Potatoes or rice?

I graduated in July 1970 from the University of Southampton (a university on England’s south coast) with a BSc Hons degree in botany and geography. ‘Environmental botany’ actually, whatever that meant. The powers that be changed the degree title half way through my final (i.e. senior) year.

Anyway, there I was with my degree, and not sure what the future held in store. It was however the beginning of a fruitful 40 year career in international agricultural research and academia at three institutions over three continents, in a number of roles: research scientist, principal investigator (PI), program leader, teacher, and senior research manager, working primarily on potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and rice (Oryza sativa), with diversions into some legume species such as the grasspea, an edible form of Lathyrus.

Potatoes on the lower slopes of the Irazu volcano in Costa Rica, and rice in Bhutan

I spent the 1970s in South and Central America with the International Potato Center (CIP), the 1980s at the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences (Plant Biology), and almost 19 years from July 1991 (until my retirement on 30 April 2010) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines¹.

I divided my research time during those 40 years more or less equally between potatoes and rice (not counting the legume ‘diversions’), and over a range of disciplines: biosystematics and pre-breeding, genetic conservation, crop agronomy and production, plant pathology, plant breeding, and biotechnology. I was a bit of a ‘jack-of-all-trades’, getting involved when and where needs must.

However, I haven’t been a ‘hands-on’ researcher since the late 1970s. At both Birmingham and IRRI, I had active research teams, with some working towards their MSc or PhD, others as full time researchers. You can see our research output over many years in this list of publications.

Richard Sawyer

Very early on in my career I became involved in research management at one level or another. Having completed my PhD at Birmingham in December 1975 (and just turned 27), CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program in Costa Rica. I moved there in April 1976 and stayed there until November 1980.

In these Covid-19 lockdown days, I’m having ample time to reflect on times past. And today, 30 April, it’s exactly 10 years since I retired.

Just recently there was a Twitter exchange between some of my friends about the focus of their research, and the species they had most enjoyed working on.

And that got me thinking. If I had to choose between potatoes and rice, which one would it be? A hard decision. Even harder, perhaps, is the role I most enjoyed (or gave me the most satisfaction) or, from another perspective, in which I felt I’d accomplished most. I’m not even going to hazard a comparison between living and working in Peru (and Costa Rica) versus the Philippines. However, Peru has the majesty of its mountain landscapes and its incredible cultural history and archaeological record (notwithstanding I’d had an ambition from a small boy to visit Peru one day). Costa Rica has its incredible natural world, a real biodiversity hotspot, especially for the brilliant bird life. And the Philippines I’ll always remember for all wonderful, smiling faces of hard-working Filipinos.

And the scuba diving, of course.

Anyway, back to potatoes and rice. Both are vitally important for world food security. The potato is, by far, the world’s most important ‘root’ crop (it’s actually a tuber, a modified underground stem), by tonnage at least, and grown worldwide. Rice is the world’s most important crop. Period! Most rice is grown and consumed in Asia. It feeds more people on a daily basis, half the world’s population, than any other staple. Nothing comes close, except wheat or maize perhaps, but much of those grains is processed into other products (bread and pasta) or fed to animals. Rice is consumed directly as the grain.

Just 24 when I joined CIP as a taxonomist in January 1973, one of my main responsibilities was to collect potato varieties in various parts of the Peruvian Andes to add to the growing germplasm collection of native varieties and wild species. I made three trips during my three years in Peru: in May 1973 to the departments of Ancash and La Libertad (with my colleague, Zósimo Huamán); in May 1974 to Cajamarca (accompanied by my driver Octavio); and in January/February 1974 to Cuyo-Cuyo in Puno and near Cuzco, with University of St Andrews lecturer, Dr Peter Gibbs.

Top: with Octavio in Cajamarca, checking potato varieties with a farmer. Bottom: ready for the field, near Cuzco.

My own biosystematics/pre-breeding PhD research on potatoes looked at the breeding relationships between cultivated forms with different chromosome numbers (multiples of 12) that don’t naturally intercross freely, as well as diversity within one form with 36 chromosomes, Solanum x chaucha. In the image below, some of that diversity is shown, as well as examples of how we made crosses (pollinations) between different varieties, using the so-called ‘cut stem method’ in bottles.

Several PhD students of mine at Birmingham studied resistance to pests and diseases in the myriad of more than 100 wild species of potato that are found from the southern USA to southern Chile. We even looked at the possibility of protoplast fusion (essentially fusion of ‘naked’ cells) between different species, but not successfully.

