIAR center genebanks. In preparation for that review we wrote a genebank operations manual, which still describes how and why the genebank works. I felt that this would be a useful legacy for whoever came after my tenure as head of the genebank. Operations can always evolve and change – but here is a basis for how rice is conserved in the most important genebank for this crop.

[1] Appa Rao, S, C Bounphanousay, JM Schiller & MT Jackson, 2002. Naming of traditional rice varieties by farmers in the Lao PDR. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 49, 83‐88.

The agricultural terraces of Cuyo Cuyo, southern Peru

In early 1974 I travelled to southern Peru with a taxonomist friend from the University of St Andrews, Dr Peter Gibbs.

Peter and I had become friends when he visited the International Potato Center (CIP) in 1973. At that time Peter was supervising the Master’s thesis of a Peruvian student, Martha Vargas (daughter of renowned Peruvian botanist Professor César Vargas from Cuzco). At CIP he wanted to see if he could hitch a ride to the south of Peru on any germplasm collecting trips planned to that region, so that he could make some collections of oca (Oxalis tuberosa), a minor Andean tuber crop.

Oca tubers

As it happened, I was looking to carry out some ethnobotanical studies on the different potato varieties grown by farmers as part of my PhD research – but where would be a good site?

Peter showed me an old scientific paper (from 1951) by WH Hodge from the University of Massachusetts [1] about the cultivation of different tuber crops, including potatoes and oca, in the village of Cuyo Cuyo, located about 140 km northeast of Puno (69˚50’W, 14˚50’S) at the head of the Sandia Gorge. Well, this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, and we agreed to pool our resources for the trip.

The drive south in a small Land Rover – down the coastal desert Panamericana highway, across the Nasca plain, climbing to Arequipa, and even higher to Puno – took three days. After resting up in Puno (next to Lake Titicaca), and getting used to the 3827 m altitude, we set off for Cuyo Cuyo. Dropping down from the altiplano at well over 4000 m, Cuyo Cuyo lies at an altitude of about 3300 m. Below the village the valley drops quickly towards the ceja de la montaña – literally ‘eyebrow of the mountain’ – where the humid air of the rainforests below rises up east-facing valleys to form cloud forest.

No-one in Cuyo Cuyo was expecting us, so there were quite a few surprised faces when these two gringos drove into town. Cuyo Cuyo was not on the ‘research-tourist’ trail in 1974, but many researchers have visited Cuyo Cuyo since I was there (see below), and there are quite a few publications now about the socio-economic systems and agriculture there.

Peru 110

Under these circumstances (as on other germplasm collecting trips) I’d found it useful to find the local mayor (alcalde) or schoolteacher and explain what we were up to and have them in turn explain to the local farmers and their families (in Quechua). On a previous trip to the north of Peru in May 1973, a local schoolteacher (rather drunk at the time as we’d arrived on his village’s fiesta) hailed me as a representative of La Reina Isabel (HM The Queen), promptly calling a village meeting, and asked me to give a ‘loyal address’. At that time I had fairly rudimentary Spanish, but it didn’t matter. After a few words of congratulations for the fiesta, every person in the hall (maybe 200 or so) came and shook me by the hand!

Peter and I set up camp, so-to-speak, in the local post office where we could sleep, brew the odd cup of tea (there was a small café in the village where we could eat), and gather our specimens together, including a rudimentary drier for the extensive set of oca herbarium samples that Peter intended to make. But more of that particular story later.

The sides of the Cuyo Cuyo valley are covered with the most wonderful system of agricultural terraces, called andenes, which must have been constructed centuries ago, in Inca times, and have been cultivated ever since. Farmers have different terraces dotted around the valley, and when I was there, at least, farmers were still using a communal rotation system. Thus in one part of the valley the terraces were covered in potatoes (year 1 after a fallow), and oca (years 2 and 3), barley or beans (year 4), or fallow (years 5-8) elsewhere. Sheep are corralled on a terrace prior to planting potatoes, and their urine and dung used as fertilizer. Whether, almost 40 years later, this remains the case I do not know.

But this system of potato and oca cultivation allowed me to make some detailed studies of the diversity of potato fields in terms of varieties grown and their genetic make-up (chromosome number). I eventually published this work in Euphytica in 1980 [2]. And there’s a story about that publication that’s also worth repeating, a little later on.

