Where does our food come from?

James Wong

There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the Twittersphere in recent weeks that caught my attention, about the sources and origins of our food, in which botanist, science writer, and broadcaster James Wong (@Botanygeek) has been a lively participant (expertly educating, and oftentimes correcting misinformation that surfaces all too frequently on Twitter).

So where does our food come from? No, I’m not referring to the local supermarket! Nor the countries where it’s grown and exported to the UK, to land on our supermarket shelves, such as avocados from Peru or French beans (Phaseolus spp.) from Kenya, to mention just a couple of examples.

Rather, I’m talking about the regions of the world where our food crops were first domesticated from wild species [1]. In many farmers’ fields, there is still an enormous diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as response to different growing conditions or reaction to pests and diseases. Just take the example below of potatoes from Peru, varieties that have been carefully cultivated by generations of farmers in the high Andes.

(L): Farmer varieties of potatoes from Peru; and (R): a potato farmer and her husband from the Province of Cajamarca in the north of Peru proudly holding a prized variety.

These diverse crop varieties and related wild species are the genetic resources or agrobiodiversity (perhaps a term more familiar to most through its regular use in the media) that plant breeders need to enhance agricultural productivity, transferring genes between different varieties or species to keep one step or more ahead of changing climates or increased threat of new strains of plant diseases. Without access to this valuable genetic variation, plant breeders would be challenged indeed to respond appropriately to the many threats in the agricultural environment.

There is an ongoing interdependence among countries for access to genetic resources. Take the potato, for example, with which I am quite familiar. The UK potato crop ultimately depends for its survival on plant breeders being able to access different genes and breed them into new varieties. Where do these genes come from? From from cultivated and wild potatoes in Peru and neighbouring countries. Plant breeders at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, Scotland, regularly dip into the species conserved in the Commonwealth Potato Collection. This potato example is repeated worldwide for most other crops.

Colin Khoury

In a significant open access article (published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2016) Colin Khoury (a Birmingham MSc genetic resources graduate) and his co-authors state: Research into the origins of food plants has led to the recognition that specific geographical regions around the world have been of particular importance to the development of agricultural crops . . . We estimate the degree to which countries use crops from regions of diversity other than their own (‘foreign crops’), and quantify changes in this usage over the past 50 years. Countries are highly interconnected with regard to primary regions of diversity of the
crops they cultivate and/or consume.

Colin followed up with a piece on the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2017, discussing the interdependence of nations: The evidence on countries’ predominant use of foreign crops bolsters the rationale for strengthening international collaboration on conservation of crop diversity and for making the exchange of all agricultural seeds as easy and affordable as possible. Our interdependence also boosts the argument for considering the genetic diversity of globally important food crops as public goods which should be openly available to all, and for respecting the rights of farmers to practice their traditional methods of conservation and exchange, not only in recognition of their historical contributions to the diversity in our food, but also in active support of its further evolution.

Just take a look at this interesting graphic (click to enlarge) that was published in the 2016 paper, and republished in the 2017 blog post. I think many readers of my blog will be surprised when they discover the origins of most of the food plants they take for granted.

Origins and primary regions of diversity of major agricultural crops. Source: Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.

However, the concept of centers of origins and crop diversity is not a new one. It was first formulated by the great Russian geneticist (and ‘father of plant genetic resources’), Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (born in 1887). See how his centers coincide with the map above. Vavilov’s ideas have been reworked since his death, but still provide a fundamental foundation for the study and understanding of crop diversity. He was starved to death in one of Stalin’s prisons in 1943.

I. The Tropical Center; II. The East Asiatic Center; III. The Southwest Asiatic Center (c0ntaining [a] the Caucasian Center, [b] the Near East Centre, [c] the Northwestern Indian Center; IV. The Mediterranean Center; V. Abyssinia; VI. The Central American Center (containing [a] the mountains of southern Mexico, [b] the Central American Center, [c] the West Indian islands; and VI. The Andean Center.

