That’s not a fair question . . .

I worked overseas for much of my career—just over 27 years—in three countries. For those who are new to my blog, I’m from the UK, and I worked in agricultural research (on potatoes and rice) in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines, besides spending a decade in the UK in between teaching plant sciences at the University of Birmingham.

I have been asked, from time to time, which of the three countries Steph and I enjoyed the most. That’s not really a fair question.

Each country was a totally different experience, reflecting to a large extent that stage of our lives. We were young and newly-married in Peru in the early 1970s, our first time abroad. We raised our elder daughter Hannah in Costa Rica in the late 1970s, and were already in our early 40s when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, with two growing daughters: Hannah was 13, and Philippa just nine (born in Worcestershire in the UK). I got to learn a second language, Spanish, and became quite fluent by the time we left the Americas in 1981.

Now that I’ve been retired for over a decade, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on those years spent abroad.


laurent_amerique_du_sud_politiqueI won’t deny that I have a particular soft-spot for Peru. It was a country I’d wanted to visit since I was a small boy, when I often spent hours poring over maps of South America, imagining what those distant countries and cities would be like to visit. 

I don’t know why I was particularly drawn to the map of South America. I guess it’s the iconic shape for one thing. But, when I first moved up to high school in 1960, just before my 12th birthday, our geography lessons focused on several South American countries. I wrote to a number of embassies in London asking for information packs, and was rewarded over the following weeks with a host of brochures, maps, and the like.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (I have posted several stories elsewhere about my early days in Lima), I was offered, in February 1971, the opportunity to work in Peru, initially for just a year from September that year. Things didn’t go to plan, and it wasn’t until January 1973 that I actually landed in Lima, which became my home for the next three years.

19731013 003 Wedding

13 October 1973

Steph joined me in July, and we married the following October in the Miraflores suburb where we rented an apartment. Working at the International Potato Center (known as CIP through its Spanish acronym) we both traveled frequently to the center’s research station in Huancayo, an important town in the central Andes of Peru, in the broad and fertile Mantaro valley, a 300 km journey that often took six hours or more. The highway, the Carretera Central, crossed the Andes at a highest point of 4,843 metres (15,890 ft) at Ticlio (around Km 120).

peru-037

In my own work collecting indigenous varieties of potatoes, I traveled to many parts of northern Peru, in the Departments of Ancash, La Libertad, and Cajamarca in 1973 and 1974.

And to the south around Lake Titicaca in the Department of Puno and near Cuzco, where I continued my research towards a PhD.

_DSC2828

Collecting potato flower buds for chromosome counts, from a farmer’s field near Cuzco, in February 1974.

Steph and I also took great pleasure in taking our Volkswagen deep into the mountains, and on long trips down the coast to Arequipa and up to Lake Titicaca. And north to the Callejón de Huaylas in Ancash, below Peru’s highest mountain Huascarán, and on to Cajamarca further north.

Peru 050(1)

Looking north to the Callejon de Huaylas, and Nevado Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu just a week after I arrived in Peru, and had great pleasure taking Steph there in December the same year. In fact we delayed our honeymoon so we could book a stay at the tourist hotel at Machu Picchu (a hotel that closed many years ago).

Enjoying Machu Picchu in December 1973.

Our years in Lima were special. As I said, it was the first time Steph and I had worked abroad. CIP was a young organization, founded just over a year before I joined. There was a small group of staff, pioneers in a way, and there weren’t the layers of bureaucracy and procedures that bedevil much larger and longer-established organizations.

Peru is a stunningly beautiful country, and lived up to all my expectations. I was not disappointed. It had everything: culture, history, archaeology, landscapes. And wonderful food. You name it, Peru had it. 


But, after three years, it was time to move on, and that’s when we began a new chapter in Costa Rica from April 1976 a new chapter. Professionally, for me it was a significant move. I’d turned 27 a few months earlier. CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program to adapt potatoes to hot and humid conditions, so-called ‘tropical potatoes’. I was on my own; I had to rely on my own resources to a large extent. It was a steep learning curve, but so worthwhile and stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.

We remained in Costa Rica for almost five years, based at a regional agricultural research institute, CATIE, in the small town of Turrialba, some 70 km east of San José, the capital city.

The CATIE administration building

We enjoyed trips to the volcanoes nearby: Turrialba, Irazú, and Poás, to the beaches of northwest Costa Rica, just south of the frontier with Nicaragua on the Guanacaste Peninsula.  Also to the north of Panama where potatoes were the main crop in the volcanic region just south of the international border.

Hannah was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. It was a great place to raise a small child. In 1980 we took her the Monteverde National Biological Reserve in the northwest of the country (and many hours drive from Turrialba) in search of the Resplendent Quetzal.

Professionally, I learnt a lot about potatoes as a crop, about the management of potato diseases, and seed production, and contributed to setting up one of the first multi-country programs among any of the CGIAR centers. PRECODEPA as it was known set the standard for multilateral cooperation between national programs for many years to come.

I had a great team, albeit small, working with me: Jorge, Moisés, and Leda, and I wrote about them and catching up again after 40 years in a recent blog post.

Costa Rica is such a beautiful, green country, a tropical paradise, with about 25% of its land area set aside for national parks and the like. It’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and I spent many hours sitting on the doorstep at home, sipping a super ice-cold beer (Cerveza Tropical was my beverage of choice) watching the multitude of birds that visited our garden. On one Christmas bird survey in the Turrialba valley, me and my birding partner spotted around 100 different species in half a day! And mammals as well: skunks, armadillos, and coatimundi among those found in the garden, not to mention some of the world’s most poisonous snakes.

After almost five years there, it was time to move on, with the expectation of a posting with CIP to the Philippines. Instead we returned to the UK in 1981, and didn’t actually make it to the Philippines until a decade later. An archipelago of more than 7600 islands; the Land of Smiles.


By the end of the 1980s I was much less enamored of academic life, and had begun to look out for new opportunities. One particularly interesting one came along in September 1990 when I applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.

Having been interviewed at the beginning of January 1991, I was offered the position a couple of weeks later, and I moved to the Philippines (without the family) on 1 July that year. Steph and the girls joined me just after Christmas.

We had a comfortable single storey residence at IRRI Staff Housing, a gated community that nestled under a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling.

Mt Makiling, from the IRRI research farm.

The IRRI research center was about ten minutes from home, and an institute bus took us to and fro over the course of the day. Staff Housing had tennis courts and a swimming pool, as well as basketball and volleyball courts, all in regular use by my colleagues and their families. Lilia was our full-time, live-in helper for almost the whole 19 years we lived in the Philippines.

In the early 1990s there was also a large group of children the same age as Hannah and Philippa, and Staff Housing was a safe environment for them to play, although I have since learned that they all got up to some daring escapades at night. Like climbing the water tower!

Steph kept herself busy with her daily swim, and a range of hobbies, including her small orchid collection, and beading (one hobby that has grown and grown!) I had a busy time at work, and less time for leisure at home. I enjoyed a barbecue whenever we could, and for many years I kept a small aviary of budgerigars. Just after I arrived in the Philippines I adopted a Siamese cat, Pusa, who finally succumbed to the ripe old age of 20 in 1998, when we acquired another Siamese, Tara. I wrote about our feline companions in this post.