Since the terraces are quite small, only the native foot plough is used to till the soil (see my earlier post about potatoes). I discovered that different varieties were apparently suited to the growing conditions in different parts of the valley. The most highly prized varieties with a high dry matter content, termed harinosa or floury, were grown on the upper terraces where there was little chance of flooding. Whereas on the valley floor, which was flooded from time-to-time, farmers grew varieties which tended to be more ‘watery’ and used preferentially in soups.

Another very interesting discovery, for me at least, was seeing freshly harvested potatoes dipped in a clay paste after cooking. This practice, known generally as geophagy, has been reported from many societies, as well as observed in animals and birds.

Farmers told me that freshly harvested potatoes (but not the so-called bitter potatoes – see below) tended to be somewhat ‘peppery’ (that’s the best word I can find to describe the sharp taste of some varieties), and that dipping the tubers in the clay paste helped not only with digestion but also reduced the sharpness of the taste. One of the farmers showed me the site where they collected lumps of clay that were then ground to a fine powder and mixed with water. What’s interesting, however, is that I did not find any frost tolerant, bitter potatoes (Solanum juzepczukii or Solanum curtilobum) that have to be processed to make chuño before they can be eaten.

After two or three days, Peter and I felt that we’d done sufficient field work there, and headed north towards Cuzco to visit some additional sites. From there we returned to Lima by air, leaving the Land Rover behind for a CIP colleague.

But what about all those oca herbarium specimens? Despite our best efforts, we had great difficulty in drying the specimens that Peter collected, for two reasons. It was quite wet during our visit to Cuyo Cuyo, and all the samples were covered in moisture even before we attempted to turn them into dried herbarium sheets. Furthermore, oca has rather fleshy stems that just wouldn’t dry. Even after a couple more weeks of drying in Lima, Peter packed up what he had and posted them to St Andrews. After he arrived home, he found that his herbarium specimens were not only alive, but had begun to sprout – so he promptly planted them all in his university glasshouse, and had a range of living samples to use in his study of pollination mechanisms!

And what about the ethnobotany paper that I referred to earlier? I completed my PhD in 1975, and began to write-up my work for publication in scientific journals. I chose the Wageningen-based journal Euphytica for two papers submitted in 1977 on triploid potatoes and crossability studies, and Economic Botany for the Cuyo Cuyo paper. Well, that paper was finally accepted by mid-1977, and I waited for it to appear in print (by that time I’d already moved to Costa Rica and was busy with other potato research).

I didn’t hear anything for many months, but then, out of the blue, I received a letter from the new Editor-in-Chief of Economic Botany asking me if I’d published the paper elsewhere. In taking over the helm at Economic Botany, he’d found manuscripts in the files that had been accepted for publication up to two decades earlier, but had never been published! Well, at about the same time, the Editor of Euphytica, Prof. Anton Zeven, wrote to me, commenting on my PhD thesis (he’d obtained a copy through interlibrary loan) and wondering if I had published my Cuyo Cuyo research. And if I hadn’t, would I seriously consider doing so. What an invitation! With some revisions (but unfortunately removal of some of the more anthropological aspects) I submitted the paper to Euphytica in early 1979, and it was published some months later in 1980.

Cuyo Cuyo in 2006
Among the researchers to have visited Cuyo Cuyo more recently than me – in early 1997 and May 2006 – is University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor of botany Dr Eve Emshwiller, who has been studying oca for many years now. In a recent message (15 March 2014)  she commented that Cuyo Cuyo was a fascinating place, but changing fast. I’m sure that’s something that could be said about many of the places I visited in the 1970s, then quite remote, but now opened up through better roads and telecommunications. Eve has kindly given me permission to include here some of her wonderful photos taken in 2006 of the oca harvest in Cuyo Cuyo. In one of the photos you can see the patchwork of fields, some with oca, others with potatoes. That cropping system certainly hadn’t changed in more than 30 years.

[1] Hodge, WH, 1951. Three native tuber foods of the high Andes. Economic Botany 5 (No. 2): 185-201.

[2] Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes and PR Rowe, 1980. An ethnobotanical field study of primitive potato varieties in Peru. Euphytica 29: 107-113. Click to read the paper in full.

AKUS – just simply the best

AKUS – Alison Krauss and Union Station. Just one of the best bluegrass bands around today. And of course, Alison Krauss has won more Grammys than any other singer.

I first heard her singing only three or four years ago – one of her tracks had been selected by a guest on a radio program I was listening to in the car. And I was smitten. She has one of the most remarkable voices in the recording industry today – and she’s also a very accomplished fiddle player.

