Feeling a little moonstruck today . . .

Christmas Eve 1968. I can remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing.

I was trudging around the streets of my hometown of Leek, in North Staffordshire, ankle-deep in snow (quite a novelty for that time of year) delivering Christmas mail as a temporary postman, something that I had done each year since about 1964.

So why do I remember this Christmas Eve especially? The newspapers were full of it.

Apollo 8 had lifted off just three days earlier from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to make the first manned orbit of the Moon, paving the way for the historic Apollo 11 mission seven months later, the first of only six manned Moon landings, thereby fulfilling President Kennedy’s commitment to land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s, and bring him safely back to Earth. It’s hard to believe that, with Apollo 17, the manned landings were over by December 1972.

Earthrise on 24 December 1968, taken by crew member Bill Anders on board Apollo 8. This photo must be one of the most widely viewed images of all time. This image was catalogued by Johnson Space Center of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under Photo ID: AS08-14-2383.

On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8, commanded by Frank Borman (who remembers him now?) with crew members Jim Lovell (who commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission), and Bill Anders, entered Moon orbit, becoming the first humans to leave Earth orbit, completely isolated from the Earth as they sped behind the Moon, and experiencing the wonder of Earthrise.

So why has this Apollo mission come to my mind today of all days?

Well, I’d gone downstairs in the dark just around 6 am to make our usual early morning cup of tea, and heard the rain falling quite heavily, just as had been forecast. Imagine my surprise a couple of hours later when I looked out of the kitchen window to see a clear, bright sky, not a cloud in sight.

And there, setting towards the western horizon, was the waning Moon just a couple of days past its full Hunter’s Moon phase.

The setting Moon over Bromsgrove around 8:15 am today, 26 October 2018.

And as I gazed up into the sky, making out various details of the Moon’s surface, some 384,400 km away, I found myself marveling at the fact that humans had actually walked on the surface of this extraterrestrial body that has fascinated humans since time immemorial. I began to ‘feel’ its power, its influence, its attraction.

Margaret Hamilton in 1969, standing next to listings of the software she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo project.

Half a century on, and that period of intense lunar exploration hardly seems possible. Did it really happen? That’s an idea that some conspiracy theorists promote – but not me I hasten to add.

What also amazes me is that there is probably more computing power in your average smartphone than that which took humans to the Moon in Apollo 8 and on the other lunar missions. Thank you, Margaret Hamilton!

 

 

Gelia Castillo – a synthesis tour de force

I was searching YouTube the other day for videos about the recent 5th International Rice Congress held in Singapore, when I came across several on the IRRI channel about a long-time friend and former colleague, Professor Gelia Castillo, who passed away in August 2017 at the age of 89¹.

Gelia was a distinguished rural sociologist, emeritus professor at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB) and, since 1999, a National Scientist of the Philippines, the highest honor that can be bestowed on any scientist.

I’m proud to have counted her among my friends.

I’d known Gelia since the late 1970s when she joined the Board of Trustees of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, the first woman board member and, if memory serves me correctly, one of the first women to serve on any board among the CGIAR centers when they were dominated by white Caucasian males (a situation that no longer obtains, thankfully).

The CGIAR centers in 2018 (from CIAT Annual Report 2017-2018).

I know that Gelia went to serve on the board of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (now Bioversity International) based in Rome, and other boards inside and outside the CGIAR.

I was a young scientist, in my late 20s, working for CIP in Costa Rica (and throughout Central America) when Gelia joined the center’s board, bringing (as she did everywhere she went) a welcome breath of fresh air—and a clarity of independent thinking—that categorized all her intellectual contributions. She influenced policymakers in government, international development circles, and academe, [and] pioneered the concept of participatory development.

Gelia was born into a poor family in Pagsanjan in Laguna Province, just 31 km east of Los Baños, the city² where she spent her entire academic career. She completed her graduate studies in the United States with MS (1953) and PhD (1960) degrees in rural sociology from Penn State and Cornell, respectively. She retired from UPLB in 1993, a couple of years after I landed in the Philippines, when we renewed our friendship after more than a decade.

But retirement did not mean slowing down. Besides her international board commitments, Gelia became ‘synthesizer-in-chief’ at IRRI, an honorary role through which she attended institute seminars and science reviews. She was also a valued adviser to successive Directors General. Let Gelia herself explain.