But one thing Steph and I shared in common, though not to the same degree in one respect, was our love of the beach and sea. Before moving to the Philippines, I had never even snorkeled. That all changed in February 1992 when we made our first (and only) visit to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Shortly afterwards, Hannah learned to scuba dive, and I followed a year later in 1993 eventually completing more than 360 dives, all at Anilao south of Los Baños. Philippa learned a few years later when she was old enough (you had to be 13), but Steph never did take to scuba diving, being content with snorkeling the stretch of beach in front of our favorite beach resort, Arthur’s Place.

Road travel in the Philippines was always a bit of a nightmare. Inadequate roads, too many vehicles, and not enough road discipline, especially among the jeepney and tricycle drivers.

The drive to Manila could take a couple of hours, often more, and it wasn’t until just before we left the Philippines in 2010 that the main highway to Manila, the South Luzon Expressway or SLEX was finally upgraded significantly. Likewise the road connecting SLEX to the south coast where we went to the beach.

Hannah and Philippa attended the International School Manila (ISM) that was, in those days, located in the heart of Makati, the main business district of Manila. The school day started at 07:15 which meant they had to be on the road by 06:00 in those fist years. By the time Philippa graduated from high school in 1999, the buses were leaving for Manila by 04:30, and not returning home until about 16:00 or so (the school day finishing around 14:00). Phil would often go for a swim, have her dinner, and in her final two years at ISM, when she was studying for the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB), she would have homework until about midnight. Then she snatched a few hours sleep before heading off early the next morning to school once again. All the children took blankets and pillows on the bus and caught with what sleep they could.

For both Hannah and Philippa these were stressful, but ultimately fulfilling, school years. The system was very different from the English system, the academic side very demanding and competitive, especially the IB curriculum. However, both girls did flourish and the hard work and discipline required to get through saw them in good stead later on in their university careers, with both earning a PhD degree in psychology!

Professionally, my years at IRRI were very rewarding. As Head of GRC, one of my most important responsibilities was to manage the world’s largest and genetically most-diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species (with more than 130,000 different seed samples) in the International Rice Genebank. I had a staff of about 75 researchers and assistants. I learnt a lot about people management. However, my task were made so much easier by having so many dedicated professionals to support me.

After a decade genebanking, I moved to IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), and set up an office to handle the institute’s interactions with its donors and fund-raising. And I remained as DPPC until my retirement in 2010.

Much as I had enjoyed my years with GRC, setting up the DPPC Office with hand-picked staff was very rewarding. I had a great team: Corinta, Zeny, Sol, Yeyet, Vhel, and Eric, and they never (well, hardly ever) let me—or IRRI—down.

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

30 April 2010, and my last day at IRRI. L-R: Eric, Corinta, Zeny, me, Vhel, and Yeyet.

We had such a lot of fun together. There was a lot of laughter in the DPPC Office. We even played badminton together once a week.

But we took our work seriously enough, and helped raise the institute’s annual budget to USD60 million.

In 2009, Steph and I had the opportunity of our first and only long road trip in the Philippines. We always took our annual leave in one block and returned to the UK each summer, so spent little time exploring the Philippines, something I now regret. Anyway, me and my DPPC team decided that we’d take a few days off (with Steph joining us) to visit the world famous (and World Heritage Site) rice terraces in the north of Luzon. That was a fantastic trip, which I wrote about here.

The rice terraces above Banaue.

Enjoying a beer together after a long day in the sun. L-R: Corinta, Zeny, our driver, Vhel, Yeyet, Eric, and me.

At the Batad rice terraces, after a long walk down the mountain. L-R: Yeyet, Steph, Eric, Vhel, and Corinta.


So there we have it: a short trip down memory lane. I have been very fortunate, blessed even, to have worked in three remarkable countries and alongside some of the best professionals I could have hoped for. I have no regrets about making that decision, in early 1973 to move abroad. It has been a fulfilling career in international agricultural research, and I’ve certainly been able to explore this wonderful world of ours, as you will have discovered if you ever perused my blog to any depth.

Getting the message out about genetic resources

For much of my career, I have taken a keen interest in science communication. Such that, a couple of years after I’d become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning & Coordination in 2001, I was asked to take on line management responsibility for several of IRRI’s administrative units, including the Communication and Publications Services (CPS) headed by my good friend Gene Hettel. My job changed to some degree, as did my title: Director for Program Planning & Communications.

I’ve always felt that scientists have a responsibility to explain their work to the general public in plain language. We’re fortunate here in the UK; there are several leading lights in this respect who have made their mark in the media and now represent, to a considerable extent, ‘the face of science’ nationally. None of them is shy about speaking out on matters of concern to society at large.

Sir David Attenborough (far left, above) is one of the world’s leading advocates for biodiversity conservation who also eloquently explains the threat and challenges of climate change. Professors Alice Roberts (second left, of The University of Birmingham) and Brian Cox (second right, The University of Manchester) have both made their mark in TV broadcasts in recent years, bringing fascinating programs covering a range of topics to the small screen. And then again, there’s Sir Paul Nurse (far right), Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and former President of the Royal Society. I was particularly impressed with his Richard Dimbleby Lecture, The New Enlightenment, on the BBC in 2012 about his passion for science. It’s well worth a watch.


I would never claim to be in the same league as these illustrious scientists. However, over the years I have tried—in my small way—to raise awareness of the science area with which I am most familiar: plant genetic resources and their conservation. And in this blog, I have written extensively about some of my work on potatoes at the International Potato Center in Peru and on rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, as well as training genetic resources scientists at the University of Birmingham.

So, when I was approached a few weeks ago to be interviewed and contribute to a podcast series, Plant Breeding Stories, I jumped at the chance.

The podcasts are hosted by Hannah Senior, Managing Director of PBS International, a world leading company in pollination control. So far, there have been eleven podcasts in two series, with mine broadcast for the first time just a couple of days ago. In this clip, Hannah explains the rationale for the series.

Just click on the image below to listen to our 35 minute conversation about genetic resources, genebanks, and their importance for plant breeding and food security. Oh, and a little about me and how I got into genetic resources work in the first place.

I hope you find the podcast interesting, and even a little bit enlightening. A transcript of the broadcast can be downloaded here. Thanks for listening.


Nothing comes for free . . .

Ask almost any scientist, and the one thing they (mostly) have in common is their dislike (I could put it stronger) of having to write reports or to be held to deadlines.

Many would prefer never to be reminded they have reporting commitments, and just bury their heads in the academic sand. Just yesterday, I came across a twitter thread started by an academic deploring the lack of support from her institute in terms of reporting and, for her, making the whole process unacceptably complicated.

Reports come in many guises: progress reports to supervisors or project leaders, to their institutions, and perhaps most importantly, to the body that provided funds for their research project.