The group that she plays with, Union Station, are all talented musicians, especially Jerry Douglas – the greatest dobro player. Dan Timinski (guitar) sang I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow in the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? starring George Clooney.

I was watching last night’s Transatlantic Sessions on the BBC iPlayer this morning, and watched Alison Krauss singing Dimming of the Day, a song I’d never heard before. After a little research I discovered that it was written as a love song by English singer-songwriter Richard Thompson for his wife Linda (from whom he is now divorced), released in 1975 on the album Pour Down Like Silver. Thompson had also supported Gerry Rafferty as a session musician on Night Owl.  There have been many covers of Dimming of the Day, including David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and Bonnie Raitt.

Here are the lyrics:

This old house is falling down around my ears
I’m drowning in a river of my tears
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day

You pulled me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

What days have come to keep us far apart
A broken promise or a broken heart
Now all the bonny birds have wheeled away
I need you at the dimming of the day

Come the night you’re only what I want
Come the night you could be my confidant

I see you on the street and in company
Why don’t you come and ease your mind with me
I’m living for the night we steal away
I need you at the dimming of the day

I need you at the dimming of the day

 This is the original version by Linda and Richard Thompson:

Now listen to the magic of Alison Krauss and Union Station on their most recent CD, Paper Airplane:

Alison Krauss talks about this song in an interview published in the Telegraph in April 2011. It’s a very emotional song. And I’d missed it all these years.

Norman Borlaug – tireless advocate of research for development

In the 1960s the world faced a huge challenge: how to feed an ever-increasing population, especially in the poorer, developing countries with large agriculture-based societies.

One man, Dr Norman Borlaug, had the vision – and the energy – to do something about this, and spent his entire career, right up until the day he died at the age of 94, applying the best of plant science, and being a tireless advocate for agricultural research for development.

Widely hailed as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in breeding and releasing high-yielding varieties of wheat, in what became known as the Green Revolution. In 2007 he was awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal.

For many years Borlaug was head of the Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City (a sister center to the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, where I worked for 19 years). Exploiting wheat genetic resources, and producing short-strawed wheat varieties that yielded much higher than farmers’ landrace varieties, Borlaug has been credited with saving over a billion lives.

Even after retiring from CIMMYT he continued to travel the world, pushing for the resources to make a difference to people’s lives. And in the last years of his life he pushed for a greater effort to bring a Green Revolution to Africa that had largely been bypassed in earlier decades.

Borlaug often said that he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because there was no such prize for agriculture. So he set about to rectify that and helped to set up the World Food Prize in 1986, which has been recognizing laureates each year since 1987 (five scientists associated with the International Rice Research Institute – IRRI – have won the prize including two former directors general, two plant breeders, and a member of the institute’s Board of Trustees).

In April 1999, I met Norman Borlaug for the first and only time, during his visit to IRRI. As one of IRRI’s department heads I was invited to an ‘audience’ with Dr Borlaug. I remember it was a Friday morning, and a group of us met with him – maybe 10 or so staff – ostensibly for a round-table discussion. However, the meeting turned into what I thought was a rambling and confused monologue by Borlaug, and we all came away rather disappointed and disillusioned. Quite frankly, I had the distinct impression that Borlaug (who was about 80 at the time) had lost his marbles. Consequently, I was not looking forward to a one-on-one session the following day to show him around the rice genebank (something I was expected to do rather often whenever VIPs visited the institute), especially since there would be no support staff on duty to show how we ran things.

How wrong first impressions can be! Our meeting had been scheduled for just 30 minutes. After 3 hours we decided to call a halt and let him move on to other colleagues who were waiting (im)patiently to meet him.

Discussing genetic conservation and related issues with Dr Borlaug was a delight. He was no longer ‘the great man’ expected to ‘perform’ in front of an audience, so-to-speak. Instead, we met as fellow scientists with a passion for agricultural research, for the conservation of genetic resources, and how these could be used for the benefit of humanity.

It also helped that we knew several people in common, such as Jack Hawkes and John Niederhauser (who had been a Rockefeller Foundation colleague of Borlaug’s in Mexico), and of course Richard Sawyer, the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, where I had worked from 1973-1981.

The memory of that meeting has stayed with me. Borlaug’s energy and vision has inspired many scientists to embrace the challenge of agricultural research for development. His legacy endures through the World Food Prize Foundation and several other awards that bear his name.