Gelia kept us honest! Why do I say this? She had an uncanny ability always to see the broader picture and bring together quite different perspectives to bear on the topic in hand. She herself admitted that, early in her career, she decided to concentrate on ‘synthesis’, an academic and intellectual focus and a skill (gift almost) that few manage to harness successfully. It wasn’t just her social sciences training.

In developing a research strategy and plan, any organization like IRRI needs skilled and dedicated researchers. But often, because each is deeply involved in his or her own projects, they find it hard to see (often necessary) links with other disciplines and research outcomes. Gelia was able to extract the essence of the institute’s research achievements and pull it together, mostly with approval but sometimes with justified criticism. Given her expertise in participatory research, working with poor families in rural areas (the ‘clients, as it were, of IRRI’s research and products), and promoting gender studies, Gelia could, almost at the drop of a hat, deliver a succinct synthesis of everything she had listened to, and provide suggestions for future directions. After a week of intense annual science review presentations and discussions, Gelia would be called upon, at the end of the final afternoon, to deliver her synthesis. Here she is, at the IRRI science review in 2010.

And almost without fail, she could hit the mark; and while she could be critical, never were criticisms aimed at individuals. Her analysis never became personal. I’m sure her wise words are sorely missed at IRRI.

Permit me to finish with a personal recollection. I retired from IRRI in April 2010 and, in subsequent years, I only saw her a couple of times, later that same year and in August 2014, when I was organizing the 3rd and 4th International Rice Congresses, and had to visit IRRI in that capacity.

Sharing cake and reminiscences with Gelia (in the DPPC office) on my last day at IRRI, 30 April 2010.

But just before I retired, in March 2010, I delivered my ‘exit’ seminar: Potatoes, pulses and rice – a 40 year adventure, a synthesis of my career in international agricultural research and academia. It must have struck a chord with Gelia. Because after it was all over, she came up to me, took me by the hand, and planted a large kiss on my cheek. That was praise indeed! A memory I cherish.


¹ Written by my friend and former colleague, Gene Hettel (who had been Head of IRRI’s Communication & Publication Services), IRRI published this obituary shortly after her death. There you will also find links to the speeches at her memorial service.

² In 2000, under Presidential Proclamation Order No. 349, the Municipality of Los Baños was designated and declared a Special Science and Nature City of the Philippines.

Brexiteers are like turkeys voting for Christmas

But it’s Remain supporters who are getting plucked and stuffed.

I’ve tried hard over the past two years not to disparage the views of those who voted, in the June 2016 referendum, for the UK to leave the European Union, many of whom continue to support that aim. After all, civilized debate is (or should be) what it’s all about.

Now, however, the gloves are off! Because the negative social, economic, political, and constitutional consequences of Brexit, and especially a no-deal Brexit, are too grim to contemplate. In the long term, the nation will survive but not without self-inflicted pain and hardship.

Unless, this silly trajectory can be halted.

Brexiteers. Makes them sound like a bunch of mischievous rogues. But they are not. Many politician Brexiteers are dangerous, self-interested, ignorant, bigoted, and short-sighted individuals. All for one and one for all. Gobble, gobble.

Short-sighted, except one, perhaps. Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for the 18th Century, has conceded that the nation shouldn’t expect any real economic benefits from Brexit for a long time, perhaps 50 years. He’s obviously playing the long game, cushioned by the sort of wealth that most of us can never imagine.

50 years! Good grief. My grandchildren will be approaching pensionable age by then. Are we so callous, stupid even, to condemn the youth of this country to such an uncertain future?

I can’t remember, during my lifetime (I’ll be 70 in a month’s time), the nation ever being polarized by a single issue such as Brexit. The referendum result revealed an almost equally divided electorate, with a small majority on the Leave side. In my opinion they were conned, taken in by the lies and false promises (and illegality) of the Leave campaign.

I don’t deny that some Leavers’ views were (and are) deeply held. As I have followed the debate about Brexit since the referendum, and particularly during the last few months, I watch and hear Remainers clearly and considerately lay out scenarios, based on evidence, for a Brexit outcome. In contrast, what do we hear from the Brexiteers? Project Fear! they cry.

