The RHS Chelsea Flower Show . . . 100 not out!

The Chelsea Flower Show – one of the most prestigious – is 100 years old this year. Organised by the Royal Horticultural Society, it’s held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea along the Thames Embankment in London.

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CFC timelineBut although it’s 100 years since the very first show in 1913, this year’s show is not the 100th (click on the timeline at the right). That’s because no shows were held during the First and Second World Wars. Patronized throughout its history by the UK’s Royal Family, the 2013 show was no different, as HM The Queen attended earlier in the week when the show was not open to the general public, and Prince Harry was involved in the design of the B&Q Sentebale Forget-Me-Not Garden inspired by his Lesotho charity, also the memory of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

And yesterday, 23 May, Steph and I spent five hours at the CFS during which we walked more than 5 miles around the showground, viewing the various show and artesan gardens, and the magnificent displays of blooms in the Great Pavilion. Our daughters Hannah and Philippa had given tickets to the show as their 2012 Christmas present to us. Thank you!

CFC ticketWe left home just after 09:00, and arrived back home just after 21:00, rather tired (by the end of the day my ‘dogs were barking’*) but it was a very enjoyable day out in London. We took a train from Warwick Parkway, about 25 miles from where we live, to London Marylebone, arriving there just after 11:30. We were at the show just after noon having had a surprisingly smooth trip across London on the Underground (and the same was the case on the return journey, although I’d expected it to be much busier).

There’s so much to see at the CFS it’s hard to know where to begin. And of course there are thousands and thousands of visitors each day, and yesterday was no exception. The weather forecast was not promising from the outset. But apart from a couple of short, sharp showers – when we had to take shelter in the Pavilion – the weather was fine with sunny periods, but generally overcast. There was, however, a stiff  cold breeze which took the edge off things. It was hard to believe this was almost the last weekend in May – with the temperatures hovering around 10-12C most of the day.

It would be wonderful to visit the CFS when there are fewer visitors – there must have been well over 20,000 all the time we were there. Click on any other galleries below to open larger images, and press Esc to return to his post.

That meant it was often difficult to get close to some of the gardens, especially the artisan gardens that were spaced rather closely down a quite narrow path on one side of the show ground. But as we went round the whole show about three times, we did manage to see pretty much everything  and even when it was crowded (like trying to get into the Pavilion when the first shower passed by) by and large we saw – and photographed – what we wanted. Lots of people were taking photographs and all manner of cameras were being used. However, I guess the most common were smartphone cameras, and quite a number of iPads even. But people using their phones to send texts or even make calls were a real pain in the backside – suddenly stopping in among the throngs, or shuffling along causing the flow of visitors to be disrupted.

The Show Garden chosen as Best in Show – The Trailfinders Garden designed and built by Fleming’s nursery from Victoria in Australia – was so popular that there was a one-way flow for viewing, and impossible to get near. The two gardens which caught my eye in this category however were the East Village Garden, a delightful blend of traditional and contemporary design, and the M&G Centenary Windows through Time Garden which I found very inspiring.

To enhance any garden there was a huge selection of ornaments and statues to grace any space, from weird and wonderful animals made from wire or driftwood, fountains, and all manner of objects.

And of course, the fabulous displays of flowers in the Great Pavilion. Three stalls caught my fancy – and I made a beeline for them because I’d seen them featured on one of the BBC broadcasts from the CFS earlier in the week. I think the most stunning display was one of carnivorous plants – that although appearing incredibly exotic are apparently quite easy to grow. But I wonder how much effort it takes to grow them to this standard?

Then there were the narcissi – a small selection of the 400 varieties that Walkers Bulbs of Lincolnshire cultivate.

And finally, an exceptional display of auriculas – a hardy species of Primula that were very popular in Victorian and Edwardian times, but have since fallen out of fashion. With blooms and displays like these I’m sure they will find favor once again.

Now while these certainly attracted my attention, I could have included here special galleries of tulips, roses, irises, rhododendrons, alliums and amaryllis lilies, besides huge blousy lilies. Here’s just a taster.

What a day . . . certainly I think Steph has got some further inspiration from the various gardens. Most handed out a leaflet that also included lists of the plants used – very helpful.

After quite a long day it was good to sit down in London Marylebone station, and grab a bite to eat before catching out 19:15 train back north. A cup of tea on arrival back home quickly revived us both. I slept like a log. And today, the weather here at home is dreadful – incredibly windy, and I’ve heard reports that there is heavy rain in London. What luck we had!

