Keeping up standards . . . but whose?


Ms Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust that has its headquarters in Bonn, Germany

Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust was interviewed by Suzanne Goldenberg for her recent—and contentious—article in The Guardian newspaper about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV). Ms Haga was also asked about the state of genebanks around the world, and the extent to which they are worthy of funding support from the Trust.

What she is quoted as saying both surprised (shocked even) and perplexed me: ‘What the Crop Trust proposed was a sort of triage on the major seed banks: selecting those worthy of support and winnowing out those not up to standard. In its early days, however, it is a process not unlike natural selection. Only one of 11 major gene banks operated under the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres met the Crop Trust’s standards and would be eligible for those funds: the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

The biggest surprise for everybody when we dived into the international gene banks was that they are not up to the standard that we had expected.’

While I’m proud that the International Rice Genebank at IRRI is held in high regard (‘a model for others to follow’ according to the 1995 External Review of CGIAR genebanks), and that it continues to meet most if not all of the genebank standards, it came as a big surprise to me that 10 other CGIAR genebanks are viewed in a different light. The 1995 review was conducted by a panel and involved 20 experts from national and regional genetic resources programs, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Its purpose was to assess the technical, scientific and financial constraints facing the Centre genebanks and to identify opportunities for improving their operations and the services they provide.

But if there were genebank deficiencies identified in the 1995 External Review, why had steps not been taken before now to sort these out? And that perplexes me. To be fair, I don’t know the details of the Crop Trust’s evaluation of each of the genebanks, and on what grounds they were ‘failed’. After all, I ‘retired’ from active genebank management in 2001, and no longer had regular contact with my colleagues in the CGIAR’s Inter-Centre Working Group on Genetic Resources.

Genebank standards
The first genebank standards were published by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in 1985, and they were revised in 1994. I used the 1985 (and 1994 standards before they were published) when I joined IRRI and began a review of the International Rice Genebank operations. I first visited IRRI in January 1991 when I interviewed for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC), and was rather impressed with the genebank. On joining IRRI in July later that year I was concerned to discover that first impressions had been quite misleading. Over the next six months I uncovered a ‘genebank can of worms’, and had the genebank been reviewed then, it would have failed miserably.

We made an in-depth review of every aspect of genebank management, what would require increased investment (staff, funds, and equipment), and what could be improved significantly just by changing the way we did things in terms of seed management, germplasm regeneration, data management, and the like. Some of these didn’t actually require more resources, just a different approach that freed up existing staff time to concentrate on things that were important. I’m not going to elaborate. What I can say is that we enhanced operations right across the genebank operations, and I have described some of what we did in an earlier blog post.

A lot has been made of the publication of the latest Genebank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, by FAO in 2013 (revised in 2014), after endorsement by the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at its Fourteenth Session in 2013. The wheels of progress turn rather slowly at FAO. And I can’t remember how many years it has taken to come to agreement over the latest version.

The standards are non-binding, but they do provide guidance on best practice for a whole range of germplasm, and of course the norms that have to be followed today for germplasm exchange and use under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture using material transfer agreements.

Lack of progress?
What I cannot fathom is why the CGIAR genebanks did not apparently take a hard look at their operations before now and what is needed to bring them into line with accepted standards. As custodians of the world’s most important genetic resources collections I believe it was their obligation to do so.  Or was it that center managements were waiting for someone else to step in and pick up the financial tab, rather than investing, as IRRI did, from its own resources?  I wonder if many genebanks (not just those of the CGIAR) have held off making any changes or investment until the latest genebank standards had been ‘approved’ by the FAO Commission.

When I presented my upgrade plans to IRRI management way back in 1992 or so, we were fortunate that the institute was undergoing a thorough refurbishment of its physical plant. IRRI management was surprised however when I presented my ‘resources shopping list’ as no-one had expected that the genebank would need any attention. To everyone concerned, it was the ‘jewel in the institute’s crown’ that operated like clockwork. My genebank upgrade plan had to compete for resources with all the other things that needed improving around IRRI. Fortunately for the cause of rice genetic resources IRRI management approved what I has asked for (almost in its entirety) and we made the infrastructure improvements that went along with the changes to genebank operations.


Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, Head of the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center at IRRI

I am pleased that my successor as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (now the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center), Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, has built on what I started. Many of the changes we made during the 1990s are still in place, but improved in a number of respects. For instance, all packets of seeds are now bar-coded, data management systems have been integrated with the rice breeding databases (something we started before I left GRC), more sub-zero cold storage capacity has been added, and even more screenhouse space for managing the wild rice species collection. The publication of the latest genebank standards provides another yardstick against which to measure the operations of the International Rice Genebank. I’m confident that there is and will continue to be a close congruence between the two.



Don’t put all your eggs in one basket . . . or your seeds in a single genebank

On 20 May 2015, a long article was published in The Guardian about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), popularly—and rather unfortunately—known as the ‘Doomsday Vault’. I’ve recently been guilty of using that moniker simply because that’s how the vault has come to be known, rightly or wrongly, in the media.

Authored by US-based environment correspondent of The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, the article had the headline grabbing title: The doomsday vault: the seeds that could save a post-apocalyptic world.

You get a flavor of what’s in store, however, from the very first paragraph. Goldenberg writes: ‘One Tuesday last winter, in the town nearest to the North Pole, Robert Bjerke turned up for work at his regular hour and looked at the computer monitor on his desk to discover, or so it seemed for a few horrible moments, that the future of human civilisation was in jeopardy.’

Turns out there was a relatively minor glitch in one of the supplementary cooling systems of this seed repository under the Arctic permafrost where millions of seeds of the world’s most important food staples and other species are being stored, duplicating the germplasm conservation efforts of the genebanks from which they were sent. Hardly the stuff of Apocalypse Now. So while making a favorable case for the need to store seeds in a genebank like the Svalbard vault, Goldenberg ends her introduction with this somewhat controversial statement: ‘Seed banks are vulnerable to near-misses and mishaps. That was the whole point of locating a disaster-proof back-up vault at Svalbard. But what if there was a bigger glitch – one that could not be fixed by borrowing a part from the local shop? There is now a growing body of opinion that the world’s faith, in Svalbard and the Crop Trust’s broader mission to create seed banks, is misplaced. [The emphasis in bold is mine.] Those who have worked with farmers in the field, especially in developing countries, which contain by far the greatest variety of plants, say that diversity cannot be boxed up and saved in a single container—no matter how secure it may be. Crops are always changing, pests and diseases are always adapting, and global warming will bring additional challenges that remain as yet unforeseen. In a perfect world, the solution would be as diverse and dynamic as plant life itself.’ 

I have several concerns about the article—and the many comments it elicited that stem, unfortunately, from lack of understanding on the one hand and ignorance and prejudice on the other.

  • Goldenberg gives the impression that it’s an either/or situation of ex situ conservation in a genebank versus in situ conservation in farmers’ fields or natural environments (in the case of crop wild relatives).
  • There is a perception apparently held by some that the development of the SGSV has been detrimental to the cause of in situ conservation of crop wild relatives.
  • Because there is no research or use of the germplasm stored in the SGSV, then it only has an ‘existence value’. Of course this does not take into account the research on and use of the same germplasm in the genebanks from which it was sent to Svalbard. Therefore Svalbard by its very nature is assumed to be very expensive.
  • The role of Svalbard as a back-up to other genebank efforts is not emphasized sufficiently. As many genebanks do not have adequate access to long-term conservation facilities, the SGSV is an important support at no cost directly to those genebanks as far as I am aware. However, Svalbard can never be a panacea. If seeds of poor quality (i.e less than optimum viability) are stored in the vault then they will deteriorate faster than good seeds. As the saying goes: ‘Junk in, junk out’.
  • The NGO perspective is interesting. It seems it’s hard for some of our NGO colleagues to accept that use of germplasm stored in genebanks actually does benefit farmers.Take for example the case of submergence tolerant rice, now being grown by farmers in Bangladesh and other countries on land where a consistent harvest was almost unheard of before. Or the cases where farmers have lost varieties due to natural disasters but have had them replaced because they were in a genebank. My own experience in the Cagayan valley in the northern Philippines highlights this very well after a major typhoon in the late 1990s devastated the rice agriculture of that area. See the section about on farm management of rice germplasm in this earlier post. They also still harbour a concern that seeds in genebanks are at the mercy of being expropriated by multinationals. In the comments, Monsanto was referred to many times, as was the issue of GMOs. I addressed this in the comment I contributed.