And that’s what gets me, I’m afraid: the continuing inability of Brexit-supporting politicians and public to clearly spell out what they expect from Brexit, and what their plans are, instead of just repeating, ad nauseam, that we will be taking back control of our borders, our money, and our laws, and that it’s the will of the people.

When it comes to the law, I haven’t seen Parliament resting on its laurels because there is a continuous stream of new legislation. It seems more to do with their prejudiced view about the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) with respect to the EU’s regulatory framework. But if we trade under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules post-Brexit, we’ll still be subject to external controls. Not from the ECJ, but instead from the unelected WTO bureaucrats in Geneva who will hold our collective feet to the fire.

We always had control of our borders. It’s just that successive governments chose not to apply existing EU regulations to manage immigration into the UK from EU countries. Incidentally, very little is mentioned in the immigration/free movement context that immigration from countries outside the EU runs many times higher than from EU countries. Nigel Farage, bless his cotton socks, racist that he is, played the immigration card to great effect during the referendum campaign.

When it comes to money, the UK chose not to join the euro, and has, for many years, been the recipient of a healthy annual rebate after paying into the EU budget. Assuming that Brexit does indeed go ahead, one possible scenario is the UK asking to re-join the EU at some later date. But it won’t be, I believe, on the same favorable terms we currently enjoy: we’d have to join the Euro, budget rebates would be less generous or non-existent, and I guess we’d also have to become a Schengen country and abolish all border controls with other EU members.

The other point that gets my goat is the referendum result being the ‘will of the people’ (it was ‘advisory’), and must therefore be respected as though no-one is permitted to change their mind, ever. Recent polls indicate however, that if the referendum were held today, based on what we know now and what was just speculation or false promises in 2016, there would be a majority to Remain in the EU. Voters are changing their minds – in both directions. The outcome might still be close.

Maybe some of the 27+% who didn’t exercise their democratic right in 2016 will come to understand the consequences of the Leave vote. Those who were too young to vote last time are already expressing their desire for continued membership of the EU. Older voters (part of my demographic that overwhelmingly voted Leave – but not me, I hasten to add) have died since the referendum. The balance of the electorate is not what it was.

The electorate deserves, demands even, the right to pass judgment on whatever Theresa May salvages from her negotiations with the EU. And one of the options must be the right to Remain.

It’s time for the electorate to take a second look, hold a #People’sVote. And for that cause, a major demonstration will be held in London tomorrow (which I am unable to attend).

I can however express my support through this blog.


 

I was angry (still am), but now I’m also embarrassed

Embarrassed . . . to be British. But come autumn 2019, however, I’ll be able to thumb my nose at the world with my new iconic blue and gold passport (to be manufactured, apparently, in France – oh the irony!). Even though I might not be able to visit as many countries, visa-free, as UK citizens currently enjoy under membership of the European Union (EU).

Let’s go back a couple of years.

I woke up on the morning of Friday 24 June 2016 and, as was my wont, tuned into BBC Radio 4’s Today news program at 06:00. I say ‘wont’ because I seldom listen nowadays. But more of that later.

From: the Daily Express, 3 February 2016

I was keen to hear the result of the previous day’s referendum on continuing membership of the EU, expecting a majority in favor. How cruel reality can be!

I was amazed, bewildered, dismayed even, when the result sank in. The nation was divided, voting 52-48% (a difference of 1,269,501 votes on a turnout of 72.2%) to leave the EU. Brexit was now on the cards. Or was it?

I just couldn’t believe that the electorate had turned its back on an institution it had been part of, and benefited from, for over 40 years. Leave supporters had swallowed the false promises, mistruths, downright lies even (and, as we now know, the illegality) of the Leave campaign.

But since the referendum was not legally binding (just check the legislation that gave substance to the referendum) I thought (misguidedly as it has transpired) everyone would come their senses and reach a suitable compromise, allowing us to stay in the EU. However, the ‘will of the people’ has become almost an article of faith that cannot (may not), under any circumstances if you are a Brexiteer, be challenged.

I’ve long argued that since the referendum would potentially have far-reaching social, economic, and constitutional consequences, the bar should have been set much higher. By this I mean that a minimum voter turnout must have been reached, e.g. 75%, and that the margin voting to Leave should have been >50% of the electorate, not just those who voted. I guess I can be accused of wanting it both ways: heads I win, tails you lose. But the referendum was to decide a fundamental transformation of this (once proud) nation. So, if the voter turnout did not meet the agreed threshold, or less than 50% of the electorate (22,750,063 in June 2016) voted to leave, then the referendum would have been declared null and void.