In an interesting twist to the Borlaug story, American illusionists and comedians, Penn and Teller, have taken a sceptical look – through their Showtime network television show Bullshit! – at the role of pressure groups who are against the use of genetic modification (GM) to produce more food. In the video below (which contains some STRONG language) both pro- and anti-GM views are presented, and Norman Borlaug is featured (starting at about 1:50). It’s well worth spending 10 minutes to listen to the different perspectives. Borlaug’s arguments are compelling.

Standing on Vavilov’s shoulders . . .

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943). Not a name familiar to many people. Vavilov is, however, one of my scientific heroes.

Until I began graduate school in September 1970, when I joined the MSc course at the University of Birmingham on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, I’d never even heard of him. In fact, looking back, I’m rather surprised that his name didn’t crop up once during my undergraduate years. I’d been encouraged to apply for a place on the Birmingham course by a lecturer in genetics at Southampton University, Dr Joe Smartt. But Vavilov and his work was not on the curriculum of botany courses that I took.

In preparation for Birmingham, I’d been advised to purchase and absorb a book that was published earlier that year, edited by Sir Otto Frankel and Erna Bennett [1] on genetic resources, and dedicated to NI Vavilov. And I came across Vavilov’s name for the first time in the first line of the Preface written by Frankel, and in the first chapter on Genetic resources by Frankel and Bennett. I should state that this was at the beginning of the genetic resources movement, a term coined by Frankel and Bennett at the end of the 60s when they had mobilized efforts to collect and conserve the wealth of diversity of crop varieties (and their wild relatives) – often referred to as landraces – grown all around the world, but were in danger of being lost as newly-bred varieties were adopted by farmers. The so-called Green Revolution had begun to accelerate the replacement of the landrace varieties, particularly among cereals like wheat and rice.

Thus began my fascination with Vavilov’s work, and a career in genetic resources in a broad sense that was to last 40 years until my retirement in 2010.

Vavilov was a botanist, geneticist and plant breeder who rose to the top of agricultural research in the Soviet Union who, through his many expeditions around the world (described in the book Five Continents [2], published posthumously in English in 1997) assembled a vast array of diversity in many crop species. Vavilov developed two seminal theories of crop evolution, which have influenced the science of genetic resources ever since.

The first was his Centers of Diversity and Origin, in which he stated that “the place of origin of a species of a cultivated plant is to be found in the area which contains the largest number of genetic varieties of this plant.” While we now appreciate that this was an oversimplification, his ideas about the origin of crop diversity have been the foundation for much of the genetic resources exploration carried out in subsequent decades.

The second was his Law of Homologous Series in the Case of Variation, published in Russian in 1920 and in English in 1922. I applied this concept in my search for pest resistance in wild potatoes, which I presented at a Symposium organized by the Linnean Society of London and the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London in 1987 to celebrate the centenary of Vavilov’s birth [3].

Vavilov died of starvation in prison at the relatively young age of 55, following persecution under Stalin through the shenanigans of the charlatan Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko’s legacy also included the rejection of Mendelian genetics in the Soviet Union for many years. Eventually Vavilov was rehabilitated, long after his death, and he was commemorated on postage stamps at the time of his centennial.

Although never having the privilege of knowing Vavilov, I do feel that I met him vicariously through three people I have known, who did meet him, and I worked with two of these for many years.

First, Sir Otto Frankel FRS, who I first met at a genetic resources meeting in Jakarta in the mid-80s, was an eminent wheat breeder and geneticist, and one of the founders of the genetic resources movement. Originally from Austria, he had escaped before the Nazis came to power, and moved to New Zealand and Australia afterwards. Frankel visited Vavilov in Leningrad (now St Petersburg again) in 1935.

Jack Hawkes, Mason Professor of Botany at the University of Birmingham and my PhD supervisor, travelled to Leningrad in 1938 to consult with Vavilov’s colleague, SM Bukasov, about the potatoes he had collected in South America. He wrote about his meeting with Vavilov, which he presented at the Vavilov Symposium referred to above [4].

John S Niederhauser was an eminent plant pathologist who spent many years researching the potato late blight fungus in Mexico. He was awarded the World Food Prize in 1990. I worked for several years with John in the 1970s when I was regional leader for the International Potato Center in Costa Rica, and we were developing and implementing what turned out to be the first consortium, PRECODEPA (Cooperative Regional Potato Program – in four Central American countries, Mexico and the Dominican Republic), of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). As a young man of about 17, so John told me, he’d asked a travel agent how far he would be able to travel (return) from San Francisco with the money he had available: Leningrad was the destination. Walking around a research garden there one day, he was approached by a kindly gentleman – Vavilov as it turned out – who offered him the chance to work for a few weeks harvesting germplasm evaluation trials on one of his institute’s research stations in the Soviet southeast.