I developed a range of biosystematics projects when taking over leadership of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, publishing extensively about the relationships among the handful (about 20 or so) wild rice species and cultivated rice. One of the genebank staff, Elizabeth Ma. ‘Yvette’ Naredo (pointing in the image below) completed her MS degree under my supervision.

Although this research had a ‘taxonomic’ focus in one sense (figuring out the limits of species to one another), it also had the practical focus of demonstrating how easily species might be used in plant breeding, according to their breeding relationships, based on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet, 1971 [1], illustrated diagrammatically below.

When I transferred to Costa Rica in 1976, I was asked to look into the possibility of growing potatoes under hot, humid conditions. At that time CIP was looking to expand potato production into areas and regions not normally associated with potato cultivation. One of the things I did learn was how to grow a crop of potatoes.

I was based in Turrialba (at the regional institute CATIE), at around 650 masl, with an average temperature of around 23°C (as high as 30°C and never much lower than about 15°C; annual rainfall averages more than 2800 mm). Although we did identify several varieties that could thrive under these conditions, particularly during the cooler months of the year, we actually faced a more insidious problem, and one that kept me busy throughout my time in Costa Rica.

Shortly after we planted the first field trials on CATIE’s experiment station, we noticed that some plants were showing signs of wilting but we didn’t know the cause.

With my research assistant Jorge Aguilar checking on wilted plants in one of the field trials.

Luis Carlos González

Fortunately, I established a very good relationship with Dr Luis Carlos González Umaña, a plant pathologist in the University of Costa Rica, who quickly identified the culprit: a bacterium then known as Pseudomonas solanacearum (now Ralstonia solanacearum) that causes the disease known as bacterial wilt.

I spent over three years looking into several ways of controlling bacterial wilt that affects potato production in many parts of the world. An account of that work was one of the first posts I published in this blog way back in 2012.

The other aspect of potato production which gave me great satisfaction is the work that my colleague and dear friend Jim Bryan and I did on rapid multiplication systems for seed potatoes.

Being a vegetatively-propagated crop, potatoes are affected by many diseases. Beginning with healthy stock is essential. The multiplication rate with potatoes is low compared to crops that reproduce through seeds, like rice and wheat. In order to bulk up varieties quickly, we developed a set of multiplication techniques that have revolutionised potato seed production systems ever since around the world.

AS CIP’s Regional Representative for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean (known as CIP’s Region II), I also contributed to various potato production training courses held each year in Mexico. But one of our signature achievements was the launch of a six nation research network or consortium in 1978, known as PRECODEPA (Programa REgional COoperativo DE PApa), one of the first among the CGIAR centers. It was funded by the Swiss Government.

Shortly after I left Costa Rica in November 1980, heading back to Lima (and unsure where my next posting would be) PRECODEPA was well-established, and leadership was assumed by the head of one of the national potato program members of the network. PRECODEPA expanded to include more countries in the region (in Spanish, French, and English), and was supported continually by the Swiss for more than 25 years. I have written here about how PRECODEPA was founded and what it achieved in the early years.

I resigned from CIP in March 1981 and returned to the UK, spending a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham.

Did I enjoy my time at Birmingham? I have mixed feelings.

I had quite a heavy teaching load, and took on several administrative roles, becoming Chair of the Biological Sciences Second Year Common Course (to which I contributed a module of about six lectures on agricultural ecosystems). I had no first teaching commitments whatsoever, thank goodness. I taught a second year module with my colleague Richard Lester on flowering plant taxonomy, contributing lectures about understanding species relationships through experimentation.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

With my close friend and colleague Dr Brian Ford-Lloyd (later Professor), I taught a final year module on plant genetic resources, the most enjoyable component of my undergraduate teaching.

One aspect of my undergraduate responsibilities that I really did enjoy (and took seriously, I believe—and recently confirmed by a former tutee!) was the role of personal tutor to 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students. I would meet with them about once a week to discuss their work, give advice, set assignments, and generally be a sounding board for any issues they wanted to raise with me. My door was always open.

Most of my teaching—on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm collecting, agricultural systems, among others—was a contribution to the one year (and international) MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources on which I had studied a decade earlier. In my travels around the world after I joined IRRI in 1991, I would often bump into my former students, and several also contributed to a major rice biodiversity project that I managed for five years from 1995. I’m still in contact with some of those students, some of whom have found me through this blog. And I’m still in contact with two of my classmates from 1970-71.