That, unfortunately was not the case, because former Prime Minister David Cameron was too complacent during the whole referendum campaign and the lead up to its implementation. Holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was a political sop to the right wing of the Conservative Party. He never imagined that he would have to contend with the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove on the Leave side, never mind Nigel Farage of UKIP, who had few if any scruples about telling like it wasn’t. And he expected to win. Having lost, he bowed out of politics leaving the consequences for an even more incompetent Prime Minister to address.

It didn’t take long for my dismay to turn to anger. But now I’m also embarrassed. Embarrassed by the complete shambles (I could use stronger language) of the way that Theresa May’s inept (but ostensibly ‘stable and strong’) government has attempted to reflect the ‘will of the British people’ in a withdrawal agreement with and from the EU, and establish a new relationship post-Brexit. The UK has become a laughing stock among the nations of the world. We are on a trajectory to becoming an irrelevant little island off the coast of Europe. Under those circumstances, can (should?) the UK still lay claim, for example, to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council? Its status will be diminished. Yes, for many, the UK will become an irrelevance.

I say ‘attempted to reflect’ because almost 2½ years on from the referendum, we still seem to have no idea of what the UK’s post-Brexit status will be. Given the growing prospect that no deal is agreed by the Brexit date (29 March 2019, just five months away), the government apparently has no plan, but has started to publish grim impact papers of what a no deal or hard Brexit would encompass. But ask any of the Brexiteers what their reaction is (more of ‘Project Fear’) or their plan, and you are faced with the same old platitudes: we’re taking back control of our borders, money, and laws. Hang the economic, social and constitutional consequences. What a parlous state we have reached.

All I can assume is that when Theresa May invoked Article 50 on 29 March 2017 (triggering the process to leave the EU), she thought that any agreement with the EU would be done and dusted in a matter of weeks. In fact, former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis (now there’s a clown of a politician if ever I saw one), stated that this agreement would be one of the easiest to achieve.

From Twitter on 19 June 2018: Robert Campbell #FBPE Deeply Unhelpful @madman2. David Davis with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier.

Theresa May didn’t have to invoke Article 50 in March 2017, but she did. And we were then locked into a situation that seems to be heading for failure. She must have assumed that the EU members would simply accede to any of the ‘having our cake and eat it’ proposals put forward by the British government. In fact, I’m surprised that the other 27 members hadn’t shown the door to the British a long time ago.

It seems to me that Brexiteers feel the EU owes us something. Nonsense! We’re the ones asking to leave; or at least some of us are (don’t count me among them). It’s been made crystal clear that the UK’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit cannot be equal to what we currently enjoy as full members: frictionless trade, freedom of movement, and the like. Indeed as a ‘third country’ post-Brexit, we will be at a serious disadvantage, and all those trade and other agreements that the UK participates in as a member of the EU will have to be renegotiated, one by one. A Canada +++ agreement to fill the void? Canada +++, my backside!

Brexiteers simply talk about an independent UK outside the EU in terms of trade, and their desire to negotiate free trade agreements (FTA) on our own terms, notwithstanding that we already have FTAs with more than 60 counties or blocks of countries through membership of the EU. At 11 pm on 29 March next we lose all of those. Brexiteers object to the role of the European Court of Justice overseeing the EU’s regulatory framework. But even operating under the rules of the World Trade Organization we will still be subject to the authority of that body, and trading under far less favorable conditions than at present. It doesn’t take Economics 101 to see that. But at least our Secretary of State for International Trade will be able to travel globally on his new blue passport to negotiate all those trade deals that he assures us are just waiting to be signed.

Membership of the EU has brought so much more. For one thing, the EU has, among its members ensured peace in Europe over many decades. Joint membership of the EU by the UK and Republic of Ireland is one of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. The future of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is one of the main stumbling blocks of further progress in the withdrawal agreement, as it was long foreseen by many on the Remain side but discounted by Brexiteers, chief among them Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

In the early 2000s, when I was working at IRRI in the Philippines, risk assessment was one of the conditions insisted upon by the donors to the international agricultural research centers to continue receiving overseas development assistance support. It’s ironic that the UK government, through the Department for International Development, DFID, was one of the leading proponents of such conditions. And clearly, as far as Brexit is concerned, the government does not appear to have made an appropriate risk assessment or developed a contingency plan. Or if it has, it’s not telling anyone.