So having labored for hours, days, weeks or longer to prepare a proposal for submission to a funding body, and having that agonizing wait until the project is actually approved for funding, research scientists then have to prepare reports periodically on progress, and how the funding has actually been spent. Nevertheless, it’s important that scientists appreciate that they do have a responsibility, commitment even, to account for their projects and funding, even though many see this as an unacceptable chore taking them away from valuable research time and writing scientific papers, rather than just another component of the project implementation.

Now, if you work for one of the international agricultural research institute sponsored by the CGIAR [1], like I did for about 27 years in South and Central America (on potatoes at the International Potato Center or CIP) and in the Philippines (on rice at the International Rice Research Institute or IRRI), report writing came with the territory, so to speak. But the demands for reports have changed over the decades since I first became involved in 1973.

Back in the day, there were no electronic communications to permit instantaneous delivery of research reports. For example, when I worked for CIP in Costa Rica from 1976 to 1980, I had to submit quarterly reports to headquarters in Lima. These were sent in the mail, taking two to three weeks to reach their destination. That was accepted practice.

Not today, however. Some donors have become increasingly dysfunctional, with constant demands for information. Now! Because reports can be submitted as email attachments, requests are often posted at the last minute, without ever appreciating that to provide the necessary information might take hours, even days, to compile.

That’s not to say that responding to such requests with some urgency is unnecessary. But to compile and analyse information into a coherent report takes time. And for many scientists, time is of the essence.


When it comes to international agricultural research, the ultimate donors are tax payers, and governments have to satisfy that their investment is used appropriately and, more importantly, delivers the expected outcomes. I’ve written about those aspects in another blog post a few years back.

And, in the case of the CGIAR centers, that means having a positive impact of the welfare and livelihoods of farming families around the world, and those who depend on their agricultural productivity to survive, especially urban populations in cities and mega-cities who do not produce their own food. Take the case of rice, for example. Half the world’s population—several billion people—eats rice at least once a day, over a million tons a day worldwide, maybe more. That’s . And rice farmers must maintain their productivity, increase it even, if the demand for this staple crop is met. So it’s important to use the diversity in genebank collections to breed new varieties, or to fight pests and diseases. Then again, supply constraints must be understood if farmers are to be empowered to sell their rice, or what prevents women farmers in particular from improving their livelihoods.


In 2001, I gave up day-to-day science to join IRRI’s senior management team, as Director for Program Planning and Communications with the brief (and mandate) to beef up the institute’s management of its many research projects, to liaise with its donor community, and increase donor support for IRRI’s overall research agenda. It would be no exaggeration to state that when we set up the Program Planning and Communications office, IRRI’s relations with its donor had almost hit rock bottom.

The PPC Team on my last day at IRRI on 30 April 2010. L-R: Eric Clutario, Zeny Federico, Corinta Guerta, me, Vel Hernandez-Ilao, Yeyet Enriquez.

For one thing, senior management had no clear picture of how many research projects were currently being funded, nor what commitments had been made to the respective donors. Indeed, things were so bad that some donors had threatened to pause existing funding support and not even consider new initiatives until the institute got its house in order.

Ron Cantrell

The Director General, Ron Cantrell, asked me to sort this deplorable situation and do whatever necessary to retrieve our standing with the donors. I can’t say that my efforts were universally welcomed by my colleagues at the outset. They had grown accustomed to not being held to account. But eventually they came to appreciate the value of having a support office like PPC.

First things first. It took a week to come up with a first but incomplete list of all donor-funded projects. The next step was to make sure we could identify each one uniquely. And like assigning an accession number to a sample of germplasm in a genebank, each project was given its own identity (DPPC-year-number), notwithstanding that each donor might also have assigned an ID according to their own project management. Even at the project concept stage, we assigned a DPPC number that remained with the project funded or not. We never re-assigned a DPPC number to another project. Eventually, as we built our project management system, we linked all the projects with the institute’s finance systems. Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet.

Whereas IRRI was probably behind in its reporting on more than 75% of its projects when I set up the Program Planning & Communications Office in May 2001, we had recovered to less than 10% six months later. And, having worked with the donors by explaining what we were doing, they were very supportive. However, having made good progress in terms of improvement our relationship with donors, there were always a couple of prima donnas at IRRI who wouldn’t play ball, didn’t feel that any project management regime was their concern, and despite our best efforts rarely complied on time with requests for information and reporting. To the overall detriment of the institute, it has to be said. Having these scientists write a report was akin to getting blood from a stone.

Once we had a handle on the scope of IRRI’s projects, we set about establishing some standard operating procedures (SOP) to develop project ideas, to submit projects to donors, and to provide IRRI’s scientists with the appropriate support to meet donor expectations. We set up reporting schedules for each project, so that no scientist could claim they hadn’t realized a report was due, assisted scientists to finalize their reports in terms of donor formats, and editing, submitting reports on behalf of the institute and taking care of any follow up. One of the complexities we had to face were the different reporting formats and requirements that each donor adopted. But with support from my colleague Gene Hettel and his team (especially science editor Bill Hardy) in Communication and Publications Services (CPS) we always submitted quality reports easily recognizable as coming from IRRI.

The CPS Team in 2008. Gene Hettel (head of CPS) is second from the left, front row. Bill Hardy (scientific editor) is kneeling (right behind Gene), to my right.

Reporting became just another component of any successfully-managed project, not an undesirable add-on seen by scientists as an imposition on their freedom and time. But the type of reports needed by donors were not the same as writing a scientific paper for example, and we had to unlearn many scientists from their usual publication habits. Donors are interested in progress and need sufficient technical information to establish scientific credibility. They don’t want to be swamped by technical jargon that too many scientists rely on. The information needed to be accessible to a non-technical readership, and that’s how the PPC team helped out, supported by our CPS colleagues.

Donors do not like surprises, so I ensured that my office maintained good communications with the many donor offices around the world, by email, by telephone, and making personal visits at least once a year. Establishing that personal relationship with my donor counterparts was an important aspect of my job as Director for Program Planning & Communications. If a project encountered a problem, or we expected a report to be delayed, or anticipated a project overrun, we talked with our donors from the outset, not leaving things until after the fact, so to speak.

Project implementation and management is a two way affair. Once made, donors should honor their commitments. And one donor, the UK government, has palpably failed in this respect regarding overseas aid (from which the CGIAR centers are funded), reducing its statutory commitment of 0.7% of gross national income (or GNI) to 0.5% for the foreseeable future, in response to the financial crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. The UK gave its support through the Department for International Development (DFID) that has now merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to form the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Overseas aid no longer has its own profile, much to the detriment of the program, and because of the reduction in aid commitment, a significant number of projects worldwide (not just CGIAR) that relied on British aid have been cut and even staff made redundant. This is an appalling situation, and although I don’t have to hand how this aid commitment has affected the CGIAR centers, I’m sure there will be a negative budgetary consequence.

So, while the donors require (demand even) accountability for the funds they allocate, I believe it is equally important that donors like the British government maintain their financial commitments, and behave responsibly.


[1] CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food secure future dedicated to reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security, and improving natural resources.