Research on potatoes during the 1980s at Birmingham was not straightforward. On the one hand I would have liked to continue the work on wild species that had been the focus of Professor Jack Hawkes’ research over many decades.

With Jack Hawkes, collecting Solanum multidissectum in the central Andes north of Lima in early 1981 just before I left CIP to return to the UK. This was the only time I collected with Hawkes. What knowledge he had!

He had built up an important collection of wild species that he collected throughout the Americas. I was unable to attract much funding to support any research projects. It wasn’t a research council priority. Furthermore, there were restrictions on how we could grow these species, because of strict quarantine regulations. In the end I decided that the Hawkes Collection would be better housed in Scotland at the Commonwealth Potato Collection (or CPC, that had been set up after the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition in 1938-39 in which Jack participated). In 1987, the Hawkes Collection was acquired by the CPC and remains there to this day.

Dave Downing was the department technician who looked after the potato collection at Birmingham. He did a great job coaxing many different species to flower.

Having said that, one MSc student, Susan Juned, investigated morphological and enzyme diversity in the wild species Solanum chacoense. After graduating Susan joined another project on potato somaclones that was managed by myself and Brian Ford-Lloyd (see below). Another student, Ian Gubb, continued our work on the lack of enzymic blackening in Solanum hjertingii, a species from Mexico, in collaboration with the Food Research Institute in Norwich, where he grew his research materials under special quarantine licence. A couple of Peruvian students completed their degrees while working at CIP, so I had the opportunity of visiting CIP a couple of times while each was doing field work, and renew my contacts with former colleagues. In 1988, I was asked by CIP to join a panel for a three week review of a major seed production project at several locations around Peru.

With funding of the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA, or whatever it was then), and now the Department for International Development (DFID), and in collaboration with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge and CIP, in 1983/84 we began an ambitious (and ultimately unsuccessful) project on true potato seed (TPS) using single seed descent (SSD) in diploid potatoes (having 24 chromosomes). Because of the potato quarantine situation at Birmingham, we established this TPS project at PBI, and over the first three years made sufficient progress for ODA to renew our grant for a second three year period.

We hit two snags, one biological, the other administrative/financial that led to us closing the project after five years. On reflection I also regret hiring the researcher we did. I’ve not had the same recruitment problem since.

Working with diploid potatoes was always going to be a challenge. They are self incompatible, meaning that the pollen from a flower ‘cannot’ fertilize the same flower. Nowadays mutant forms have been developed that overcome this incompatibility and it would be possible to undertake SSD as we envisaged. Eventually we hit a biological brick wall, and we decided the effort to pursue our goal would take more resources than we could muster. In addition, the PBI was privatized in 1987 and we had to relocate the project to Birmingham (another reason for handing over the Hawkes Collection to the CPC). We lost valuable research impetus in that move, building new facilities and the like. I think it was the right decision to pull the plug when we did, admit our lack of success, and move on.

We wrote about the philosophy and aims of this TPS project in 1984 [2], but I don’t have a copy of that publication. Later, in 1987, I wrote this review of TPS breeding [3].

Susan Juned

As I mentioned above, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I received a commercial grant to look into producing tissue-culture induced variants, or somaclones, of the crisping potato variety Record with reduced low temperature sweetening that leads to ‘blackened’ crisps (or chips in the USA) on frying. We hired Susan Juned as the researcher, and she eventually received her PhD in 1994 for this work. Since we kept the identity of each separate Record tuber from the outset of the project, over 150 tubers, and all the somaclone lines derived from each, we also showed that there were consequences for potato seed production and maintenance of healthy stocks as tissue cultures. We published that work in 1991. We also produced a few promising lines of Record for our commercial sponsor.

One funny aspect to this project is that we made it on to Page 3 of the tabloid newspaper The Sun, notorious in those days for a daily image of a well-endowed and naked young lady. Some journalist or other picked up a short research note in a university bulletin, and published an extremely short paragraph at the bottom of Page 3 (Crunch time for boffins) as if our project did not have a serious objective. In fact, I was even invited to go on the BBC breakfast show before I explained that the project had a serious objective. We weren’t just investigating ‘black bits in crisp packets’.

Brian and I (with a colleague, Martin Parry, in the Department of Geography) organized a workshop on climate change in 1989, when there was still a great deal of skepticism. We published a book in 1990 from that meeting (and followed up in 2013 with another).