I still live in some hope that a #PeoplesVote will be held to pass judgment on any agreement that the government brings back from Brussels, and that one of the options would be to remain in the EU. But I’m not holding my breath.

Once the bastion of impartiality and independent journalism, the BBC is now perceived as taking a very partisan, pro-government stance on Brexit. For a long time now I have deplored the presenting and interviewing style of the program’s senior broadcaster, John Humphrys. Not only does he come across as a self-opinionated bully, but also as favoring one side (i.e. Brexit) over another in his interviews, often lacking a basic understanding of the issues. It’s time for Humphrys to be superannuated.

In perpetuity . . . or longer (updated 17 October 2018)

The airwaves yesterday were full of the news¹ about the secure, in perpetuity funding that the Crop Trust has awarded (annually USD1.4 million) to support the operations of the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines. The genebank conserves the largest and most genetically diverse collection of rice genetic resources that is the genetic base of rice improvement programs worldwide. It’s the first genebank to receive this sort of funding commitment.

In perpetuity! Forever! That’s a long time. In some ways, of course, it’s not a completely open-ended commitment. The agreement (to be signed on World Food Day, 16 October², during the 5th International Rice Congress in Singapore) will, I understand, be subject to five-year reviews, and the development of a business plan that will guide how, where and what will get done. That plan must inevitably evolve over time, as new technologies not only enhance how rice seeds can be better preserved but also how they can be used in rice improvement. Not that I can see IRRI screwing up and losing the funding. That behavior is not in the institutional DNA!

The collection holds more than 130,000 seed samples or accessions of landrace varieties, wild species, and other research materials, among others. You can check the status of the IRRI collection (and many more genebanks in the Genesys database).

My congratulations to Genebank Head and compatriot, Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton and his key genebank lieutenants, Genebank Manager Flora ‘Pola’ de Guzman and Sr Associate Scientist Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño, for guiding the genebank to this happy state.

It has been a long journey, almost 60 years, from 1960 when IRRI was founded and Dr TT Chang (the first head of the genebank) began to assemble a collection of rice varieties that soon became the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC).

L-R: Dr TT Chang was head of the International Rice Germplasm Center from 1962-1990; Mike Jackson served as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (here with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug) from 1991-2001; and Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton joined IRRI in 2002.

There was a significant change of direction, so to speak, to the genebank and its operations in 1991 after my appointment as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (the IRGC acronym was subsequently changed to International Rice Genebank Collection) with a mandate to rationalize and upgrade the genebank’s operations. I held that position for the next decade before moving on to the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications in 2001. Ruaraidh joined IRRI in 2002 and has been at the helm ever since.

In other stories posted on this blog I have described what it entails to run a genebank for rice, and some of the important changes we made to modernize genebank management and operations, especially how they were impacted with respect to the institute’s international obligations to FAO and subsequently under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

In 2015 I made my own video to illustrate many of the different operations of the genebank, some of which have been modified in the light of new research concerning the handling of rice seeds post-harvest. Nevertheless, the video reflects the changes I introduced during my tenure as head of the International Rice Genebank, many of which still prevail.

Ruaraidh built upon the changes I introduced, bar-coding all samples for example, and linking the collection with others in the CGIAR through the Genebank Platform. There have been further improvements to how data about the collection are managed, and seed management was enhanced through the research of former employee and seed physiologist Dr Fiona Hay and her PhD student Kath (now Dr) Whitehouse.

Ruaraidh has also successfully steered IRRI and its genetic resources through the turbulent currents of international germplasm politics that culminated in the entering into force of the International Treaty in June 2004, and the subsequent negotiations over access and benefit sharing. I can’t deny I was quite happy to leave these ‘political’ aspects behind when I left GRC in 2001. Management and use of genetic resources in the 1990s were increasingly affected by the various negotiations that affected access to and sharing of biodiversity after the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in December 1993. To some extent they were a distraction (but an important one) from the technical aspects of rice genetic resources that I tackling.