I added this comment that same day on The Guardian web site:
‘For a decade during the 1990s I managed one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks – the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Large, because it holds over 116,000 samples of cultivated varieties and wild species of rice. And important, because rice is the most important food staple feeding half the world’s population several times daily.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), the so-called ‘Doomsday Vault’ in Spitsbergen, holds on behalf of IRRI an almost complete duplicate set of samples (called ‘accessions’), in case something should happen to the genebank in Los Baños, south of Manila. I should add that for decades the USDA has also held a duplicate set in its genebank at Fort Collins in Colorado, under exactly the same ‘black box’ terms as the SGSV.

Germplasm is conserved so that it can be studied and used in plant breeding to enhance the productivity of the rice crop, to increase its resilience in the face of climate change, or to meet the challenge of new strains of diseases and pests. The application of molecular biology is unlocking the mysteries of this enormous genetic diversity, making it accessible for use in rice improvement much more efficiently than in past decades.

Many genebanks round the world and the collections they manage do not have access to long-term and safe storage facilities. This is where the SGSV plays an important role. Genebanks can be at risk from a whole range of natural threats (earthquakes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, etc.) or man-made threats: conflicts, lack of resources, and inadequate management that can lead to fires, flooding, etc. Just take the example of the International Rice Genebank. The Philippines are subject to the natural threats mentioned, but the genebank was designed and built to withstand these. The example of the ICARDA genebank in Aleppo highlights the threat to these facilities from being located in a conflict zone.

To understand more about what it means to conserve a crop like rice please visit this post on my blog.  There is an enlightening 15 minute video there that I made about the genebank.

It is not a question of taking any set of seeds and putting them into cold storage. Only ‘good’ seeds will survive for any length of time under sub-zero conditions. Many studies have shown that if stored at -18C, seeds with initial high viability may be stored for decades even hundreds of years. The seeds of many plant species – including most of the world’s most important food crops like rice, wheat, maize and many others conform to this pattern. What I can state unequivocally is that the seeds from the genebanks of the world’s most important genebanks, managed like that of IRRI under the auspices of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), have been routinely tested for viability and only the best sent to Svalbard.

Prof. Phil Pardey, University of Minnesota

Prof. Phil Pardey, University of Minnesota

The other aspect of Goldenberg’s otherwise excellent article are the concerns raised by a number of individuals whose ‘comments’ are quoted. I count both Phil Pardey and Nigel Maxted among my good friends, and it seems to me that their comments have been taken completely out of context. I have never heard them express such views in such a blunt manner. Their perspectives on conservation and use, and in situ vs. ex situ are much more nuanced as anyone will see for themselves from reading their many publications. The SEARICE representative I do not know, but I’ve had many contacts with her organization. It’s never a question of genebank or ex situ conservation versus on-farm or in situ conservation. They are complementary and mutually supportive approaches. Crop varieties will die out for a variety of reasons. If they can be stored in a genebank so much the better (not all plant species can be stored successfully as seeds, as was mentioned in Goldenberg’s article). The objection to genebanks on the grounds of permitting multinationals to monopolize these important genetic resources is a red herring and completely without foundation.

So the purpose of the SGSV is one of not ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’. Unfortunately the name ‘Doomsday Vault’ as used by Goldenberg has come to imply a post cataclysm world. It’s really much more straightforward than that. The existence of the SGSV is part of humanity’s genetic insurance policy, risk mitigation, and business continuity plan for a wise and forward-thinking society.’

Over the next couple of days others chipped in with first hand knowledge of the SGSV or genetic conservation issues in general.

Simon Jeppsonsiminjeppson is someone who has first-hand knowledge and experience of the SGSV, and he wrote: ‘I’m currently working as the project coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on behalf of NordGen and I just wanted to add some of my reflections on this article some of the comments.

This article is an interesting read but a rather unbalanced one. The temperature increase that is described as putting the world heritage in jeopardy is a misconception. There has been a background study used as a worst case scenario during the planning stage of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault based on the seeds stored in the old abandoned mine shaft mentioned. These results were published in 2003 and even the most recent data (after 25 years in permafrost conditions prevailing in the same mountain without active cooling) shows that all samples are still viable. Anyone curious about this can for themselves try out various storage temperatures and find out the predicted storage time for specific crops at:

Further I have some reflections regarding some of the recently posted comments. The statement “Most seed resources for plant breeding come from farmers’ fields via national seed stores in developing countries: these countries are not depositing in Svalbard.” is wrong; more than 60% of the deposited material originates from developing countries. Twenty-three of depositors represent national or regional institutes situated in developing counties, 12 are international centers and 28 are from developed countries according to IMF. This data is readily available at:

