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! However, in a follow-up story, I write that genebanks still face a major challenge under a changing climate. Read more here.

Have [botany] degree . . . will travel (#iamabotanist)

One thing I had known from a young boy was that I wanted to see the world; and work overseas if possible. Following somewhat in the footsteps of my parents, Fred and Lilian Jackson.

Who would have thought that a degree in botany would open up so many opportunities?

Come 1 January, it will be 47 years since I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and the start of a 37 year career in the plant sciences: as a researcher, teacher, and manager. Where has the time flown?

After eight years in South and Central America, I spent a decade on the faculty of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Then, in 1991, I headed to Southeast Asia, spending almost 19 years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, before retiring in 2010.

However, I have to admit that Lady Luck has often been on my side, because my academic career didn’t get off to an auspicious start and almost thwarted my ambitions.

While I enjoyed my BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (in environmental botany and geography) I was frankly not a very talented nor particularly industrious student. I just didn’t know how to study, and always came up short in exams. And, on reflection, I guess I burnt the candle more at one end than the other.

It would hard to underestimate just how disappointed I was, in June 1970, to learn I’d been awarded a Lower Second Class (2ii) degree, not the Upper Second (2i) that I aspired to. I could have kicked myself. Why had I not applied myself better?

But redemption was on the horizon.

Prof. Jack Hawkes

In February 1970, Professor Jack Hawkes (head of the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham) interviewed me for a place on the MSc Course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, that had opened its doors to the first cohort some months earlier. I must have made a favorable impression, because he offered me a place for September.

But how was I to support myself for the one year course, and pay the tuition  fees? I didn’t have any private means and, in 1970, the Course had not yet been recognized for designated studentships by any of the UK’s research councils.

Through the summer months I was on tenterhooks, and with the end of August approaching, started seriously to think about finding a job instead.

Then salvation arrived in the form of a phone call from Professor Hawkes, that the university had awarded me a modest studentship to cover living expenses and accommodation (about £5 a week, or equivalent to about £66 in today’s money) as well as paying the tuition fees. I could hardly believe the good news.

Prof. Trevor Williams

By the middle of September I joined four other students (from Venezuela, Pakistan, Turkey, and Nigeria) to learn all about the importance of crop plant diversity. Over the next year, discovered my academic mojo. I completed my MSc dissertation on lentils under Course Tutor (and future Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, now Bioversity International), Professor Trevor Williams.

Starting a career in international agricultural research
Just before Christmas 1970, Hawkes traveled to Peru and Bolivia to collect wild potatoes. On his return in February 1971, he dangled the possibility of a one year position in Peru (somewhere I had always wanted to visit) to manage the potato germplasm collection at CIP while a Peruvian researcher came to Birmingham for training on the MSc Course. Then, in mid-summer, CIP’s Director General, Dr. Richard Sawyer, visited Birmingham and confirmed the position at CIP beginning in September 1971.

But things didn’t exactly go to plan. Funding from the British government’s overseas development aid budget to support my position at CIP didn’t materialise until January 1973. So, during the intervening 15 months, I began a PhD research project on potatoes (under the supervision of Professor Hawkes), continuing with that particular project as part of my overall duties once I’d joined CIP in Lima, under the co-supervision of Dr. Roger Rowe. That work took me all over the Andes—by road, on horseback, and on foot—collecting native varieties of potatoes for the CIP genebank.

Screening potatoes in Turrialba, Costa Rica for resistance to bacterial wilt.

After successfully completing my PhD in December 1975, I transferred to CIP’s Outreach Program in Central America, moved to Costa Rica for the next 4½ years, and began research on potato diseases, adaptation of potatoes to warm climates, and seed production. This was quite a change from my thesis research, but I acquired valuable experience about many different aspects of potato production. I learnt to grow a crop of potatoes!

But this posting was not just about research. After a year, my regional leader (based in Mexico) moved to the USA to pursue his PhD, and CIP asked me to take over as regional research leader. Thus I began to develop an interest in and (if I might be permitted to say) a flair for research management. In this role I traveled extensively throughout Central America and Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands, and helped to found and establish one of the most enduring and successful research partnerships between national research programs and any international agricultural research institute: PRECODEPA.

Then, just as I was thinking about a move to CIP’s regional office in the Philippines (for Southeast Asia), an entirely different opportunity opened up, and we moved back to the UK.

Back to Birmingham
In January 1981 I successfully applied for a Lectureship in my old department (now named the Department of Plant Biology) at Birmingham. I said goodbye to CIP in March 1981, and embarked on the next stage of my career: teaching botany.

The lectureship had been created to ensure continuity of teaching in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (and other topics) after Professor Hawkes’ retirement in September 1982. I assumed his particular teaching load, in crop plant evolution and germplasm collecting on the MSc Course, and flowering plant taxonomy to second year undergraduates, as well as developing other courses at both undergraduate and graduate level.

In addition to my continuing research interest on potatoes I assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species and one PhD student from Malaysia made an excellent study of species relationships of the one cultivated species, the grasspea, L. sativus. I successfully supervised (or co-supervised) the theses of nine other PhD students (and at least a couple of dozen MSc students) during the decade I spent at Birmingham.

I generally enjoyed the teaching and interaction with students more than research. Having struggled as an undergraduate myself, I think I could empathise with students who found themselves in the same boat, so-to-speak. I took my tutor/tutee responsibilities very seriously. In fact, I did and still believe that providing appropriate and timely tutorial advice to undergraduates was one of the more important roles I had. My door was always open for tutees to drop by, to discuss any issues in addition to the more formal meetings we had on a fortnightly basis when we’d discuss some work they had prepared for me, and I gave feedback.

While I appreciate that university staff are under increasing pressures to perform nowadays (more research, more grants, more papers) I just cannot accept that many consider their tutor responsibilities so relatively unimportant, assigning just an hour or so a week (or less) when they make themselves accessible by their tutees.

The 1980s were a turbulent time in the UK. Politics were dominated by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. And government policies came to significantly affect the higher education sector. By the end of the decade I was feeling rather disillusioned by university life, and although I was pretty confident of promotion to Senior Lecturer, I also knew that if any other opportunity came along, I would look at it seriously.

And in September 1990 just such an opportunity did come along, in the form of an announcement that IRRI was recruiting a head for the newly-created Genetic Resources Center.

Dr. Klaus Lampe

A return to international agriculture
It was early January 1991, and I was on a delayed flight to Hong Kong on my way to the Philippines for an interview. Arriving in Los Baños around 1 am (rather than 3 pm the previous afternoon), I had just a few hours sleep before a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr. Klaus Lampe and his two deputies. Severely jet-lagged, I guess I more or less sleep-walked through the next three days of interviews, as well as delivering a seminar. And the outcome? IRRI offered me the position at the end of January, and I moved to the Philippines on 1 July remaining there for almost 19 years.

