The beauty (and wonder) of diversity

June 1815. British and allied troops muster in Brussels (then part of the United Netherlands) as the Duke of Wellington prepares to meet Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

The troops are in good spirits, the social life of high society thrives, even as troops march to the front, with officers being called away to their regiments from the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball on the eve of the battle. The weather is fine, although it would deteriorate dramatically over the course of the battle in the next day or so.

Arriving in Belgium, one soldier commented on the productivity of  the local agriculture: I could not help remarking the cornfields today . . . they had (as I thought) a much finer appearance than I had seen in England, the rye in particular, it stood from six to seven feet high, and nearly all fields had high banks around them as if intended to let water in and out, or to keep water out altogether – but the rich appearance of the country cannot fail to attract attention.

Another cavalry officer wrote: I never saw such corn [probably referring to wheat] 9 or 10 feet high in some fields, and such quantities of it. I only wonder how half of it is ever consumed.

These are among the many contemporary commentaries in Nick Foulkes’ entertaining account of the social build-up to Waterloo. So what does all this have to do with the beauty (and wonder) of diversity?

Landrace varieties
Well, they are actual descriptions, almost 200 years old, of the cereal varieties being grown in the vicinity of Brussels.  Once upon a time, not too long ago before plant breeding started to stir up genetic pools, all our crops were like those described by soldiers off to fight Boney. We often refer to them as farmer, traditional or landrace varieties which have not been subjected to any formal plant breeding. You also hear the terms ‘heritage’ or ‘heirloom’ varieties, especially for vegetables and the like. Landrace varieties are highly valued in farming systems around the world – and the basis of food security for many farmers who grow them. However, in many others they have been replaced by highly-bred and higher yielding varieties that respond to inorganic fertilizers. The Green Revolution varieties released from the 1970s onwards, such as the dwarf wheat and rice varieties championed by pioneers such as Dr Norman Borlaug, bought time when the world faced starvation in some countries.

Now I’ve been in the business of studying the diversity of crops and their wild relatives almost all my professional life: describing it; assessing its genetic value and potential; and making sure that all this genetic treasure is available for future generations through conservation in genebanks.

The nature of diversity
But it wasn’t until the early 20th century – with the work of  Nikolai Vavilov and his Russian colleagues, and others that followed in their footsteps – that we really began to understand the nature and geographical distribution of diversity in crops. Today, we’ve gone the next step, by unraveling the secrets of diversity at the molecular level.

This diversity has its genetic basis of course, but there is an environmental component, as well as the important interaction of genes and environment. And I’m using a wide definition of ‘environment’ – not just the physical environment (which we think of in terms of growing conditions governed by geography, altitude, soil and climate) but also the pest and disease environment in which crops (and their wild relatives) evolved and were selected by farmers over centuries to better fit their farming systems. Landrace varieties that are still grown today in some parts of the world (or conserved in genetic resources collections) are extremely important sources of genes for adaptation to a changing climate for instance, or resistance to pests and diseases, as we have highlighted in our forthcoming book.

My own work on potatoes, rice and different grain legumes aimed to understand their patterns and origins of diversity, as well as the breeding systems which molded and released that diversity. I’ve been fortunate to have the great opportunity of working with or meeting many of the pioneers of the genetic resources movement, as I have described in other posts in this blog. But at the beginning of my career I became interested in studying crop diversity after reading the scientific papers of a group of botanists, Jens Clausen, David Keck and William Hiesey at Stanford University  (and others in Europe) who undertook research to understand patterns of variation in different plant species and its genetic and physiological underpinning.

These Californian pioneers studied several plant species found across California (including Achillea spp. and Potentilla spp.), from the coast to the high sierra, and planted seeds from each of the populations in different experiment stations or ‘experimental gardens’ as they came to be known. They described and determined the physiological and climatic responses in these species – and the genetic basis – of their adaptation to the different environments. The same species even had recognizable morphological variants typical of different habitats.

Experimental gardens established by Clausen Keck and Hiesey at three sites across California to study variation in plant species.