Finally, a comment about the statement that “Seeds will not be distributed – only ever sent back to the institute that provided them. The reason is that seeds commonly have seed-borne diseases, sometimes nasty viruses and the rest.” This statement is also a misconception. The seeds samples stored in the vault are of the same seed lots already readily distributed worldwide from the depositing institutes. There are more than 1750 plant genetic institutes many of them distributing several thousand samples every year.’

maxted-nigel-Cropped-110x146Nigel Maxted is a senior lecturer in the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham. As I suspected, when I commented on Goldenberg’s article, Nigel’s contribution to the discussion was taken out of context. He commented: ‘I believe I have been mis-quoted in this article, I do think the Svalbard genebank is worthwhile and I hope the Trust reach their funding goal, even though ex situ does freeze evolution for the accessions included, it provides our best chance of long-term stability for preserving agrobiodiversity in an increasingly unstable world.

I was trying to make a more nuanced point to Suzanne, that I strongly support complementary conservation that involves both in situ and ex situ actions. However at the moment if we compare the financial commitment to in situ and ex situ conservation of agrobiodiversity, globally over 99% of funding is spent on ex situ alone, therefore by any stretch of the imagination can we be considered to be implementing a complementary approach? I was used to make a point and I suppose it would be naive of me to complain, but I hope one day we will stop trying to create an artificial dichotomy between the two conservation strategies and wake up to the need for real complementary conservation. Conservation that includes a balanced range of in situ actions as well to conservation agrobiodiversity before it is too late for us all.’

HawtinGeoff Hawtin is someone who knows what he’s talking about. As Director General of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute for just over a decade from 1991, and the founding Executive Secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Geoff had several telling comments: ‘As someone who has worked for the last 25 years to help conserve the genetic diversity of our food crops, I welcome the article by Suzanne Goldenberg in spite of its very many inaccuracies and misconceptions. She rightly draws attention to the plight of what is arguably the world’s most important resource in the fight against food and nutritional insecurity. If this article results in more attention and funds being devoted to safeguarding this resource—whether on farm or in genebanks—it will have served a useful purpose.

The dichotomy between in situ and ex situ conservation is a false one. The two are entirely complementary and both approaches are vital. For farmers around the world the genetic diversity of their landraces and local varieties is their lifeblood—a living resource that they can use and mould to help meet their current and future needs and those of their families.

But we all live in a world of rapid and momentous change and a world in which we all depend for our food on crops that may have originated continents away. The diversity an African farmer—or plant breeder—needs to improve her maize or beans may well be found in those regions where these crops were originally domesticated – in this case in Latin America, where to this day genetic diversity of these two crops remains greatest. Without the work of genebanks in gathering and maintaining vast collections of such genetic diversity, how can such farmers and breeders hope to have access to the traits they need to develop new crop varieties that can resist or tolerate new diseases and pests, or that can produce higher yields of more nutritious food, or that are able to meet the ever growing threats of heat, drought and flooding posed by climate change?

Scientists have been collecting genetic diversity since at least the 1930s, but efforts expanded significantly in the 1970s and 80s in response to growing recognition that diversity was rapidly disappearing from farmers fields in many parts of the world as a result of major shifts in agricultural production systems and the introduction and adoption of new, higher yielding varieties. Today, thanks to these pioneering efforts, diversity is being conserved in genebanks that no longer exists in the wild or on farmers’ fields.

The common misconception that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault exists to save the world following an apocalyptic disaster is perpetuated, even in the title of the article. In reality, the SGSV is intended to provide a safety-net as a back-up for the world’s more than 1,700 genebanks which themselves, as pointed out in the article, are often far from secure. At a cost of about £6 million to build and annual running and maintenance costs of less than £200,000 surely this ranks as the world’s most inexpensive yet arguably most valuable insurance policy.’

Susan_BragdonFinally, among the genetic resources experts, Susan Bragdon made the following comments: ‘I think the author overstates the fierce debates between the proponents of ex situ and in situ conservation. Most would agree that both are needed with in situ being complemented by ex situ.

The controversy over money is because funders are not understanding this need for both and may feel they have checked off that box by funding Svalbard (which is perhaps better seen as an insurance policy—one never hopes to have to use one’s insurance policy.) Svalbard is of course sexier than the on-farm development and conservation of diversity by small scale farmers around the world. Donors can jet in, go dog sledding, see polar bears. Not as sexy to visit most small-scale farms but there are more and more exceptions (e.g., the Potato Park in Peru)

Articles like this set up a false choice between ex situ and in situ which is simply not shared except by a few loud voices. We need to work together to create the kind of incentives that make small scale farming in agrobiodiverse settings an attractive life choice.’