For the first ten years, management of the International Rice Genebank (the world’s largest collection of rice varieties and wild species) was my main priority. I have written about many aspects of running a genebank in this blog, as well as discussing the dual roles of genebank management and scientific research. So I won’t repeat that here. Making sure the rice germplasm was safe and conserved in the genebank to the highest standards were the focus of my early efforts. We looked at better ways of growing diverse varieties in the single environment of IRRI’s Experiment Station, and overhauled the genebank data management system. We also spent time studying the diversity of rice varieties and wild species, eventually using a whole array of molecular markers and, in the process, establishing excellent collaboration with former colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK.

Dr. Ron Cantrell

Then, one day in early 2001, IRRI’s Director General, Dr. Ron Cantrell, called me to his office, asking me to give up genebanking and join the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications. As I said earlier, I really enjoyed management, but wasn’t sure I wanted to leave research (and genetic resources) behind altogether. But after some serious soul-searching, I did move across in May 2001 and remained in that position until my retirement in April 2010.

Even in that position, my background and experience in the plant sciences was invaluable. All research project proposals for example passed through my office for review and submission to various donors for funding. I was able not only look at the feasibility of any given project in terms of its objectives and proposed outcomes within the project timeframe, I could comment on many of the specific scientific aspects and highlight any inconsistencies. Because we had a well-structured project proposal development and submission process, the quality of IRRI projects increased, as well as the number that were successfully supported. IRRI’s budget increased to new levels, and confidence in the institute’s research strategy and agenda gained increased confidence among its donors.

What a good decision I made all those years ago to study botany. I achieved that early ambition to travel all over the world (>60 countries in connection with my work) in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. But the study (and use) of plants gave me so much more. I used the knowledge and experience gained to help transform lives of some of the poorest farmers and their families, by contributing to efforts to grow better yielding crops, more resilient to climate change, and resistant to diseases.

I’m sure that a degree in botany would be the last in many people’s minds as leading to so many opportunities such as I enjoyed. Knowing that opportunities are out there is one thing. Seizing those opportunities is quite another. And I seized them with both hands. I never looked back.

I should also mention that I also ascribe some of my success to having had excellent mentors—many mentioned in this piece—throughout my career to whom I could turn for advice. Thank you!

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If you are interested, a list of my scientific output (papers, book, book chapters, conference presentations and the like) can be seen here.

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Are you plant blind?

In our 1986 book Plant Genetic Resources: An Introduction to their Conservation and Use, my former colleague and friend of almost 50 years, Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote (on page 1):

To most people the word ‘conservation’ conjures up visions of lovable cuddly animals like giant pandas on the verge of extinction. Or it refers to the prevention of the mass slaughter of endangered whale species, under threat because of human’s greed and short-sightedness. Comparatively few  however, are moved to action or financial contribution by the idea of economically important plant genes disappearing from the face of the earth. . . . But plant genetic resources make little impression on the heart even though their disappearance could herald famine on a greater scale than ever seen before, leading to ultimate world-wide disaster.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. Through our 1986 lens that did not seem far-fetched. And while it’s fair to say that the situation today is better in some respects than Brian and I predicted, there are new threats and challenges, such as global warming.

The world needs genetic diversity to breed varieties of crops that will keep agricultural systems sustainable, allow production of crops in drought-prone regions, where temperatures are increasing, and where new races of diseases threaten even the very existence of agriculture for some crops.

That genetic diversity comes from the hundreds of thousands of crop varieties that farmers have nurtured for generations since the birth of agriculture millennia ago, or in closely related wild species. After all, all crops were once wild species before domestication.

These are the genetic resources that must be safely guarded for future generations.

The work of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), then the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), was pivotal in coordinating and supporting genetic resources programs worldwide, in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Then a new and very important player came along. Over the past decade and half the Crop Trust, has provided long-term support to some of the world’s most important genebanks.

International mechanisms have been put in place to support collection, conservation, study, and use of plant genetic resources. Yet, much remains to be done. And ‘Joe Public’ is probably still as unaware of the importance of the crop varieties and their wild relatives (and perhaps plants in general) as we feared more than three decades ago.


Wildlife programs on TV are mostly about animals, apart from the weekly gardening programs, and some such as David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (broadcast in 1995). Animal programs attract attention for precisely the reasons that Brian and I highlighted in 1986. A couple of nights ago for instance I watched a fascinating, hour-long program on the BBC about hippos in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Wonderful footage revealing never-before-seen hippo behaviour and ecology.

When it comes to genetic resources, animals don’t do so badly either, at least here in the UK. We get an almost weekly item about the importance of rare breeds of livestock and their imperiled status during the BBC’s flagship Countryfile program on Sunday evenings presented by farmer Adam Henson, whose father Joe helped set up the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) in 1973. The RBST has been pivotal in rescuing many breeds from the brink of extinction. Just last night (28 July) Adam proudly showed an Albion calf born the day before on his farm in the Cotswolds. The Albion breed is one of the rarest in the UK.

Photo credit: the RBST

But that says very little about all the endangered livestock breeds around the world that are fortunately the focus of the work of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Ankole cattle from southwestern Uganda (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

However . . .

When was the last time—if ever—you watched a TV documentary about the rare (so-called ‘heritage’) varieties of the food plants on which we depend, or their closest wild species relatives, such as the barleys of Ethiopia or the potatoes of the South American Andes, for instance. And would you really care if you hadn’t?

Are you even aware that the barleys that we use for brewing originally came from Ethiopia and the Middle East? Or that the Spanish brought the potato back to Europe in the 16th century from Peru? What about your daily cups of tea or coffee?

These are just some of the myriad of fascinating histories of our food crops. Today many of these staples are often more important in agriculture in parts of the world far distant from the regions where they originated and were first domesticated.

In the UK, enthusiasts will be aware of heritage vegetable varieties, and the many varieties of fruits like apples that have disappeared from commercial orchards, but are still grown at places like Berrington Hall in Herefordshire.

Take a look at this article by freelance communicator Jeremy Cherfas about the origins of the food we eat. Jeremy has written a lot about genetic resources (and many other aspects of sustainable agriculture). As he says, you may discover a few surprises.

In centers of domestication, the diversity of the crops grown by farmers is impressive indeed. It’s wonderful. It’s BEAUTIFUL! The domestication of crops and their use by farmers worldwide is the story of civilization.

Here are just a few examples from beans, maize, cocoa, cucurbits, wheat, and lentil.

And take a look at the video below.

Who could fail to be impressed by such a range of shapes and colors of these varieties? And these varieties (and wild species) contain all the genes we need to keep crops productive.

Plant genetic resources: food for the stomach, food for the soul.


My own work since 1971 concerned the conservation and use of potatoes and rice (and some legume species as side projects).