Interesting research has also been carried out in the UK on the tolerance of grasses to heavy metals on mine spoil heaps. Population differentiation occurs within very short distances even though there may be no morphological differences between tolerant and non-tolerant forms. Researchers from Aberystwyth have collected grasses all over Europe and have found locally-adapted forms in rye grass (Lolium) for example, which have been used to improve pasture grasses for British agriculture. But such differences in these and many other crops can often only be identified following cultivation in field trials where the variation patterns can be compared under the same growing conditions (following the principles and methods established by Clausen and his co-workers), and the data analysed using the appropriate statistical tests.

I began my work on genetic resources in 1970. I quickly realized that this was the area of plant science that was going to suit me. If I wasn’t already hooked before I moved to Peru, my work there at CIP on potato landrace varieties in the Andes (where the potato originated) convinced me I’d made the right decision. The obvious differences between crop varieties are most often seen in those parts of the plant which we eat – the tubers, seeds and the like, the parts which have probably undergone most selection by humans, for the biggest, the tastiest, the sweetest, the best yielder. Other traits that adapt a variety to its environment are more subject to natural selection.

Patterns of diversity are so different from one crop species to another. In potatoes it’s as though a peacock were showing off for its mate – you can hardly miss it, with the colorful range of tuber shapes but also including differences in the color of the tuber flesh. Modern varieties are positively boring in comparison. Who wouldn’t enjoy a plate of purple french fries, or a yellow potato in a typical Peruvian dish like papa a la huancaina. Such exuberant diversity is also seen in maize cobs, in beans, and the squashes beloved of Americans for their Halloween and Thanksgiving displays.

Many of the other cereals, such as wheat, barley, and rice are much more subdued in their diversity. It’s much more subtle – it doesn’t hit you between the eyes like potatoes – such as the arrangement of the individual grains, bearded or not, and color, of course. When I first started work with rice landraces in 1991, I was a little disappointed about the variation patterns of this important crop. Little did I know or realize. Comparing just a small sample of the 110,000 varieties in the IRRI genebank collection side-by-side it was much easier to appreciate the breadth of their diversity, in growing period, in height, in form and color, as I have shown in the video included in another post. Just check the field plantings of rice landrace varieties from minute 02:45 in the video. Now there are color differences between the various grains, which most people never see because they purchase their rice after it has been milled.

From a crop improvement point of view, this easily observable diversity is less important. It’s the diversity for yield, for resistance to pests and diseases, and the ability to grow under a wide range of conditions – drought, submergence, increased salinity – that plant breeders seek to use. And that’s why the worldwide efforts to collect and conserve this diversity – the genetic resources being both crop varieties and their related wild species – is so important. I was privileged to lead one of the major genetic resources programs at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines for 10 years. But the diversity programs of the other centers of the CGIAR collectively represent one of the world’s most important genetic resources initiatives. Now the Global Crop Diversity Trust (which has recently moved its headquarters from Rome to Bonn in Germany) is not only providing some global leadership and involving many countries that are depositing germplasm in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, but also providing financial support to place germplasm conservation on a sustainable basis.

Crop diversity is wonderful to admire, but it’s so much more important to study and use it for the benefit of society. I spent almost 40 years doing this, and I don’t have any regrets at all that my career moved in this direction. Not only did I get to do something I really enjoyed, I met some incredible scientists all over the world.

You CAN teach an old dog new tricks . . .

I like to think I’m an organized sort of person. And I’m always looking at ways of doing anything more efficiently. What I hate is having to do something twice. ‘Do it once and do it right’ has been my motto, and that’s an approach I endeavored – with some success, I should add – to instill in the various staff who have worked for me over the years.

I call it ‘the San Miguel effect’. Whatever is that, I hear you cry? San Miguel is the principal brand of beer brewed in the Philippines (it had cornered 95% of the market by 2008). And as I always told my staff, ‘If you do something right first time, it frees up time for even better things – like drinking San Mig!’

I remember once chatting with a friend – over a San Mig or three – and he said to me, ‘Well, since you trained as a taxonomist [that’s someone who deals with classification of plants and animals], I bet you have your CD collection all sorted alphabetically’. True! I like things to be in their right place and I get so frustrated when I’m not able to find something I know I’ve ‘put away’ safely. And on it goes.

