Running a genebank for rice . . .

In March this year, I posted a story about the International Rice Genebank (IRG) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, the Philippines. Now, I thought it would be interesting to describe some of my early challenges when I joined IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) in July 1991.

Running a genebank is not one of your run-of-the-mill endeavors even though the individual technical aspects that make up genebank operations are relatively straightforward – for rice, at least. It’s their integration into a seamless, smooth and efficient whole, to ensure long-term genetic conservation, that is so demanding.

This is how the genebank is running, more or less, today:

Before I joined IRRI I’d never actually managed a genebank, although I had trained in genetic conservation, worked in South America on potato genetic resources, and spent a decade teaching various aspects of genetic resources conservation and use at the University of Birmingham.

My predecessor at IRRI was Dr Te-Tzu Chang, known to everyone as ‘TT’. He joined IRRI in 1962 and over the years had built the germplasm collection to about 75,000 or so accessions by the time I joined the institute, as well as leading IRRI’s upland rice breeding efforts.

Following in the footsteps of such a renowned scientist was, to say the least, quite a challenge. I was also very conscious of the great loyalty that the genebank staff had to TT. But I had to look at the genebank through a fresh pair of eyes, and make changes I thought necessary and appropriate to what it did and how it was managed.

I spent several months learning about rice (since I’d never worked on this important crop until then), about the workings of the genebank  (in July 1991 it was still called the International Rice Germplasm Center), and assessing the genebank staff for possible new roles. I asked a lot of questions, and slowly formulated a plan of the changes I thought were necessary to significantly up-the-game, so to speak, of genetic resources conservation at IRRI.

From the outset, the local staff were rather wary of this assertive Brit who IRRI Management had brought in to deliver change. After all, most of them had only ever worked for TT. Here I was, asking lots of questions and expecting straight answers. But until I arrived on the scene – with rather a different management approach and style – they’d been used to a regime under which they were merely expected to follow instructions, and were given little if any individual responsibility.

Elaborating the best personnel structure with sufficient staff was a critical issue from the outset, just as important as upgrading genebank operations and the physical infrastructure. I was determined to eliminate duplication of effort across staff working in different (sometimes overlapping) areas of the genebank, who seemed to be treading on each other’s toes, with little or no accountability for their actions. In 1991, it was clear to me that making progress in areas such as seed viability testing, germplasm regeneration, data management, and curation of the wild rices would be hard going if we had to depend on just the existing staff. Furthermore, many of the genebank facilities were showing their age.

So I was fortunate to persuade IRRI Management that the genebank should be one of its priorities in the institute-wide plan for an infrastructure upgrade. I developed several initiatives to enhance the conservation of rice, eliminate geographical gaps in the collection, as far as possible, through a major collecting program, as well as begin research about on farm conservation, seed conservation, and the taxonomy of the wild rices. In November 1993, the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) approved a five year project, which eventually ran until early 2000, and provided a grant of more than USD 3.2 million. Click on the CD image to read the Final Report published in July 2000, just a few weeks after the project ended. We also released this on an interactive CD, with the Final, Annual and Interim Reports, copies of published papers, etc., all collecting trip reports, and those about the various training courses, as well as some 1000 images showing all aspects of the project.

I should add that starting research on rice genetic resources had been one of the conditions I made when accepting the headship of GRC.

Quite quickly I’d also come to the conclusion that I needed a focal person in the genebank who would in effect become the genebank manager, as well as other staff having responsibility for the different genebank operations, such as seed viability testing, regeneration, characterization, the wild rices, and data management. I just felt that I needed to be able to go to a single person to get information and answers rather than several staff each with only part of what I needed.

By the end of 1991 I’d named Flora ‘Pola’ de Guzman as the genebank manager. She had a background in seed technology, so seemed the right person to take on this important role. Pola is now a Senior Manager, the highest level among the national staff, although in 1991 she was only a Research Assistant.

I placed all field operations under Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño, who also took direct responsibility for germplasm multiplication and regeneration, while Tom Clemeno managed the characterization efforts of GRC.

Socorro ‘Soccie’ Almazan became the curator of the wild rice collection and manager of the special quarantine screenhouses where all the wild rices had to be grown – at a site about 4.5 km away across the IRRI experiment station.

Adelaida ‘Adel’ Alcantara became the lead database specialist (supported by Myrna Oliva, Evangeline ‘Vangie’ Guevarra, and Nelia Resurreccion).

And two staff, Amita ‘Amy’ Juliano (who sadly succumbed to cancer in 2004) and Ma. Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo (now Dr Naredo since 16 October 2012) moved over to full-time research activities related to rice taxonomy.

One of my staff concerns was what to do with Genoveva ‘Eves’ Loresto. I needed to find her a role that took her away from any direct supervision over the others. She helped me with the overall infrastructure changes, liaising with contractors, but once we had the SDC funding secured, I was able to ask Eves to take on a major project management role, as well having her lead the germplasm conservation training courses we organized in many of the 23 countries that were project partners. Eves eventually retired from IRRI in 2000.

A ‘new’ genebank
In terms of infrastructure, we had opportunity to make many changes. We remodelled the data management suite, giving each staff member proper workstations, and constantly upgrading when possible the computers they used. I made it clear to everyone that the database staff would have first access to any computer upgrades, and their machines would filter down to other staff whose work depended less on using a computer. And of course in 1991 (and for some years afterwards) the PC revolution was only just beginning to have an effect on everyone’s day-to-day activities.