In her staff biography on the Quaker United Nations Office web page, it relates that ‘from 1997-2005 Susan worked with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute as a Senior Scientist, Law & Policy, on legal and policy issues related to plant genetic resources and in particular managed projects on intellectual property rights, Farmers’ Rights, biotechnology and biological diversity, and on developing decision-making tools for the development of policy and law to manage plant genetic resources in the interest of food security.’

Comments are now closed on The Guardian website for this article. I thought it would useful to bring together some of the expert perspectives in the hope of balancing the arguments—since so many readers had taken the ‘apocalypse’ theme at face value— and making them more widely available.

When I have time, I’ll address some of the perspectives about genebank standards.

Herefordshire’s Goodrich Castle . . . yet another castle slighted

Two days ago, after a couple of weeks of really cold, wet and windy weather, it was bright and warm enough to contemplate an outing. Thank goodness, as cabin fever had begun to set in. With our 2,000 mile road trip around Scotland less than a week away, I didn’t fancy a long journey so we looked for a National Trust or English Heritage property that was within easy distance. Having been members of the National Trust for over four years now, we’ve visited most of the nearby venues. As English Heritage members only since the beginning of the year we decided that one of their properties would be a more convenient choice.

We chose to visit Goodrich Castle, built in the 12th century on a red sandstone outcrop along the River Wye in southeast Herefordshire.

It’s about a 400 m walk from the car park to the castle, and emerging through the trees you get this wonderful panorama of the south walls of the castle—or rather, what’s left of them. For having survived from the 12th century, the walls and floors in the towers were deliberately demolished (or slighted) in 1646 after the Parliamentarians captured the castle from Royalist supporters (just as they did at Kenilworth Castle that we visited a month earlier) in the aftermath of the Civil Wars.

Goodrich panorama 1

If you asked a child to draw a castle from memory, then I guess Goodrich Castle would fit the bill, minus the crenelations. These probably disappeared during the Parliamentarian vandalism. There are four towers around a ‘central’ keep (actually closer to the south wall). The towers no longer have any floors; but in the keep, stairs have been constructed up to first floor level from where it’s possible to climb to the roof of the keep, up an extremely narrow and tight spiral staircase.

20150521 066 Goodrich Castle

The climb to the roof of the keep – very narrow and steep. Not for the faint-hearted.

The castle is surrounded by a deep moat, although I don’t think it was ever filled with water, more of a deep ditch on the east, west and south sides. The outcrop on which the castle stands descends steeply on the north side to the River Wye that would have provided a natural defence. I did wonder whether the sandstone excavated to construct the moat was then used to build the castle’s walls. Above several courses of grey, and presumably harder sandstone, the upper courses of the walls were built from red sandstone.

What are particularly impressive are the straight-sided, triangular buttresses propping up the southeast and southwest round towers.

Below the gatehouse on the west side of the castle is a large hemispherical barbican, with a short causeway leading into the castle. This would have been protected originally by a drawbridge, wooden gates, and two separate portcullises.

Interestingly, the castle chapel can be found alongside the gatehouse, just to the south.

It seems that Goodrich Castle was more of a residence, luxuriously furnished, by its different owners over several centuries, rather than playing much part in the various conflicts that affected this part of England that is quite close to the border with Wales. That is until the 17th century English Civil Wars. Even after the Royalist besieged had surrendered, many parts of the castle were still inhabitable. That is why the Parliamentarians decided to demolish the walls and rooms deliberately.

English Heritage provides access to many parts of the castle, and you can walk along the upper part of the walls. In some buildings where there are no original stairwells, stairs have been installed.

It was our original intention of combining a visit to Goodrich Castle with a National Property such as Tredegar House in Newport (much further south), calling in at Goodrich on the way home. We thought that it would be just a quick visit to Goodrich, not a lot to see. How wrong we were! We must have spent well over two hours clambering over the various buildings, climbing up to the highest levels (at the top of the keep), and walking around the moat and remains (actually just the foundations) of the stable block—which was where the Parliamentarians first gained access to the castle in 1646.

