Food for the soul . . .

The British are a nation of gardeners. And as the memories of Winter fade (although still hanging on from day to day), and Spring exerts her influence daily, it is really wonderful to see all the gardens coming into bloom. Each day there is something new to see. The fine display of snowdrops and crocuses has been over for a few weeks now, but soon all the daffodils will be in flower, their golden trumpets nodding in the breeze of a typical March day. Then they will be followed by tulips in all their glory – my favorite Spring flowers. I’ve already seen primroses during my daily constitutional, and oxslips are now opening in our garden. These floral displays are surely food for the soul, and it’s no coincidence that I made the decision, several decades ago, to become a professional botanist.

Each year, many new flower varieties are released for everyone to admire and enjoy in their own gardens. Just look at this exquisite display of daffodil varieties that I photographed at the Chelsea Flower Show a couple of years ago.

Nevertheless, plant enthusiasts always seem to want what the natural world doesn’t easily give them: the red delphinium, the blue rose, the black tulip, and even a yellow sweetpea (Lathyrus odoratus).

Although many if not most delphiniums are that beautiful blue, red-flowered varieties are now quite common. Plant breeders must have searched for ‘red’ genes in related species. Black tulips have been around for centuries. However, a really deep blue rose remains elusive. The so-called ‘blue’ roses are but a pale imitation of blue, more a pale mauve.

Sweet_Pea-01But a yellow sweetpea (Lathyrus odoratus)? From images I’ve viewed on the web, many are not true sweetpeas but other species of Lathyrus. It seems, however, that some creamy-yellow varieties have been developed, although a deep yellow one has not yet been produced that I could sniff out. Most are are white, red, pink, blue, or purple, and shades in between, and most of the varieties on the market have large, blousy and delicately fragrant blooms.

In the 1980s, when I was working at the University of Birmingham, a Malaysian student of mine, Dr Abdul bin Ghani Yunus, made a study of Lathyrus sativus, a common food grain legume in several parts of the world, particularly India and Ethiopia. It’s a so-called ‘ famine legume’, known commonly as khesari dahl, as it can survive and produce seeds under conditions where other crops fail. But it has an important major drawback: the seeds contain a neurotoxin, which can cause an irreversible paralysis if consumed without proper preparation of the seeds before cooking.

Our research was not, I hasten to add, concerned with producing a safer variety – although these have now been developed by a number of research institutes. Rather, we wanted to try and understand the origin of this crop species, and its relationships with other Lathyrus species. And to do that, we assembled a large number of seed samples of as many Lathyrus species as we could obtain from research institutes and botanical gardens around the world.

Ghani’s doctoral thesis focused on the biosystematics of Lathyrus sativus, and included making crosses with several species with yellow flowers [1]. And I still don’t know how it came about, but I was approached by someone from a ‘local’ sweetpea society who asked if we could attempt crosses between these yellow-flowered species and the sweetpea. We did make a few crosses, all unsuccessful I’m sorry to say, but we didn’t have the time or the resources to translate this hobby approach into a meaningful hybridization exercise. I’ve often wondered whether sweetpea breeders ever followed up on what we attempted three decades ago. If they did, I assume they had as little success as Ghani and I did using the yellow Lathyrus types, all of which had rather small flowers.

Breeders of food plants aim to produce healthier, more disease and pest resistant types, resilient to climate change, with better nutritional qualities, and higher yielding. Their aim is to sustain agricultural productivity, and ensure we have enough food to fill our stomachs.

Flower breeders also look for healthier and disease resistant varieties. But they also aim to produce new forms with brighter colours, bigger blooms, and more fragrant where possible, and as such, they are breeding plants as ‘food for the soul’. Just look at what the flower breeders have done in recent years. Aren’t we fortunate?

[1] Yunus, A.G. & M.T. Jackson, 1991. The gene pools of the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.). Plant Breeding 106, 319-328.

No fire in the belly . . .

It’s just seven weeks tomorrow to the General Election – and I’m already fed-up with the political rhetoric. Or should I say, the lack of it.

I really do feel that there is a distinct dearth of speech-making charisma among UK politicians these days. Prime Minister David Cameron, the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg, Labour leader Ed Miliband, Chancellor of the Exchequeur George Osbourne and his Labour opposite number, Ed Balls, to name but five, do not inspire me whatsoever. Where have all today’s great political speech-makers gone?

One of the problems in the coming election I face is that I do not – cannot, even – support the perspectives and policies espoused by the one or two politicians who are, in the scheme of things, quite effective speakers. Who, you might ask? Well, Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond for instance. I actually find them quite obnoxious individuals, but acknowledge they are effective speakers.

Like them or loathe them, former Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were excellent speakers – of conviction. Gordon Brown certainly came alive towards the end of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. He was speaking from the heart and you could tell that he felt and meant every word.