One of his great works, Five Continents (a memoir of his many plant collecting expeditions) was republished in 1997 on the occasion of his 110th birthday. It had never appeared during his lifetime.

Vavilov, NI, 1997. Five Continents. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy. ISBN: 92-9043-302-7

Then, as I was thinking through these ideas about food origins, I came across the two photos below. At first I couldn’t recall where they had been taken. Then I realized they must have been taken during the drinks reception after the half-day N.I. Vavilov Centenary Symposium, jointly organized by the Linnean Society of London and the Institute of Archaeology of University College London on 26 November 1987 to commemorate Vavilov’s birth. I was one of the speakers.

Top: with Joe Smartt (University of Southampton). Bottom: Chatting with Joe Smartt, with Prof. Jacks Hawkes (University of Birmingham, to my left) with another symposium attendee.

The papers were published in a special edition of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society in January 1990.

Sadly, all my fellow presenters have since passed away [2].

In the first paper, 1. Preface, Jack Hawkes and David Harris state the following: Vavilov laid the foundations of modern plant breeding, stressing the importance of the wide range of genetic diversity in our ancient crops and in related wild species—a diversity that before his time had barely been used or understood by breeders . . . Not only this—the whole movement of crop genetic resources conservation as a necessary prerequisite for the new more resistant and productive varieties needed now and in the future can be clearly traced back to Vavilov’s seminal ideas . . . Vavilov’s theoretical studies on crop plant origins and evolution under domestication, the areas in which crops evolved and the parallelism in their diversity in particular regions also possess clear practical implications, as well as linking into prehistory and the beginnings of agriculture.

In the second paper, Jack Hawkes discussed the impact of Vavilov’s work. He had met the great man on his visit to the Soviet Union in 1938.

Geographer David Harris discussed the origins of agriculture and how Vavilov’s studies on the centers of origin influenced the work of many other scholars. Yet he concluded that with the discovery of new evidence about the origins of agriculture, Vavilov’s concept as such had outlived its usefulness.

I was privileged to be asked to contribute to this symposium, standing alongside three colleagues: Joe Smartt, Jack Hawkes, and Trevor Williams who had encouraged me to enter the world of genetic resources and supervised my research, and mentored me at various stages of my career.

Professor Hugh Bunting had been the external examiner to the Birmingham MSc Course on genetic resources when I presented my dissertation on lentils in September 1971. There was a link to Vavilov there, because his second wife, Elena Barulina, wrote the first monograph on lentils.

My own paper discussed how homologous variation among potato species was evident when looking for resistance to pests and diseases.

I only met Gordon Hillman on one occasion at this symposium. He made very significant contributions to our understanding of early farming systems and the domestication of cereals in the Near East.

In his paper, Hugh Bunting discussed how Vavilov promoted the inclusion of physiological and biochemical features alongside descriptions of morphology to understand how plants were adapted to their environments. The examples used were groundnuts and sorghum, crops which Bunting had studied in Africa over many years.

In the final paper, Trevor Williams (who was Director of the International Board of Plant Genetic Resources, IBPGR, the forerunner of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, IPGRI, and Bioversity International) discussed how IBPGR’s program of collecting and conserving crop varieties and wild species worldwide had been guided by Vavilov’s ideas on centers of diversity.

As you can see, there’s more to this story of our food and its origins than perhaps meets the eye initially. It’s a story that I have followed for the past 50 years since I first set out on my career conserving and using plant genetic resources.

[1] Avocados originated in Central America, and French beans come from South America.

[2] I’ve not been able to find any further information about Stuart Davies, co-author with Gordon Hillman, since his retirement from Cardiff University.

This book (ISBN: 90-220-0785-5), by Anton Zeven and Jan de Wet, published by the Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation in Wageningen in 1982 is an excellent source of information about the crop and wild species found in the centers of diversity.

It was a revised second edition of: Zeven AC and PM Zhukovsky, 1975. Dictionary of cultivated plants and their centres of diversity.