Seed drying was one of my concerns. Before my arrival seed drying was done on batch driers immediately after harvest, with no precise temperature control but certainly above 40°C; or in ovens well over the same temperature. We designed and had installed a seed drying room with a capacity for 15 tonnes of seeds, at 15°C and 15% RH, and seeds dried slowly over about two weeks to reach equilibrium moisture content suitable for long-term conservation.

Incidentally, in recent research [1] supervised by Dr Fiona Hay, GRC’s resident seed physiologist, initial drying for up to four days in a batch drier before slower drying at 15°C and 15% RH seems to have a beneficial effect on viability.

We doubled the size of the wild rices screenhouses, and converted the large short-term storage room in the genebank to a seed cleaning and sorting laboratory for about 20 technicians. Previously they’d been squeezed into a small room not much more that 4m square. Another general purpose room was converted to a dedicated seed testing laboratory, and a bank of the latest spec incubators installed. We converted a couple of other rooms to cytology and tissue culture (for low viability seeds or for embryo rescue) laboratories. Finally, in the mid 90s we opened a molecular marker laboratory, initially studying RAPD and RFLP/AFLP markers, but it’s now taken off in a big way, and a whole range of markers are used [2, 3], led by Dr Ken McNally (who was my last appointment to GRC before I moved from there to become one of IRRI’s directors in 2001).

We were also fortunate in the mid 90s to have a very successful collaboration with the University of Birmingham (and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK) to explore the use of molecular markers to study rice germplasm, funded in the UK by the Department for International Development (DfID). One of the most significant achievements was to demonstrate – in one of the first studies of its kind – the predictive value of molecular markers (RAPD) for quantitative traits, the basis of what is now known as association genetics [4]

Today, the genebank has an Active Collection (using hermetically-sealed high quality aluminium foil packs, based on advice from seed physiology colleagues Roger Smith and Simon Linington at Kew’s Wakehurst Place) at about 2-3°C, and a Base Collection (a much smaller room, with two sealed aluminium cans, about 150 g, per accession) maintained at -18°C. In recent years a third cold room has been added.

The herbarium of the wild species was also expanded significantly, and provides an invaluable resource for both the conservation and taxonomy research of the wild rices.

The challenge of data management
There are two cultivated species of rice: Oryza sativa (commonly referred to as Asian rice) and O. glaberrima, found mainly in West Africa. There are also more 20 species of wild Oryza, and several genera in the same broad taxonomic group as rice, some of which have been looked by breeders as sources of useful genes; because of their genetic distance from rice, however, their use in breeding is both complex and complicated.

I discovered – to my great surprise – that, in effect, there were three rice collections in the genebank, all managed differently. One of the fundamental issues I grappled with immediately was the need for a functional database system encompassing all the germplasm, not three separate systems that could hardly communicate with each other. These had been developed on an Oracle platform (and an old version that we didn’t have the resources to upgrade). But more fundamentally, database structures and data coding were neither compatible nor consistent across the cultivated and wild species. Many database field names were not the same, nor were the field lengths. Let me give just one fundamental example – the accession number. For O. sativa and the wild species this was a numeric field (but not the same length) while for O. glaberrima, it was alphanumeric! Even the crop descriptors (now updated) were not the same across the collection. For example, the code value for ‘white’ was not consistent. As you can imagine making all the database conversions to achieve consistency and harmony was not without its pitfalls – without losing any data – but we did it. We also went on to develop a comprehensive genebank data management system, the IRGCIS, linking germplasm and genebank management modules with passport, characterization, and evaluation data.

Seed conservation
The FAO Genebank Standards provide guidelines to manage many different operations of a genebank, including seed drying. The drying of rice seeds to a low moisture content and storage at low temperature (as indicated earlier) presents few problems, as such. What is more of a challenge is the multiplication and regeneration of rice germplasm in a single environment at Los Baños in the Philippines, especially for less adapted lines like the japonica rices that are more temperate adapted. We began a collaboration with Professor Richard Ellis at the University of Reading and a leading expert in the whole area of seed conservation. To assist with this research looking at the seed production environment and its effect on seed quality and viability in storage, I hired a germplasm expert from ICRISAT in Hyderabad, Dr N Kameswara Rao, who had completed his PhD with Richard and Professor Eric Roberts a few years earlier. We had already decided to multiply or regenerate germplasm only during the Los Baños dry season (from December to May) when the nights are cooler in the first part of this growing season, and the days are generally bright and sunny. We had anecdotal evidence that seed quality was higher from rice grown at this time of the year than in the so-called wet season, from about July onwards (and the main rice growing season in the Philippines) which is characterized by overcast and wet days, often with a much higher pest and disease pressure. In parallel approaches at Reading (in more or less controlled environments) and in Los Baños, we looked at the response of different rice lines to the growing conditions, and their viability after seed ageing treatments, and confirmed the regeneration approach we had taken on pragmatic grounds. Incidentally, we also moved all field characterization to the wet season, which gave us the advantage of having the field technicians concentrating on only one major operation in each growing season, rather than being split between two or more per season and at different sites on the experiment station.

Germplasm collecting
In 1992 the Convention on Biological Diversity was agreed at the Rio Earth Summit, and is now the legal basis for the biodiversity activities of 193 parties (192 countries plus the European Union) that have ratified the convention, or formally agreed to accept its provisions. For many years, uncertainty over access to and use of biodiversity placed a major block on germplasm collecting activities – but not for rice. Through the SDC-funded project referred to above, we successfully sponsored collecting missions in most of the 23 countries, mainly for traditional varieties in the Asian countries and Madagascar, and for wild rices in these, several eastern and southern African countries, and Costa Rica. We based one staff member, Dr Seepana Appa Rao in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Over more than four years, the various teams collected more than 25,000 samples of rice, and with other donations to the IRG, the collection now stands at more than 110,000 accessions.