Despite some successes while at Birmingham, and about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, I had started to become disillusioned with academic life by the end of the 1980s, and began to look for new opportunities. That’s when I heard about a new position at IRRI in the Philippines: Head of the newly-established Genetic Resources Center, with responsibility for the world renowned and largest international rice genebank. I applied. The rest is history,

Klaus Lampe

I was appointed by Director General Klaus Lampe even though I’d never actually run a genebank before. Taking on a genebank as prestigious as the International Rice Genebank was rather daunting. But help was on the way.

I knew I had a good team of staff. All they needed was better direction to run a genebank efficiently, and bring the genebank’s operations up to a higher standard.

Staff of the International Rice Genebank on a visit to PhilRice in 1996.

There was hardly an aspect of the operations that we didn’t overhaul. Not that I had the genebank team on my side from the outset. It took a few months for them to appreciate that my vision for the genebank was viable. Once on board, they took ownership of and responsibility for the individual operations while I kept an overview of the genebank’s operation as a whole.

With Pola de Guzman inside the Active Collection store room at +4C. Pola was my right hand in the genebank, and I asked her to take on the role of genebank manager, a position she holds to this day.

I’ve written extensively in this blog about the genebank and genetic resources of rice, and in this post I gave an overview of what we achieved.

You can find more detailed stories of the issues we faced with data management and germplasm characterization, or seed conservation and regeneration (in collaboration with my good friend Professor Richard Ellis of the University of Reading). We also set about making sure that germplasm from around Asia (and Africa and the Americas) was safe in genebanks and duplicated in the International Rice Genebank. We embarked on an ambitious five year project (funded by the Swiss government) to collect rice varieties mainly (and some wild samples as well), thereby increasing the size of the genebank collection by more than 25% to around 100,000 samples or accessions. The work in Laos was particularly productive.

My colleague, Dr Seepana Appa Rao (left) and Lao colleagues interviewing a farmer in Khammouane Province about the rice varieties she was growing.

We did a lot of training in data management and germplasm collecting, and successfully studied how farmers manage rice varieties (for in situ or on farm conservation) in the Philippines, Vietnam, and India.

One of IRRI’s main donors is the UK government through DFID. In the early 1990s, not long after I joined IRRI, DFID launched a new initiative known as ‘Holdback’ through which some of the funding that would, under normal circumstances, have gone directly to IRRI and its sister CGIAR centers was held back to encourage collaboration between dneters and scientists in the UK.

Whenever I returned on annual home leave, I would spend some time in the lab at Birmingham. John Newbury is on the far left, Parminder Virk is third from left, and Brian Ford-Lloyd on the right (next to me). One of my GRC staff, the late Amy Juliano spent a couple of months at Birmingham learning new molecular techniques. She is on the front row, fourth from right.

With my former colleagues at the University of Birmingham (Brian Ford-Lloyd, Dr John  Newbury, and Dr Parminder Virk) and a group at the John Innes Centre in Norwich (the late Professor Mike Gale and Dr Glenn Bryan) we set about investigating how molecular markers (somewhat in their infancy back in the day) could be used describe diversity in the rice collection or identify duplicate accessions.

Not only was this successful, but we published some of the first research in plants showing the predictive value of molecular markers for quantitative traits. Dismissed at the time by some in the scientific community, the study of  associations between molecular markers and traits is now mainstream.

In January 1993, I was elected Chair while attending my first meeting of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) in Ethiopia (my first foray into Africa), a forum bringing expertise in genetic conservation together among the CGIAR centers.

ICWG-GR meeting held at ILCA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in January 1993.

Over the next three years while I was Chair, the ICWG-GR managed a review of genetic resources in the CGIAR, and a review of center genebanks. We also set up the System-Wide Genetic Resources Program, that has now become the Genebank Platform.

I never expected to remain at IRRI as long as I did, almost nineteen years. I thought maybe ten years at most, and towards the end of the 1990s I began to look around for other opportunities.

Then, in early 2001, my career took another course, and I left genetic resources behind, so to speak, and moved into senior management at IRRI as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications, DPPC). And I stayed in that role until retiring from the institute ten years ago.

Top: after our Christmas lunch together at Antonio’s restaurant in Tagaytay, one of the best in the Philippines. To my left are: Sol, Eric, Corints, Vel, and Zeny. Below: this was my last day at IRRI, with Eric, Zeny, Corints, Vel, and Yeyet (who replaced Sol in 2008).

Ron Cantrell

The Director General, Ron Cantrell, asked me to beef up IRRI’s resource mobilization and project management. IRRI’s reputation with its donors had slipped. It wasn’t reporting adequately, or on time, on the various projects funded at the institute. Furthermore, management was not sure just what projects were being funded, by which donor, for what period, and what commitments had been set at the beginning of each. What an indictment!