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* a colloquial term for ‘sore feet’, origin uncertain

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 6. Trekking the red wine trail

Discovering German red wine
It was February 1997. Steph joined me on a work trip to Laos, and we were returning to the Philippines via Bangkok where we’d spent a couple of nights. We checked into our Lufthansa (LH) flight, and went off to the lounge. Since I had a stack of air miles, I’d treated Steph to an upgrade to Business Class.

When we checked in at the gate, our boarding passes were exchanged for a couple of seats in First Class, so we enjoyed the three hour flight back to Manila as almost the only passengers on the upper deck of a 747-400.

I used to fly with Lufthansa a lot in the 90s. In many ways it then had the best flight connections into Europe, and as I used to travel to Rome quite frequently, LH was my airline of choice. So I was quite used to the Lufthansa cabin service. But on this flight I was offered something I’d never tried before – a German red wine. The purser even gave me a couple of bottles as I left the flight in Manila. Of course I’d often sampled several of Germany’s white wines previously. But a red wine was quite a novelty.

The Rotweinwanderweg
Then, a few years later I discovered that there’s one wine region in Germany – the Ahr valley – that’s famous for its red wine. Lying to the west of the Rhine, and to the south of Bonn, the Ahr valley is one of Germany’s smallest wine producing regions. But what excellent wines it produces, principally from the Pinot Noir grape.


The town of Ahrweiler, near the mouth of the Ahr Valley, is shown in this gallery:


So how did I come to discover this oenological treasure? Well, it was through my good friend and plant pathologist, Dr Marlene Diekmann, who I first met in the early 90s on one of my trips to the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI – now Bioversity International) in Rome. Marlene left IPGRI and moved to Aleppo in Syria to join a sister CGIAR center, ICARDA where her husband Jürgen was also the farm manager. After Marlene left ICARDA and returned to Bonn, to join the German overseas development assistance program, our paths crossed again when I attended my first annual meeting of the CGIAR after I’d become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Communications in 2001.

Thereafter, whenever I had to travel to Europe to visit the donor agencies supporting IRRI, and if Germany was on my itinerary, I’d try and arrange a weekend in Bonn. And that’s when I was introduced to the wonders of the Ahr valley, its wines, and the Rotweinwanderweg – the Red Wine Hiking Trail. The photos in this gallery were taken along the trail above the small town of Dernau:


Above the town of Dernau, there are kilometers of trails through the vineyards. The vines are grown on extremely steep slopes, as you can see in the photos above. Heaven knows what effort it takes not only to harvest the grapes each year but also to till the soil. If I remember correctly, Marlene told me that the farmers contract helicopter pilots to spray the vines when necessary – it certainly wouldn’t be feasible to walk up and down the lines of vines trying to apply pesticides.

I’ve seen the vineyards along the Red Wine Trail in all seasons. And after a nice long walk, I’ve also enjoyed the liquid output from the vineyards, on several occasions.


This is truly a wonderful part of western Germany, and it’s well worth a visit if you happen to be in the vicinity. I look forward to returning one day, and also getting to know the Rhine vineyards in more detail.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 5. Under African skies.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity of visiting a number of African countries, my first being Ethiopia in early 1993. From then until my retirement in 2010, I made a number of forays into that continent linked to my work in international agricultural research, including South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Morocco.

Ethiopia
In 1993 I attended my first meeting of the CGIAR Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR), hosted by what was then the International Livestock Center for Africa (ILCA) in Addis Ababa (now ILRI-Ethiopia). After several days couped up in a tiny meeting room we did manage a field trip and I traveled down into the Rift Valley to visit ILCA’s research station at Debre Zeit. There was also lots of Eragrostis tef – teff -to see growing in the fields – a small-grained, indigenous cereal that is used to make injera, a fermented flat bread. There – but also on the ILCA campus in Addis – the bird life is truly magnificent. Beside a lake in Debre Zeit the fish eagles were as common as sparrows in the trees.

In early 2010 I was ‘asked’ to attend a CGIAR planning meeting in Addis for just one day. I flew all the way from the Philippines for one day! However, my departure flight on the second day didn’t leave until the evening, so I spent much of the day relaxing or walking around the campus bird-watching – buzzards two-a-penny, beautiful long-tailed flycatchers chasing one another through the scrub, and flocks of brilliantly colored bee-eaters on the open ground, just to mention a few. Having lived in the Philippines for almost 20 years seeing so many bird species was truly a delight, because where we lived in Los Baños was essentially an ‘avian desert’. But it has become much better – see the latest issue of Rice Today.