What all three emphasised – in their writings or related to me personally – was Vavilov’s friendliness, generosity of spirit, his boundless energy, and above all, his humanity, and that he treated everyone as an equal, even young persons as Hawkes and Niederhauser were when they met him.

Vavilov’s legacy endures. He is recognized as one of the giants of 20th century biology. And he has been an inspiration for countless students of genetic resources conservation and use.

[1] Frankel, OH & E Bennett (eds), 1970. Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation. IBP Handbook No 11. International Biological Programme, London and Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford and Edinburgh. pp. 554. SBN 632 05730 0.

[2] Vavilov, NI, 1997. Five Continents. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy. pp. 198. ISBN 92-9043-302-7.

[3] Jackson, MT, 1990. Vavilov’s Law of Homologous Series – is it relevant to potatoes? Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 39, 17-25.

[4] Hawkes, JG, 1990. NI Vavilov – the man and his work. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 39, 3-6.

After Fred and Ginger, they broke the mould – almost

I’m not really a movie buff. In fact I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema. It might even have been 1977 when I saw Star Wars in San José, Costa Rica. But I do catch the odd movie from time-to-time on the TV, and I particularly like westerns and musicals (although I still haven’t seen The Sound of Music.) The musicals of the thirties were something special and surrealistic – especially those directed by Busby Berkeley, which featured hundreds of showgirls in fantasy routines that would be almost impossible to mount in a real theatre.

But it’s also the music – that silky combination of wind instruments (banks of saxophones and clarinets) and muted brass, overlain with strings, typified by the Glenn Miller sound.

And the dancing of course. Now I’m a huge fan of Fred Astaire and could watch any of his movies over and over again. This solo sequence of Puttin’ On The Ritz from the movie Blue Skies (actually made in 1946, and co-starring Bing Crosby), exemplifies what a perfectionist Astaire was.

I learned recently that Astaire always added the tap sounds to the soundtrack after a sequence had been filmed.

But when Fred partnered with Ginger Rogers, what more can one say? Choreographic perfection! These next clips show what a magnificent duo they were – just click on the image below.

The sequence of Never Gonna Dance is pure theatre. I read that there were more than 40 takes before Astaire was satisfied with the sequence, and Ginger Rogers’ feet were bleeding in her shoes.

Gene Kelly was wonderful dancer as well, and the Good Morning routine (made in 1952) with a young Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor is a classic.

So is Kelly’s solo Singin’ in the Rain (which he apparently performed while suffering from ‘flu and with a temperature of 103F!).

I can’t say that I am an aficionado of ballet (although I do appreciate its artistic qualities and the skills of the dancers), and much of what purports to be modern dance – more like gymnastics – on the TV ‘dance’ shows leaves me quite cold. Michael Jackson apparently devised the dance routine to Smooth Criminal as a tribute to Fred Astaire and who himself acknowledged Jackson’s talent and that he was the greatest dancer of his generation.

Nevertheless, the magic of Astaire and Rogers lives on, and long may it do so.

Kit Carson: he led the way . . .

Early in 2011, Steph and I began to plan our next visit to Minnesota to visit daughter Hannah, husband Michael, and grandson Callum, scheduled for May when Callum would be around nine months, and almost at the crawling stage.

I suggested that we should take the opportunity of being in the US to fulfil one of our long-held ambitions, namely to visit the Grand Canyon. Well, as chance would have it, I’d been reading a biography of 19th century frontiersman and Indian agent and fighter, Kit Carson. And I discovered that much of his life had been spent in northern Arizona and north-west New Mexico. This got me thinking. Why not combine a visit to the Grand Canyon to a number of the sites mentioned in the book I’d been reading? And so we planned an itinerary that would take in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay), the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert in Arizona, and the mountains of north-west New Mexico, including the Rio Grande gorge, and the mountains near Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was assembled. During our trip we visited Carson’s grave in Taos, NM.

 Click on the images below to view various web albums.