‘England’s Sistine Chapel’ (Simon Jenkins)

20150521 142 St Marys Kempley

St Mary’s Church, Kempley. You’ve probably never heard of it, nor have the least idea where to find it. Neither had I—until yesterday, that is. Kempley is a small village just north of Junction 3 on the M50 in the Forest of Dean district of  Gloucestershire close to the county boundary with Herefordshire, a handful of miles north of Ross-on-Wye. St Mary’s is a further couple of miles to the north of the village, and was replaced by another parish church, dedicated to St Edward the Confessor.

Owned by English Heritage, 12th century St Mary’s Church (built around 1130) is an outstanding example—perhaps the most significant and most complete set in the whole of northern Europe—of Romanesque fresco paintings. We had stumbled across this little gem, while deciding if there were other sites near the main objective of our outing yesterday: Goodrich Castle (which is about 12 miles or so south of Kempley). St Mary’s is not the easiest building to find, but the effort is worthwhile. The north wall of the church is plain stone. But come around to the south side, and surprisingly the wall is rendered in the most fetching shade of pale pink.

But it’s inside that the biggest surprise awaits you. The church has the most exquisite medieval wall paintings you could ever imagine. It also proudly boasts one of the oldest roofs (even original doors) in the country, with its original timbers dating back to its construction.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that these paintings were discovered beneath layers of whitewash—presumably applied for generations following the Reformation in Tudor times. The images on both north and south walls of the nave were worked in tempera on dry lime mortar, and depict the Wheel of Life and to its right either side of a window, depictions of St Anthony of Egypt (on the left side) and St Michael accompanied by the Virgin Mary (on the right).

But the real glory of St Mary’s is found in the chancel, where the wall paintings are true frescoes, painted on wet plaster. They lift your soul! On the ceiling is a magnificent portrayal of Christ. I cannot better Simon Jenkins’ description published in The Guardian in 2008: The sensation lies in the chancel, composed of the most complete set of Romanesque frescos in northern Europe. Christ sits in the middle of the ceiling on a rainbow, his feet on a globe. He is attended by sun, moon, stars, candelabra, a winged ox and seraphim with books and scrolls, the complete Book of Revelation. Below him sit rows of sepia apostles gazing up at Him from a Romanesque arcade. No inch is left untouched. Here is a bishop, there lay pilgrims heading for a heavenly Jerusalem. Everywhere is chequerboard and zigzag decoration. 

The church porch is apparently also original, and above the door is a depiction of the Tree of Life.

Let me finish with another quote from Simon Jenkins’ article. ‘England’s Sistine Chapel lies lost in the western reaches of Gloucestershire. It is smaller, to put it mildly, and older by 350 years. But what it lacks in grandeur it adds in serenity. I would exchange five minutes in the chancel of Kempley church for an hour in Rome. And I would have it to myself.’

Steph and I were fortunate to have this haven of serenity to ourselves for more than 30 minutes before we had to head home. I felt remarkably calm for several hours afterwards. Go and seek that serenity for yourselves. You won’t be disappointed.

“The world is not going to be solved by legislation” (William Howard Taft – 27th POTUS*)

‘A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence; or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, “Huh. It works. It makes sense”.’ Wise words from presidential candidate Barack Obama in an interview with staff writer William Finnegan of The New Yorker, published in 2004.


Which suggests that not all legislation is ‘good’ legislation. Governments, at least in the United Kingdom, seem obsessed with introducing new legislation—sometimes (often perhaps), it seems to me, without thinking through all the social consequences. The parliamentary agenda is crammed with this measure or that, introducing new rules to govern us (not necessarily good?) or repealing legislation no longer in line with the current mores of society (mostly good?).

Now that the 2015 General Election is over and done with, and Cameron’s Tories have a workable majority in the House of Commons without having to be propped up by the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) in coalition, the fetters are removed from the Conservatives following their increasingly (and frighteningly) right-wing agenda.

As usual, I was lying in bed this morning, drinking my cup of tea and listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today program, my daily ritual. The headline was the proposed legislation that will, apparently, be in the Queen’s Speech** in two weeks time, to tackle Islamic extremism and radicalization. Introduction of such legislation was apparently blocked by the Lib Dems during the term of the 2010-2015 coalition government. In a commentary I read earlier today, such an anti-extremism bill will address ‘the symptoms not the causes’. And, therefore, I wonder (naïvely perhaps) what other changes could be made to how we are governed without always having to resort to new legislation.