In Peru, I came to learn just how important potatoes are for communities that live at altitude in the Andes. Could the Inca empire have grown and dominated the region had there been no potatoes (and maize)?

Machu Picchu

And there are so many wild species of potatoes that can be found from the southern USA to the south of Chile and east into the plains of Brazil. The International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima (where I worked for over eight years) has the world’s largest genebank of potato varieties. Important wild species collections are maintained there, as well as in Scotland at the Commonwealth Potato Collection (maintained by the James Hutton Institute), and the USA, at the NRSP-6 Potato Genebank in Sturgeon Bay, WI.

Rice is the food of Asia. There are thousands upon thousands of varieties that grow in standing water, or on sloping uplands, or in areas that flood and so have evolved to elongate rapidly to keep pace with rising flood waters.

Here is a selection of images of rice diversity in Laos, one of the countries that we explored during the 1990s.

Would it have been possible to build the temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia in the 12th century without rice? It has been estimated that upwards of one million workers were employed in its construction. That workforce needed a constant supply of staple rice, the only crop that could be grown productively in this monsoon environment.

These potato and rice examples are the tip of the genetic resources and civilization history iceberg. Think about the origins of agriculture in Turkey and the Mideast, 10,000 years ago. Remains of wheat, barley and pulses like lentil and chickpea have been found at the earliest cities in that region. And these histories are repeated all around the world.


In 1983 and 1984, BBC2 aired two series of a program called Geoffrey Smith’s World of Flowers, in which Smith (a professional gardener and broadcaster) waxed lyrical on the history of many of his favorite garden plants, and their development in cultivation: tulips from Turkey, dahlias from Mexico, lilies from North America, and many, many more.

In these programs, he talked about where and how the plants grow in the wild, when they had been collected, and by whom, and how through decades (centuries in some cases) of hybridization and selection, there are so many varieties in our gardens today. The programs attracted an audience of over 5 million apparently. And two books were also published.

I had an idea. If programs like these could be so popular, how about a series on the food plants that we eat, where they originated, how they were domesticated, and how modern varieties have been bred using these old varieties and wild species. I envisaged these programs encompassing archaeology and crop science, the rise of civilizations, completing the stories of why and which crops we depend on.

I wrote a synopsis for the programs and sent it to the producer at the BBC of the Geoffrey Smith programs, Brian Davies. I didn’t hear back for several weeks, but out of the blue, he wrote back and asking to come up to Birmingham for a further discussion. I pitched the idea to him. I had lots of photos of crop diversity and wild species, stories about the pioneers of plant genetic resources, like Vavilov, Jack Harlan, Erna Bennett, and Jack Hawkes, to name just a few. I explained how these plant stories were also stories about the development and growth of civilizations, and how this had depended on plant domestication. Stories could be told from some of the most important archaeological sites around the world.

Well, despite my enthusiasm, and the producer warming to the idea, he eventually wrote back that the BBC could not embark on such a series due to financial limitations. And that’s all I heard. Nevertheless, I still think that a series along these lines would make fascinating television. Now who would present the series (apart from myself, that is!)?

Maybe its time has come around again. From time-to-time, interesting stories appear in the media about crops and their origins, as this recent one about cocoa and vanilla in the Smithsonian Magazine illustrates.

But we need to do more to spread the plant genetic resources ‘gospel’. The stories are not only interesting, but essential for our agricultural survival.


 

What’s wrong with ‘a bowl of alphabet soup’?

A rice farmer in northern Laos with her family

CGIAR? CG? CeeGee? Or should that be CIGAR?

The CGIAR is, it seems, a mystery to almost the entire world population, even those billions whose survival depends on the outputs of CGIAR-funded agricultural research. Recently, philanthropist Bill Gates wrote in his blog that . . . you’ve probably never heard of CGIAR, but they are essential to feeding our future. Fair comment.

Originally known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research but more commonly just CGIAR today, it is the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network.

Founded in 1971, under the auspices of the World Bank, to coordinate international agricultural research efforts aimed at reducing poverty and achieving food security in developing countries, the network today supports 15 independent agricultural research institutes or centers. CGIAR brings evidence to policy makers, innovation to partners, and new tools to harness the economic, environmental and nutritional power of agriculture.

The centers carry out research on the world’s most import food crops (such as wheat, maize, and rice among many others), water and biodiversity management, livestock and fish, tree and forest systems, the dynamics of the world’s most challenging agricultural ecosystems, and food and agricultural policy.

Their research agendas contribute significantly towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And, of course, much of the research today is directed towards combating the threat (and challenges) of a changing climate that will affect agricultural productivity in most parts of the world in decades to come. In his blog piece, Gates rightly highlights the important climate-related research ongoing at two centers in Mexico and Nigeria, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), respectively. There’s more going on in the other centers coordinated through a cross-center research program.

Many billions of dollars have been invested in international agricultural research over the past 50 years or so. But the economic return through increased productivity has been many billions of dollars more.

But we shouldn’t just look at the economic benefits, important as they are. Millions upon millions of people have been taken out of poverty, and despite a worrying reversal of the favorable downward trend of food insecurity (due to economic slowdowns and downturns around the globe, as outlined in a recent report from several international agencies), more people benefit today from access to better crop varieties or improved practices. Many farmers can now afford to provide education opportunities for their children which they were unable to do without access to new technologies.

The centers supported through CGIAR are the key international players for conservation of genetic diversity found in farmer varieties and wild species of crop relatives. This genetic material or germplasm is safely stored in the genebanks at eleven of the centers. More importantly, this germplasm is being studied and used to breed better-adapted varieties.


When CGIAR was founded in 1971 there were already four centers, which were ‘adopted’ for funding support. The International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, based in the Philippines, is the oldest, founded in 1959 [1] and about to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee later this year.

Then came the Mexico-based CIMMYT in 1966 (although its antecedents stretch back to 1943 and a Rockefeller Foundation-funded program in Mexico), followed in 1967 by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT, in Colombia and IITA, in Nigeria. Others followed over the next decade or so, but the number has fluctuated as centers merged, or even closed down.

I worked at two of these centers over a period of 27 years, as a junior/senior scientist in Peru and Central America at the International Potato Center or CIP that was founded in 1971 [2]; and as a Head of Department, then Director, at IRRI.


IRRI, CIMMYT, CIAT, IITA. Just four of the research institute acronyms that seemingly roll off the tongue. Yet, these very acronyms seemingly conspire to confuse. Even Bill Gates seems overwhelmed by center branding, stating that with so many acronyms being bandied about that the  . . . uninitiated feel[ing] as if they’ve fallen into a bowl of alphabet soup.

In the early years, CGIAR was an informal association of donor agencies that agreed to coordinate their funding to support the small numbers of centers that at one stage in the 1990s was allowed to grow to about 18 centers. At least one center closure and some mergers have come about since. And the funding model has changed.