It’s quite humbling that for generations to come, I will have been a part of securing the genetic heritage of rice. Besides making the necessary technical changes to genebank structure and operations in the 1990s, I’m particularly proud of the personnel structures I introduced. These permitted staff to really fulfill their potential.

I quickly recognized that Pola should be placed in the role of Genebank Manger, and Ato given responsibility for all field operations. We built a team that believed in a culture of mutual support.

Ken McNally

Another aspect was the recognition, way back in 1998, of the power of genomics and molecular genetics to unravel the secrets of rice diversity. To that end I had organized an international workshop in The Hague in September 1999, which is described about two-thirds through this blog post. I was fortunate to hire Dr Ken McNally as a molecular geneticist in this respect, and he has taken the study of rice genetic diversity to another level, supported by someone who I believed in from my early days at IRRI, Dr Elizabeth Naredo.

But the genebank is also facing some changes. Ruaraidh is expected to retire in the near future, and Pola and Ato can’t be far off retirement. No-one is irreplaceable, but they will be a hard act to follow. Finding individuals with the same breadth of experience, commitment to genetic resources conservation, and work ethic will certainly be a challenge. Other staff from my era have already retired; the genebank did not fall apart. With this secure funding from the Crop Trust the genebank can, for the first time in its 60 year history, set itself on a trajectory into the future in a way that was always uncertain in the past (because of year-to-year funding), but always the Holy Grail of genetic resources conservation.

I also hope that IRRI will step up to the plate and secure other funds to build a completely new genebank appropriate for the 21st century. After all, the facilities I ‘inherited’ from TT Chang are approaching 40-50 years, and even those I improved are 25 years old. Relieving the institute of the genebank annual operating budget should open up other opportunities.

Congratulations to IRRI, and on behalf of the genetic resources community (especially those depending on rice) a big thank you to the Crop Trust!


¹ BBC, Nature, and New Food Magazine, among others.

² My friend and former IRRI colleague, Gene Hettel, kindly sent me some photos and videos from yesterday’s signing ceremony in Singapore between IRRI and the Crop Trust.

Crop Trust Executive Director Marie Haga and IRRI Director General Matthew Morell sign the agreement assuring in perpetuity funding for the International Rice Genebank.

Head of the genebank Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton speaking after the signing of the agreement. On the left is Charlotte Lusty, Head of Programs and Genebank Platform Coordinator at the Crop Trust.

One very nice touch during the ceremony was the recognition of Pola de Guzman’s 40 years dedicated service to genetic conservation at IRRI.

Well done, Pola!

 

 

Whither the grasspea?

Would you knowingly eat something that could harm you? That’s the dilemma facing millions of poor, subsistence farmers and their families from time to time, especially in India, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, when the alternative is not eating anything at all. Famine.

From the beginnings of agriculture and earlier, 10,000 or more years ago, farmers have cultivated and consumed in times of adversity, the seeds of a plant known scientifically as Lathyrus sativus L.¹ Or, more commonly, the grasspea. It’s also an important fodder crop for livestock.

On the plus side, grasspea has a good protein profile and, as a legume, it supplies nitrogen to the soil through its root nodules. Its particular agricultural value is that it can be grown in times of drought, as well as when the land is flooded. It’s the ultimate insurance crop for poor, subsistence farmers.

Yet, it holds a deadly secret. β-ODAP. Or more precisely, β-L-oxalyl-2,3-diaminopropionic acid to give its full name, an amino acid that is also a neurotoxin responsible for the condition known as lathyrism, a non-reversible paralysis. No wonder, then, that its cultivation is banned in some Indian states. In the past, its consumption has also had severe consequences in Europe.

‘Gracias a la Almorta’ or ‘Thanks to the Grasspea’ by Francisco de Goya (painted between 1811 and 1813), painted during the Spanish War of Independence, when poor people turned to eating grasspea, and suffered paralysis from lathyrism. However, on the British Museum website it suggests grain (millet) rather than ‘grasspea’, and no mention of lathyrism. ‘Almorta’ is a Spanish word for grasspea.

Yet, when needs must, poor farmers turn to the grasspea when there is nothing else to eat because drought or floods have wiped out other crops.

So what’s being done to overcome the grasspea’s downside? Fortunately, an international collaborative research effort (funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund), Unlocking the Potential of Grass pea for Resilient Agriculture in Drought Prone Environments (UPGRADE), aims to breed ‘sweet’ varieties of grasspea with a low content of the neurotoxin.