South Africa
Although I had passed through Jo’burg in South Africa on a couple of occasions, I did spend a week in Durban in May 2001 to attend a meeting of the CGIAR. All delegates had been warned to take care when walking around outside, but that didn’t prevent some Malaysians being mugged right outside the hotel entrance. And one of my colleagues found himself in the middle of a gun battle when he took a walk along the sea front. We did have a day trip to visit agricultural research in Pietermaritzburg so that gave an opportunity to see something of the country. The day of activities in Pietermaritzburg was opened by a member of the Zulu royal family, and I can still remember the shivers up my neck as a choir sang the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel.

And as with my Rift Valley trip in Ethiopia and in Kenya on another occasion, it reinforced this perspective that Africa is a continent of huge landscapes.

Mozambique
I first visited Mozambique in about 1995 when I was setting up a large rice biodiversity project funded by the Swiss government. I spent much of my time in Maputo, with just one short field trip. One thing that has stayed in my memory are the Danger – Landmines! warning signs, a consequence and reminder of the various conflicts that dogged Mozambique in previous decades.

Until recently, IRRI’s regional office for Eastern and Southern Africa was based in Maputo (now transferred to Burundi). Here’s IRRI’s former regional leader Joe Rickman talking about rice research and development in the region.

Mozambique was also the venue for the CGIAR to hold its annual meeting in 2008.

Zambia
Again this was another biodiversity-related trip, specifically to meet scientists at the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Lusaka, where a couple of my former MSc students from Birmingham were working. The genebank had been set up in a collaborative project with the Nordic Genebank in Sweden, and I took a number of ideas away from that visit about low-cost, appropriate technology genebank design that I introduced to several genebank programs in Asia.

On my last day, I had a late afternoon flight to Nairobi, Kenya, but no other commitments. I’d been struggling with a draft of a paper that IRRI had committed me to write for German-published GeoJournal (IRRI had been given the opportunity of a special issue). I decided to use my several ‘free’ hours in Lusaka to make some headway with my draft. After an early breakfast – and with just a couple of ‘comfort breaks’ over the next six or seven hours, I finally drafted almost 40 pages of single-spaced hand-written text. I’d brought along a sheaf of plain paper (I hate using ruled paper) and a bunch of sharp HB pencils. When I came to have the draft typed up ready for editing I surprised myself by actually making very few changes. This was the result.

Kenya
I’ve spent time in Nairobi on three occasions, although I passed through the airport on a couple of others. The first time I flew in for 48 hours en route to Nigeria. In 1998, the ICWG-GR met, hosted by the World Agroforestry Centre, and we held our meeting upcountry near Mt Kenya. Not that we got to see much of it as it was shrouded in cloud almost all of the time. Nor did we see any big game.

L to r: Bent Skovmand (CIMMYT, deceased), Lindsey Innes (consultant), Joel Cohen (ISNAR), Roger Pullin (ICLARM), Jane Toll (SGRP), ??, Wanda Collins (CIP), Paula Bramel (ICRISAT), Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), Maria Zimmerman (FAO-TAC), Mike Jackson (IRRI), Tim Boyle (CIFOR), Cary Fowler (FAO), Jean Hanson (ILRI), Daniel Debouck (CIAT), ??, Randy Barker (IWMI), Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI), Quat Ng (IITA), Masa Iwanaga (IPGRI), ??, ??, Tony Simons (World Agroforestry Centre-WAC), Ian Dawson (WAC)

But the meeting was successful and the Group awarded me about USD200,000 to organize a meeting the following year in The Hague on Genebanks and Comparative Genetics, a first for the CGIAR!

The CGIAR held its annual meeting in Nairobi in 2003 – I managed to lose my mobile phone. At all these meetings there are opportunities to visit agricultural research projects. The one I joined had to do with range land ecology, i.e. big game! That was a popular outing with many delegates, and eventually took us into the Nairobi National Park that really does come right up to the outskirts of the city. This was the only time that I have ever seen big game in the wild: rhinos, buffalo, giraffes, cheetahs, and wildebeest and zebra, of course. This park does not have elephants, unfortunately; you have to travel to some of the other reserves to see those.