In my younger years, I had, admittedly, limited knowledge of or interest in the legislative agenda of consecutive Conservative or Labour governments since the 1950s. But I did recognize the groundbreaking legislation that changed British society forever at the end of the 1950s and throughout the more liberal 1960s, such as the ‘Lady Chatterley trial’ and reform of the Obscene Publications Act (1959), the abolition of the death penalty for murder (1965),  the decriminalization of homosexuality (1967) and subsequent amendments, the legalization of abortion (1967), and recently same-sex marriages (2013).

Another forthcoming bone of contention will be the promised repeal of the Human Rights Act (1998)—under which the death penalty was finally abolished for all offences—and its replacement by a ‘British Bill of Rights’. Admittedly the legal basis of some of the successful appeals under this Act have seemed ludicrous to many. But I believe there are considerable grounds for concern that incoming Justice Secretary Michael Gove will endeavor to turn the clock back. And perhaps the same can be said for much of the expected legislation that only about 35% of those who voted in last week’s General Election actually supported.

I’m sure my lawyer friends will put me straight if I have misinterpreted any of the issues here.

Based on what one of them told me yesterday, the government could do to look at some ancient laws that are (or could still be) on the ‘Statute Book’. I put this photo on my Facebook page, showing the work being carried out to repair the roof of my home.

Roof 018

‘Nice crenalations,’ commented one Facebook friend. Whereupon, a lawyer friend replied: ‘ In Henry II’s time, you needed a royal licence to crenelate. The law is probably still in force!’ Time for a smiley!

*Interestingly, William Howard Taft, who served just a single term as President from 1909 to 2013, later became the tenth Chief Justice of the United States from 1920 to 1930.

** The Queen’s Speech is delivered by HM The Queen (as Head of State) at the beginning of each parliamentary session in which the government’s legislative agenda for the coming year is spelled out.



The election dust is settling

The dust has yet to settle on what turned out to be a rather surprising Tory victory in last Thursday’s General Election. While the pollsters got it wrong—consistently—in the weeks leading up to the election, the exit poll conducted by Strathclyde University’s Professor John Curtice was spot on. Now we are all waiting to see which hat former Liberal Democrat (Lib Dem) party leader Paddy Ashdown will eat, having declared his intention to do so if the exit poll turned out to be correct.

I was an undecided voter almost until the moment I put my X on the ballot paper around 11:30. But weighing up all the options, I decided to vote Lib Dem. Not that my vote counted for much, as it turned out. As throughout the country, the Lib Dem support collapsed, down almost 15% in the Bromsgrove constituency. On the other hand, incumbent Conservative MP Savid Javid increased his share of the vote by more than 10%, winning the seat by a massive majority over the Labour candidate of more than 16,500 and almost 54% of the votes cast. The data below are copied from the BBC website.

bromsgrove 3Bromsgrove 1

Bronsgrove 2


Bromsgrove MP Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I didn’t vote in 2010—couldn’t, in fact. We arrived back in the UK from the Philippines on 2 May, just a few days before the General Election was run. And being outside the country beforehand, we were not registered to vote. Sajid Javid was elected to Parliament for the first time in 2010, and became Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport a year ago when the then incumbent had to step down. Now he has been promoted to Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in the new Cameron Cabinet.

Bromsgrove has been a Conservative constituency forever. And I get the impression that Labour and the Lib Dems didn’t really mount much of a campaign. UKIP were in evidence (so my wife told me when she went into the town centre twice a week), but I never saw hide nor hair of any of the candidates, just received campaign materials through the door, with Javid’s team sending us the most.

So why did I vote Lib Dem? I’m not a Lib Dem ideologically. In fact, I blogged some months back that I’m your typical middle of the road voter. Not all that is Conservative is wrong, although much is. Likewise, there were important elements of the Labour manifesto I could support, but not all. I really feel that the Lib Dems have been unfairly hammered by their own supporters, opponents, and the media for joining a coalition government in 2010, particularly on the issue of student fees issues. As I have also written before, coalition is all about the art of compromise, and there are good things that the Lib Dems prevented the Conservatives enacting in their legislative program. Just read this analysis in today’s Independent newspaper. Of course that’s academic now that Cameron has his majority, albeit a tiny one. Heaven help us if (probably when) the pressures of his right wing back-benchers force him to adopt measures that many of us fear.