Zhukovsky was a follower of Vavilov and further developed the idea of centers of origin and diversity.

Bromsgrove: my adoptive town . . . but not for too much longer

In July 1981, Steph and I (and three year old Hannah) set up home in Bromsgrove, a market town in northeast Worcestershire of just over 29,000 inhabitants (2001 census), almost equidistant between Birmingham and Worcester (map).

But, if everything goes to plan, we’ll be leaving Bromsgrove later this year. In mid-January, we put our house on the market and once that’s sold and a new home identified, we will relocate to the northeast of England to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa (who was born in Bromsgrove) and her family. Our elder daughter Hannah lives in Minnesota in the US Midwest, so for her and family it’s immaterial whether we remain in Bromsgrove or move north. In fact, we’ll have just as good air links to the USA and beyond from Newcastle International Airport (NCL) as we currently enjoy from Birmingham Airport (BHX).

But why did we choose Bromsgrove all those years ago?

In March 1981 we returned to the UK from Peru, after spending over eight years with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru (1973-1975) and Central America, in Costa Rica (1976-1980). After leaving Costa Rica in November 1980 (and moving back to Lima for a few months), we were expecting to move to the Far East with CIP. To the Philippines, actually. But then, everything changed.

A teaching position opened at The University of Birmingham at the end of 1980, and I flew to Birmingham in January 1981 for an interview. Having passed that hurdle, and looking forward to a long career in academia, we made plans to return to the UK as I was due to begin my new job as Lecturer in Plant Biology (in the School of Biological Sciences) on 1 April. Our top priority was to find somewhere to live. But where?

Even before returning to the UK we had asked Steph’s parents (who lived in Southend-on-Sea in Essex) to contact estate agents (realtors in US parlance) for available properties in the area covering the west of Birmingham to the southeast, and within 10-15 miles of the university. We had already decided that we did not want to live in Birmingham itself.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was a pile of more than 100 property description sheets waiting for us in Southend that we quickly whittled down to a manageable number based on location, price, amenities, proximity to schools, and the like.

I moved to Birmingham at the end of March, while Steph and Hannah remained behind in Southend with her parents until we could find our own home. That didn’t take as long as we had expected. I took the details of short-listed properties with me to Birmingham, and during my first (maybe second) week on the job, took an afternoon off to go house-hunting.

I settled on Bromsgrove as the first place to visit, simply because it was within easy reach of the university (about 13 miles) on perhaps the most direct direct route south out of the city. In any case I had several colleagues who also lived in Bromsgrove and spoke well of the town.

Remarkably, the house we settled on, in the Aston Fields area on the east of the town, was just the second one I visited that afternoon. I knew immediately that this particular house was full of promise and phoned Steph that evening that she should hop on the train the following day to take a look (and at others in Bromsgrove). By that weekend we had made an offer, and set about raising a mortgage.

Three months later we moved in (on camp beds for the first night) as our furniture and personal effects would be delivered the following day. Having put these into storage the previous November in Costa Rica (not knowing where they would next end up) we looked forward with great anticipation to seeing everything once again.

So began our life in Bromsgrove, never realizing that a decade later we would be on the move yet again, to the Philippines, and rice research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, 65 km south of Manila.

I moved to the Philippines in July 1991, but Steph and the girls did not join me until just after Christmas that year. From then until the end of April 2010 (when I retired and we moved back to the UK) our home remained unoccupied (though furnished), and we would spend our annual leaves there. It was also our bolt hole in case of any emergency and we had to leave the Philippines at short notice.

Since May 2010, we have settled back into Bromsgrove life, and it’s proved a great location for travel around the UK.

Over the past few years I have explored Bromsgrove on foot in my daily walks, and which I have described in a set of posts, Walking with my Mobile, on this blog. And Bromsgrove turns out to be a more interesting town than I had realized.

As a market town, Bromsgrove grew up straddling the Birmingham Road, the A38 (now by-passing the town center) that connects Birmingham as far northeast as Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, and with Cornwall in the southwest of the country.

