Never have genebanks been so relevant . . . or needed

There has perhaps never been a better justification for conservation of seeds in genebanks, or ex situ conservation as it’s commonly known.

The devastating bush fires that have ravaged huge swathes of eastern Australia have highlighted the fragility of environments that are being affected adversely by the consequences of climate change. It’s a wake-up call, even though some of us were commenting on this a generation ago (and more recently in 2014).

While many news stories have emotionally focused on the impact of the fires on wildlife—the injury to and death of millions of animals—very little has appeared in the media about the impacts on plant species. One story stood out, however: the extraordinary measures that firefighters took to protect the only natural stand of ancient Wollemi pines at a secret location in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

In another story I came across, there are concerns that a wild species of sorghum native to East Gippsland in southeast Australia may now be headed towards extinction as fires swept across its habitats. Only time will tell whether this particular species has survived.

Bush fires are not uncommon in Australia and many other parts of the world. Vegetation is, however, quite resilient and, given time, often recovers to a semblance of what was there before fires ravaged the landscape, although the balance of species may be disrupted for a few years.

Clearly nature is under threat. Indeed, in an article in The Guardian on 20 January 2020 the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, is quoted as imploring ‘governments to ensure 2020 is not just another “year of conferences” on the ongoing ecological destruction of the planet, urging countries to take definitive action on deforestation, pollution and the climate crisis.’

Catastrophic fires, and other effects of environmental degradation and climate change, vividly illustrate the necessity of having a dual conservation strategy, backing up conservation in nature, or in situ conservation, with conservation of seeds in genebanks, where appropriate. It’s clear that relying in situ conservation alone is too high a risk to take.

About 25 years ago, while I was leading the genetic conservation program at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, and conserving the world’s largest and most diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species in the International Rice Genebank, vocal lobby groups were pressing hard in several international forums and the media to redirect conservation away from genebanks (they were often referred to as ‘gene morgues’) towards in situ conservation, in nature for wild species or on-farm for cultivated varieties.

The criticism of many genebanks, including some of those managed at centers of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research or CGIAR, was not unwarranted. Insufficient attention was given to applying internationally-agreed genebank standards. This was not entirely the fault of genebank managers, both inside and outside the CGIAR. They were often starved of funds, living hand to mouth, year to year as it were, and expected to manage a long-term conservation commitment on inadequate annual budgets.

Standards in the eleven CGIAR genebanks have been raised through the Genebank Platform, supported by the Crop Trust. Between them, not only do the CGIAR genebanks conserve some of the most world’s important collections of genetic resources of cereals, legumes, and roots and tubers, but these collections have been studied in depth to find useful traits, and the volume of germplasm shared annually for research and production is impressive. Just take a look at the data for the years 2012-2018.

Other international efforts like the Crop Wild Relatives Project (supported by the Government of Norway), and managed by the Crop Trust with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have focused attention on the importance of conserving the wild relatives of crop plants as they are often genetically endowed with traits not found in their domesticated derivatives. My own experience studying nematode resistance in wild potatoes from Bolivia for example illustrated the importance of wild species for crop improvement.

Today, we have a whole new suite of tools to study the crop varieties and wild species conserved in genebanks around the world. As the genome of each new species is sequenced, another door is opened on the genetic diversity of nature, how it’s organized, and how genes control different traits. Indeed an argument has recently been made to genotype all samples (or accessions in the ‘official’ parlance) in a genebank. Certainly this is an approach that was merely a dream only two decades ago.

I still argue, however, that in tandem with the molecular analysis of crop diversity, there must be an in-depth evaluation of how different varieties behave in real environments. In joint research between former colleagues of mine at The University of Birmingham (Professors Brian Ford-Lloyd and John Newbury and Dr Parminder Virk) and myself at IRRI in the 1990s, we demonstrated the predictive value of molecular markers for several quantitative characters associated with crop productivity. Somewhat derided at the time, association genetics has become an important approach to study crop diversity.

I’ve been publishing about climate change and the value of plant genetic resources for over 30 years, beginning when there was far more skepticism about this phenomenon than today. At a conference on Crop Networks, held in Wageningen in the Netherlands in December 1990, I presented a paper outlining the need for collaborative research to study germplasm collections in the face of climate change.

And in that paper I argued that widespread testing in replicated field trials would be necessary to identify useful germplasm. With the addition nowadays of molecular markers and genome-wide detailed information for many species, there is now a much better opportunity to evaluate germplasm to identify gene sources that can help protect crops against the worst ravages of climate change and maintain agricultural productivity. Even though political leaders like Donald Trump and Scott Morrison continue to deny climate change (or merely pay lip service), society as a whole cannot ignore the issue. Afterall, for a predicted global population of 9.8 billion by 2050, most of whom will not produce their own food, continued agricultural productivity is an absolute necessity. The conservation, evaluation, and use of plant genetic resources stored in the world’s genebanks is a key component of achieving that goal.

Genebanks are the future!

New Year, new job . . .

Job-wise, January has been an important month during my career, on several occasions.

Forty-seven years ago, I was getting ready to fly to Peru, to join the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. I actually flew out from London on 4 January 1973.

In January 1981, I was invited to interview for a Lectureship at the University of Birmingham, and flew back from Peru towards the end of the month. Offered the position there and then, I took up my post on 1 April.

A decade later—and increasingly disillusioned with the UK’s higher education sector—I had applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Philippines, and at the end of the first week of January, flew to the Philippines for an interview. I was offered the position towards the end of the month, and I joined IRRI on 1 July.