I never aspired to be an academic

If, in the summer of 1970, someone had told me that one day I would be teaching botany at university, I would have told them they were delusional. But that’s what happened in April 1981 when I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. Hard to believe that’s already 40 years ago today. I stayed at Birmingham for a decade.

Birmingham is a campus university, one of the first, and also the first of the so-called ‘redbrick‘ universities. The campus has changed radically in the 30 years since I left, but many of the same landmarks are still there. The beauty of the campus can be appreciated in this promotional video.


I never, ever had any pretensions to a life in academia. As an undergraduate studying for a combined degree in Environmental Botany and Geography at University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970, I was a run-of-the-mill student. It wasn’t that I had little enthusiasm for my degree. Quite the contrary, for the most part. I enjoyed my three years at university, but I did burn the candle more at one end than the other. Also, I didn’t really know (or understand) how to study effectively, and no-one mentored me to become better. And it showed in my exam results. So while I graduated with a BSc (Hons.) degree, it was only a Lower Second; I just missed out, by a couple of percentage points, on an Upper or 2(i) degree. Perhaps with a little more effort I could have achieved that goal of a ‘better degree’. Que será . . .

However, about halfway through my final year at Southampton, I applied to Birmingham for a place on the recently-established graduate MSc course on Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR) in the Department of Botany. And the rest is history, so to speak.

I was interviewed in February 1970 and offered a place, but with no guarantee of funding. It wasn’t until late in the summer—about a couple of weeks before classes commenced—that the head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes phoned me to confirm my place (notwithstanding my ‘poor’ degree) and that he’d managed to squeeze a small grant from the university. It was just sufficient to pay my academic fees, and provide an allowance of around £5 per week (about £67 at today’s value) towards my living expenses.

So, in early September 1970 I found myself in Birmingham alongside four other MSc candidates, all older than me, from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Venezuela, excited to learn all about plant genetic resources. I discovered my study mojo, redeeming myself academically (rather well, in fact), sufficient for Jack Hawkes to take me on as one of his PhD students, even as I was expecting to move to Peru to join the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. And that’s what I did for the rest of the decade, working in South and Central America before returning to Birmingham as a member of staff.


The years before Birmingham
I spent over eight years with CIP, between January 1973 and April 1976, working as an Associate Taxonomist in Lima, and helping to manage the multitude of potato varieties in the center’s field genebank, participating in collecting trips to different parts of Peru to find new varieties not already conserved in the genebank, and continuing research towards my PhD.

In the meantime, my girlfriend Stephanie (who I met at Birmingham) and I decided to get married, and she flew out to Peru in July 1973. We were married in Lima in October [1].

In May 1975, Steph and I returned to Birmingham for six months so I could complete the residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and defend my thesis. We returned to Lima by the end of December just after I received my degree.

From April 1976 and November 1980, Steph and I lived in Costa Rica in Central America on the campus of the regional agricultural research center, CATIE, in Turrialba, a small town 62 km due east of the capital, San José.

I had joined CIP’s Regional Research Department to strengthen the regional program for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In 1976, the regional headquarters were in Toluca, Mexico where my head of program, Oscar Hidalgo lived. After he moved to the USA for graduate studies in 1977, CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, asked me to take on the leadership of the regional program, and that’s what I did for the next four years, with an emphasis on breeding potatoes adapted to hot tropical environments, seed systems, bacterial disease resistance, and regional program development.

By November 1980 I felt it was time to move on, and requested CIP to assign me to another program. We moved back to Lima. However, with one eye on life beyond CIP, and with a growing daughter, Hannah (born in April 1978, and who would, in the next couple of years, be starting school) I also began to look for employment opportunities in the UK.


Looking for new opportunities
Towards the end of 1980 (but before we had returned to Lima) I became aware that a new lectureship was about to be advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany, my alma mater) at Birmingham. With the retirement of Jack Hawkes scheduled for September 1982, the lectureship would be recruited to fill an anticipated gap in teaching on the CUPGR Course.

I sent in an application and waited ‘patiently’ (patience is not one of my virtues) for a reply to come through. By the end of December (when we were already back in Lima, and in limbo so to speak) I was told I was on a long short list, but would only proceed to the final short list if I would confirm attending an interview in Birmingham (at my own expense) towards the end of January 1981. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and with the encouragement of the Dr Sawyer (who promised to keep a position open for me if the Birmingham application was unsuccessful) I headed to the UK.

Since completing my PhD in 1975, I had published three papers from my thesis, and a few others on potato diseases and agronomy. Not an extensive publication list by any stretch of the imagination, compared to what might be expected of faculty candidates nowadays. In reality my work at CIP hadn’t led to many scientific publication opportunities. Publications were not the be-all and end-all metric of success with the international centers back in the day. It’s what one achieved programmatically, and its impact on the lives of potato farmers that was the most important performance criterion. So, while I didn’t have a string of papers to my name, I did have lots of field and managerial experience, I’d worked with genetic resources for a number of years, and my research interests, in taxonomy and biosystematics, aligned well with the new position at Birmingham.

I interviewed successfully (eminent geneticist Professor John Jinks chairing the selection panel), and was offered the lectureship on the spot, from 1 April. The university even coughed up more than half the costs of my travel from Peru for interview. Subject to successfully passing a three-year probation period, I would then be offered tenure (tenure track as they say in North America), the holy grail of all who aspire to life in academia.


Heading to Birmingham
Saying farewell to CIP in mid-March 1981, and after more than eight happy years in South and Central America, Steph, Hannah, and I headed back to the UK via New York, where I had to close our account with Citibank on 5th Avenue.

Steph and Hannah at the top of the Empire State Building

This was just a couple of weeks or so before I was due to begin at Birmingham. We headed first to Steph’s parents in Southend-on-Sea. Since we had nowhere to live in Birmingham, we decided that I should move there on my own in the first instance, and start to look for a house that would suit us.

A few months before I joined Plant Biology, the department had recruited a lecturer in plant biochemistry, Dr John Dodds, a few years younger than me (I was 32 when I joined the university). John and I quickly became friends, and he offered me the second bedroom in his apartment, a short distance from the university.

The search for a house didn’t take long, and by mid-April we’d put in an offer on a house in Bromsgrove, some 13 miles south of the university, which was to remain our home for the next 39 years until we sold up last September. We moved in at the beginning of July, the day before I had to go away for the following two weeks as one of the staff supervising a second year undergraduate ecology field trip in Scotland. Not the most convenient of commitments under the circumstances. But that’s another story.


I start teaching
So, 40 years on, what are my reflections on the decade I spent at Birmingham?

It was midway through the 1980-81 academic year when I joined the department. I spent much of April settling in. My first office (I eventually moved office three times over the next decade) was located in the GRACE Lab (i.e., Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution Lab) where the CUPGR MSc students were based, in the grounds of Winterbourne House, on the edge of the main university campus, and about ten minutes walk from the department.

The GRACE Lab

The lab had been constructed around 1970 or so to house the Botanical Section of the British Antarctic Survey (before it moved to Cambridge). One other member of staff, Dr Pauline Mumford (a seed physiologist, on a temporary lectureship funded by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources – now Bioversity International) also had her office there.