Unfortunately that’s not the case with most political speech making today. No wonder many if not most Westminster parliamentarians lack credibility. They trot out trite slogans and expect us to believe them. I’m almost at the point of throwing something at the TV screen if I ever hear a Tory politician mention, for the umpteenth time, that the Party has ‘a long-term economic plan’ (sometimes shortened to ‘long-term plan’) in response to almost any question. And of course they are attempting to emphasize their difference from their Labour opponents who apparently do NOT have ‘a long-term economic plan’.

Well, it was in the context of catching up with last Sunday’s The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, and his interview with George Osbourne, that the idea for this blog post formed in my mind. As soon as I heard the dreaded ‘ALTEP’ mentioned, I remembered an excellent piece I read recently in the BBC website by Cambridge University Professor of Classics Mary Beard. As a classicist, she makes the point that today’s politicians are too risk averse, not attempting to deliver convincing arguments, but instead just spouting a range of statements. Is there any attempt to convince us, or even to inspire us to believe what they are spelling out. And here is Professor Beard speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight program.

In all fairness to Ed Miliband, he was, I believe, a more effective speaker when he made a speech without reference to notes, or indeed never speaking from a lectern. It sounded as though he really believed what he was saying. But unfortunately he fell at the next fence, to use a horse-racing allegory. In his leader’s speech at the last Labour Party conference last autumn – the last conference before the General Election – Miliband omitted one important topic in his speech: the UK budget deficit and how Labour would tackle this. Since then, poor Ed has been tied to the lectern, has teleprompters either side, and carefully does not ‘ski off-piste’. In doing so he has become a run-of-the-mill political speech-maker and his credibility has declined accordingly.

Where would we have been in 1940 if David Cameron had been a war-time leader rather than Winston Churchill? Or Labour politician Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevin, Minister of Health in Clement Atlee’s post-war cabinet, responsible for the introduction of the National Health Service, that ‘jewel in the crown’ of UK institutions that all political parties are fighting over as we head towards the election?

Maybe it’s the presidential political system in the United States that throws up more charismatic leaders. Just watch this speech by President Obama at Selma a week or so ago, and ask yourself (if you live in the UK) when was the last time you were moved by a speech by a politician here.

President Bill Clinton was also a charismatic speaker – love him or loathe him. But in 2001 (when I was in the Philippines) I tuned into the BBC one evening and watched Clinton deliver the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture, on the topic The Struggle for the Soul of the 21st Century. It was one of the most remarkable speeches I have ever listened to. Speaking for almost 50 minutes – without notes – and leaning against the lectern, Clinton engaged his audience, was erudite, thoughtful, and challenging in what he had to say. There are few politicians that can match that sort of delivery, oratory even (Obama it seems was cut from the same cloth). And he inspired.

As the General Election approaches, I need inspiring and persuading. Give me some robust arguments to mull over. The politicians who seek our support at the ballot box need more fire in their bellies.



Dr Richard L Sawyer (1921-2015), first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP)

Sawyer3I opened my email this morning to find one with the sad news that Richard Sawyer, the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) had died at his home in North Carolina on 9 March. He was 93, just a week short of his 94th birthday.

Richard was my first boss from January 1973 when I joined the International Potato Center (CIP) as an associate taxonomist in Lima, Perú. In fact, Richard was one of the first Americans I had ever met, and it was quite an eye-opener, as a young British graduate, to be working for an organization led by an American.

I first met Richard in early summer 1971 or thereabouts, while I was a graduate student at the University of Birmingham. My major professor, and head of the Department of Botany at the university was renowned potato taxonomist Jack Hawkes. Jack had made a collecting expedition for wild potatoes to Bolivia in the first couple months of 1971. And his trip was supported by the USAID-funded North Carolina State University – Peru potato project. Richard had been in Lima since 1966 as head of that mission. I believe that Jack stayed in Lima with Richard and his wife, and had the opportunity to discuss with Richard how the recently-founded MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources could support the genetic resources activities at what would soon become the International Potato Center. Richard wanted to send a young Peruvian scientist (Zosimo Huaman) for training at Birmingham, but wondered if Jack had anyone in mind who could accept a one-year assignment in Peru while Zosimo was away in Birmingham studying for his MSc degree.

During a visit to meet with potential donors for the fledgling CIP in the UK, Richard came up to Birmingham from London to discuss some more about training possibilities, and the one-year assignment. And Jack invited me to meet Richard. I remember quite clearly entering Jack’s office, and my first impression of Richard Sawyer. “Good grief,” I thought to myself, “I’ve come to meet Uncle Sam!” At that time, Richard sported a goatee beard and, to my mind, was the spitting image of ‘Sam’.

I eventually moved to Lima in January 1973, and spent the next eight happy and scientifically fruitful years with CIP in Perú and Central America.