Over the years, I’ve done my fair share of travelling, and I think I’m pretty good at packing a suitcase – I’ve had enough practice. But you’re never to old to learn. And this relates also to how you store your clothes at home – for which (until very recently) I was not the most organized person, I have to say. But all that has changed, thanks to a video that one of my Canadian cousins posted on Facebook.

I keep all my ironed shirts on hangers in my wardrobe. T-shirts and underwear were just piled up in drawers. Not any longer. Having watched this video I’ve almost become obsessed with making sure all my clothes are carefully folded aw away. This technique also works on long sleeve shirts and pullovers, subject to a few folds I’ve added.

Now my clothes are neatly folded away, easy to locate, and my wife is happy.

And having sorted this problem out, I went looking for more tips online. This is a great one for folding and packing a suit and dress shirt.

Well, it doesn’t stop there. Ever got yourself in a twist with a fitted bedsheet? Not any more. Watch this.

Some folding techniques – like that for the suit – are intuitive. How ever did someone work out the 2 second shirt fold, or the fitted sheet?

Now it’s also time for me to get a life!

Science matters to us all . . .

Hailed by some as the new David Attenborough (who, over five decades or more, has brought some of the most iconic programs about the natural world to the small screen), Manchester University and CERN physics Professor Brian Cox seems to be on TV almost every other week. He’s almost become the ‘rock star’ of TV science – which is apt since in his youth (he’s not exactly in his dotage now, being only 45) he was a member of the group D:Ream (I have to admit to never having heard of them before despite their 1993 song,Things Can Only Get Better, being adopted by Britain’s New Labour during the 1997 General Election campaign).

I’m not one of Cox’s greatest fans. He’s good when he sticks to his own specialty of physics and similar (even though I have a hard time following him – and he’s obsessed with very large numbers, billions and billions, which I can’t get my head around). His 2011 series Wonders of the Universe was quite compelling. I found him less convincing in his early 2013 series, Wonders of Life (when he slipped into ‘David Attenborough’ mold). I find his constant simpering smile quite off-putting, but I guess it’s rather unfair to condemn him for that.

Last week he began a new three-part series, Science Britannica, in which he celebrates British science and explores the contributions of British science and scientists to making our world a better place.

Brian Cox is a natural broadcaster, and his enthusiasm for science does come across. It is quite likely that the upsurge of interest in science subjects among schoolchildren can be attributed to the popular following of his TV programs. However, the one thing that I do admire most, are his clear and simple explanations of what science is (and what it isn’t), how science is carried out (and how it can be and is sometimes carried out badly). In short, his explanation of the ‘scientific method’ is key in today’s world of conflicting ideas, perspectives and policy – that may be based on sound scientific evidence. Or maybe not. Based on empiricism, development of hypotheses, experimentation and peer review, science provides an insight into how the world operates. And this is so important, as I have pointed out recently in this blog. It’s particularly relevant, say, to the acceptance or rejection of anthropogenic climate warming. The rejection of genetically modified crops without sound scientific basis is another reason to be concerned about the misunderstanding of science. These and more Brian Cox has tackled in the first two parts of the Science Britannica series.

Given my enthusiasm for explaining the importance of science, I was very disturbed yesterday to read about the ‘fear of science’ among House Republicans in the US Congress, blocking the appointment of a US Science Laureate. Read the story here.

I came to science late, in one sense. So I don’t count myself in the same league as those scientists who have focused their entire careers seeking knowledge. I kept my study options quite broad until I went to graduate school. And although my botany PhD finally gave me a sense of scientific purpose, I’ve always had a broader perspective than just one relatively narrow area of science. But, I am passionate about science communication, so I am pleased that my alma mater, the University of Birmingham, has appointed Alice Roberts as Professor of Public Engagement in Science. Animal behaviorist Richard Dawkins (and now mathematician Marcus du Sautoy) was the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

One of the best lectures I’ve ever heard about the importance of science (doing the right science, and doing the science right) was the 2012 Richard Dimbleby Lecture on the BBC delivered by President of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate (and 1970 University of Birmingham biology alumnus!) Professor Sir Paul Nurse. He explains, in a remarkable feat of oratory what science means to him, and why we need to continue to invest in science and scientists. I couldn’t agree more. His lecture is worth 45 minutes of anyone’s time.