Appa Rao and his Lao counterparts visited almost every part of that country, and collected more than 13,000 samples, and in the process learned a great deal about rice variety names and management approaches used by Lao farmers. Duplicates of this valuable germplasm were sent to IRRI, and Lao breeders immediately began to study these varieties with a view to using them to increase the productivity of rice varieties grown by Lao farmers. I believe this is one of the few good examples, within a national program, of an organic link between conservation and use. Regrettably in many national programs conservation and use efforts are often quite separated, so germplasm remains locked up in genebanks that some commentators refer to as ‘germplasm mausoleums’, fortunately not the case with IRRI nor the other CGIAR Consortium centers.

An active research program
In addition to the molecular marker research described earlier, our research focus was on the AA genome wild and cultivated rices, germination standards for wild rices, and on farm conservation.

In 1991, there was a British researcher in the IRGC, Dr Duncan Vaughan, who undertook collecting trips for wild rices, and made some preliminary taxonomic studies. When Duncan moved to the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan in 1993, I hired Dr Bao-Rong Lu, a Chinese national who had completed his PhD on wheat cytogenetics with Professor Roland von Bothmer at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Bao-Rong stayed at IRRI until 2000, when he moved to Shanghai to become Professor in Biology/Genetics, and Chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Fudan University. He developed an active group working on the wild rices, and also made several collecting trips to Indonesia, Cambodia, and Australia, among other countries, to collect wild rice species.

In 1995 the genetic resources literature was full of papers advocating the virtues and necessity of both in situ conservation of wild species, and the on farm conservation or management of farmers’ varieties as a parallel to conservation, ex situ, in a genebank. While I was neither for or against on farm conservation, I was very concerned that this approach was being ‘pushed’ – at the expense of ex situ conservation, or so it seemed – without really having any empirical evidence to support the various ideas being put around. So I decided to do something about this, and hired a population geneticist and a social anthropologist to study the dynamics of farmer-managed systems in the Philippines, Vietnam, and eastern India. Geneticist Dr Jean-Louis Pham joined IRRI on secondment from IRD (Institut de recherche pour le développement, formerly ORSTOM) in Montpellier, France until 2000 when he returned to IRD.

There were two social anthropologists. Dr Mauricio Bellon, from Mexico, joined in 1995 and stayed for a couple of years before moving to CIMMYT in Mexico; he’s currently with Bioversity International in Rome. He was replaced by Dr Steve Morin from Nebraska in the USA. When the SDC-funded rice biodiversity project ended in 2000, Steve stayed on for a couple of years in IRRI’s Social Sciences Department, but is now with USAID in the Middle East.

Two important findings from this on farm research concern development of different cropping systems options to permit farmers to continue to grow their own ‘traditional’ varieties while increasing productivity; and responses of farmers to loss of diversity after natural disasters (such as typhoons in the case of the Philippines), and how different approaches are applicable for long-term conservation and adaptation.

Click here to see a full list of publications.

The new century
After I left GRC in May 2001 to become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Communications, my successor as head of GRC, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, joined IRRI in August 2002. An evolutionary biologist, Ruaraidh is a graduate of Cambridge University, and came to IRRI from the Institute for Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER), now part of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University.

Fiona Hay joined IRRI in 2009 from the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew, and Ken McNally, who originally joined IRRI in the 1990s as a post-doctoral fellow working on perennial rice, has taken GRC’s molecular research from strength to strength for over a decade, and this has been accelerated by the completion of the rice genome and identification of whole suites of molecular markers.

I am gratified to know that many of the changes I made in GRC are still in place today, even though Ruaraidh has made further improvements, such as the bar coding of all germplasm accessions, and a re-jigging of some of the laboratories to accommodate greater priority on seed physiology and molecular research. Ruaraidh has further championed links with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and securing long-term financial support.

A major step forward came about three to four years ago when the Global Crop Diversity Trust began to support the International Rice Genebank. When the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard was opened in 2008, the first samples placed inside were from the International Rice Genebank.



[1] Crisostomo, S., Hay, F.R., Reaño, R. and Borromeo, T. (2011) Are the standard conditions for genebank drying optimal for rice seed quality? Seed Science and Technology 39, 666-672.

[2] McCouch, S.R., McNally, K.L., Wang, W. and Sackville Hamilton, R. (2012) Genomics of gene banks: a case study in rice. American Journal of Botany 99, 407-423.

[3] McNally, K.L., Bruskiewich, R., Mackill, D., Buell, C.R., Leach, J.E. and Leung, H. (2006) Sequencing multiple and diverse rice varieties. Connecting whole-genome variation with phenotypes. Plant Physiology 141, 26–31.

[4] Virk, P.S., Ford-Lloyd, B.V., Jackson, M.T., Pooni, H.S., Clemeno, T.P. and Newbury, H.J. (1996) Predicting quantitative variation within rice using molecular markers. Heredity 76, 296-304.

Management vocabulary . . . just five simple words needed

That’s it. Just five simple words. Not management-speak or jargon. I’m not talking about ‘rocket science’, ‘lateral thinking’, ‘going forward’, or even ‘thinking outside the box’.

Just five little words that make all the difference and can have an enormous impact on performance. And believe me, they really do work.

So what are these vocabulary gems? And do we hear them as often as we should?

I firmly believe that every person who is responsible for managing staff needs to practice using these all the time – and not just from simple courtesy.