After spending a few days chez Foldes in St Paul, we flew to Phoenix, AZ and drove up to Flagstaff via the Sedona Valley. This was our first introduction to canyon country, red buttes and all. After an overnight stop in Flagstaff (where it began to snow!), we headed north via the Sunset Crater National Park and Wupatki National Monument (a series of Pueblo Indian settlements in the desert) to reach the Grand Canyon.

Words cannot describe the awesome spectacle as you gaze over the canyon for the first time at Desert View (just after entering the Grand Canyon National Park).

We spent a couple of nights at Grand Canyon Village, in very comfortable motel-style accommodation. Since it was the beginning of May (and even though the various hotels/motels were full), the area was not heaving with tourists. On the second full day there, we took the bus on the crater rim route to the west, getting down after a couple of stops, and walking a few kilometres along the rim – literally just a meter or so from a sheer drop to the canyon floor below. Not for the faint-hearted! Now I’m haven’t got the best of heads for heights, and at one viewpoint, with sheer drops on three sides, and just a narrow neck of path to walk along, my legs went to jelly. And since it was also rather windy, I began to doubt whether I could overcome my feeling of helplessness, and actually make it to the end, and look over and around. I sat down, and told myself not to be so silly, that having come all this distance, it would be silly to let a little vertigo get in the way of enjoying some spectacular vistas. It took about 10 minutes, but eventually I made my way gingerly to the guard rail, and after that, I had little difficulty in standing on the edge. For much of the crater rim walk, there were no safety rails, and so I just concentrated on looking ahead at the path, and not over the lip.

Too soon our Grand Canyon visit was over, and we headed east and north to Monument Valley, which straddles the Arizona-Utah state line, and which was used by film director John Ford on several occasions as the location for films such as Stagecoach, The Searchers, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, all starring John Wayne. Monument Valley is iconic mesa and butte country, owned by the Navajo Nation. We were able to drive through the valley, and saw very few other cars. We had been advised to get to the valley as early as possible because of potential tourist congestion, but that just wasn’t a problem for us. Maybe a few weeks later, once the grade schools were on vacation, the situation would have been very different. But in mid-May and throughout our whole trip, we saw very few tourists.

Our next stop was the Canyon de Chelly National Monument that bisects a range of mountains in the north-east of Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly is a magical and mystical place, and although the canyon itself is not as deep or wide, Steph and I actually preferred this to the Grand Canyon. It was much more intimate, so-to-speak, and still occupied and farmed by the Navajo. At a number of places throughout the canyon there are ancient ruins of settlements. There were fantastic viewpoints at several sites on the north and south sides of the canyon, and spectacular views of Spider Rock. Canyon de Chelly was the site of several massacres of the Navajo in past centuries – by the Spanish, and later in the 19th century, by the US government. The sides of the canyon are sheer, often dropping 1,000 feet straight down to the canyon floor. Had I not read the Carson biography I would never have dreamt of visiting Canyon de Chelly, which was certainly for me the highlight of the vacation.

We drove south to the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest National Park. The Painted Desert has to be seen to be believed – I’ve never seen horizontal sedimentary layers like these, all banded in different colours.

We then headed north-east, and into New Mexico. Time was pushing on, and although we passed close by, were were unable to visit Shiprock or the Four Corners (where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet).

Heading over the mountains in north-west New Mexico, we dropped down to the Rio Grande and Taos, and then headed south towards Albuquerque, and up into the Valles Caldera. Quite often we saw road signs indicating possible congestion on the road ahead, but in all our 1,200 miles over eight days we never encountered any hold-ups. In fact sometimes we drove for an hour or more without seeing another vehicle.

All too soon our holiday in the southwest was over and we flew back to St Paul to enjoy several more days with Callum.

Here is our route in two maps:

  • Phoenix – Flagstaff – Grand Canyon – Monument Valley – Canyon de Chelly (route)
  • Chinle – Petrified Forest – Farmington – Taos – Los Alamos – Albuquerque (route)

A knotty dilemma . . . what to wear to an investiture at Buckingham Palace

As I browsed the BBC news website this morning, I came across a magazine article about dress code (click here to access it). Specifically it was an article by British historian David Cannadine, who is Professor of History at Princeton University, on “the language of ties”.

Well, the dress code thing, and especially what tie to wear, has been very much to the fore over the past few weeks since I received details about the investiture at Buckingham Palace to receive my OBE. The guidelines indicated that gentlemen should wear “morning suit, lounge suit, or national dress”. No medals! That took place on 29 February, and I wrote about the whole OBE experience – receiving the nomination, the period of secrecy, the investiture itself – in another post.