A terrace, temples and time to enjoy them . . .

As I have blogged on quite a number of occasions now, Steph and I have enjoyed our National Trust membership since becoming members in early 2011. It certainly gives a focus for days out when the weather permits – and we’ve more than had our money’s worth in terms of membership fees versus entrance charges. So on our way back home last Sunday from our visit to the northeast we took the opportunity of stopping off in North Yorkshire. The weather forecast had been so-so, but it turned out to be a perfect late September day: bright and sunny, balmy even; almost an Indian summer.

In July we had visited Fountains Abbey, a derelict Cistercian abbey near Ripon. About 20 miles as the crow flies northeast from Fountains Abbey is another famous Cistercian ruin: Rievaulx Abbey, which is owned and managed by English Heritage.

But it wasn’t the abbey that we went to visit, but a delight of 18th century landscape gardening on the hillside above the ruins – Rievaulx Terrace and Temples. Constructed in the mid-18th century by Thomas Duncombe II (who had inherited Duncombe Park in nearby Helmsley), it provided a pleasant landscape from which to view the abbey ruins in the valley below of the River Rye (which also runs alongside another NT property, Nunnington Hall, about eight miles away to the south).

The grassy terrace, just below the brow of the hill, is bordered on the east side by a beech wood, and on the west – towards the abbey ruins – the valley drops away steeply, and is densely wooded, except for a number of avenues that were cut through the trees to provide views of the ruins below. You can see these quite clearly in the Google Earth satellite image below, just below the label ‘Mossy Bank Wood’.

There are two temples – that at the north end is an Ionic temple, open to the public at various times of the day; and the southern temple is a Tuscan round design, and is permanently closed.

We were very lucky to arrive just after noon, and the Ionic temple was still open. Visitors are restricted because of the delicate nature – and quality – of the interior furnishings. And what masterpieces the temple contains: original table and chairs, Royal Worcester china from the 18th century, the marble fireplace, and most important of all, the absolutely stunning frescoes on the ceiling. They quite took my breath away. The temple was used to entertain guests, with a kitchen in the basement.

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The Tuscan temple has the most gorgeous painted plaster ceiling. The National Trust has placed mirrors on the inside of the windows and it’s therefore possible to view the ceiling.

But a stroll along the terrace reveals the Rievaulx Abbey ruins in all their medieval glory. I visited the abbey once in my Southampton student days during a walking holiday in 1968 on the North York Moors. And then in the 1980s, when our daughters were small, we rented a holiday cottage just north of Scarborough on the coast, and one of our trips was to Helmsley and Rievaulx.

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Rievaulx Terrace and Temples were a complete surprise. Beautiful (especially on the day we visited), simple, and serene. If you ever get chance to visit, do make sure it coincides with one of the Ionic Temple opening times. You would surely regret missing out on those Georgian glories.

The Lady of the North

A couple of weeks ago I posted a story about the desecration of the landscape through industrial pollution, specifically the impact of coal mining.

Last week, my wife and I made the 225 mile journey from our home just south of Birmingham to Newcastle in the northeast of England. The route we took – M42, M1, M18, A1(M) – passes through many areas where coal mining was the main industry until quite recently. But as you speed past you would be hard pressed to realize that coal mining had ever taken place, such has been the rehabilitation of the landscape. Yes, in some places there are rolling ‘hills’, covered with scrubby vegetation, the remnants of the once dominating slag heaps associated with the deep mines. In general, the coal mining footprint is slowly and irrevocably disappearing.

Not so just a few miles north of Newcastle close by the village of Cramlington (where the musician Sting once taught at a local primary school before discovering his musical mojo). Just to the west of the village is the huge Shotton surface mining complex. And this is what it looks like from a slightly elevated location.

Not a pretty sight, but thankfully you can’t really see the extent of the open cast mining from ground level. It looked as though the mine operators were restoring some parts of the site, bringing in loads of top soil.