They are: Please, Thank you and Well done. It doesn’t take much to make them part of your everyday interaction with colleagues, and their appropriate use – not simply routine – can bring about transformations in how other folks interact with you, and respond to the tasks they have been assigned.

For almost 19 years before I retired, I worked in an international organization that was multicultural and multi-national – and rather hierarchical.  I forget how many different nationalities were represented. And of course, not everybody views the world  in the same way. Background and upbringing play an important part as well. But when expectations of performance are filtered through this perspective of culture and background, the outcomes are not always satisfactory.

In a recent post I talked about performance management. In any organization where there is little room to financially reward good performance, employee recognition is so important. Everyone wants to know how they fit in, and to have their contributions acknowledged. Treating all employees – whatever their status – with respect and courtesy, and rewarding good performance when it occurs (not just once a year) can pay dividends, and bring about significant increases in productivity. I’m ashamed to say that I did not always see this respect towards their staff by some of my colleagues. There again, was that just a reflection of the society in which they had grown up, and maybe how they themselves had been treated as juniors? They simply didn’t see any other way to behave.

So remember, a little courtesy and encouragement go a long way.

Incidentally, here’s a nice blog about management speak.


Children of the Irish diaspora . . .

My English roots
After my father died in 1980, my eldest brother began to research our family history, particularly on my father’s side. We come from quite humble backgrounds, of working class and farming stock, in the English Midland counties of Derbyshire and Staffordshire.

Through his shrewd and determined genealogical detective work,  Martin has been able to trace the BULL line (my paternal grandmother’s family) directly back to the 1480s, some 18 generations if I have interpreted his data correctly. But for several of the branches of the ‘Jackson’ family tree (JACKSON specifically, TIPPER, and HOLLOWAY) he’s also been able to trace back our ancestry to the 17th and 18th centuries. Surprisingly, it’s only a few generations back to the 18th century, to my great-great-great grandfather John Jackson, born in 1793. And, as someone with a keen – if amateur – interest in history, I find it fascinating to try and understand events contemporaneous with my family’s ancestry.

The Irish connection
My mother’s family came from Ireland, but making genealogical progress for this side of the family seems much more problematical. Even before the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, the Irish had already begun to move away from the island of their birth in the hope of finding a better life elsewhere. Emigration accelerated dramatically as a consequence of the Famine, but the everyday politics and economics of life in Ireland had their effects as well. So finding where everyone might have ended up would take some serious genealogical research – if indeed it is possible.

My English teacher at high school, Frank Byrne, had family from Co. Roscommon, and on the syllabus the year I took my exams was the poetry of Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats. Mr Byrne brought this poetry alive, with tales of Irish kings, and patriots and literati, friends of Yeats, such as Maud Gonne, John Macbride, and Lady Gregory, among others.

I’ve often delved into Irish history, and most recently finished reading Story of Ireland – In Search of a New National Memory, by Neil Hegarty that accompanied a series on the BBC in 2011 (I’m not sure how I came to miss that at the time). It’s a well-written, easy read that takes you through the ages of Irish history: the ravages and early impact of the Viking raids and settlements; the shenanigans of the Plantagenets and Tudors; the brutality of the Oliver Cromwell years; the ‘Glorious Revolution’, King James II and the Battle of the Boyne; the advent of Presbyterianism and rise of sectarian politics and intolerance in the north; the aspirations of many generations for Home Rule; and the incompetence of successive British governments during the 19th and early 20th centuries in addressing and managing the Irish question, sometimes simply neglect, that ultimately led to the rise of nationalism and its consequences.

My Irish grandparents, Martin Healy and Ellen née Lenane, hailed from Co. Kilkenny and Co. Waterford, respectively. Like many young Irishmen, my grandfather – at the age of almost 16 it seems – joined the British Army (controversially, as seen through nationalist eyes), serving in the Royal Irish Regiment for 12 years, seeing service in India (in the North West Frontier) from 1894-99, and also in South Africa during the Boer War for almost three years from November 1899. He took part in the Defence of Ladysmith in Natal Province. What is particular ironic is that he probably faced fellow Irishmen, members of an Irish Brigade, fighting on the side of the Boers. Still legally ‘British citizens’ they risked being shot as traitors if captured. However, they were offered Boer nationality at the outset of the campaign.

After military service, my grandfather moved to London and joined the Metropolitan Police, marrying my grandmother in 1905. She was living in southwest London – in Wimbledon – at the time of their marriage, and had probably moved to England some time before looking for work. Her father was a farmer.

While serving with the police, my grandparents lived in London’s East End in Stepney, where my mother was born in 1908. Granddad took part (so my mother once told me) in the ‘Battle of Stepney’ gunfight in 1911 (also known as the Siege of Sidney Street). He left the police force in 1928, and retired to Epsom in Surrey; he died in 1954. My grandmother died two years earlier.

Making sense of the Healy-Lenane family tree (including the PHELAN and FITZGERALD lines) will be a challenge, although my brother has made some progress. My grandfather, born in 1876, was the fourth child of seven, and my grandmother (born in 1878), eighth of nine (I’m not sure how many survived childhood). And no doubt their parents had many siblings who joined the diaspora in waves to find new lives in the USA, Canada and the Antipodes, as well as mainland Britain.

But through the horrors of the Famine, the various disturbances related to the Home Rule campaigns culminating in the Easter Rising of 1916 and its aftermath, and the founding of the Irish Free State, I do wonder how my Healy-Lenane family fared, which side they supported during the year-long civil war of the early 1920s, whether they joined the IRA, and if they suffered violence at the hands of the Black and Tans? And how did my grandparents, living in England, view the events taking place in their native Ireland at this time?