Pauline Mumford (standing, center) with the MSc Class of ’82 (my first full year at Birmingham) from (L-R) Malaysia, Uruguay, Germany, Turkey, Bangladesh (x2), Portugal, and Indonesia.

By September, an office had been found for me in the main building. This was necessary since, unlike Pauline, I had teaching commitments to undergraduate students on the honours Biological Sciences degree course, as well as having undergraduate tutees to mentor and meet with on a regular basis.

As I said, I’d been recruited to take over, in the first instance, Jack Hawkes’ teaching commitments, which comprised a contribution to the second year module in plant taxonomy, and evolution of crop plants, one of the main components of the CUPGR course. There were also opportunities to develop other courses, and in due time, this is what I did.

At the end of April 1981, Jack called me into his office, handed me his taxonomy lecture notes and said ‘You’re up tomorrow morning’. Talk about being thrown in the deep end. Jack lectured about ‘experimental taxonomy’, patterns of variations, breeding systems and the like, and how taxonomic classification drew on these data. Come the next day, I strode into the lecture theater with as much confidence as I could muster, and began to wax lyrical about breeding systems. About half way through, I noticed Jack quietly walk into the room, and seat himself at the back, to check on how well I was doing (or not). That was one of his mentor roles. He was gone before I’d finished, and later on he gave me some useful feedback—he’d liked what he had seen and heard.

But the lecture hadn’t nearly taken place. One of my colleagues, Dr Richard Lester, who was the lead on the taxonomy module, blithely informed me that he would be sitting in on my lecture the next day. ‘Oh no, you’re not‘ I emphatically retorted. I continued, ‘Walk in and I stop the lecture’. I had never really seen eye-to-eye with Richard ever since the day he had taught me on the MSc Course. I won’t go into detail, but let me say that we just had a prickly relationship. What particularly irked me is that Richard reported our conversation to Jack, and that’s why Jack appeared the next day.

I had quite a heavy teaching load, compared to many of my colleagues, even among those in the other three departments [2] that made up the School of Biological Sciences. Fortunately, I had no first year teaching. Besides my second year plant taxonomy lectures, I developed a small module on agroecosystems in the Second Year Common Course (of which I became chair over the course of the decade).

In their final year, students took four modules each of five weeks (plus a common evolution course). My long-time friend Brian Ford-Lloyd and I developed a module on plant genetic resources. Besides daily lectures, each student had to complete a short research project. I can’t deny that it was always a challenge to come up with appropriate projects that would yield results in such a short period. But I found working alongside these (mostly enthusiastic) students a lot of fun.

Dave Astley

Each year I’d take the group a few miles down the road to the National Vegetable Gene Bank (now the UK Vegetable Genebank) at Wellesbourne, where we’d meet its Director, Dr Dave Astley (who had completed his MSc and PhD, on potatoes with Jack Hawkes at Birmingham). It was a great opportunity for my students to understand the realities of genetic conservation.

I taught a 25 lecture course to the MSc students on crop diversity and evolution, with two practical classes each week during which students would look at as wide a range of diversity as we could grow at Winterbourne (mostly under glass). In this way, they learned about the taxonomy of the different crops, how diversity had developed, their breeding systems, and the like. The practical classes were always the most challenging element to this course. We never knew until each class just what materials would be available.

In 1982, I took a group of students to Israel for a two week course on genetic resources of the eastern Mediterranean. Not all of that year’s intake, unfortunately, as some came from countries that banned travel to Israel.

I developed a module on germplasm collecting, and in the summer months set some field exercises on a synthetic barley population comprising up to ten varieties that differed morphologically, and also matured at different times, among other traits. We would sample this population in several ways to see how each method ‘captured’ the various barleys at the known frequency of each (obviously I knew the proportions of each variety in the population).

The functioning of agroecosystems was something I’d been drawn to during my time in Costa Rica, so I passed some of that interest on to the MSc group, and helped out on some other modules like data management. And I became the Short Course Tutor for students who came to Birmingham for one or other of the two taught semesters, or both in some instances. Looking after a cohort of students from all over the world, who often had limited language skills, was both a challenge and a worthwhile endeavour. To help all of our MSc and Short Course students we worked with colleagues in the English Department who ran courses for students with English as a second language. Each member of staff would record a lecture or more, and these would be worked up into an interactive tutorial between students, ourselves, and the English staff. Once one’s lectures have been pulled apart, it’s remarkable to discover just how many idiomatic phrases one uses quite casually but which mean almost nothing to a non-native speaker.

Each MSc student had to write a dissertation, examined in September at the end of the year (just as I had on lentils in 1971), based on research completed during the summer months after sitting the written exams. Over my decade with the course, I must have supervised the dissertations of 25 students or more, working mainly on potatoes and legumes, and leading in some cases to worthwhile scientific publications. Several of these students went on to complete their PhD under my supervision often in partnership with another research institute like CIP, Rothamsted Experiment Station (now Rothamsted Research), MAFF plant pathology lab in Harpenden, and the Food Research Institute in Norwich.

2020-06-27007

With PhD students Ghani Yunus (from Malaysia) and Javier Francisco-Ortega (from Spain-Canary Islands).

The course celebrated it 20th anniversary in 1989, and among the celebrations we planted a medlar tree (sadly no longer there) in the Biological Sciences quadrangle.

Left of the tree: Professor Smallman, Jim Callow, Trevor Williams, Jack Hawkes. Right of the tree: Mike Jackson, Richard Lester, Mike Lawrence. And many students, of course.


Tutees
Earlier, I mentioned that at the beginning of each academic year every staff member was assigned a group of students (the annual intake then was more than 100 students, and is considerably larger today) as tutees, with whom we would meet on a regular basis. These tutorial sessions, one-on-one or in a small group, were an informal opportunity of assessing each student’s progress, to set some work, and overall to help with their well-being since for many, attending university would be the first time they were away from home, and fending for themselves. The tutorial system was not like those at the Oxbridge colleges.

Most students flourished, some struggled. Having someone with whom to share their concerns was a lifeline for some students. I always thought that my tutor responsibilities were among the most important I had as a member of staff, and ensuring my door was always open (or as open as it could be) whenever a tutee needed to contact me. Not all my colleagues viewed their tutorial responsibilities the same. And I do appreciate that, today, with so many more students arriving at university, staff have to structure their availability much more rigidly, sometimes to excess.

In October 1981, my first final year tutee was Vernonica ‘Noni’ Tong* who went on to complete a PhD with my close colleague, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence on incompatibility systems in poppies. Noni joined the Genetics Department and rose to become Professor of Plant Cell Biology (now Emeritus). Several others also went on to graduate work. Another, Julian Parkhill, graduated around 1987 or 1988, went on to Bristol for his PhD, and is now Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2014.

I like to think that, in some way, I helped these students and others make wise career choices, and instilled in them a sense of their own worth. At least one former tutee (who completed her PhD at the University of Durham) has told me so, and that made it all worthwhile.