The Bromsgrove Eastern By-Pass (A38) between New Road crossroad and The Oakalls roundabout and the Bromsgrove Highway (A448) to Redditch.

Between Worcester and Birmingham it follows the route of a Saxon salt road. Droitwich, just a few miles south of Bromsgrove, is famous for its brine baths and salt production.

Take a look at some of the sites along the old A38 route through the town center, along the Birmingham Road, the High Street, and Worcester Road. In the 1980s the High Street section was pedestrianised.

The local council has recently erected interesting information boards around the town center highlighting historical details around the town.

One of the most impressive buildings in the town is the Tudor House close to the junction of New Road and the High Street/Worcester Road.

The spire of the 12th century church of St John the Baptist, dominates the Bromsgrove skyline and lies at the heart of the town. The spire can be seen from miles around.

At the north end of town proudly stands another impressive Church of England church, All Saints, with a square tower. The body of the church dates from 1872; the tower was added in 1888. It houses an impressive set of stained glass windows made by local craftsmen.

Gazing south over the middle of the High Street stands an imposing statue of one of Bromsgrove’s favorite sons, the poet Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), author of the collection of poems A Shropshire Lad.

The Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts was active between 1898 and 1966, and was responsible for some iconic works, including the six meter tall Liver Birds on the Royal Liver Building on Liverpool’s waterfront, and the main gates of Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Liver Building in Liverpool with its two liver birds.

The main gates of Buckingham Palace from inside (taken when I attended an investiture there on 29 February 2012).

Many of the pieces were constructed in the Guild’s workshop on Station Street, just off the Worcester Road.

Bromsgrove was connected to the canal system in 1815 when the Worcester and Birmingham Canal was finally completed. It lies about two miles due east of the town center. The railway came to the town in June 1840. New Road was opened off the southern end of the High Street to connect the town center with the station. A new station was opened in 2016, and the line to Birmingham was electrified in 2018.

In the churchyard of St John the Baptist are two significant graves, of Thomas Scaife and Joseph Rutherford, engineers on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, who died when a locomotive boiler exploded in Bromsgrove station in November 1840, just a few months after the station had opened.

Another claim to fame is the independent fee-paying Bromsgrove School, founded in 1553 (and re-endowed in 1693).

It occupies a substantial parcel (40 ha) of real estate to the southeast of the town center. There is quite an impressive list of Old Bromsgrovians.

The local Conservative MP is the Rt. Hon. Sajid Javid, erstwhile Chancellor of the Exchequer until last week, when it seems he was manoeuvred out of government.

So, later this year, 39 years of ‘residence’ in Bromsgrove comes to an end. Bromsgrove is growing, expanding – like so many towns – and maybe it won’t be too long before Birmingham creeps over the Lickey Hills (north of the town) and Bromsgrove is absorbed into the greater West Midlands conurbation. There are already rumors that Birmingham wants to build overspill housing in the Bromsgrove administrative area.

But there’s no doubt we will miss much of the beautiful Worcestershire countryside around Bromsgrove, our regular walks along the canal, and further out to Hanbury Hall and Croome.

Nevertheless, the northeast and Northumberland beckon, and once we have settled down there, we look forward with enthusiasm to exploring a part of England that we already know but with which we are not yet too familiar. Exciting times ahead.


Look out, he’s behind you! . . . Oh no, he’s not!

The pantomime season ended a week or so ago here in the UK. Pantomime?

Pantomime is a marvellous and wonderful (if a little eccentric!) British institution.

Pantomimes take place around the Christmas period and are nearly always based on well known children’s stories such as Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty etc. Pantomimes are performed not only in the best theatres in the land but also in village halls throughout Britain. Whether a lavish professional performance or a hammy local amateur dramatic production, all pantomimes are well attended.

Ellen Castelow wrote this for the Historic UK website. And if you want to know a little more about pantomimes, just take a quick look at this YouTube video.