Morning suit or lounge suit? Over the course of my professional career I’ve never had to wear a suit, and frankly, never really feel very comfortable in one. And I’ve only ever worn a formal morning suit twice – at the weddings of my eldest brother Martin, and my cousin Diana. In the end, I chose what I knew I would be most comfortable wearing, and opted instead for my charcoal grey, lightweight suit that I had purchased only a couple of years ago or so, and had worn only a few times (there’s not much demand for suits in the Tropics). My friend and former colleague, John Sheehy – who received his OBE at an investiture on 14 February – decided on a morning suit, and very elegant he looked too.

So that was the suit sorted. But what tie to wear? I have to admit, I LOVE TIES, and my collection (somewhat eclectic) would be bigger if I could justify the expense. You see, I don’t wear a tie very often either. But while the suit thing is not my style, I sometimes wish there were more opportunities to wear a tie.

In November 2010, on my way to attend a major international rice congress in Hanoi, Vietnam, I’d purchased a couple of silk ties at Birmingham airport. Both were plain colours – no stripes, patterns or what have you. Just plain coral pink and apple green (if plain is the appropriate description).

Now I really like the pink tie, and it goes well with my suit (pink apparently conveys good health and a positive attitude, and also has calming effects). The question was would it be appropriate for an investiture at the Palace. And I agonized over that decision longer than I really want to admit. I even looked for advice on the web, and was amazed to find that there are many sites offering advice on all things ties: colours, occasions, and even what type of knot to tie.

In the end, I went with my instincts, and settled on the pink tie. And even if I say so myself, very smart it looked, and certainly (k)not out of place.

The lounge suit was a sensible choice, and I guess only about half of the men wore a morning suit even if they were being knighted. Only one woman as far as I can remember wore a trouser suit. Most women receiving an honour wore a hat – this must be the most difficult choice they have to make, and from what I observed in some instances, the choice was not very wise. None of my three guests – my wife, my younger daughter, and a former colleague from the Philippines – wore a hat. And it didn’t matter.

They’re changing the guard at Buckingham Palace . . .

A letter in the mail – The Queen’s New Year’s Honours
On a bright, sunny day last November (my birthday, actually) I was outside cleaning the car, when the postman passed by. He handed me several envelopes and my immediate reaction was that this was another load of the usual junk mail. So you can imagine my surprise when I came across one that seemed rather official looking. And I was even more surprised when I read what it had to say – that I had been nominated to become an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or OBE, for services to international food science. Well, I was gob-smacked, quite emotional really. I rushed inside to tell Steph – who was equally stunned, and we set to ponder how on earth this had come about. I did some Google detective work, and was able to find out a little more about the nomination process, and how successful nominees are chosen. But beyond that, I had no idea. Subsequently (in early January 2012), there was a press release from the British Embassy in the Philippines. There is some more information about the British honours system on the BBC website.

And then began six weeks of purgatory – nominees are sworn to secrecy until the honours list is published officially in The London Gazette, scheduled for 31 December! Anyway, on the 31st I came down for breakfast, and went to the website to see my name in print. And I couldn’t find it! I began to wonder if I had ticked the right box when I sent the form back. But then I found it (page N24) – under the Diplomatic Service and Overseas list. And looking down the list, it was then that I discovered that my good friend and former colleague at IRRI, John Sheehy, had also been made an OBE. A great day for IRRI!

Going to the Palace – next steps
Not long after the New Year, I received a package of information from the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, with the date of the investiture: 29 February. I applied for tickets – for Steph, daughter Philippa, and my closest colleague in the DPPC at IRRI, Corinta Guerta.

Not long afterwards, the tickets arrived in the mail.

Corinta arrived to the UK on 26 February, and after her meeting at DfID in London on the Monday morning, came up to Bromsgrove to spend a couple of nights with us, and to join us for the investiture. We agreed to meet Philippa in London.

One other issue for me was what to wear: morning dress (top hat and tails) or lounge suit (and even which tie to choose).* I finally settled on my lounge suit and pink tie.

Investiture day
It was an early start on the 29th: up at 5 am, and off to Solihull to catch the 7:41 am Chiltern Railways service from Solihull (about 25 minutes from Bromsgrove by car) to London Marylebone. The train eventually was very crowded, with some passengers standing all the way from Banbury to London; but we had good seats. We met up with Philippa at Marylebone, had a quick cup of coffee, and then took a taxi to the Palace.