Towards the end of the 1990s there was a growing concern among the donors of the centers—the members of CGIAR (centers are not members per se)—that there was too much duplication among centers in terms of their research programs, that their relationships with research programs in developing countries was burdensome for some of those programs, and that donor interests were not being met. Twenty years on, and despite changes to the funding model whereby donors have much more control over research projects in the centers, and the development of cross-center programs (with all the transactions paraphernalia that comes with these, such as meetings across continents, performance targets, and the added costs of just doing business), the profile of CGIAR remains weak (if we accept Bill Gates’ line of argument).

Why can that be, despite the intensive efforts to remedy this situation. In 1998 the centers supported by the CGIAR created Future Harvest as a charitable and educational organization designed to advance the debate on how to feed the world’s growing population without destroying the environment and to catalyze action for a world with less poverty, a healthier human family, well-nourished children, and a better environment.

It was a doomed rebranding initiative from the outset, yet survived several years. Centers were branded as members of the Alliance of Future Harvest Centers, a branding that has all but disappeared. It’s almost impossible to find any reference to Future Harvest on the web, and I only came across one logo on the inside of one publication. One of the reasons why Future Harvest failed is that while the concept was probably fine for the English-speaking world, it found no counterpart in Chinese, Hindi, Bahasa Indonesia, Swahili, or whatever. Future Harvest? What does that mean?

But it started, in my opinion, from a lack of understanding (misunderstanding, perhaps) of the power of branding of the individual centers. CGIAR (Future Harvest) is the sum of its parts, the independent centers that actually do the research. IRRI is a more powerful, and known, brand in Asia in particular [3]. The same goes for CIMMYT in Mexico, India, and Pakistan, and for the other centers where they operate.

Yes, the initiatives to permit centers to align their agendas and work more closely are worthwhile. But at the outset, the funding model was such that centers found themselves having to bid to become members of the new system programs, just to survive. Not a good reason for inter-center collaboration.

I have no problem with Gates’ bowl of alphabet soup. Fifteen acronyms (that you can actually pronounce) is a small price for strong branding, as long as full names are explained as well. This situation is no different from what you can find in any country. Just take the UK: NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge); JIC (John Innes Centre in Norwich); or JHI (James Hutton Institute, in Dundee and Aberdeen). No-one seems perturbed recognizing these prestigious institutions either by their acronym or name. Why should there be any difficulty for the centers supported by CGIAR?

In response to Gates’ blog post, one tweeter (who had worked at one of the centers, CIMMYT I believe) stated that this ‘confusion’ was a sound justification for merging centers into one institute. I couldn’t disagree more. The strength of CGIAR lies in its diversity. Centers are strategically located around the world. Institutional (and national staff) cultures and set ups are very different. Doing business over time zones is problematical.

Merging organizations is never easy. One ‘partner’ inevitably loses out to another (take the Delta-NWA merger; who now remembers NWA?) One successful merger among CGIAR centers led to the creation of the International Livestock Research Institute or ILRI (bringing together the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases in Nairobi, and the International Livestock Centre for Africa in Addis Ababa). Not all mergers or alliances prosper however. Closer links between IRRI and CIMMYT in the in the early 2000s came to nothing despite best efforts, and having two Board of Trustees members common to both. It remains to be seen how closer links between Bioversity International in Rome and CIAT, or the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi and the Center for International Forestry Research, or CIFOR in Bogor, Indonesia, pan out.

As you can see I’m a believer in the power, and identity, of the centers. After all, that’s where the research is planned strategically, where the scientists reside, and where they do their work. Branding is important and can make all the difference for delivering the right message.

Let’s celebrate how CGIAR has supported international agricultural research for almost five decades and continues to provide the framework for that to continue. Yes, the world needs to know and understand the importance of CGIAR and what it stands for. Equally, I would argue, let’s celebrate the work of IRRI, CIMMYT, IITA, CIAT, CIP, IFPRI, Bioversity International, ICARDA, IWMI, ILRI, World Agroforestry, Worldfish, CIFOR, ICRISAT, and Africa Rice.


[1] A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in December 1959 between the Government of the Philippines and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to establish IRRI. The Board of Trustees met in April 1960 to approve the institute’s constitution and by-laws. Thus, IRRI has two ‘birthdays’. The 50th anniversary was celebrated on 9 December 2009 and 14th April 2010.

[2] I was originally due to join CIP in September 1971, when I completed my MSc, and the CIP Director General, Richard Sawyer, had approached the forerunner of the UK’s Department for International Development for funding to support my assignment in Peru. But the UK was at that very moment deciding whether to fund CIP bilaterally or join CGIAR and fund the center’s work that way. My departure for Peru was delayed for 15 months.

[3] In about 2004, I was invited to a meeting on biotechnology and intellectual property rights in Malaysia, near Kuala Lumpur. My flight from Manila arrived in KL around 11 pm, and I had to take a taxi to the resort where the meeting was being held, about 35 km or so. I don’t remember if a taxi had been sent for me, or I just took the next one in the rank outside the terminal building exit. On the journey, the driver started asking me a few questions, and when I told him I worked in agriculture in the Philippines, he replied: ‘I guess you must work at IRRI’ or words to that effect. He knew all about IRRI. Notwithstanding he had once been a driver for Malaysia’s Minister of Agriculture, he was indeed very knowledgeable about rice and IRRI’s role. I was more than surprised.

 

Everyone’s a taxonomist

I’ve just discovered (via Twitter) that 19 March was Taxonomist Appreciation Day. This was, as far as I can make out, a celebration of the important—fundamental even—contribution that biologists known as taxonomists make to our understanding of the living world. Taxonomists bring order to the biodiversity that’s all around us. Indeed, without this order and understanding, it would be more difficult to know for example which plants and animals are endangered, and to prioritize what to conserve, and where.

The most celebrated taxonomist of all was surely the eighteenth century Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (whose Latinized name, Linnaeus, identifies him as the taxonomic authority, L., for many plants and animals).

So what do taxonomists do? One of their important roles is to describe and catalogue all plants and animals and, in the case of plants, publish this information in compendia known as Floras as an aid to identification, like those written about the plants of the British Isles and Europe that have been studied for hundreds of years.

Other Floras are still being written. Take the Flora Zambesiaca, for example, a project started in 1960 as the taxonomic study of native and naturalised plants of the Zambezi River basin, covering the territories of Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Caprivi Strip. This is a work in progress, and there are many other parts of the world where the diversity of plants is only now being discovered and documented, particularly in the Tropics.

But taxonomists also look at the variation within species, and assess the dynamics of species distribution and evolution.