Nigeria
Another CGIAR center, IITA, is based at Ibadan, and I guess I must have been there maybe half a dozen times. Ibadan is about 170 km north-north-east of Lagos, a three-hour drive. IITA has a marvelous 1,000 ha campus. It was once quite isolated from Ibadan (now one of the largest cities in sub-Saharan Africa) but over the years the city has sprawled right up to the IITA boundary fences. In addition to its experimental fields, there is some virgin rainforest, and even a lake stocked with Nile perch – angling is a favorite IITA sport. But there are miles of roads to wander, and I always found the IITA campus a place of great relaxation after work hours. It was just the threat of malaria that always used to worry me. The ICWG-GR met there in the 90s, and one day we took an excursion into the forest looking for wild yams.

With Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), Willy Roca (CIP), Murthi Anishetty (FAO) and Quat Ng (IITA).

An overnight stay in the IITA-Lagos guest-house is a must if a flight arrives in the evening. There is no shuttle service – for obvious security reasons – at night. And even during the day, a second vehicle, riding shotgun – literally, but also carrying luggage would accompany a passenger vehicle on the trip from Lagos to Ibadan.

Lagos airport was always a cause for concern, especially on departure, where both immigration and customs officials would be looking for a ‘gift’, and searching one’s hand-luggage for any suitable item. Always a source of tension, although by the time of my last visit, maybe around 2000, the situation had improved beyond any comparison with my first visit in 1994.

Being met at the airport in Lagos was always a relief, and IITA staff were immensely helpful. I remember one occasion when I was flying in from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. On arrival at Abidjan airport I was informed that my ‘confirmed’ flight would not be departing. In fact it had ‘never existed’, but I could fly on the next flight later that evening, with intermediate stops in Accra (Ghana), Lomé (Togo), and Cotonou (Benin). I hadn’t been able to contact IITA to let them know of the changes in my travel plans, and was praying that someone would be at the airport. My sense of anxiety was not helped when, on arrival in Lagos, and just before the immigration desk, this man in plain clothes stepped out and demanded my passport. I’d always been advised not to hand over my passport unless the person could provide some means of identity. After showing some hesitation to comply with the ‘request’ I was threatened with dire consequences. Who this man was I never found out. On collecting my luggage and departing the customs area it was a huge relief to see someone wearing an IITA cap – my meeter and greeter.

Ivory Coast
The Africa Rice Center (formerly known as WARDA – the West Africa Rice Development Association) had its headquarters in Bouaké until it was forced to abandon the site and leave the country when the civil war commenced in 2002. It relocated to the IITA sub-station in Benin, just over the international border from Lagos in Nigeria. While it has hopes to return to Bouaké some day, personally I think that day is a long way off.

On two occasions I flew from Abidjan on the coast to Bouaké, but have traveled south by road via the capital Yamoussoukro, where a former president built one of the largest Catholic basilicas in the world, and one to rival St Peter’s in Rome.

Under the then Director General, Eugene Terry and Deputy Peter Matlon, I found WARDA to be a small but dynamic institute, well-focused on its regional mandate, but in awe of its bigger rice sister, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. I believe that some of the work I undertook on a joint mission commissioned by Terry and IRRI Director General Klaus Lampe, helped to improve relations between them. They certainly couldn’t have dipped much lower at that time in the mid-90s.

Madagascar
I visited Madagascar just the once, in the late 90s, although I had tried to get there a couple of years earlier, but had to cancel, even as I was in Jo’burg waiting for a flight because the schedules was totally disrupted and I had no idea when I’d be able to travel.

Again it was related to my rice biodiversity project. We supported a major program to collect both wild and cultivated rices, one of the major staples of Madagascar. Having seen something of the incredible wealth of indigenous animal species through some of David Attenborough’s TV specials, it would have been great to go beyond rice and see what else this fascinating island has to offer. Regrettably there was no chance, but a couple of short trips, on incredible bad roads, from the capital Antananarivo to a rice research station in the boondoks allowed me to see something of the countryside.

Morocco
And that’s more than I can say bout my one and only visit to Morocco in 2005 when the CGIAR held its annual meeting in Marrakesh. I went down with a nasty cold not long after I arrived, and because of some pressing commitments, I had to spend much of my time locked away in my room finalizing a research project proposal to an important donor worth several million dollars. You can imagine where my DG saw my priorities! So most of the time, I only saw the hotel.

