Even though I managed a large genebank for ten years, I still don’t fully understand why seeing lots and lots of packets of seeds in a cold store at -18C—essentially a very large refrigerator—holds such a fascination for so many people. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about that, but it just seems everyone wants to walk inside and see for themselves. In a tropical country like the Philippines this is a novel experience, of course. Not so at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault inside the Arctic Circle. I guess there are times of the year when it must be colder outside than in. There again, that genebank has a particular attraction and significance*.
Let’s hope that when visitors do visit a genebank they see more than just packets of seeds on cold shelves, and get to appreciate just what it entails to conserve these important varieties and wild species, and why that is important for society at large. And of course, they should finish their genebank visit with a little more understanding about genetic diversity, how it came about, and how plant breeders can tap into this gene pool to breed new crop varieties.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) receives thousands of visitors each year. Most of them are parties of Filipino schoolchildren, however, who come to learn what rice and rice agriculture is all about. Not surprising really, given that many children raised in urban environments have little idea where their food comes from. But a visit to the genebank is no longer part of their visit.
That was not always the case. At the start of my tenure as head of the genebank in 1991, I had the impression that most of the visitors to the institute were given, or seemingly entitled to, a tour of the International Rice Genebank (IRG). Now, most visitors are shown the Riceworld Museum and Learning Center (developed with support from the German government) where there is a display of the genebank’s work.
But if you are one of the ‘chosen’, a tour of the genebank can still be part of your visitor program. In this gallery (courtesy of IRRI) my former colleague and successor as head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC), Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, describing what the genebank is all about to participants of the 6th Meeting of the APEC Policy Partnership on Science, Technology and Innovation, who visited IRRI on 12 August 2015.
So why was free access to the genebank restricted?
A few months after I joined IRRI, I needed to talk to one of my staff. Going downstairs to the ground floor, I saw a line of 50 or more high school/university students filing in through the front door of the building, a line that snaked its way around the corridors and into the genebank itself. My colleagues in the institute’s Visitors Service felt they had carte blanche permission to take any number of visitors into the genebank, at any time.
Not only was the front door of the building open, but also every door between there and the -18C long-term storage vault, notwithstanding that it must have been over 30C outside with humidity approaching 90% or more. Although the configuration of the various genebank rooms and laboratories has changed since 1991, they were (and remain) temperature and humidity controlled. It made no sense to me to have hordes of visitors passing through, leaving all the doors open to the outside in their wake. This had to stop. And it soon did, with visitors scheduled in a more coordinated way.
However, I soon realized that if I hosted all these visitors myself, that’s about all I would be attending to daily. So I roped in the other genebank international staff and senior Filipinos to take their share of handling the visitor load (burden on some occasions). As head of GRC, I would generally host only the VIPs.
So who were (and are) these VIPs? Well they ranged from royalty (HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand, Prince Albert of Monaco, and HRH The Duke of Gloucester from the UK); heads of state (from the Philippines, India, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar to name just a few, even disgraced former President Fujimori of Peru); heads of government and other politicians (from Bangladesh, Vietnam for example, and the Philippines of course); ambassadors and other members of the diplomatic community in the Philippines; Nobel Laureates such as Norman Borlaug (Peace, 1970) and Joseph Stiglitz (Economics, 2001); heads and representatives of donor agencies to IRRI; eminent scientists; and germplasm specialists with a particular interest in seeing how IRRI tackled the challenge of managing such a large germplasm collection. Usually I had just 10-15 minutes at most to describe why conserving rice seeds was so important for the future of rice agriculture—after all, rice is the staple food of half the world’s population. Most visitors had never been inside in a genebank before, let alone seen the diversity of rice varieties, or in fact realized that such diversity even existed.
In 1994 or 1995,GRC held a one-day Open House for over 1000 IRRI staff and colleagues from the nearby University of the Philippines Los Baños. It was then we made the world map from rice grains of different shapes, sizes and colors that you can see in a couple of the photos above. A duplicate of that map is also on display in the Riceworld Museum and Learning Center. Some of the other cartoon display materials showing how seeds are dried and stored are still on display in the genebank, but have been updated periodically.
Here is a small selection of some of the people I met. I wish I had a better record of all those VIPs I met over a decade in GRC.
Heads of State
There’s no doubt however that explaining the role and work of the genebank to these visitors is not only necessary, but it is actually a rather important aspect of genebank management. These visitors are ‘genebank ambassadors’ and can spread the good word about the strategic importance of genetic conservation. Time (mostly) well spent!
*I’m waiting for my invitation to visit.