I learned about this project yesterday evening when I happened to tune into BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science (you can listen from about 11′ 20″ into the program). The John Innes Centre in the UK is one of the project members, and in Prof. Cathie Martin‘s lab, Dr Anne Edwards is screening about 500 different grasspea lines, testing them for β-ODAP content, and also introgressing the lower content trait into different genetic backgrounds, for future testing in the field.

I was fascinated to hear how this international collaboration was making progress towards defeating the scourge of lathyrism, as I’d also worked on grasspea almost 40 years ago. But from a crop evolution and genetic resources point of view.

When I returned to The University of Birmingham in 1981, I decided to start a small research project on grasspea, looking at the diversity and broader genetic resources of this important but somewhat neglected crop, in addition to continuing my research on potatoes.

In 1981, one of the students attending the one-year MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources was Abdul bin Ghani Yunus from Malaysia. He worked on his dissertation project under my supervision, to study the diversity of grasspea. I already had assembled a collection of grasspea varieties from different sources around the world including the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg, so Ghani had quite a stock of varieties to work with.

His dissertation led to one scientific paper, Variation in the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L. and wild species, published in the journal Euphytica in 1984. There were two principal conclusions:

  • L. sativus is a highly variable species, and there is a clear distinction between the blue-flowered forms from south-west Asia, Ethiopia and the Indian subcontinent, and the white and white and blue flowered forms with white seeds which have a more westerly distribution. Differences in vegetative parts may be due to selection for forage types.
  • L. sativus appears to be closely related to L. cicera and L. gorgoni, and this relationship needs further investigation.

Ghani returned to Malaysia in 1982 to continue his research and teaching at the University of Agriculture, Selangor and I heard little from him, until about 1986. Then, he contacted me again, asking about the possibilities of returning to Birmingham to complete a PhD under my supervision. He wanted to work on a tropical species from Malaysia. But since he did not envision spending time back in Malaysia during his PhD program, I explained that working on this species (I don’t now remember what it was) was not feasible, since we wouldn’t be able to grow it successfully in the glasshouse at Birmingham. After all, it wasn’t the species per se that was the most important aspect for his PhD; it would be the focus, the scientific methods and approaches he would learn and employ that were more important.

I convinced him to continue his work on Lathyrus, but broadening its scope to study the biosystematics or biological relationships of the grasspea with the species considered to be its closest relatives. In that way we anticipated better defining the genetic resources or gene pools of the grasspea (an essential prerequisite if, at some time in the future, a breeding program was set up that needed to exploit more diversity), as well as trying to shed some light on the origin of this neglected food crop.

In 1990, Ghani successfully presented his PhD thesis, Biosystematics of Lathyrus Section Lathyrus with special reference to the grass pea, L. sativus L., leading to two more useful scientific papers that have been widely cited:

  • The genepools of the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L., in Plant Breeding (1991). This research concerned the cross-breeding relationships of the grasspea and its closest relatives, based on experimental pollinations, pollen tube growth microscopy, and chromosome pairing, confirming one of our earlier hypotheses about L. cicera.
  • Phenotypic polymorphism of six isozymes in the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.), in Euphytica (1991). Ghani concluded that there was more genetic variation than perhaps expected in this self-pollinating species, and we discussed the implications of exploiting this diversity in plant breeding.

Today, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) receives financial support from the Crop Trust to conserve almost 4200 samples of grasspea in its genebank, with 2000 safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault above the Arctic Circle.

Of course, grasspea is not the only edible plant species that comes with a health risk. In South America, for example, there are so-called ‘bitter’ varieties of cassava, an important source of carbohydrate, producing cyanogenic compounds that must be removed before the roots are safe to eat. Indigenous communities throughout Brazil evolved techniques to express the poisonous juice and make the food safe. In other parts of South America ‘sweet’ varieties were selected over thousands of years, and became the genetic base of commercial cassava varieties grown world-wide. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Cali, Colombia has the world’s largest cassava germplasm that I was privileged to see in 2016 when I was conducting an evaluation of the CGIAR’s genebanks program.