However, if you have £3 million, and are prepared to move 1.5 million tons of rock, gravel, clay and soil, then it’s possible to really make something from a ‘derelict’ landscape. And that’s what has been achieved at Northumberlandia (from where the photos above were taken). Undoubtedly one of the largest landscape sculptures of a figure – in this case a reclining nude Lady of the North, Northumberlandia – in the world, it took a couple of years of landscaping to achieve a truly remarkable design, and was opened in September 2012.

An aerial view of Northumberlandia, with her head on the right and feet on the left.

An aerial view of Northumberlandia, with her head on the right and feet on the left.

1. Viewing points. 2. Head. 3. M’lady’s breasts. 4. Hands. 5. Hip. 6. Knee. 7. Ankles.

Rising to 100 feet apparently at the head, there are over four miles of paths winding around the lady, with viewpoints from M’Lady’s breasts, hip, knees and ankles. Her right hand is raised in a salute with the index finger raised. There are three ponds to one side, which will surely become colonized by reeds and other water-loving plants and become a haven for wildlife. Already there is quite an impressive array of wild flowers on her flanks.

The paths have been laid out to provide easy access for everyone; the gradients are steeper in some sections than in others. Entry to Northumberlandia is free, but one is asked to contribute towards car parking – £2 is the suggested fee. It was a beautiful day when we visited last Saturday along with daughter Philippa and her husband Andi, and sons Elvis and Felix. Here is a small selection of the photos I took. This is what you see from ground level. It’s well worth a visit.

Held to ransom . . .

When I started this blog some 20 months ago, I decided that I would write about topics related to the things I’ve done and seen throughout my professional life on three continents, as well as other topics that come to mind now that I’m retired and look back on the decades.

I more or less decided to steer away from controversy. But no longer. And my ‘conversion’ began a couple of weeks ago when I posted a story about genetic modification (GM) and Golden Rice. There are several issues that society has to confront right now, particularly in the UK, scientists need to step up to the plate and explain – in terms comprehensible to ‘Joe Public’ – the science behind these issues, and also why it’s important not only to do the right science, but to do the science right.

Source: IRRI http://farm1.staticflickr.com/98/368496234_1ff4a2cc01_m.jpgThat was the mantra of one of my former IRRI colleagues, plant pathologist Tom Mew: Do the right science, and do the science right.

I accept that the public is less than confident in the scientific community – suspicious even. I see two issues. First, most people do not understand the scientific method, based on observation, hypothesis generation, careful and rigorous experimentation, analysis and interpretation of results, and drawing conclusions or lessons. The paradox is that science does not always provide clear black or white, yes or no, answers. Science is involved with the assessment of risk.

But if the science is done right, and subject to the appropriate peer review then it is a system that has stood society in good stead for centuries, and has led to progress from which everyone (or the majority) in society has benefited. Just think of the progress made in medical science, in genetics, in physics and chemistry.

That’s why I get so riled when I see science being subverted or even hijacked by special interest or activist groups. Take the example of GM crops for example. As I admitted in my recent post, the scientific community didn’t exactly cover itself with glory and make the case strongly 25 years ago when the first GM crops were being promoted. The activists like Greenpeace and others essentially ‘won’ the campaign, labeling such GM crops as ‘Frankenstein foods’, a label that has been extremely difficult to overturn. It annoyed me the other night that, following a very well informed piece on the BBC’s One Show about the testing of a GM wheat by Rothamsted International in Hertfordshire (scientists have introduced a gene from a mint species, Mentha x piperita, that ‘disturbs’ aphids and they do not settle and feed – aphids transit virus diseases in plants and these cause serious yield problems) the silly Lucy Siegle immediately launched into a description of ‘Frankenstein foods’, diluting what had been a well balanced report by one of her colleagues. All credit to Sir Terry Wogan, that evening’s guest on the show, who said he would eat GM food. What concerned him was the involvement of multinational companies ‘controlling’ GM technologies and products. Even though the film report highlighted the work of Rothamsted International (with some private sector partners), no-one sought to clarify that indeed much of the GM scientific research undertaken in the UK and in many other countries is funded from the public purse.

With the recent activist groups attacking a Golden Rice field plot in the south part of Luzon in the Philippines, there has, at last been, been a worldwide condemnation of their action, and a concerted effort by scientists to explain and place in context the relevance of and benefits from investing in the science of Golden Rice.