CIP staff in 1972, taken a few months before I joined the center. L to r: Ed French, Richard Sawyer, John Vessey, ??, Rosa Rodriguez, Carlos Bohl, Sr., Haydee de Zelaya, Rosa Mendez, Heather ??, Oscar Gil, Javier Franco, Luis Salazar, David Baumann

A family man. There are several things I remember specially about Richard. When I joined CIP he had recently remarried, and was devoted to his young wife Norma who was expecting their son Ricardo Jr. The Sawyers hosted a cocktail at their San Isidro apartment during that first week I was in Lima for the participants of a potato genetic resources and taxonomy planning workshop. Almost the whole staff of CIP had been invited – we were so few that everyone could easily fit into their apartment.

During that workshop we traveled to Huancayo to see the germplasm collection, and Richard drove one of the vehicles himself. Staying at the Turista hotel in the center of Huancayo, we spent that first night drinking pisco sours and playing dudo for a couple of hours.

Richard practiced what he preached. He was very supportive of CIP scientists and their families, and always encouraged his staff to maintain a healthy balance between work and home. At 4 pm each day he was the first out of the office and on to the frontón court; he was very competitive.

A TPS incident. I remember one (potentially disastrous) incident, in about 1978 or 1979, during the annual review meeting held in Lima, and in which all staff from around the world also participated. I came down to Lima from Costa Rica where I was leading CIP’s Region II Program (Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean). After several presentations about the emerging technology of true potato seed (TPS) during the first couple of days, the then Director of Research, Dr Ory Page from Canada, opened the floor for general comments and questions. I’d been storing up some comments and, nothing venture, nothing gained, stuck my hand up and began to make several critical comments about the TPS program and how it was not currently applicable to the farmers of Central America.

Well, as they say, the ‘proverbial’ hit the fan. Richard was seated immediately in front of me, among the CIP staff. He turned on me, and gave me a public dressing down. I decided not to accept this quietly, and responded as vigorously. As tempers began to fray, the Chair of the CIP Board Program Committee, British scientist Dr Glyn Burton, suspended the meeting. Richard stormed out to his office, followed by Dr Ken Brown, head of Regional Research and my immediate boss who was upset at Richard’s reaction. Several colleagues came up to me during the enforced break, and while they might have concurred with my point of view, felt that I had burned my bridges at CIP, and was likely to lose my job.

Far from it. A couple of days later, Richard came looking for me and apologized for how he’d behaved towards me; he told me that I’d had every right to question aspects of CIP’s research. I think this whole incident strengthened the relationship I had with Richard, and he was very supportive. It also indicated to me that Richard was a supremely confident person, and a strong leader.

Moving on. In 1980, a teaching position opened at the University of Birmingham. I was keen to apply, but felt I had to discuss the various options first. Ken Brown advised me to talk directly with Richard, and it was fortunate that I was already back in Lima, having left Costa Rica in November just before the Birmingham position was announced. Richard strongly encouraged me to apply for the Birmingham lectureship, but at the same time offering me a new five-year contract with CIP should I fail with my application. Now that was, as you can imagine, an unbelievable way to approach a job interview. I was offered the position and resigned from CIP in March 1981 to return to the UK.

But that wasn’t the end of my relationship with CIP. The UK Department for International Development (then the Overseas Development Institute) supported my research project with CIP on TPS of all things during the 1980s. And I also carried out a couple of consultancies for CIP, the more significant being an evaluation of a Swiss-funded seed potato project in Perú, during which I always had the opportunity to meet with Richard. He was always interested in what I was up to and how the family was getting on. After all, my wife Stephanie had also personally been offered a position at CIP by Richard from July 1973.

Richard’s legacy. There are so many things I could point out, but three come most readily to my mind:

  • Richard was a compassionate individual, very supportive of his staff and their families. But having a clear vision, he could also be determined and make the tough decisions. This served CIP extremely well during his tenure.
  • He placed the conservation of the germplasm collection and its use at the heart of CIP’s strategy and research. Later this was expanded to include sweet potatoes and several ‘minor’ Andean tuber crops. Focusing only on potato for the first decade enabled CIP to establish and maintain a strong research program, that had the strong foundation for expansion into other tuber crops.
  • His vision of regional research and collaboration with potato researchers around the world – and the use of CIP funding to support these scientists as part of CIP’s core research program – was not always appreciated around the CGIAR in the early 1970s. It was innovative, and CIP was able to have an early impact on and bring new technologies to potato programs and systems right around the world. The establishment of PRECODEPA in 1978 was one of these important initiatives. Not only did Richard persevere, but he showed that this model of collaboration was one applicable to other centers and their mandate crops. It is the modus operandi today.

It is always sad when a colleague and friend passes away. While we – his family, friends and former colleagues – mourn his passing, let us also celebrate a life of service to international agriculture by this extraordinary individual. It has been my privilege to count Richard Sawyer as a friend and mentor. My life has certainly been profoundly changed by knowing and working with him.

Deepest condolences to his wife Norma, son Ricardo Jr., his daughters from his first marriage, and all his family.