This grasspea story is a good example of how progress can be made when there’s a clear research project objective, funding is available, and researchers around the world agree to pool their expertise towards solving an important problem. With recent reports that the head of DFID (the UK’s government department managing overseas development assistance or ODA) is seriously considering making changes to the 0.7% of national income commitment to the ODA budget, grasspea improvement for marginalized communities goes to show just how important such funding is, and the potential impact it can have on the lives of some of the poorest people around the world. This is the raison d’être of international agricultural research for development, an endeavor in which I participated over four decades.


¹ Grasspea is a relative of the garden sweetpea, Lathyrus odoratus, a plant that is grown for its showy, fragrant blooms.

Summer has returned . . . for one day only

Yesterday, I was reminded of that great radio broadcaster, Alistair Cooke (1908-2004) who presented Letter from America, a weekly 15-minute broadcast on the BBC from March 1946 to February 2004.

2,869 episodes! In each, Cooke presented a topical issue in the USA, tying together different strands of observation and anecdote and often ending on a humorous or poignant note.

Growing up, my family would listen faithfully to Letter from America, and that habit stayed with me as I moved on to university, and even while I was working overseas. Cooke had an excellent broadcasting voice, and always had something worthwhile and erudite to impart.

Originally from the UK, he moved to the USA in the 1930s and became a US citizen in 1941.

So why did Cooke drop into my mind yesterday, 10 October? It was one of those bright and sunny days, warm even, that we come to hope for in October, but rarely expect or experience. It was certainly a typical ‘Indian summer’ day, around 22-24°C, not a cloud in the sky.

When I was at university in the late 1960s, I remember listening to one particular Letter from America (I’m unable to track down the broadcast or transcript, although many are available online) in which Cooke waxed lyrical about Fall in New England, and went on to discuss the origin of the term ‘Indian summer‘. He described the unseasonably warm and dry days with clear, sunny skies that can occur around this time of year, often accompanied by misty mornings. It’s from this phenomenon, Cooke suggested, that the term was derived. The early colonists were aware that Native Americans would take advantage of this weather to hunt, and often attack their settlements under the cover of these misty mornings.

Yesterday’s weather pulled a memory of that broadcast, stored away for about 50 years, from the recesses of my mind.

Steph and I took full advantage to walk a stretch of the Heart of England Way, starting at the National Trust’s Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire (just under 20 miles east of Bromsgrove, and about 30 minutes from home by car). I even had to retrieve my summer shorts from the drawer where I had put them away for the winter.

Described as An easy walk along country lanes and field paths, taking in Baddesley Clinton, Rowington Church and the Heart of England Way, it’s listed at under 3 miles in length, although according to my pedometer it was more like 3.8 miles.

We arrived at Baddesley Clinton just before 10:30 and, not having seen much traffic heading to the property, were rather surprised to encounter a very full car park. The place was heaving! We decided to take our walk before lunch, and then visit the gardens afterwards.

The weather was glorious, the rolling Warwickshire landscape stretching to the horizon, leaves changing color on trees all around, and also full of berries. I’ve never seen so many holly berries.

We set off through the churchyard of St Michael’s Church (1), and along the gravel road to turn right (2) on to Haywood Lane, and then, after about a mile, right on to Rowington Green.

A little distance along Rowington Green, the walk leaves the road and crosses fields (3) — along the Heart of England Way — to Rowington (4). We took a short break in the churchyard of the 12th century Church of St Lawrence (or St Laurence).

From Rowington, the walk heads north, along a public bridleway (5), and ending back at St Michael’s. I guess the walk took a couple of hours; we never rush.

 

Baddesley Clinton is a moated house, first built in the 1400s. One of the original owners was Nicholas Brome, Lord of the Manor of Baddesley Clinton, and is buried in St Michael’s Church. The house passed to the Ferrer family who occupied it for the next 500 years.

We didn’t visit the house yesterday, but decided to take a look at the garden – and we were not disappointed. There was a magnificent display of dahlias in one of the borders inside the walled garden.

Thank goodness we did take advantage of the exceptional weather. Today’s weather could hardly be more different. It’s windy, overcast, and all morning it has been spitting with rain. It’s a little cooler than yesterday, but going to go downhill as we progress into tomorrow and the weekend. That’s because Storm Callum is due to sweep in from the Atlantic overnight tonight, bringing a lot of rain. Climate change? What climate change? I wonder how long it will take for the remnants of Hurricane Michael to reach us?