Former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has been vilified in the media. I watched all the leader interviews hosted by Evan Davis in the weeks leading up to the election. Clegg was the first leader who Davis interviewed. I was incensed by what I perceived as an unfair grilling by Davis; the other leaders in subsequent interviews were treatedmuch more benignly, almost with kid gloves on. I even took to Twitter to vent my dissatisfaction with the Clegg interview as you can see in my tweets below (the most recent of the string at the top).

clegg-davis tweets

Leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband

Former Leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband MP

I was never going to vote for the UKIP or Green Party candidates. In the end I just couldn’t bring myself to support Labour either. Ed Miliband just didn’t do it for me. I couldn’t envisage him in No. 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister. Well, having resigned in the aftermath of the Labour bloodbath, Miliband seems to have shrugged his shoulders, and just walked away. He’d better look over his shoulders because the knives are already out, many being wielded by erstwhile former colleagues.

So I’m one of the few million nationwide who saw a possible role for the Lib Dems in another coalition government. That’s what the polls had indicated was the likely outcome of the vote, and I placed my X accordingly. Either the pollsters got their methodology totally wrong in this election, or they were told ‘porkies’ by all the people they polled. Whatever the reason, it seems likely there will be an independent inquiry about how and why they got it so wrong, because the ‘guidance’ from the polls must have influenced many voters—me included.





What’s wrong with a rogue apostrophe or an Oxford comma?

punctuationIn the past few days I’ve seen string of Facebook posts—and elsewhere—about the validity of using the so-called Oxford comma. And once something like that appears on social media, Pandora’s grammar box is well and truly opened. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about what is correct grammar or otherwise. Such passions inflamed!

Since I started this blog back in February 2012, I reckon I’ve written 200,000 words or thereabouts. I hope many—most?—of my readers appreciate my writing style. I actually get quite a buzz from writing, and it’s always a pleasure when a piece that I’m tackling comes out as good as I had hoped, better even. I’m the first to admit that’s not always the case. I try to keep my style informal, informative, but—as far as I detect—grammatically correct (whatever that really means). And for someone trained as a scientist, and all the scientific writing principles that were drilled into me as an undergraduate (stay remote, young man), moving into a informal mode has not been entirely pain free.

When I worked at IRRI and had responsibility for all donor relations, I soon realized that we would fail to engage with the donors if we sent them reading material written in rather turgid science-speak. What was required was a lighter touch: keep the science true to itself, but just explain it in terms that are more easily understandable and accessible to a wider audience. I guess I had some experience of what this is all about when I lectured at the University of Birmingham during the 1980s. Most of my teaching was to graduate students, the majority of whom did not have English as a first language. You just had to find ways of explaining sometimes complex ideas in more straightforward terms, often using analogies to get the point across. It was a good training.

I read all the time, and always have a book on the go: invariably some history tome, hardly ever fiction, sometimes biography. I’m convinced that if you want to improve your writing it is necessary to read the output of others. I’m always amazed how quickly I seem to storm through one book, and struggle with the next. Most often it’s just down to the author’s writing style. I commented recently how easy I found a book by Bernard Cornwell about the Battle of Waterloo. He brought his fiction author strengths to an enjoyable non-fiction historical account. The narrative just flowed, and he used many of the fiction writer’s tricks to keep the reader interested in what happened next.

I always have three books to hand: a good English dictionary; Roget’s Thesaurus; and a book about writing styles and grammatical use (I find Martin Cutts’ The Plain English Guide very helpful).

And this brings me on to the focus of this particular post. The apostrophe. Such a useful, idiosyncratic, and controversial grammatical tool—only found in English as far as I could determine. Used correctly, what a beautiful addition to language. But its misuse (or should that be it’s?) just highlights what poor grammatical training and discipline results in. Added when it shouldn’t be, and forgotten when its presence is an absolute necessity.

But I have been intrigued, as I said these past few days, over a string of stories about the need for the Oxford comma, the one you place before ‘and’ in a list of items. Is it necessary? I would have to review all my writing to check what my practice is. I think I probably use it when necessary to ensure clarity of meaning and omit it when I feel it really is not necessary.

I’m also a fan of the em dash (not to be confused with the en dash)—I’d rather use this grammatical aid than parentheses. I’ve just discovered there’s an em dash in the special characters menu here in WordPress! Maybe I use the em dash a little too frequently, but not as much as I saw in another book I read recently. Used judiciously, the em dash is a great addition to any writing. But the author of that book must have used five or more per page. They appeared to leap off the page.

Anyway, I believe that we can always keep improving. Keep the dictionary and thesaurus to hand (and a mouse click away from the spellchecker). There’s a real elegance to good writing.