But there are two other issues that have me exercised these days. These are ‘fracking’ (and associated issue of ‘renewables’) and the two pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire in England’s southwest. Quite unrelated issues I grant you, but the common theme are the attempts (often successful) to disrupt or halt legal activities aimed at providing answers.

Let me elaborate.

Fracking
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is the process of fracturing shale rocks deep underground to release trapped natural gas, crude oil even. It’s a technique that is apparently revolutionizing natural gas production in the USA, reducing energy costs and securing for many decades into the future that country’s energy needs. But it is controversial, with fears that it is causing earthquakes – at least seismic movements of low intensity, and possibly polluting aquifers. Following drilling in northwest England near Blackpool, there were a couple of minor tremors, and all exploration was halted for the time-being. But when an exploratory site was opened in West Sussex at Balcombe recently, thousands of activists descended on the village and the company concerned, Cuadrilla, had to cease operations. Not only did the intervention of the activists cause disruption to village life, but because of their stated intention to break into the site and possible cause criminal damage, there was a heightened police presence – at the cost of hundreds of thousand of pounds, if not millions, to the taxpayer. You and me!

Do I support fracking? I don’t know. What I do support is the need to fully investigate how this approach can be carried out safely and efficiently in a country as densely populated as the UK. There’s no point, in my opinion, making the argument that we should rely now less on fossil fuels and instead be turning towards renewables as though they could meet this country’s energy needs. Undoubtedly society’s use of fossil fuels has and is exacerbating the problem of greenhouse gas-induced climate change. But please would someone explain to me where the energy from renewables is going to come from in the short- to medium-term. For the foreseeable future, society is going to continue relying on fossil fuels, hopefully those which can be exploited more efficiently. We’ve already moved away from coal generated electricity towards natural gas. Our nuclear power industry seems to be going nowhere. None of the political parties here in the UK had enthusiastically embraced nuclear power. That was until a motion in favor of nuclear power was passed yesterday by the Liberal Democrats at their annual conference in Glasgow in favor of nuclear power

The badger cull
Let me state, right away, that I do not support the indiscriminate killing of animals. But we do have a crisis in agriculture here in the UK caused by the ongoing incidence and spread of bovine tuberculosis among cattle. And it’s particularly prevalent in the southwest. It seems the jury is out concerning the role of badgers in spreading the disease to cattle, and maintaining a reservoir of the pathogen to re-infect both disease-free badger populations and cattle herds. It’s costing the livestock industry – and us, the taxpayers – millions in compensation, never mind the heartache suffered by farmers as they watch their prize pedigree herds being taken away for slaughter. What about a vaccine you may ask? Under EU rules the use of a vaccine – even if an effective one was available (which experts admit may take up to 10 years more) – is not permitted. So what is needed are measures that reduce the level of environmental inoculum. And that means reducing the badger population or reducing the level of infection in badger populations. Badgers can be vaccinated against bovine TB, if they can be trapped, but vaccination will not cure sick animals and, according to information I have read, there are many very sick badgers wandering about the British countryside.

Now the science of bovine TB control in badgers has not provided unequivocal answers. Different scientists or scientific panels cannot agree on the consequences of carrying out a badger cull. Clearly this is a situation that calls for some further scientific study. And so the Westminster government has sanctioned a cull of ‘all’ badgers in two pilot areas, up to 5,000 badgers each. The Welsh government has also approved a cull. The problem is that the very thought of killing badgers, needlessly it seems to many activists, has sparked a huge controversy. I listen to the farming program most days on BBC Radio 4 and hardly a day goes by without some discussion about bovine TB and the pros and cons of the cull. But the very activities of the activists threaten to disrupt the cull during which marksmen shoot badgers in the pilot areas at night. So what do we end up? Well, lots of dead badgers that can be studied for their health status. But depending on the success or not of the cull, we may or may not (and I fear the latter) get a solid set of scientific data, properly analysed, and that won’t be disputed, upon which everyone can agree and that point the way forward in terms of controlling the spread of the disease in nature. The activists say the cull is not necessary and have failed before. But they do not have the data to conclude other approaches are better.