Security was extremely tight, and we had to show photo IDs and our tickets for access. It’s quite some feeling walking through the gates of the Palace (made in Bromsgrove), past the guards, and through into the inner quadrangle. At the main entrance, under a glass canopy, our tickets were again checked, and we headed inside. What a spectacle: guardsmen in their metal breastplates and equerries in morning suits; everyone was very polite and friendly. After a quick comfort stop, Steph, Philippa, and Corinta headed for the Ballroom, and I headed off in another direction to meet the other honours recipients. The recipients of knighthoods and CBEs were together in one room, the OBEs and MBEs in another. Mineral water and juices were provided – in bottles with The Queen’s crest, and little goblets with EIIR engraved (not to be left on a mantelpiece next to a priceless ceramic vase). We waited in a long gallery full of the most incredible pieces of art – goodness knows what their value was.

One of the Officers on Duty gave a briefing about the ceremony, that it would be held by HRH The Prince of Wales (not HM The Queen, much to my initial disappointment). It began precisely at 11 am, and the first batch of recipients was called away. I was in the second batch. Click on the image below to read the investiture program.

I guess I must have been called to receive my OBE at around 11:15; and afterwards the recipients returned to the back of the ballroom and took their seats to watch the rest of the proceedings. Immediately after the presentation, the insignia was removed and placed in a special case.

I was intrigued to see that the insignia was made by a company based in Bromsgrove, the Worcestershire Medal Service Ltd.

The medals are actually manufactured at a site in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, but the head office is a small shop on one of my daily walk routes!

Anyway, to get back to the ceremony. Each batch of recipients crossed the ballroom at the rear, to enter a corridor on the other side. And it was from there that each recipient was called forward, to wait beside one of the Officers on Duty, and then move forward again as the surname was announced (and the reason for the honour). Turning towards HRH, men gave a small bow from the neck and women a curtsy. The insignia was pinned on, and a few words exchanged.

Receiving my medal from HRH The Prince of Wales (screenshot from The British Monarch website)

HRH asked if I was still working in the Philippines – he had been well briefed, and then we spoke briefly about different varieties of rice. Then, after some words of thanks from HRH and a warm handshake that was it – my moment of glory all over, and I exited through a door on the opposite side from where I had entered. The ballroom itself was quite dimly lit, from several huge chandeliers. On the video footage I have seen, and on the close circuit TV that was broadcast to waiting recipients, the ballroom look very bright indeed.

Considering the number of honours recipients and that HRH spoke to each person individually, the investiture was over just after 12 noon. Then we were able to meet up with our guests. Steph, Philippa, and Corinta had found seats at the back of the ballroom. We then made our way outside for picture taking.

Here are just a few, but click on the image immediately below and a web album of the best photographs will open.

Unfortunately we were not able to stay long in London, since Corinta was due to fly back to the Philippines from Birmingham Airport (BHX) at 8:30 pm. So, once we had taken all the photographs we wanted, I hailed a taxi (much easier outside the Palace than I had envisaged) and we set off for Marylebone and the train. We had a quick bite to eat at the station, and our train to Solihull departed at 2:37 pm, arriving in Solihull on time just after 4 pm. Corinta had plenty of time to get changed, complete some last minute packing, and even enjoy a cup of tea and some home-made Victoria sponge before heading off to BHX in an Emirates Airlines limo.

Originally we thought about driving to London for the investiture. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I would have been stupid to have attempted this trip by car, even though we could have parked right inside Buckingham Palace. On the afternoon of 29 February there were serious traffic incidents on one of the main motorways (M40) into London that we would have used, and there were holdups for several hours. So instead of an anticipated stressed journey by car, we let the train take the strain.

As Steph and I reflected on the day over dinner and a cup of tea that same evening, it was quite surreal to think we had been inside Buckingham Palace just a few hours before. But what a privilege it was, and what a fantastic honour to have received in recognition of the work I did in agricultural research, especially the conservation and use of crop genetic resources.

My former staff in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI sent me this photo – a very thoughtful touch.

Warrant of Appointment
On 22 May I received my Warrant of Appointment as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. This is printed on parchment, has an embossed Seal of the Order in the top left corner, and measures 11.5 x 16.5 inches approx.

* Over the past year since I first posted this story, lots of other recipients of awards have also worried about what to wear to an investiture, and their web searches have often led to my blog. I hope my advice has been useful. I know in at least one case that it has been, since there are a couple of comments to that effect.