Mr Les Watson

I had my first taste of taxonomy at the University of Southampton where, as first year students or freshmen in 1967/68, we studied the diversity of flowering plants under the tuition of taxonomist Les Watson. He and another colleague Alan Myers took us to the west coast of Ireland for a field course in July 1968 where we studied the vegetation of the Burren in Co Clare.

Professor Vernon Heywood

In my final or senior year in 1970, I sat in on a plant taxonomy course given by eminent taxonomist Professor Vernon Heywood from the University of Reading (Les Watson had moved to Australia in 1968/69, and had not been replaced in the Department of Botany). I met up with Professor Heywood in 1991 at a conference in Rome where we had an opportunity to reminisce about that course.

I never expected that, one day, I would engage in taxonomic research. However, I never participated in describing or naming plant species, nor undertaking the enormous task of contributing to Floras that is sometimes considered the be-all and end-all of taxonomists’ work. I take my hat off to those taxonomists who write Floras, often relying on dried herbarium specimens of plants collected in nature. Nevertheless, in my own work, I have used herbaria on occasion, and twice spent time looking at specimens of lentil (Lens culinaris Medik.) and grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.) among the millions of herbarium sheets curated in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. My interest was in the relationships of these cultivated plants and their wild relatives.

Comparing notes in the field in the Andes of central Peru with potato taxonomist Professor Jack Hawkes (who supervised my PhD dissertation).

In 1973 I joined the International Potato Center in Peru as an Associate Taxonomist, studying the evolution of cultivated potatoes. Biosystematics, a sub-discipline of plant taxonomy, was my field, and I investigated species relationships through field experiments to understand patterns of morphological variation, through breeding experiments, and cytogenetic analysis of chromosome pairing in hybrids, among other several different approaches.

When I returned to Birmingham in 1981 as Lecturer in Plant Biology, I continued research on wild potatoes, and also several legume species. I also contributed about half the lectures to a second year module on flowering plant taxonomy.

On moving to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in July 1991, my colleagues and I delved into the taxonomy and species relationships of the two cultivated species of rice, Oryza sativa L. and O. glaberrima Steud., and the 20 or so wild species in the genus Oryza. We published quite extensively, and you you can peruse a list of rice publications (many with PDF files) here.


Just last week I met up for lunch with six retired former colleagues from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham: three plant scientists (including me), three geneticists, and a zoologist. Inevitably we began to discuss not only the administrative and organization changes that had occurred at the university (I taught there between 1981 and 1991), but how the teaching of biology had also changed, and the topics that now form a core biology curriculum.

Back in the day, whole organism biology still formed an important component of an undergraduate degree in biological sciences at Birmingham. Nowadays, and for obvious reasons, there’s much more focus on molecular biology, and recent hirings in what is now the School of Biosciences (Biological Sciences and Biochemistry merged some years back) reflect that change of emphasis.

Alas, it’s no longer possible to study at Birmingham for a biology degree with a plant sciences focus. But that’s not just a Birmingham issue; it’s nationwide. And taxonomy is perhaps the discipline that has suffered more than most. Taxonomists are just not coming through the system. Just at the time when one can argue there should be more demand for taxonomists than ever before, given the environmental changes that threaten the world’s vegetation. In some regions we may be losing species even before they have been identified. Harvard biologist EO Wilson wrote this in 2017: Our incomplete taxonomic knowledge impedes our attempts to protect biodiversity. A renaissance in the classification of species and their interactions is needed to guide conservation prioritization [1].


Now, I started this piece stating that everyone is a taxonomist. Is that a fair assumption?I think so.

Appa Rao collecting upland rice varieties from a farmer in the Lao PDR.

Taxonomy (and classification) is a fundamental human characteristic, something we do every day. We sort the complex world around us into meaningful categories, and we give them names. In many societies, farmers and their husbands use so-called ‘folk taxonomies’ to manage the various crops grown, and often the diversity of different varieties within a crop. I have myself talked to potato farmers in the Andes of southern Peru about their cultivation of different varieties, and why these are grown in different ways. In the Lao PDR, with my colleague Dr Appa Rao, we looked at how farmers name all their rice varieties.

Even before talking to my second year students about flowering plant taxonomy as such (and the different approaches used to study variation), I asked them to practice some simple taxonomies on themselves: males vs. females, blondes vs. brunettes, spectacle users vs. non-users, for example. These are discrete characteristics, binary, one or the other. Then we’d look at the complexity of coping with characters that vary quantitatively, such as height, length, etc.

Fortunately, there are many numerical techniques that allow us to cope with all sorts of measurements, and reduce complexity to a state that can be interpreted more easily.

The classification of different rice species based on the measurement and analysis of a range of morphological characters.

The use of different molecular markers now allows us to refine taxonomies built using morphological data. But, as I once read in a letter published in a scientific journal, a professor of taxonomy decried the lack of basic species knowledge among many students using molecular approaches. They could wax lyrical, he stated, about the value of different molecular techniques, but they had hardly looked at a living plant. That brings me back to my concern about the reduction in teaching whole organism biology.

As I say, we are all taxonomists, one way or another. Unfortunately I don’t see any scientific expansion (in the UK at least) in this particular discipline.

The situation may be different in North America. Plant sciences are still very strong in many US universities, and indeed there is a bill before Congress that promotes botanical research & sciences capacity, generates demand for native plant materials, & authorizes related federal activities.


[1] Wilson, EO (2017). Biodiversity research requires more boots on the ground. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 1590 –1591

A botanical field trip to the south of Peru . . . 45 years ago

In 1976, a paper appeared in the scientific journal Flora, authored by University of St Andrews botanist Peter Gibbs¹ (now retired), on the breeding system of a tuber crop, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), that is grown by farmers throughout the Andes of Peru and Bolivia.

Like a number of Oxalis species, oca has a particular floral morphology known as heterostyly that promotes outcrossing between different plants. In his 1877 The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, Charles Darwin had illustrated (in Fig. 11) the particular situation of tristyly in ‘Oxalis speciosa‘, the same floral morphology that is found in oca. In this illustration taken from Darwin’s publication, the ‘legitimate’ pollinations are shown; stigmas can only receive pollen from stamens at the same level in another flower.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Peter had visited Peru in early 1974 (hard to believe that it’s 45 years ago), made collections of oca from a number of localities, particularly one village, Cuyo Cuyo, in the Department of Puno in the south of Peru (just north of Lake Titicaca), and then studied the breeding system of the oca varieties that he’d collected. His 1976 paper in Flora emanated from that field trip.


But there’s more to that story (and publication) than meets the eye. It was also tied up with the research I was carrying out on potatoes in the Peruvian Andes at that time. Peter and I made that field trip together, spending at least three weeks on the road, before flying back to Lima from Cuzco.