I was born a little over 100 years after the Irish Potato Famine had ravaged the Irish countryside, bringing untold miseries to hundreds of thousands of the rural poor. Redcliffe Salaman recounted harrowing tales of the Famine in his seminal The History and Social Influence of the Potato (originally published in 1949). For 20 years from 1971 my own research focused on the potato. I had opportunity to see for myself the immense damage caused by potato blight (Phytophthora infestans), researching new sources of genetic resistance to this devastating fungal disease. Perhaps my Irish ancestry predisposed me to work on potatoes.

When we moved to Leek in 1956 we became very close with one Irish family in particular who came from Youghal, near where my grandmother was born. But there were several other families of Irish origin who sent children to the same Catholic primary school; and at high school (run by Irish Christian Brothers) in Stoke-on-Trent, I encountered even more.

In recent months I’ve tried to understand more about the recent history of the island of Ireland, and what were the circumstances and origins of the Troubles that blighted our country for more than three decades from the late 1960s. Irish history is complex and convoluted. Memories are long, and wounds take a long time to heal. Uncovering how my family played a part in this story is the beginning of a long voyage of discovery.

Why do joggers look so miserable?

Yes they do. On my daily walk I often see people out jogging, and they never look like they are enjoying themselves. Many use an iPod to take away some of the pain, I guess. I once used my iPod on one of my walks, but then I realized how much I was missing: the silence of the countryside (at certain times of the year), dogs barking, farmers ploughing or harvesting, a buzzard mewling high above or a robin singing its heart out in the hedgerow, an approaching train picking up speed to tackle the Lickey Incline, or a distant siren – police, ambulance, or fire, someone in trouble.

Some days, when the weather is a little grey, I don’t have much enthusiasm for going out. But there again, since I’ve been taking my daily constitutional over the past 2½ years, I can say – without reservation – that it’s been a mostly pleasant activity, and about the only exercise I take these days.

During my time at IRRI, I wasn’t particularly active for many years. However, I did develop quite a strong right arm – my drinking arm (I do like wine and whisky). I’m glad to say that’s all behind me; my alcohol consumption has dropped – dramatically (>95%) since I retired.

For 17 years from 1993 I did scuba dive as often as I could. But from about 2005, I did start to play badminton on a regular basis, and even took up swimming again. I really can’t explain why I had not taken advantage of the great facilities at IRRI Staff Housing, or down at the research center. Laziness I guess, and lack of inclination.

At Staff Housing, we had three tennis courts, and for a number of years in the early 90s I did play as part of a 4-some whenever possible, at 6 am before office hours. But one thing led to another, I had to travel, and gradually lost my place in the regular group of players.

We had a beautiful swimming pool, but I never really appreciated it until about 2007, when I started to go each weekend, swimming for about 30 minutes at each session. Having bought some goggles, I taught myself to swim better than I’d ever done before, and really began to enjoy it. Even on home-leave I used to use the public pool in Bromsgrove almost every day, as it was free for the over-60s. Unfortunately, just after we returned to the UK in 2010, the Bromsgrove Council decided to reintroduce a fee for us oldies, and I decided that spending upwards of £20-30 a week was just not sustainable with no regular income.

I started playing doubles badminton with staff in my Office for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC). Two of the staff, Vel and Sol (who left us in 2008) had been partnering each other in an internal competition. My 2-I-C Corinta and I decided to challenge Vel and Sol, although I’d not played since my student days at Birmingham in the 70s, and Corinta had hardly ever played at all. They wiped the floor with us! But as the weeks progressed, our skills improved to the point when everyone could enjoy a good workout, and games were no longer one-sided. When Yeyet joined DPPC after Sol’s departure, we persuaded her to join us on the court.

Around 2003 I bought an exercise bike from a colleague who was leaving IRRI. This photo must be one of the few occasions when I used it. Steph, on the other hand, spent at least 30 minutes a day on the bike.

So now my exercise is walking. In the early 1980s I’d had to visit the doctor because I had severe pains in my hips and knees, and she diagnosed arthritis. And her advice was never to jog – how fortunate, because although I had jogged a little before, I HATED it.

Last Christmas one of my presents was a gizmo called the Fitbit – an electronic pedometer. Unless I forget (which does happen, annoyingly) I take this with me on my walk, and so have quite a good record of the distance traveled since early January when I first calibrated it. I’ve now covered more than 530 recorded miles (probably well over 650 if I estimate the miles walked without my Fitbit); the dip for June shown in the graph below represents the time I spent in the USA that month. We were also away for eight days in September, and some days earlier in the year in May, and I didn’t have my Fitbit with me.

I certainly don’t feel miserable when out walking, and hope I don’t look so. I have my trusty trekking pole with me – good for hills, but also for threatening any dog that threatens me. But despite this regular exercise, my BMI stays stubbornly high. Maybe I’ll have to up the daily average.

No action, no risk . . .

A walk in the park
A few days ago I was out and about on my (almost) daily walk, and later I posted a comment on Facebook about the autumn colors that a number of trees are now showing – especially the sycamores, but also some horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum). Now whether the changing color of the latter is due to the onset of autumn or the spread of a leaf-mining moth, I’m not sure. Anyway, seeing these horse chestnuts reminded me of a news item I’d come across a couple of weeks earlier that conker championships were under threat due to the lack of suitable nuts. (Conkers – a traditional game in the UK – is explained here).