It seems to me that society is being held hostage by special interest groups. I am far more comfortable with policy decisions based on reputable science and solid data. Developing and applying policy is not without risk. Science helps to determine what those risks might be, and to provide an understanding of what limits to those risks we should accept. Unless we do the science, as in the case of testing GM crops in the field – with the potential that they will bring enormous benefits to society, as is expected of Golden Rice – then it’s as though we are blundering about in the dark. One person’s opinion is as good as the next. That’s not the best way for society to make decisions and progress.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 7. Letting the train take the strain

trainI love traveling by train.

And were it possible to travel everywhere by train, that would be my preferred mode of transport. There are many journeys I would love to take, particularly on the luxury trains such as the Orient Express, the Blue Train in South Africa, or the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok (I have the time, but don’t have the budget), as well as others across the USA and Canada through the Rockies, or in Australia (from Adelaide to Darwin on The Ghan, for example or across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Perth on the Indian Pacific).

When traveling on business for IRRI in Europe to visit the institute’s donor agencies, I most often traveled from city to city by train rather than flying. More relaxed, comfortable, convenient, and a better use of my time than sitting in an airport departure lounge wondering if the flight would depart on time, never mind – if there was inclement weather – if it would depart at all. The longest journey I made (twice), over about two weeks in total, was : Bromsgrove (my home town) – Birmingham New Street – London Euston / London Waterloo – Brussels (on the Eurostar) – Bonn (on the Thalys to Cologne) – Basel (down the Rhine valley) – Bern – Milan (cutting through Alps and along the Italian lakes such as Como) – Rome (but return to Birmingham by air). Seat reservations are a requirement on many European train journeys – none of this ‘sardine’ travel so typical on a number of commuter lines in the UK (and even on long distance trains at some times of the day or on holidays).

Braunschweig to Gatersleben and Berlin
In the late 1980s, while I was still working at the University of Birmingham, I decided to visit two genetic resources programs in Germany – at Braunschweig (in West Germany) and Gatersleben (in East Germany). This was before the Berlin Wall had been pulled down. It was actually quite easy to cross over from the West to the East, and at the crossing, border guards came on board to check documents. I must admit that I wasn’t particularly relaxed until my passport had been checked, all was in order, and I continued with my journey, via Magdeburg, Halberstadt, to Gatersleben.

Gatersleben is home to the Leibniz-Institut für Pflanzengenetik und Kulturpflanzenforschung (IPK-Gatersleben) with one of the most important crop genebanks in Europe. I was made most welcome by the head of the genebank, the late Dr Christian Lehmann and his colleagues Karl Hammer and Peter Hanelt (and other genebank staff). It was a memorable visit, particularly walking through the impressive summer regeneration plots of cereals such as wheat, barley (seeing hooded barleys for the first time) and oats, and other crops, and discussing crop evolution and diversity with Dr Lehmann.

My return journey took me to Berlin, where I left the train at Schönefeld Airport station (in the southeast of Berlin), and crossed through the Berlin Wall by taxi, to arrive at the airport in the West. I’ve remembered that as Templehof Airport, although it might have been Tegel.

Stahleck Castle at Bacharach

The Rhine Valley
I’ve visited Bonn on many occasions. Flying into Frankfurt I could have taken the direct, fast train to Cologne via Bonn. But it’s much more enjoyable to take the (slightly) slower train that hugs the River Rhine. What magnificent views of the vineyards that embroider the steep slopes either side of the river. And also the fairytale castles that  cling to rocky outcrops. The river is a watery motorway, with barges flying the flags of many nations, many carrying a motor vehicle for use at ports along the journey.

Bern to Montpellier (via Geneva, Lyon, Valence and Avignon)
For my second visit to Montpellier in southern France in the early 90s I traveled from Switzerland’s capital Bern down the Rhône Valley. It’s not a particularly fast journey, because the line snakes along the valley. But the views of the surrounding mountains are simply stunning – impressive precipices over which plunge waterfalls for hundreds of feet.