I don’t recall precisely when I first met Peter. We were obviously in touch when planning the trip south, but I simply can’t remember whether, during 1973, Peter had passed through Lima where I was working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina since January that year, or he had contacted CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asking if the center could provide logistical support and the DG had passed that request on to me. Whatever the course of events, Peter and I came to an agreement to make a field trip together to the south of Peru.

This is the route of more than 2000 km that we took.

While working as an Associate Taxonomist at CIP I was also registered for a PhD in potato biosystematics (under potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes at The University of Birmingham) which I was expected to complete by 1975. My work, studying the breeding relationships of potato varieties with different chromosome numbers was similar, in some respects, to that Peter envisaged with oca.

I’d been looking for suitable field locations where it might be possible to study the dynamics of potato cultivation in an ‘unspoiled’ area where mostly traditional potato varieties were cultivated rather than varieties bred and released on the market in recent years. At the back end of 1973 I made a short visit to Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca to explore several possible field sites. Then, Peter proposed we visit the remote village of Cuyo Cuyo, around 250 km north of Puno. He’d come across a paper (either one by AW Hill in 1939 or another by WH Hodge in 1951 – both are cited by Peter in his Flora paper) that described widespread oca cultivation at Cuyo Cuyo on a series of ancient terraces, but also of potato varieties. I wasn’t sure if this was the location I was looking for, but agreed that we could explore Cuyo Cuyo first before heading north towards Cuzco in search of other likely sites.


Our journey south to Puno took at least three days if memory serves me correctly. Our trusty chariot was a short wheelbase Land Rover, with a canvas hood.

Not the most secure vehicle if you have to park up overnight in an unprotected lot. Nor the most comfortable; very sturdy suspension. But an excellent vehicle otherwise for ‘driving’ out of tricky situations.

We headed south on the Panamericana Sur, stopping at Ica or Nazca on the first night south of Lima, then on the Arequipa on the second day.

The Panamericana hugs the coast through the southern desert, crossing river valleys that flow down from the Andes to meet the Pacific Ocean. Along these, and in the area of Camana (where the road heads inland to Arequipa) quite a lot of rice is grown.

From Arequipa it must have taken another day to travel to Puno across the altiplano.

We then had another night to recoup in Puno, enjoying a comfortable bed, some good food, and perhaps one too many algarrobina cocktails (made from pisco) that Peter had taken a shine to.

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca near Puno


It took a day to travel to Cuyo Cuyo, across the altiplano (>4000 masl), fording rivers, and then, as we approached the village from the south, dropping into a steep-sided valley, the Sandia Gorge.

We hit a cloud layer, obscuring views of the valley, but also coming across a landslide that had to be cleared before we could make progress.

Once past that barrier, the cloud cleared and we began to see something of the majesty of the Cuyo Cuyo valley, with the steep valley sides covered in ancient terraces that, as we discovered over the next few days, were still be farmed communally as they had been for generations apparently. On the descent into Cuyo Cuyo, the banks alongside the road were also covered in masses of a beautiful begonia (Begonia clarkei Hook.) with large white flowers about 3-4 inches in diameter.


Where to stay? There was no hotel or pensión in Cuyo Cuyo. We did however have some camping gear with us such as camp beds, sleeping bags and the like. Plus all our other equipment for collecting (and drying) herbarium samples, and flowers and flower buds for pollen and chromosome studies.

After some enquiries we met Sr Justo Salas Rubín (who was, if I remember correctly, the local postmaster – seen with Peter below) who gave us space in one of the rooms of his home (the ‘post office’?) to set up ‘camp’. We also soon became quite a curiosity for the local children (and some animal friends as well).

I was not disappointed that we chose Cuyo Cuyo first. It was an extraordinary location where we could interact with potato and oca farmers who grew a wide range of varieties, and who were open to collaborate with us. Since that visit in 1974 several other botanists (and anthropologists) have made field studies at Cuyo Cuyo on the agricultural terraces that I described here.

While Peter set about collecting samples in the many oca fields (mainly beside the river on the valley floor), I set off up the terraces to study a couple of fields for their varietal composition, the ploidy (or chromosome number) of these varieties, and the factors that led farmers to accept or reject varieties. I was interested to see how triploid varieties (sterile forms with 36 chromosomes that can only be formed following hybridization between varieties with 48 and 24 chromosomes) could enter farmer systems, and at what frequency.

I also looked at the methods used to cultivate potatoes, and the tools used.²

On the left is a foot plough, about 4 feet in length, known in Cuyo Cuyo as a ‘huire’ (most often ‘chaqui taccla’ in other parts of Peru). Its component parts are: A. ‘calzada’ that rests on the shoulder; B. ‘huiso’ or hand grip; C. ‘lazo’ or leather binding fastening the parts together; D. ‘taquillpo’ or foot rest; and E. the ‘reja’ or blade. On the right is a hand tool used for harvesting potatoes (and presumably oca as well) called the ‘lawccana’, as well as other cultivations during the growing season. Its component parts are: A. the ‘ccalo’ or handle; B. the ‘lazo’, a leather thong holding the blade C. or ‘chonta’ on to the handle.

My paper on potatoes at Cuyo Cuyo was finally published in 1980 in the journal Euphytica. And that’s a tale in itself.³

Peter was keen to make herbarium sheets of many of the varieties he’d collected. We set up a dryer in the house where we were staying. But there was a problem. Most of the samples were pretty wet to begin with, as we experienced intermittent rain during our stay in Cuyo Cuyo. Oca stems are very fleshy, and despite our best efforts, they just didn’t dry out. Even when we got them back to Lima, and Peter prepared them for shipping back to St Andrews, many of the samples were still showing signs of life.

Indeed, after he returned to Scotland, Peter was able to take cuttings from his herbarium samples and grow plants to maturity in the glasshouse, thus continuing his studies there.


After three or four days in Cuyo Cuyo, we retraced our steps to Puno, then headed north towards Cuzco and further study sites near Chinchero.

At these, I was particularly interested in taking flower bud samples from different potato fields. In the area we chose, farmers grew a combination of bred varieties for sale in the local markets of Cuzco and, around their homes, native varieties for home consumption. In this photo, large plantings of commercial varieties stretch into the distance. Around the homes in the foreground, in walled gardens, farmers grew their native varieties.

As I was busy looking at different varieties, these two women came by, and one sat down to breastfeed her baby. They are wearing the traditional dress of that region of Cuzco.

On another day we set out to study potato (and oca) fields a little more remote, so had to hire horses to reach our destination.

Field work complete, Peter and I spent a couple of days resting up in Cuzco before flying back to Lima. We left the Land Rover there for one of my colleagues Zósimo Huamán to pick up, as he planned to undertake some fieldwork as well before driving back to Lima.

During the couple of days in Cuzco we paid a call on Prof. César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist (and close friend of my PhD supervisor Jack Hawkes), who I’d met once before in January 1973 not long after I arrived in Peru. Prof Vargas’s daughter Martha studied for her MSc degree in botany at the University of St Andrews.