The School of Biological Sciences
In September 1982, Jack Hawkes retired from the Mason Chair of Botany, and a young lecturer, Jim Callow from the University of Leeds, was elected to the position. Jim took on the role of MSc Course leader, but the day-to-day administration fell to Brian Ford-Lloyd (as Tutor) and myself (for the Short Course students). Jim was a physiologist/ biochemist with an interest in biotechnology, but nothing about genetic resources. He also had little understanding (or sympathy, so I felt) for my areas of research and teaching interests. He frankly did not understand, so I never developed a good relationship with him.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

My closest colleague in the department was Brian who had been appointed to a lectureship around 1977 or 1978. He had completed his PhD in the department in 1973, and he and I were graduate students together until I moved to Peru. We became good friends, and this friendship has lasted until today. He also lived in Bromsgrove, and after I returned to the UK on retirement in 2010, Brian (now Professor Ford-Lloyd) and I would meet up every few weeks for a few beers at the Red Lion on Bromsgrove’s High Street, and to put the world to rights.

On reflection, I can say that relationships among the staff of Plant Biology were pretty harmonious, notwithstanding the comment I made earlier. But several staff were approaching retirement as well, so there was quite a change in the department when a couple of young lecturers were also appointed within a year of me, Drs John Newbury and Jon Green, both of whom also rose to professorships late in their careers.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the School of Biological Sciences underwent a fundamental reorganization, abandoning the federal system, and transforming into a single department with a unitary Head of School. Much to the chagrin of my friends and colleagues in Genetics, Jim Callow was selected as the first Head of School under this new arrangement. To replace the old four department structure, we organized ourselves into five research themes. I joined the Plant Genetics Group, moving my office once again closer to other group members. As a member of this group, I probably had two or three of the best years I spent at Birmingham, with Dr (later Professor) Mike Kearsey as my head of group.


Research and publications
My research interests focused on potatoes and legumes, often sustained by a healthy cohort of MSc and PhD students.

One project, funded by the British government from overseas aid budget in partnership with CIP, investigated the options for breeding potatoes grown from true potato seed. A project that we had to pull the plug on after five years.

In another, Brian and I worked with a commercial crisping (potato chips, in US parlance) company to produce improved potato varieties using induced somaclonal variation, leading to some interesting and unexpected implications for in vitro genetic conservation. There was also an interesting PR outcome from the project.

All in all, my group research led to 29 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, several book chapters, and a range of contributions to the so-called grey literature (not peer-reviewed, but nonetheless important scientifically). You can open a list of those Birmingham publications here.

I’m also proud of the introductory textbook on genetic resources that Brian and I wrote together, published in 1986. It quickly sold its print run of more than 3000 copies.

Then, in 1989, we organized a weekend conference (with Professor Martin Parry of the Department of Geography) on climate change, leading to the pioneer publication of the conference proceedings in 1990 [3] in this newly-emerged field of climate change science. Brian, Martin and I collaborated almost a quarter of a century later to edit another book on the same topic.

I was fortunate to undertake one or two consultancies during my years at Birmingham. The most significant was a three week assignment towards the end of the decade to review a seed production project funded by the Swiss government, that took us Huancayo in the Central Andes, to Cajamarca in the north, and Cuzco in the south, as well as on the coast. This was an excellent project, which we recommended for second phase funding, that ultimately collapsed due to the conflict with the terrorist group Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso that affected all parts of Peruvian society.

The seed project review team (L-R): Peruvian agronomist, me (University of Birmingham), Cesar Vittorelli (CIP Liaison), Swiss economist (SDC), Carlos Valverde (ISNAR, team leader)

With funding from the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega was able to collect an indigenous legume species from his native Canary Islands in 1989, for his dissertation research. I joined Javier for three weeks on that trip.

Collecting escobon (Chamaecytisus proliferus) in Tenerife in 1989


All work and no play . . .
Each December, the Plant Biology Christmas party was usually held at Winterbourne House. For several years, we organized a pantomime, written and produced by one of the graduate students, Wendy (I don’t remember her surname). These were great fun, and everyone could let their hair down, taking the opportunity for some friendly digs at one staff member or another. In the photos below, I played the Fairy Godmother in a 1987 version of Cinderella, and on the right, I was the Grand Vizier in Aladdin, seen here with graduate student Hilary Denny as Aladdin. In the top left photo, kneeling on the right, and wearing what looks like a blue saucepan on his head, is Ian Godwin, a postdoc from Australia for one year. Ian is now Professor of Crop Science at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation. To Ian’s left is Liz Aitken, also a postdoc at that time who came from the University of Aberdeen, and now also a Professor at the University of Queensland.

Then, in the summer months, I organized a departmental barbecue that we held in Winterbourne Gardens, that were part of the department in those days, and now open to the public. In this photo, I’m being assisted by one of my PhD students, Denise Burman.

2020-06-27007 - Copy (2)


Moving on
So why did I leave in July 1991?

Professor Martin Parry

Towards the end of the 1980s I also became heavily involved in a university-wide initiative, known as Environmental Research Management or ERM, to promote the university’s expertise in environmental research, chaired by Martin Parry (I became the Deputy Chair). So, coupled with my own teaching, research, and administrative duties in Biological Sciences, I was quite busy, and on my way to promotion. I was doing all the ‘right things’, and working my way up the promotions ladder (competing with all other eligible staff in the Science Faculty). It was quite helpful that the Dean of the Science Faculty, Professor George Morrison (a nuclear physicist), and someone with his finger on the promotions pulse, also took a close interest in ERM, and I got to know him quite well.

When I handed in my resignation in March 1991, I knew that my application for promotion to Senior Lecturer was about to be approved (I was already on the Senior Lecturer pay scale). By then, however, life in academia had lost some of its allure. And Margaret Thatcher was to blame.

Around 1998 or 1989, the Thatcher government forced a number of ‘reforms’ on the universities, bringing in performance initiatives and the like, without which the government would not consider either increased funding to the system or pay increases for staff.

So we all underwent performance management training (something I became very familiar with during the next phases of my career). It was made clear that staff who were struggling (as teachers, researchers, or even with administration) would be offered help and remedial training to up their game. Those of us performing well (which included myself) were offered the opportunity to take on even more. It was a breaking point moment. With the increased emphasis on research performance and research income, I felt that my time in academia had almost run its course. My research interests did not easily attract research council funding. I was beginning to feel like a square peg in a round hole.

So, when in September 1990, a job advert for the position of head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI landed on my desk, I successfully threw my hat in the ring, and joined IRRI in July 1991, remaining there for the next 19 years, before retiring back to the UK in May 2010.

With few regrets I resigned and prepared for the move to the Philippines. I had to see my students (both undergraduate and MSc) through their exams in June before I could, with good conscience, leave the university. My last day was Friday 30 June, and Brian often reminds me that when he came round to our house in Bromsgrove to say goodbye and wish me well the following day, he was shocked at how white-faced and stressed I appeared. Well, it was a big move and I was leaving the family behind for the next six months, and heading off into the unknown to some extent. Early on Sunday morning I headed to Birmingham International Airport to begin the long journey east via London Heathrow.