But I did manage to visit the market on one afternoon, and pick up some silver beads for Steph that she has subsequently used in her beading projects.

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600 years in the same family

Coughton Court. An elegant Tudor house in the Warwickshire countryside near Alcester (and only 12 miles from home).


A National Trust property since 1946, it’s been owned by or lived in by the same Throckmorton family for six centuries.

The family has been involved in some of the major events of English history – as a major Catholic family during the Reformation under Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I. They were dragged into the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, even if only tangentially.

One wing of the house is still occupied by the family under the terms of a very long lease with the National Trust. The house contains some wonderful treasures, and the extensive gardens and bluebell wood are worth the walk.

Where good science matters . . . and it’s all relevant

A well-deserved reputation
It was early November. However, I can’t remember which year. It must be well over a decade ago. I was on my way to a scientific meeting in the USA – via Kuala Lumpur where I’d been invited to participate in a workshop about intellectual property rights.

My flight from Manila arrived quite late at night, and a vehicle and driver were sent to KL airport to pick me up. On the journey from the airport my driver became quite chatty. He asked where I was from, and when I told him I was working in the Philippines on rice, he replied ‘You must be working at IRRI, then‘ (IRRI being the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños in the Philippines). I must admit I was rather surprised. However, he had once been the chauffeur of Malaysia’s Minister of Agriculture. No wonder then that he knew about IRRI.

One of the national historical markers dedicated on 14 April 2010, the 50th anniversary of IRRI's founding

One of the national historical markers dedicated on 14 April 2010, the 50th anniversary of IRRI’s founding

IRRI’s reputation has spread far and wide since its foundation in 1960, and IRRI is now one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes. Its reputation is justified. At the forefront of technologies to grow more rice and more sustainably, IRRI can be credited with saving millions of people around the world from starvation, beginning in the 1960s with the launch of the Green Revolution in Asia (see a related story about Green Revolution pioneer, Norman Borlaug). Now its work touches the lives of half the world’s population who depend on rice every day. No wonder IRRI is such an important place. But over the decades it has had to earn its reputation.

On a recent visit

20130504057 IRRI

The main entrance in front of the admin buildings, between Chandler Hall (on the left) and the FF Hill Building (on the right, where I worked for almost a decade)

Between Chandler Hall and the FF Hill Building, with Mt Makiling in the distance

A view south over the long-term trail plots and others, looking towards Mt Banahaw

A view south over the long-term trial plots, looking towards Mt Banahaw, with the entrance gate to IRRI on the right, and the research labs off to the left

Some of the research labs, with the NC Brady building on the right, home to the International Rice Genebank

Some of the research labs, with the NC Brady building on the right, home to the International Rice Genebank

I was there recently, exactly three years after I had retired. And the place was buzzing, I’m pleased to say. There was such an optimistic outlook from everyone I spoke to. Not that it wasn’t like that before, but over the past decade things have moved along really rather nicely. That’s been due not only to developments in rice research at IRRI and elsewhere, but also because the institute has had the courage to invest in new approaches such as molecular genetics as just one example, and people. That was an aspect that I found particularly gratifying – lots of young scientists beginning their careers at IRRI and knowing that it will be a launching pad to opportunities elsewhere.

I was visiting in connection with the 4th International Rice Congress that will take place in Bangkok, Thailand during the last week of October 2014. I’ve been asked to chair the committee that will develop the scientific conference. We expect to have a program of more than 200 scientific papers covering all aspects of rice science and production, as well as a number of exciting plenary speakers.

IRRI’s strengths
You only have to look at IRRI’s scientific publication record – and where its scientists are publishing – to appreciate the quality of the work carried out in Los Baños and at other sites around the world (primarily but not exclusively in Asia) in collaboration with scientists working in national research programs. IRRI’s soon-to-retire senior editor  Bill Hardy told me during my recent visit that by the beginning of May this year he had already edited more journal manuscripts than he did in the first six months of 2012. And IRRI has a very good strike rate with its journal submissions.