L to R: my wife Steph, Peter, and Martha Vargas

All in all, we had a successful field trip to the south of Peru. It’s hard to believe it all took place 45 years ago next month. But it remains, in my mind’s eye, quite a significant trip from the years I spent in Peru.


¹ Peter graduated in botany from the University of Liverpool, and completed his PhD in 1964 there under the supervision of Professor Vernon Heywood, who moved to the University of Reading to become head of that university’s Department of Botany a couple of years later. Peter and I had a lot to talk about, because in 1969-70, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton, Vernon Heywood gave a series of 20 lectures on flowering plant taxonomy over 10 weeks to Southampton botanists, because Leslie Watson, Southampton’s taxonomy lecturer had moved to Australia. Vernon and I renewed our acquaintance some years later, in 1991, when he and I attended a genetic resources meeting at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome just before I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

² One interesting piece of information that didn’t make it into my thesis but which I remember clearly was the incidence of geophagy among some residents of Cuyo Cuyo. I was taken to a location where farmers would excavate small quantities of a hard clay, that would be ground to a powder and mixed with water to form a slurry or soft paste. They would then dip recently harvested boiled potatoes in the clay as this, apparently, would decrease the slightly ‘spicy’ flavor of some of the varieties. I’m not sure how widespread this behavior was, but it’s something that has stuck in my mind all these years. I think I once had photos but they are long lost, more’s the pity.

³ I completed my PhD in December 1975, and shortly afterwards moved to Costa Rica to continue working for CIP, in potato breeding and agronomy. I started to prepare three manuscripts from my thesis for publication in Euphytica. The first, on varietal diversity, was submitted in February 1977, and published later the same year. The second, on breeding relationships, was published in 1978, having been submitted in July 1977. The third, on the ethnobotany of potato cultivation in Cuyo Cuyo finally appeared in print in 1980, having been submitted to Euphytica in February 1979.

But Euphytica had not been the first choice for this third paper. I actually produced a manuscript for the journal Economic Botany, and it included more details of the cropping systems and varietal choices made by farmers. My paper was received by the journal and acknowledged, but then I heard nothing more, for months and months. Eventually I wrote to the editor asking about the status of my manuscript. And I received a very strange reply.

It seemed that the editor-in-chief had retired, and his replacement had found, on file, manuscripts that had been submitted up to 20 years earlier, but had never been published! I was asked how I wanted to proceed with my manuscript as there was no guarantee it would appear in print any time soon. But about the same time, I received a nice letter from the then editor of Euphytica, Dr AC Zeven, complimenting me on my PhD thesis (which he had read in the library at Wageningen University in the Netherlands) and encouraging me to publish my work on the ethnobotany of potatoes – if I hadn’t already done so. I withdrew my manuscript from Economic Botany, and after some reformatting to fit the Euphytica style, sent it to Dr Zeven. He requested some deletions of the more descriptive sections on ethnobotany, and published my paper in 1980.


One last thing: I also remember was the novel that Peter was reading throughout the trip. Watership Down by Richard Adams, first published in 1972, that went on to become a literary sensation. I did read it myself at some point, but whether I borrowed Peter’s copy immediately after the trip, or some time later, I don’t recall. I know I didn’t think it would become the phenomenon that it did. What do I know?


 

Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (2) Training the next generation of specialists in the 1980s

When, in the mid- to late-60s, Jack Hawkes was planning a one-year MSc course, Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR), at the University of Birmingham (in the Department of Botany), Sir Otto Frankel (that doyen of the genetic resources movement) predicted that the course would probably have a lifetime of just 20 years, at most. By then, he assumed, all the persons who needed such training would have passed through the university’s doors. Job done! Well, it didn’t turn out quite that way.

The first cohort of four students graduated in September 1970, when I (and four others) arrived at the university to begin our careers in plant genetic resources. In 1989, the course celebrated its 20th anniversary. But there was still a demand, and Birmingham would continue to offer graduate training (and short course modules) in genetic resources for the next 15 or so years before dwindling applications and staff retirements made the course no longer viable.

Over its lifetime, I guess at least 500 MSc and Short Course students from more than 100 countries received their training in genetic conservation and use. So, for many years, the University of Birmingham lay at the heart of the growing genetic resources movement, and played a pivotal role in ensuring that national programs worldwide had the trained personnel to set up and sustain genetic conservation of local crops and wild species. Many Birmingham graduates went on to lead national genetic resources programs, as evidenced by the number who attended the 4th International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources convened by FAO in Leipzig in June 1996.

Birmingham PGR students at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie, in the middle of the front row, standing next to Andrea Clausen (Argentina) on his left. Geoff Hawtin, then Director General of IPGRI is fourth from the right (On the back row), and Lyndsey Withers (who gave a course on in vitro conservation to Birmingham students) is second from the right on the front row (standing in between Liz Matos (from Angola) on her left, and the late Rosa Kambuou (Papua New Guinea).


In April 1981, I joined that training effort as a faculty member at the university. For the previous eight years, I had been working for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Costa Rica. Around September 1980 (a couple months before I left Costa Rica to return to Lima and my next assignment with CIP), I was made aware that a Lectureship had just been advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (as the Department of Botany had been renamed) to contribute to the MSc course curriculum.

Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 after he reached the mandatory retirement age (for full professors) of 67. He persuaded the university to create a lectureship in his department to cover some of the important topics that he would vacate, primarily in crop diversity and evolution.

After my arrival in Birmingham, I didn’t have any specific duties for first four months. With the intake of the 1981-82 cohort, however, it was ‘full steam ahead’ and my teaching load remained much the same for the next decade. My teaching focused on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm exploration, and agricultural systems, although I made some small contributions to other topics as well.

I also took on the role of Short Course Tutor for those who came to study on one or both of the semester modules (about 12 weeks each).

Since its inception in 1969, the overall structure of the course remained much the same, with about nine months of theory, followed by written examinations. The curriculum varied to some degree over the lifetime of the course, as did the content as new biology opened new opportunities to study, conserve, and use genetic resources.

Following the examinations, all students completed a three-month research project and submitted a dissertation around the middle of September, which was examined by an external examiner. The first external examiner, from 1970-1972, was Professor Norman Simmonds, then Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station, and a widely respected plant breeder and potato and banana expert.

Financial support for students came from a variety of sources. The year after I graduated, the course was recognized by one of the UK research councils (I don’t remember which) for studentship support, and annually three or four British students were funded in this way through the 1970s and 80s. By the late 1970s, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources¹ (IBPGR) funded many of the students coming from overseas, and had also agreed an annual grant to the department that, among other aspects, funded a lectureship in seed physiology and conservation (held by Dr Pauline Mumford). A few students were self-funded.