But what did I see as I wandered down a hill close to where I live and where my two daughters went to Middle School? There, right in front of the school, was a large, healthy-looking horse chestnut, abundantly laden with fruits, just waiting to be harvested by enterprising young boys. That’s if the health and safety brigade let them. In recent years ‘the authorities’ have banned children from playing conkers – or at least made them wear safety goggles – in case they are hurt by a fragment of flying nut.

Are we risk averse?
This made me think about how risk averse society has become. When I think back to my youth – indeed when I was very young, 5 or 6 years old – what freedom we had to go out and play, and get into all manner of scrapes. Society has changed, and parents are – with some justification – concerned for the safety of their young ones. It’s almost unknown for parents to allow their small children to walk to school by themselves. In the early 1950s, from the age of 5 (when I lived in Congleton), I used to travel daily with my older brother Ed to our school in Mossley, just under 2 miles from home. In the summer, we’d often walk home another route by ourselves. Nevertheless, I accept that times have changed – significantly. There’s so much more traffic about and, unfortunately (in the UK at least), there has been a spate of incidents involving unsavory individuals preying on young children. No wonder parents are worried, afraid even. But do we mollycoddle our children? And is society or officialdom guilty of constraining the need for individuals to take responsibility for risks? Assuming, of course, that we understand what the risks might be in the first place. Actually, I think official concerns about risk often have more to do with a fear of litigation than concerns for the health and safety of the individual.

Some IRRI experiences
Well, a few years ago, as Director for Program Planning and Communications at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines I had to plan and develop a risk management strategy for the institute. Why? Well the donors to IRRI, members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (now the CGIAR Consortium), insisted that each of the 15 centers develop a risk management strategy and report back to donors about potential risks – financial and operational – and the measures they intended to put in place to mitigate such risks. I have to say that the whole concept of risk and its management was a bit of a mystery to me. In reality I’d never consciously given it much thought. But as I became engrossed in all things risky, I realized that we all – quite intuitively – assess risk all the time. When I started the whole exercise my mind was focused on financial risks that the institute might encounter. But as we delved deeper, I soon became aware that every aspect of what IRRI did – as with any organization – was subject to risk in some way or another. And the only way to eliminate a risk was never start something or terminate activities currently being undertaken. However, that approach, for a research institute like IRRI, is just not acceptable for much of what it does. So we decided to complete a thorough, bottom-up analysis of every aspect of the institute’s work involving as many of the staff as possible analyzing and understanding all risks in the workplace. In some other centers, a group of ‘wise men’ sat down and discussed what they thought were the main risks they were facing. We decided this top down approach was not appropriate for IRRI. In any case we wanted everyone to participate and understand that risk management starts with the individual.

This was not a task I could undertake by myself. I was fortunate that the CGIAR Internal Audit Unit (IAU) was hosted by IRRI, and based in an office just down the corridor from mine. At that time, the IAU was headed by Australian John Fitzsimon (who became a good friend of mine – and who taught me a good deal about the need for and workings of internal audit). John has subsequently left the CGIAR and is now based in the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome as its Inspector general and head of internal audit. Over many discussions John and I developed a framework to analyze and document risks at IRRI based on two simple criteria: impact of a risk actually occurring, and the probability that it might occur, based on a simple score of High, Medium, and Low.

Our next decisions were concerned about how to manage the whole risk assessment exercise and what database system to adopt to document risks and their mitigation. I was fortunate to hire two exceptional individuals.

To handle the risk assessment on a day-to-day basis, we appointed Ms Alma Redillas-Dolot, a Certified Public Accountant, a Certified Internal Auditor, and a Certified Information Systems Auditor. Alma worked tirelessly with the various IRRI organizational units to complete risk assessments and develop mitigation plans. By the time Alma moved to the CGIAR Internal Audit Unit (she subsequently moved to Nairobi as head of internal audit for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) we had built up a rich dossier of risks across the institute, and sorted them into risks common to several units, so that we could develop unified mitigation plans. I believe this detailed approach served the institute well, and was received well by its donors. It also permitted the Board of Trustees to focus on the ‘high’ risks. By its very nature some work will always be risky – you just have to have the right mitigation plan, just in case. Alma is currently studying in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for her master’s degree.

After I set up my Office for Program Planning and Communications in May 2001, I hired a talented information systems and database developer, Eric Clutario, in December 2001. Not only did Eric develop – based on my perceived needs and ideas – a sophisticated project management system (still among the best in the CGIAR, despite the development of a new approach across centers) but working with Alma and me, Eric very quickly developed an online system to log risks and mitigation approaches that could be accessed by everyone at IRRI, which allowed the different organizational units to work independently yet permit the central risk management group (Alma, Eric, and me) to monitor and edit, and produce the necessary reports for the Board and donors.

Response to avian flu threat
I can’t remember exactly when we became concerned about a possible avian flu pandemic – it was the mid-2000s. Well, we analysed the threat for IRRI, and what we could do in case it happened and staff became ill. We did two important things. Based on advice I’d found on the World Health Organization (WHO) web site, I persuaded management to make available a winter flu vaccination to all staff and their immediate families. This was a voluntary program, and not everyone participated. But we did vaccinate around 3,000 individuals (if my memory serves me correctly), funded entirely by the institute. While the winter flu vaccine was not effective against avian flu, it was hoped that protection against ‘normal’ flu would boost the overall health of staff; and if any vaccinated staff member went down with flu, it would probably be of the avian type, and a response made. I’m happy to say that we never did have to contend with avian flu as such, but the institute has continued to provide an annual flu vaccination program ever since, but at cost – purchasing vaccines in bulk has reduced the cost enormously for individuals.