IRRI’s research is highly relevant to the lives of rice farmers and those who depend on this crop, ranging from the most basic molecular biology on the one hand to studies of adoption of technologies conducted by the institute’s social scientists. It’s this rich range of disciplines and multidisciplinary efforts that give IRRI the edge over many research institutes, and keep it in the top league. IRRI scientists can – and do – contemplate undertaking laboratory and field experiments that are just not possible almost anywhere else. And it has the facilities (in which it has invested significantly) to think on the grand scale. For example, it took more than 30,000 crosses with a salt-tolerant wild rice to find just a single fertile progeny. And in research aimed at turbocharging the photosynthesis of rice, a population of 1 million mutant sorghum plants was studied in the field, with only eight plants selected after all that effort. Both of these are discussed in a little more detail below. In 2012, IRRI made its 100,000th cross – rice breeding remains a mainstay of the institute’s work, keeping the pipeline of new varieties primed for farmers.

Take a look at this 11½ minute video in the skies above IRRI’s 252 hectare experimental farm. In the first few minutes, the camera pans eastwards along Pili Drive over the institute’s main administrative buildings, before heading towards the research laboratory and glasshouse complex. In the middle sequence, with the Mt Banahaw volcano in the distance (due south from Los Baños) you can see the extensive experimental rice paddies with rice growing in standing water. In the final segment, the camera sweeps over the ‘upland’ farm, with dormant Mt Makiling in the distance, and showing the multiplication plots from the International Rice genebank, before heading (and closing) over the genebank screen houses where the collection of wild Oryza species is maintained. It’s certainly an impressive sight.


Taking a long-term view

You can’t get much longer-term than conservation of rice genetic resources in the institute’s genebank. This is the world’s largest collection of rice genetic resources, and I was privileged to head the genebank and genetic resources program for a decade from 1991. I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere in my blog.

Explaining how rice seeds are stored in the International Rice Genebank to Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug

Explaining how rice seeds are stored in the International Rice Genebank to Nobel Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug

In 1963 (just three years after IRRI was founded) long-term experimental plots were laid out to understand the sustainability of intensive rice cropping. In these next videos soil scientist Dr Roland Buresh explains the rationale behind these experiments. They are the tropical equivalent of the Broadbalk classic experiment (and others) at Rothamsted Experiment Station just north of London in the UK, established in the mid-19th century.

And in this next video you can watch a time-lapse sequence from field preparation to harvest of two crops in the long-term trials.

Making rice climate ready
Three areas of work are closely linked to the problem of climate change, and highlight how IRRI is at the forefront of agricultural research.

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene after a period of inundation

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene after a period of inundation

Scuba rice. Although rice grows in standing water, it will die if inundated for more than a few days. But several years ago, a gene was found in one rice variety that allowed plants to survive about two weeks under water. In a collaborative project with scientists from the University of California, the gene, named SUB1, has been bred into a number of varieties that are grown widely throughout Asia – so-called mega-varieties – and which are already bringing huge benefits to the farmers who have adopted them in India and Bangladesh. In this video, the effect of the SUB1 gene can easily be seen. Much of the work was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and has (as stated on the Foundation’s web site) ‘exceeded our expectations’.

Careful with the salt. Recently, IRRI announced that breeders had made crosses between a wild species of rice, Oryza coarctata (formerly known as Porteresia coarcata – which already indicates how remote it is from cultivated rice) to transfer salt tolerance into commercial varieties. Building on the wide hybridization work of Dr Darshan Brar (who retired in 2012), Dr KK Jena has achieved the impossible. After thousands of crosses, and culture of embryos on culture medium, he now has a plant that can be used as a ‘bridge species’ to transfer salt tolerance. As IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler explained to me, ‘Now we have fertile crosses with all the wild rices, we can tap into 10 million years of evolution‘. I couldn’t have expressed it better myself!

Boosting output. Lastly, since 2008 IRRI has led the C4 Consortium, a network of scientists around the world who are studying how photosynthesis in rice (which is quite inefficient in an environment where temperature and CO2 levels are increasing) could be modified to make it as efficient as maize or sorghum that already have a different process, known as C4 photosyntheis (just click on the image below for a full explanation). This work is also funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK government.

There are so many examples I could describe that show the importance and relevance of IRRI’s research for development. I think it’s the breadth of approaches – from molecule to farmer’s field (it’s even working with farmers to develop smartphone apps to help with fertilizer management) – and the incredible dedication of all the people that work there that makes IRRI such a special place. Now part of the Global Rice Science Program (GRiSP) funded through the CGIAR Consortium, IRRI’s work with a wide range of partners goes from strength to strength.

There’s no doubt about it. Joining IRRI in 1991 was the second best career decision I ever made. The best career move was to get into international agricultural research in the first place, way back in 1971. What a time I had!