Switzerland
Even 30 secs is late for Swiss trains. They have remarkable punctuality. I’ve spent time visiting various places throughout the country when I’ve had a weekend to spare during my business trips. Bern is a good base with excellent rail connections. Close by is the Jungfrau, and although I’ve not taken the train to the summit, I have twice been on the funicular up to Wengen (starting the journey in Interlaken), then the cable car up to Männlichen where there is a fabulous view of the Alps (Eiger on the left). From Männlichen you take the cable car down to Grindelwald, and then the train back to Interlaken.

The view from Männlichen, with the north face of the Eiger on the left.

Then there was the weekend I decided to see the Matterhorn in May 2004. Leaving Bern early in the morning, we headed through the Alps to Brig where I transferred to the local line up to Zermatt. What a fabulous day out – made even better by the train journey!

High speed journeys
Eurostar, Thalys or TGV. There’s something impressive about these high speed trains across Europe. I’ve been through the Eurotunnel a couple of times, and joined the Thalys (Belgian equivalent of the TGV) to Cologne or Amsterdam (and return). The German ICE (shown here) is incredible – fast, silent and very comfortable. I took this the first time from Amsterdam Central to Cologne, and had a seat just behind the driver’s cab. When he didn’t want to be distracted the driver could make the glass screen turn translucent. Otherwise it was fun watching the train eat up the kilometers from the driver’s perspective.

One thing I do remember from my first TGV from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Montpellier, is the speed we reached south of Paris to Lyon, over undulating terrain. It was the first time I had that sinking feeling on a train – just as in a plane descending – as we went over one hill and down the other side. South of Lyon, the TGV proceeds at a more stately pace since the line follows the river.

Yangon to Yezin, Myanmar
I visited Myanmar (Burma) just the once in about 1997 – I don’t remember the exact year. I had received a grant from the Swiss government of more than US$3.3 million to develop and manage a project to collect and conserve rice varieties and wild species in South and Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Although Myanmar had been essentially closed to the outside world for many years, IRRI had retained a presence there, with a liaison scientist and small office. Given the importance of rice in that country, it was appropriate to see what might be done in terms of collecting rice germplasm. So with my colleague Eves Loresto we  traveled the 250 miles or so north from Yangon (Rangoon) by train to Yezin where the Central Agricultural Research Institute (and university) is located, with its large rice genebank. Our outward journey was during the day, and although very slow (about 10 hours) it was interesting traveling through the vast plain of rice paddies. Several times the train was reduced to a snail’s pace as the track was flooded. We returned to Yangon a few days later by the ‘sleeper’ – I use that term advisedly, because I didn’t get much sleep and the accommodation wasn’t exactly desirable. At Yezin we had to evict a group of about five passengers who had commandeered our cabin.

Melbourne – Sydney
On Christmas Day 2003 Steph and I flew to Sydney, arriving the following morning, Boxing Day. We spent a couple of days looking round the city (we’d been there for the first time in December 1998 and saw the New Year in watching the fireworks display over the Sydney harbor bridge).

Anyway, on this second trip, we took a memorable road trip to Melbourne (about 1,000 miles) along the coast road with several diversions inland. After a couple of days in Melbourne we returned to Sydney by train. It was scheduled for about nine hours, but due to the heat (>40C) between Albury on the Victoria-New South Wales border and Wagga Wagga (in NSW) (about half way through the journey), the train speed was seriously reduced because the track was buckling. Instead of arriving in Sydney at around 5 pm, we didn’t get in until after 10 pm. An interesting but rather tiring journey. Thankfully we had a couple more days to recover, enjoy a evening Sydney harbor dinner cruise (courtesy of Hannah and Philippa) before flying back to the Philippines.

One regret
One regret I do have is that I never traveled by train from Lima on the coast of Peru to Huancayo, crossing the Andes at over 16,000 feet at Ticlio (at 11:20 in the excellent video by takyvlaky on YouTube below). I used to travel by road to Huancayo almost weekly when I lived in Lima in the early 70s. The road and railway climb up into the Andes almost side by side, as you will see at various points in the video.

The wonder of steam
Wonderful as the train journeys were that I have described, there’s nothing quite like a journey on a steam train. Near where I live, the Severn Valley Railway – a heritage line from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth via Bewdley – has hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. I made this short video in 2008 when I was back in the UK on home leave.


I just had to include the next video that I found on YouTube, celebrating the Age of Steam.