But that’s not quite the end of my academic life. Not long after I joined IRRI, I was appointed Affiliate Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). Then, with Brian, John Newbury, and colleagues at the John Innes Centre, we developed a collaborative research project looking at the application of molecular markers to study and manage the large rice germplasm collection at IRRI. I was appointed Honorary Senior Lecturer at Birmingham, and for several years when I was back on home leave I would visit the university and lecture to the MSc students on the realities and challenges of managing a large genebank, as well as following up on our research collaboration.

That came to an end when the funding ran out after five years, and I moved out of research and genebank management at IRRI into a senior management position as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

As Director for Program Planning and Communications, I had line management responsibility for (L-R) Communications and Publications Services (Gene Hettel), IRRI’s library (Mila Ramos), IT Services (Marco van den Berg), the Development Office (Duncan Macintosh), and Program Planning (Corinta Guerta).


Was I cut out for a life in academia? Yes and no. I think I fulfilled my duties conscientiously, and with some success in some aspects. I admit that my research contributions were not the strongest perhaps. But I did mostly enjoy the teaching and the interaction with students. I always felt that not enough weight was given to one’s teaching contributions. Back in the day research was the main performance metric, and increasingly the amount of research funding that one could generate. That was a bit of a treadmill. So while I mostly enjoyed my decade at Birmingham, I found the next nineteen years at IRRI far more satisfying. I had the opportunity to put my stamp on an important component of the institute’s program, bringing the genebank and its operations into the 21st century, and ensuring the safety and availability of one of the world’s most important germplasm collections. Having left genebanking behind in 2001, I then enjoyed another nine years as a member of the institute’s senior management team. And, on reflection, I think those management years gave me the most satisfaction of my career.


Roger Rowe

[1] Steph also worked at CIP as an Associate Geneticist assisting the head of department, Dr Roger Rowe (who co-supervised my PhD research), to manage the germplasm collection. Prior to joining CIP, Steph had been a research assistant with the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that, in those days, was housed at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh. The CPC is now maintained at the James Hutton Institute west of Dundee.

[2] These were: Zoology & Comparative Physiology; Genetics; and Microbiology. With Plant Biology, the four departments were administratively semi-independent in a federal School of Biological Sciences, coming together to teach a degree in Biological Sciences, with specialisms in the component disciplines. All first year biologists took the same common course, as well as a multidisciplinary common course in their second year and an evolution course in the third and final year.

In 2000, the School of Biological Sciences merged with the School of Biochemistry to form the School of Biosciences. Then, in 2008, there was a much larger university-wide reorganization, and Biosciences became part of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, one of five Colleges that replaced Faculties across the university.

[3] Jackson, M., B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), 1990. Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, p. 190.

* On 6 May 2021, it was announced that Noni had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society!

Fifty is a mature number . . .

I came across a tweet a few days ago from the International Potato Center (CIP, based in Lima, Peru), reminding everyone that the center will celebrate its Golden Jubilee later this year. Fifty years of successfully bringing improved potato and sweet potato varieties and enhanced technologies to the world!

And that got me thinking about the achievements of international agricultural research in general over the past half century, and even a little longer. Let me expand.

CIP’s founding Director General (1971-1991) was Dr Richard Sawyer who envisioned a regional research [network] and collaboration with researchers around the world to develop new technologies and innovations to improve food security. He was my first boss. I joined CIP in January 1973 (when it was still a small institute finding its feet), and just after it had become one of the first international agricultural research centers (often referred to as IARCs) sponsored by the nascent Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

CGIAR? As Bill Gates wrote in 2019: Never heard of CGIAR? You’re not alone. It’s an organization that defies easy brand recognition . . . It’s too bad that more people don’t know about CGIAR. Their work to feed our hungry planet is as important now as it’s ever been.

The CGIAR was founded on 19 May 1971 and also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was set up as an informal organization of countries, international development agencies and private foundations [1] that cooperate in underwriting a network of independent, international agricultural research institutes, and originally co-sponsored by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The CGIAR has undergone a series of transformations since its founding and has, in my opinion, spent far too long navel gazing over the past 30 years about what its role should be—and those of the constituent centers—and how all that research effort could or should be organized. Goodness knows what the opportunity costs (and the actual costs) of interminable consultations, meetings, and the like have been.

Despite the organizational and funding bumps (and scientific challenges, sometimes failures) in the 50 year road, the CGIAR and the IARCs it supports have been incredibly successful. The return on investment in international agricultural research (particularly with regard to plant breeding) has been impressive, not only in monetary terms, but more crucially in terms of the numbers of people who were brought out of poverty or who avoided chronic food shortages.

Let me again quote Bill Gates: No other institution has done as much to feed our world as CGIAR.


Today, there are 15 IARCs in the CGIAR network in 14 (mainly tropical or sub-tropical) countries across the globe, although two, Bioversity International in Rome and the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, have recently formed an Alliance under a single Director General and Board of Trustees.

Four of them pre-date the CGIAR, but were immediately adopted in 1971 once the CGIAR was up and running.

The oldest, at 61 years, is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), founded in 1960 [2] in the Philippines, where I happily (and productively) spent almost 19 years from 1991 to 2010. IRRI was responsible for the Green Revolution in Asia, releasing many high-yielding, short-strawed rice varieties (perhaps the most famous of which was IR8) that were widely adopted because they out-yielded the varieties that farmers were growing in the 1960s.

The International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (known as CIMMYT by its Spanish acronym) is located just northeast of Mexico City, and was founded in 1966. It was the institutional home for many years of that pioneer of the Green Revolution and 1970 Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr Norman Borlaug.

Two regional centers, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA, in Ibadan, Nigeria) and CIAT, were founded in 1967 in 1970, respectively. Unlike the crop specific mandates of IRRI and CIMMYT (on rice, wheat, and maize), these two centers had a broader ecogeographic focus on a range of crop and livestock systems.

The International Centre for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT, located in Hyderabad, India) was established in 1972, and along with CIP was adopted by the CGIAR that same year.

By 1980, there were 13 centers, and five more were added by 1990. There then followed a period of consolidation. Two centers in Ethiopia and Kenya working on livestock and animal diseases merged. A banana and plantain network in France was absorbed into the genetic resources institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome, and in 2002 another institute, ISNAR (in The Hague, Netherlands) was shut down.

So for the past decade and a half, the CGIAR system has stabilised around 15 centers, and to quote Bill Gates once again: . . . most referred to by their own confusing acronyms . . . leaving the uninitiated feeling as if they’ve fallen into a bowl of alphabet soup.

It was a privilege to work at CIP (1973-1981) and IRRI (1991-2010), over 27 years in total. And even while I was teaching at the University of Birmingham between 1981 and 1991, I retained research links with and visited CIP, and also carried out other consultancy work with it and other centers.