The second measure was a public health awareness campaign. In consultation with a local doctor, Dra Zenaida Torres from the Los Baños Doctors Hospital (LBDH – I was subsequently invited to open a new wing of the hospital in 2006!), we emphasized the importance of hand washing, and doing it correctly! Incidentally, in an interview during the Olympic Games recently, Director for Performance of the GB cycling team, Dave Brailsford (who was also involved with the Tour de France winning Sky team) had spoken about incremental advances to performance, and cited maintenance of good health was important, and that correct hand washing was one of the critical components (were they so diligent in some hospitals). Anyway, we produced a video with the help of nurses from the LBDH, which ends with a most amusing Filipino take on things. Enjoy. The video was also screened frequently for several months on the local community TV station in Los Baños.

Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change

In 1989, my former colleagues at the University of Birmingham, Brian Ford-Lloyd and Martin Parry, and I organized a two-day symposium on genetic resources and climate change. The papers presented were published in Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources by Belhaven Press (ISBN 1 85293 102 7), edited by me and the other two.

In 1989 the whole idea of climate change was greeted with a considerable dose of scepticism – indeed, the book was ahead of its time. The various chapters covered predictions of climate change, impacts on agriculture, ecological and physiological effects, and how climate change would impact on genetic resources and conservation strategies.

In a particularly prescient chapter, the late Professor Harold Woolhouse discussed how photosynthetic biochemistry is relevant to adaptation to climate change. Two decades later the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in the Philippines is leading a worldwide effort to turbocharge the photosynthesis of rice, by converting the plant from so-called C3 to C4 photosynthesis.

Today, our understanding and acceptance of climate change rests on much more solid foundations, and the scientific community is looking at ways to adapt to this particular challenge. And access to and use of plant genetic resources will be an important approach in this endeavour.

A new book on plant genetic resources and climate change will be published in 2013 by CABI. Brian, Martin and I are joining forces once again to bring this exciting volume to publication. We are planning 19 chapters in three sections:

1. Food security (Bob Zeigler – IRRI)
2. Germplasm conservation (lead author: Brian Ford-Lloyd – University of Birmingham)
3. Predicting climate changes (Richard Betts – UK Met Office)
4. Effect on productivity (Martin Parry – Imperial College, London)
5. Future growing conditions (lead author: Pam Berry – University of Oxford)
6. Susceptibility of species (lead author: Castaneda Alvarez – Bioversity International)
7. International mechanisms for conservation and use of genetic resources (lead author: Gerald Moore – formerly FAO)

Technologies for conservation and enhancing use
8. In situ conservation of wild relatives (Nigel Maxted – University of Birmingham)
9. On farm conservation (lead author: Mauricio Bellon – Bioversity International)
10. Molecular technologies (Ken McNally – IRRI)
11. Databases and informatics (lead author: Helen Ougham – University of Aberystwyth)
12. Releasing novel variation (Sue Armstrong – University of Birmingham)
13. Provenance breeding (Wayne Powell – University of Aberystyth)

14. Temperature (lead author: PV Vara Prasad – Kansas State University)
15. Drought (Salvatore Ceccarelli – formerly ICARDA)
16. Salinity (lead author: Willie Erskine – University of Western Australia)
17. Submergence (lead author: Abdelbagi Ismail – IRRI)
18. Pests and diseases (lead author: Jeremy Pritchard – University of Birmingham)

A final chapter (19), by the editors, will provide a synthesis of the many issues raised in the individual chapters.

The Editors

Michael Jackson is the Managing Editor for this book. He retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2010. For 10 years he was Head of the Genetic Resources Center, managing the International Rice Genebank, one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks. For nine years he was Director for Program Planning and Communications. He was Adjunct Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños. During the 1980s he was Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham, focusing on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. From 1973-81 he worked at the International Potato Center, in Lima, Perú and in Costa Rica. He now works part-time as an independent agricultural research and planning consultant. He was appointed OBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours 2012, for services to international food science.

Brian Ford-Lloyd is Professor of Conservation Genetics at the University of Birmingham, Director of the University Graduate School, and Deputy Head of the School of Biosciences. As Director of the University Graduate School he aims to ensure that doctoral researchers throughout the University are provided with the opportunity, training and facilities to undertake internationally valued research that will lead into excellent careers in the UK and overseas. He draws from his experience of having successfully supervised over 40 doctoral researchers from the UK and many other parts of the world in his chosen research area which includes the study of the natural genetic variation in plant populations, and agricultural plant genetic resources and their conservation.

Martin Parry is Visiting Professor at The Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, and also Visiting Research Fellow at The Grantham Institute at the same university. Until September 2008 he was Co-Chair of Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability), of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) based at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, UK Meteorological Office. Previously he was Director of the Jackson Environment Institute (JEI), and Professor of Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia (1999-2002); Director of the JEI and Professor of Environmental Management at University College London (1994-99), foundation Director of the Environmental Change Institute and Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford (1991-94), and Professor of Geography at the University of Birmingham (1989-91). He was appointed OBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours 1998, for services to the environment and climate change.

Not just castles in the air . . .

A short break
My wife Steph and I have just returned from a short holiday in central Portugal, staying with my eldest brother Martin and his wife in their beautiful home in central Portugal. I had visited Portugal only once before – in July 2003 – and then just to Lisbon. So Steph and I were looking forward to exploring the Ribatejo, and specifically the geographical sub-region of the Medio Tejo. And it did not disappoint! Just click on the photos below to open a larger image or link to web albums of the places we visited.