Here are some of the classes from 1978 to 1988; names of students can be found in this file. Do you recognize anyone?

L: Class of 1978 | R: Class of 1979

L: Class of 1984 | R: Class of 1985

L: Class of 1986 | Class of 1987

L: Class of 1988 | R: Short Course participants, Autumn semester 1987

The first group of students that I had direct contact with, in the autumn of 1981, came from Bangladesh, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Portugal, Turkey, and Uruguay. After nearly 40 years I can’t remember all their names, unfortunately.

The MSc class of 1982: L-R: Ghani Yunus (Malaysia), ?? (Uruguay), Rainer Freund (Germany), Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Dr Pauline Mumford (IBPGR-funded lecturer), ?? (Bangladesh), ?? (Bangladesh), Maria Texeira (Portugal), ?? (Indonesia).

Over the decade I remained at Birmingham, I must have supervised the dissertation projects of about 20-25 students, quite an intensive commitment during the summer months. Since my main interest was crop diversity and biosystematics, several students ran projects on potatoes and Lathyrus. I curated the Hawkes collection of wild potato species, and had also assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species from different countries and diverse environments. Some students wanted to work on crops and species important in their countries and, whenever possible, we tried to accommodate their interests. Even with glasshouse facilities it was not always possible to grow many tropical species at Birmingham². In any case, the important issue was for students to gain experience in designing and executing projects, and evaluating germplasm effectively. Two students from Uganda for example, studied the resistance of wild potatoes from Bolivia to the potato cyst nematode, in collaboration with the Nematology Department at Rothamsted Experiment Station.

Several students stayed on to complete PhD degrees under my supervision, or jointly supervised with my colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd (who was the MSc Course Tutor), and I have written more about that here.

Immediately on joining the department in 1981, Jack asked me to take on the supervision of two of his students, Lynne Woodwards and Adi Damania who were half way through their research. Lynne competed her study of the non-blackening trait in a tetraploid (2n=4x=48 chromosomes) wild potato species from Mexico, Solanum hjertingii in 1982. Adi split his time between Birmingham and the Germplasm Institute in Bari, Italy, where he was co-supervised by Professor Enrico Porceddu, studying barley and wheat landraces from Nepal and Yemen. One of the methods he used was the separation of seed proteins using gel electrophoresis. His PhD was completed in 1983.

Lynne’s research on Solanum hjertingii was continued by Ian Gubb, in collaboration with the Institute of Food Research in Norwich.

Two Peruvian students, Rene Chavez (1978) and Carlos Arbizu (1979) completed their PhD theses in 1984 and 1990 respectively. They did all their experimental work at CIP in Lima, studying wide crosses in potato breeding, and wild potatoes as sources of virus resistance.

Malaysian student Ghani Yunus (1982) returned to Birmingham around 1986 to commence his PhD and continued his study of the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus) that he began for his MSc dissertation.


While the MSc course comprised my main teaching load, I also had some undergraduate teaching commitments. I did no First Year teaching, thank goodness! In the Summer Semester I had a 50% commitment to a Flowering Plant Taxonomy module as part of the Second Year Plant Biology stream. I also gave half a dozen lectures on agricultural systems as part of a Second Year Common Course attended by all Biological Sciences students, and I eventually became chair of that course.

With Brian, we offered a Third (Final) Year option in conservation and use of genetic resources under the Plant Biology degree. I guess during the 1980s some 40 students (maybe more) chose that option. The five-week module comprised about 20-25 lectures, and each student also had to undertake an practical project as well. It was quite a challenge to devise and supervise so many ‘doable’ projects during such a short period.


While all this was going on, I also had a couple of research projects on potatoes. The first, on true potato seed, was in collaboration with CIP in Peru and the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. Over the project’s five-year life, I traveled to Lima at least once a year. This also gave me an opportunity to check on progress of my PhD students there.

In another project (with Brian) funded by industry, we investigated the opportunity for using somaclonal variation to identify genotypes resistant to low temperature sweetening in potatoes. The research had an important spin-off however for the genetic conservation of vegetatively-propagated crops like potatoes, as we demonstrated that genetic changes do occur during in vitro or tissue culture.

Knowing of my annual trips to Peru, the chocolate and confectionery manufacturers in the UK asked me to scope the possibility of establishing a field genebank in Peru of cacao (cocoa) trees in the northeast of the country. The industry had funded a project like this in Ecuador, and wanted to replicate it in Peru. Regrettably, the security situation deteriorated markedly in Peru (due to the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso terrorist group), and the project never went ahead.


Brian and I collaborated a good deal during the 1980s, in teaching, research, and publishing.

Around 1983 he and I had the idea of writing a short general text about genetic resources and their conservation. As far as we could determine there were no books of this nature suitable for both undergraduates and postgraduates. Having approached the publisher Edward Arnold, we set about putting our ideas down on paper. The book appeared in 1986, with a print run of 3000, which quickly sold out. After Edward Arnold was taken over by Cambridge University Press, our modest volume was re-issued in a digitally printed version in 2010.

In 1988, we organized the first International Workshop on Plant Genetic Resources at Birmingham, on in situ conservation. The topic of the second two-day workshop, in April 1989, focused on climate change and genetic resources. We were ahead of our time! Proceedings from the workshop were published by Belhaven Press in 1990. It was a theme that my co-editors and I returned to in 2014, published by CAB International.


Around 1989, however, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with university life, and had begun to think about seeking other opportunities, although none seemed to come along. Until September 1990, that is. One morning, I received in the mail a copy of a recruitment announcement for Head of the Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. To this day I have no idea who sent me this announcement, as there was no cover note.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided to submit my application. After all, IRRI was a sister center of CIP, and I was very familiar with the international agricultural research centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Personally, I knew it would be a huge opportunity, but also a challenge for Steph and our two daughters Hannah (13) and Philippa (9). But apply I did, and went for an interview at the beginning of January 1991, learning three weeks later that I was the preferred candidate of three interviewed. All three of us were ex-Birmingham MSc and PhD, having completed our theses under the supervision of Jack Hawkes. My ‘rivals’ were managing genebanks in the UK and Nigeria. I had no genebank experience per se.

I was about to become a genebanker, but I couldn’t join the institute quite as early as IRRI management desired. I still had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill for that academic year, which would not be finished until the end of June. Nevertheless, IRRI did ask me to represent the institute at a meeting in April of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, the first of many that I would attend over the next decade.

Friday 28 June was my last day at the university. Two days later I was on my way to Manila, to open the next chapter of my genetic resources adventure.


¹ Around 1990, IBPGR became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and later, Bioversity International, expanding its headquarters in Rome.

² One of the students in my 1970-71 class, Folu Ogbe from Nigeria, undertook a project on West African rice and part of one glasshouse was converted to a ‘rice paddy’!