In the mid-1990s at IRRI (the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines where I worked from 1991-2010), a group of us staged our own pantomimes in the IRRI Auditorium in the period leading up to Christmas, although not conforming entirely to the format described in the video.

With Kate Kirk (wife of soil chemist Guy) as Director, there were three pantomimes from 1994 to 1996. I took part in two of these: Snow White (or was it Sleeping Beauty?) and Robin Hood and his Merry Men, but had to drop out of the third, Aladdin, during rehearsals due to unforeseen travel commitments.

These good memories have resurfaced because I referred to the Robin Hood pantomime in my recent tribute to my friend Martin Mortimer who passed away just before Christmas last year. And also because in the process of working my way through boxes of old photographs in preparation for our house move later this year, I came across a small album of photos from Robin Hood and his Merry Men that was the pre-Christmas highlight at IRRI in mid-December 1995.

I joined IRRI in July 1991 as Head of the Genetic Resources Center, and when Kate asked me to be part of one of her productions, I jumped at the chance. Since my undergraduate days at Southampton I’d enjoyed taking part in reviews and the like, but only on an occasional basis.

It was Christmas 1992 that we staged our first panto, Snow White/Sleeping Beauty, in which I played a dipsomaniac King, father of the leading lady.

We had great fun with Robin Hood, inspired by Mel Brooks’ 1993 film Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

I guess there must have been five performances, Wednesday to Saturday (with an afternoon matinee on the Saturday).

So who was involved? As I mentioned, Kate Kirk was the Director, and Crissan Zeigler (wife of IRRI Program Leader and plant pathologist, Bob Zeigler) was the Producer.

L-R: Crissan Zeigler, Rebecca Nelson (as Maid Marian), and Kate Kirk, with Nick Zeigler (as Will Scarlet photobombing in the background).

Most of us had little stage experience, so we were fortunate to depend upon Jay Herrera (a semi-professional actor from Manila) and Pam Denning (wife of Glenn Denning, then head of IRRI’s International Programs Management Office and now Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University) as the ‘anchors’ around whom we attempted to appear better than we were.

Jay Herrera and Pam Denning at the Sheriff of Nottingham and his wife.

Where are they now?
Robin Hood was played by Michael Price, husband of visiting scientist and anthropologist Lisa M Price (now Professor of Anthropology at Oregon State University).

Rebecca Nelson, a plant pathologist) played Maid Marian. After leaving IRRI (around 1996 or so) she moved to the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru to head research on late blight disease. She is now Professor at Cornell University.

Rice agronomist Len Wade was Little John. After leaving IRRI in 2002, Len held Chairs in Agronomy at the University of Western Australia and Charles Sturt University in his native Australia. Following retirement he is now Honorary Professor at the University of Queensland.

Friar Tuck was played by Rainfed Lowland Rice Program Leader and plant pathologist Bob Zeigler, who left IRRI in 1998 to become Chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University. He returned to IRRI in 2005 as Director General.

Guy Kirk was a soil chemist at IRRI for thirteen years. After leaving the institute, he returned to the UK, took a sabbatical at the University of Cambridge to write a book on The Biogeochemistry of Submerged Soils, and in 2003 was appointed Professor of Soil Systems at Cranfield University.

John Bennett was Senior Molecular Biologist at IRRI, and retired about fifteen years ago.

Jane Guy from South Africa (but domiciled in Canada) played the nanny or Yaya (in Filipino) whose husband Peter was an Environment Project Manager for a Canadian-funded project in Los Baños during 1994 and 1995. Their daughter Katherine was one of the Forest Fairies (kneeling in the middle in the photo above) who, in 2018, married Chris, the elder son of my close colleague and head of IRRI Communication and Publications Services, Gene Hettel.

As for myself, I played a very camp Prince John, dyeing my whiskers yellow to match the luxuriant wig I had acquired. In May 2001, I moved into a senior management position at IRRI, as Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) until my retirement in April 2010.

Happy days!

You can view a more extensive album of photos taken during make-up and rehearsals here.