I wrote about how DPPC came into being in this blog post. One of the first tasks was to align information about projects across the institute, particularly with the Finance Office. It wasn’t rocket science. We just gave every project (from concept paper to completion) a unique ID that had to be used by everyone. We also developed a corporate brand for our project reporting so that any donor could immediately recognise a report from IRRI.

So we set about developing a comprehensive project management system, restoring IRRI’s reputation in less than a year, and helping to increase the annual budget to around US$60 million. We also took on a role in risk management, performance appraisal, and the development of IRRI’s Medium Term Plans and its Strategy.

Bob Zeigler

Then under Ron’s successor, Bob Zeigler, DPPC went from strength to strength. Looking back on it, I think those nine years in DPPC were the most productive and satisfying of my whole career. In that senior management role I’d finally found my niche. There’s no doubt that the success of DPPC was due to the great team I brought together, particularly Corinta who I plucked out of the research program where she was working as a soil chemist.

Around 2005, after Bob became the DG, I also took on line management responsibility for a number of support units: Communication and Publications Services (CPS), Library and Documentation Services (LDS), Information Technology Service (ITS), and the Development Office (DO). Corinta took over day-to-day management of IRRI’s project portfolio.

With my unit heads, L-R: Gene Hettel (CPS), Mila Ramos (LDS), Marco van den Berg (ITS), Duncan Macintosh (DO), and Corinta Guerta (DPPC).

So, ten years on, what memories I have to keep my mind ticking over during these quiet days. When I began this post (which has turned out much longer than I ever anticipated) my aim was to decide between potatoes and rice. Having worked my way through forty years of wonderful experiences, I find I cannot choose one over the other. There’s no doubt however that I made a greater contribution to research and development during my rice days.

Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking about my South American potato days with great affection, and knowing that, given the chance, I’d be back up in the Andes at a moment’s notice. Potatoes are part of me, in a way that rice never became.

Farmer varieties of potatoes commonly found throughout the Andes of Peru.

Everyone needs good mentors. I hope I was a good mentor to the folks who worked with me. I was fortunate to have had great mentors. I’ve already mentioned a number of the people who had an influence on my career.

I can’t finish this overview of my forty years in international agriculture and academia without mentioning five others: Joe Smartt (University of Southampton); Trevor Williams (University of Birmingham); Roger Rowe (CIP); John Niederhauser (1990 World Food Prize Laureate); and Ken Brown (CIP)

L-R: Joe Smartt, Trevor Williams, Roger Rowe, and John Niederhauser.

  • Joe, a lecturer in genetics, encouraged me to apply for the MSc Course at Birmingham in early 1970. I guess without his encouragement (and Jack Hawkes accepting me on to the course) I never would have embarked on a career in genetic conservation and international agriculture. I kept in regular touch with Joe until he passed away in 2013.
  • At Birmingham, Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation on lentils. He was an inspirational teacher who went on to become the Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in Rome. The last time I spoke with Trevor was in 2012 when he phoned me one evening to congratulate me on being awarded an OBE. He passed away in 2015.
  • Roger joined CIP in July 1973 as Head of the Breeding and Genetics Department, from the USDA Potato Collection in Wisconsin. He was my first boss in the CGIAR, and I learnt a lot from him about research and project management. We are still in touch.
  • John was an eminent plant pathologist whose work on late blight of potatoes in Mexico led to important discoveries about the pathogen and the nature of resistance in wild potato species. John and I worked closely from 1978 to set up PRECODEPA. He had one of the sharpest (and wittiest) minds I’ve come across. John passed away in 2005.
  • Ken Brown

    Ken was a fantastic person to work with—he knew just how to manage people, was very supportive, and the last thing he ever tried to do was micromanage other people’s work. I learnt a great deal about program and people management from him.

[1] Harlan, JR and JMJ de Wet, 1971. Toward a rational classification of cultivated plants. Taxon 20, 509-517.

[2] Jackson, MT. L Taylor and AJ Thomson 1985. Inbreeding and true potato seed production. In: Report of a Planning Conference on Innovative Methods for Propagating Potatoes, held at Lima, Peru, December 10-14,1984, pp. 169-79.

[3] Jackson, MT, 1987. Breeding strategies for true potato seed. In: GJ Jellis & DE Richardson (eds), The Production of New Potato Varieties: Technological Advances. Cambridge University Press, pp. 248-261.


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