Five rivers and five Templar castles define the Medio Tejo, and we saw some of them, across a landscape of rolling hills that are not very high at all. Everywhere is covered in pine trees and cork oaks – as well as commercial eucalyptus plantings – and, unfortunately, subject to periodic wildfires during the hot summer months.

In fact, there had been a spate of fires just a week or so before we travelled to Portugal, and we saw many areas close to Tomar that had been burnt through. The fires even crept up to the boundary wall and fence of my brother’s house, and singed a couple of trees in the garden. Fortunately there was no other damage – just a lot of soot and ash to cope with for several weeks. Others close by were not so lucky.

Tomar is about 140 km northeast of Lisbon, connected by an excellent network of motorways, mostly empty except closer to Lisbon.

Dominating the Tomar skyline is the Convento de Cristo and castle, built by the Templar knights in the 12th century. In fact, Tomar was founded by D. Gualdim Pais after evicting the Moors – a sequence of events that is encountered at most if not all of the Templar castles that are found in several towns in the Medio Tejo. Tomar was the headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar. The Templar castles are mostly in a very good state of repair. It seems that they were not ravaged by internal conflicts such as those that affected most of the castles in England and Wales, for example.

While a walk along the castles walls – with amazing views over the old town of Tomar – is possible, the keep and other castle buildings are closed to visitors. But adjacent to, and surrounded on three sides by the castle walls, is the Convento de Cristo (a monastery) itself, a magnificent series of buildings, arches and cloisters.

Among the most inspiring of the decorative stonework is the Claustro de Santa Bárbara window on the west wall of the monastery church. From the various roof terraces are impressive views into the different cloisters, and of course the ubiquitous arched passageways. Particularly impressive are a couple of seemingly ‘floating’ stone spiral staircases leading to one of the roof terraces.

Looking over towards the old town of Tomar, the monks’ gardens are adjacent to the monastery itself, and beyond the castle walls to the west is the Mata Nacional de Sete Montes, once upon a time the hunting grounds of the Templar knights, but now a 37 ha garden and forested area freely accessible to the public.

At the gates to the garden there is an impressive statue of Henry the Navigator (the Infante Henrique), once the governor of the Order of Christ (Portuguese successor to the Order of the Knights Templar in the 15th century), and considered to be the patron of the age of Portuguese exploration.

Water was supplied to the monastery and castle over the Aqueduto de Pegões, constructed in the early 16th century, and comprising – at its highest point – 180 double arches, and stretching more than 7 km into the countryside to the northwest of Tomar.

Below the castle, the old town of Tomar nestles lazily against the hill on which the castle and monastery were built. From the Rio Nabão (that separates the old town from the new) a network of cobbled streets meets in the main square, the Praça da Republica, with its town hall, Igreja de São João Baptista and, facing the main entrance of the church in the center of the square, a statue of Gualdim Pais.

An old bridge – named after King Manuel I – crosses the Nabão, linking the old and new towns. On a small island in the river is the Parque de Mouchão, with a large traditional water wheel at the entrance across a small bridge. The wheel has traditional pots on its rotating rim to capture the water.

New Tomar is much larger than the old town, and a weekly market is held along the banks of the river, where all manner of goods are sold: fruits, vegetables and flowers; meat; live animals, including rabbits, songbirds, ducks, chickens, geese, and even peacocks; tools and gardening implements; household pots and pans, and impressive copper stills; and a wide range of clothes and shoes.

Further afield
We had the opportunity of visiting two more Templar castles: at Ourém, some 27 km to the northwest of Tomar; and at Almourol on an island in the middle of the Rio Tejo, near Vila Nova de Barquinha, about 23 km due south of Tomar.

The castle at Ourém was constructed on the top of a hill, and is approached up a very steep road;  at the top there is a wonderful 360° panorama, for at least 50 km on the day of our visit.

A village of white rendered houses and narrow winding streets clings to the hillside below the castle, with a small main square and church. By coincidence it was the twelfth anniversary when a local baker had been severely burned in an accident, and not expected to survive. He apparently had a ‘vision’ of the 14th century general and Carmelite friar Nuno Álvares Pereira, and his subsequent ‘miraculous’ recovery was enough for Pope Benedict XVI to canonize the friar in April 2009. Just a few kilometers across the valley to the southwest lies the village of Fátima, site of the ‘apparition’ in 1917 to three local children by the Virgin Mary.

One of the interesting features of the twin towers of Ourém castle are the red tiles incorporated into the stonework.

Link to Ourem castle and village web album

On another day we visited the castle at Almourol. If you asked a young child to draw a castle, then this one would be just as you might imagine. Built on a small island in the middle of the Tejo, there are impressive castellated walls and tower, silhouetted against the skyline. Under normal circumstances, access to the island and castle is only possible by a small boat, but on the day we visited the river level was so low that it would have been possible to hop across the rocks on to the island. This is not, however, permitted! After all, the boatman has the concession and has to make a livelihood.

Apart from these excursions, we enjoyed wonderful hospitality. Even on the less sunny days we enjoyed a dip in their pool, and a glass or three of excellent (and exceptionally cheap – by UK standards at least) of vinho tinto or vinho verde.

All too soon our 10-day holiday was over, and we were on the easyJet flight back to London-Luton from Lisbon. Needless to say, the weather on arrival at Luton – wet, windy and cool – was a bit of a shock to the system, and a world away from that we had enjoyed in Tomar. So while most tourists tend to head to the Algarve and points south, the Ribatejo region is well worth a visit and, I guess, is less busy for much of the year, except every four years when Tomar celebrates its Festa dos Tabuleiros (the next one is in 2015).