Ron Cantrell

In mid-January 2001, IRRI’s Director General, Dr. Ron Cantrell, asked me to stop by his office. Planning to revamp IRRI’s donor relations and fund-raising as well as management of research projects, he invited me to lead a new initiative with appointment at Director level and membership of the institute’s senior management team. It took me a few weeks to decide. I had to give up my life’s work until then, working with crop diversity and gene banking. However, on 1 May, I became IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (DPPC, later Communications).

Then, on 1 January 2010 (and just four months before I retired), I relinquished that role (but not my Directorship) to my close colleague, Ms. Corinta Guerta.

Let me tell you about Corinta. She is one of the most remarkable persons it has been my privilege to work with.

When I set up the Office for Program Planning and Coordination in 2001, I inherited several staff from an existing project management office. Very quickly I realised I would be unable to make any significant changes with those staff in place. They had little imagination of what might be achieved if we organized ourselves differently.

One thing I did know, however: I wanted my secretary from GRC, Zeny Federico, to join me in DPPC, and she readily accepted my invitation.

When discussing the move to DPPC with Ron Cantrell (and the two Deputy Directors General, Ren Wang and Willy Padolina), I explained the need for a highly qualified and motivated person to be my 2IC, and I suggested that Corinta would be an ideal candidate. In fact, I remember explicitly stating that I could make a success of DPPC with ‘someone like Corinta’ assisting me. That raised some eyebrows.

Why? Well, for one thing I had never worked with Corinta. As a member of the national support staff she worked in a different research division altogether. As a soil chemist! Then she had no (or very limited) administrative/management experience. As a BS chemistry graduate (one of the topnotchers, as they say in the Philippines, in the nationwide professional licence exam for chemists in her year), she joined IRRI as a Research Assistant in July 1975.

During my early years at IRRI, our paths crossed only occasionally. But she caught my eye. I had seen her in action, so to speak, during a couple of institute-wide initiatives/meetings contributing very effectively to the discussions.

Then, around 1998 or 1999, the institute created the new position of Senior Associate Scientist and invited qualified members of the national (Filipino) staff to apply, supported by references.

There were strict criteria. Candidates had to have a Masters degree and a minimum number of years service. Corinta had an MS degree in soil science from the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). Candidates had to present a seminar, open to all staff to attend, and then they were interviewed for about an hour by the promotions committee, of which I was a member.

We received eighteen applications, if memory serves me correctly. As the only member of the committee who attended all the seminars and interviews, I was uniquely placed to objectively compare all candidates. Some of my committee colleagues were unable to reschedule their travel or other commitments so missed some seminars or interviews.

After we had met with all candidates, it was abundantly clear to everyone on the committee who was the top candidate: Corinta. Not only No. 1 on the list, but significantly ahead of all the others. Indeed, I argued (with some passion) that really only one candidate was worthy of promotion. Obviously that was not going to happen and after some further consideration, about eleven staff were promoted.

But Corinta had clearly made an impression on me. I forget if we asked all candidates to address the same topic for their seminar or they could choose one in their own field of expertise. But they were asked to address strategic issues facing the institute. Corinta was the only one (in my opinion) who had such a vision and could express that vision coherently as well explain how IRRI’s research would benefit rice farmers. We explored some of these ideas in her interview, and she stood her ground under some pretty intense questioning.

Once I moved to DPPC, I asked Corinta to come and see me. She had no idea what I was about to surprise her with. Indeed, I think she was quite taken aback and, initially, rather reluctant to even consider a move out of research. But my persistence was greater than hers, and on 1 August she joined DPPC and found herself in the deep end of project management. And the first couple of years were doubly difficult (and tragic) as she supported her husband in his fight against cancer.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I could not have made a success of DPPC (streamlining IRRI’s project management systems, budgeting, donor relations, and the like) without Corinta’s wholesale support and growing expertise. She played a critical role in identifying the staff who joined DPPC: Monina, Sol, Yeyet, Vel, and Eric (our database administrator and developer). One of the original staff, another Sol, stayed on for a few months as an office assistant but was replaced by Vel. When Monina left in 2002, Sol No. 2 joined us. She departed IRRI in 2008 and was replaced by Yeyet.

Christmas 2001 at Ugu Bigyan Pottery in Tiaong, Quezon Province. L-R: Monina, Corinta, Zeny, Sol, and Eric.

Christmas 2004 at Antonio’s, Tagaytay. L-R: me, Sol O., Eric, Corinta, Vel, and Zeny.

March 2009 during the DPPC trip to Mountain Province with L-R, and enjoying a welcome beer: Corinta, Zeny, driver, Vel, Yeyet, Eric, and me.

So, in January 2010, Corinta tooks the reins of DPPC, and grew even more in her role. Over the years she had established great rapport with the internationally-recruited research staff, and quickly gained their respect. They would often consult her for advice before bothering me.

Bob Zeigler

I felt immensely proud when, after my retirement from IRRI at the end of April 2010, the Director General, Bob Zeigler in his wisdom made Corinta the institute’s Director for External Relations. And she remained in that role until her retirement a couple of years ago. Since then, she has been a consultant to the new Director of SEARCA (the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture, a non-profit organization based in Los Baños) and former IRRI plant breeder Glenn Gregorio, helping to frame a new strategic plan.

For someone who had joined IRRI more than 40 years earlier, the progression from Research Assistant to Director has been remarkable, unprecedented even. But thoroughly deserved.

In February 2012, when I was invested as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London, I had the honour of Corinta joining my wife Steph and younger daughter Philippa as one of my three guests.

That for me was also a recognition of the part Corinta contributed to my success and nomination. Thank you!