Much of the early CGIAR-sponsored research was directed towards increasing crop productivity, breeding new crop varieties that yielded better than existing varieties as I mentioned above in relation to rice. And delving into the large and impressive—and genetically diverse—genebank collections that the centers had set up as a safety net to preserve heritage varieties. There was increased adoption of new varieties by farmers seeking to improve their livelihoods, and old varieties had, in many instances, been cast aside. Who could question their desire to improve their lots, to feed their families, and send their children to school with the hope and expectation that education would help bring them out of poverty and a better life than as a subsistence farmer?

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, more attention was focused on natural resources such as soils and water, and how these could be managed sustainably. And of course, lying at the heart of everything (which I’m bound to stress, given my background in conservation and use of plant genetic resources) are the eleven center genebanks, the largest and most important network of genebanks worldwide, safely conserving more than 760,000 samples (known as genebank accessions) of cereals, grain legumes, forages, tree species, root and tuber crops, and bananas. This network is supported in part through the Crop Trust.

By the 1990s the early CGIAR model of productivity-focused research was being challenged and, as I mentioned above, research was expanding on the sustainability of natural resources. Furthermore, even the role of international centers was being questioned, whether they were needed any longer. National programs were becoming stronger and less dependent on the international centers for resources and research support, although training of agricultural research professionals remained an important partnership outcome. The centers produce what are known as international public goods, having an impact across multiple locations and sites. The sharing of breeding lines and new varieties is perhaps one of the best examples. National program research is much more site specific.

The international framework within which the centers operated was also becoming more challenging. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in 1993, followed by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture adopted in 2004. These directly affected how centers could maintain their collections of genetic resources and share them globally. On the financial front there was growing concern about the long-term funding to support these collections that has now been resolved, in part, by the intervention of the Crop Trust and its grants to support the center collections in perpetuity from the Endowment Fund.

Then, in September 2000, at its Millennium Summit, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) setting out an ambitious agenda to be reached by 2015. A review of progress made in 2015—not as much as hoped for—culminated in the adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by UN Member States.

Clearly the adoption of the MDGs, followed by the upgraded SDGs was something that the CGIAR could not ignore, it it wanted to remain relevant. Centers quickly set about explaining how CGIAR-supported researched aligned with and contributed towards achieving these important development goals.

Research across the CGIAR system was reorganized into a series of programs and other initiatives. In its latest reincarnation, One CGIAR is a dynamic reformulation of CGIAR’s partnerships, knowledge, assets, and global presence, aiming for greater integration and impact in the face of the interdependent challenges facing today’s world . . . providing scientific innovations for food, land and water systems. Here is an example how IITA . . . has participated in the unfolding plans and is strategically positioned to contribute to the One-CGIAR agenda in sub-Saharan Africa.

I should also add that, importantly, response to climate change (and its impact on agriculture and natural resources) has been an important element of the CGIAR agenda for many years now.

I don’t wish to sound cynical, but I think the jury is still out. The CGIAR hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in its previous attempts to reorganize. When it comes to change management, it has, in my opinion, taken its collective eye off the ball in terms of the system’s greatest assets: the actual centers and their loyal staff. A former colleague recently shared with me a piece he’d written describing the various attempts to restructure the CGIAR over the years: A solid long-term programme of change management must be put in place which addresses the required culture change needed on merging institutions with long, proud histories and staff who may have served for decades becoming deeply steeped in a given institutional culture.


So, how was research organized and funded? The two are obviously not independent one from the other.

Back in the day, centers received block grants or ‘core’ funding (often referred to as ‘unrestrictive funding’) from donor countries and agencies through the CGIAR. Being independent of one another (and the CGIAR not having any legal identity then) centers set their own research agendas, reporting annually on what had been achieved (outcomes and impact being the name of the game) and how the funding had been spent. The enthusiasm for the IARC model in the 70s and 80s was reflected in the growth of support, and the expansion of the CGIAR agenda to include new centers.

But around the mid-90s, this funding model was under threat. Donors demanded more accountability for their funds, and to influence directly the actual research that centers carried out. They did this by resorting to competitive funding for defined and time-limited project grants, which also meant more time and effort to prepare, submit, and account (scientifically and financially) for these projects than centers had been accustomed to. But it was a model that was here to stay. Unrestricted funding is now almost a thing of the past.

When I left research in 2001 to become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) I took on responsibility for the institute’s research project portfolio. Not what we did; that was the role of the Deputy Director General-Research. My role, among other responsibilities, was to liaise with donors and keep them happy and, in doing so, grow the institute’s budget (which we did very successfully).

When centers were solely responsible, as it were, for their research agendas, they had to accommodate project funding into their research strategic plans—their research blueprints. But it’s important to emphasise that IARC research was never (or hardly ever) science for the sake of science. It was scientific research with a purpose, aimed at real-life issues and constraints. And it had to be the right science of the highest quality. Not that this lofty goal was always achieved.

When I arrived at IRRI in July 1991, its research was organized through the notoriously difficult matrix management, which does have its conceptual appeal. The research program had two axes: programs on one axis, and the contributing scientific divisions on the other. The programs set the research agenda, and the research divisions contributed the scientific expertise. Or, as another former colleague, and head of IRRI’s Plant Pathology Division, Tom Mew explained it (and here I paraphrase): the programs choose the right science (i.e., what needs to be done) and the divisions do the science right. What I soon realised was that at CIP (back in 1973) there was a form of matrix management, with the research arranged in Research Thrusts. But IRRI’s not-altogether-successful implementation of matrix management was probably the first real attempt to employ this approach. It depends on an equal balance (and some tension) between program leaders and division heads. And it was my perception that a couple of long-serving division heads didn’t take kindly to any ‘erosion’ of their influence under matrix management and therefore did not support its implementation as enthusiastically as one might have expected. I’ll say no more.

In this diagram, I have assigned illustrative percentage values of how each research division allocated its resources (particularly staff time) to each of the rice ecosystem-focused programs.

Just a few years later, as the CGIAR navel gazing began in earnest, the research agenda was being reformulated in system-wide programs, organized in a type of matrix management (read ‘centers’ for ‘divisions’) and involving many more players outside the CGIAR as full partners in the research. I should mention that healthy and extensive research partnerships between centers and other institutions had existed even from the early days. However, external players are now much more intimately involved in determining (and implementing) the research.


Since I’ve been retired for eleven years, I’ll be interested to see—from afar—how the CGIAR and its centers fare. While I feel that both have lost their way somewhat, I still have faith that the system will eventually come good, and bring about outcomes and impacts that were the signatures of the system’s heyday. Hopefully, there are better days ahead for international agricultural research. Whether that means another half century or less remains to be seen. Getting past the next decade will be challenge enough.


[1] The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now one of the largest donors to the CGIAR.

[2] The agreement between the Government of the Philippines and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations was signed on 9 December 1959. IRRI’s Board of Trustees met for the first time on 14 April 1960 and approved the institute’s constitution an by-laws. The 1960 date is often cited as the foundation date.

 

Exploring the mysteries of sex . . . and taking control!

I’ve been fascinated with sex (especially controlled sex) since my undergraduate days at the University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970. We were the socially permissive flower power generation.

But before you get too excited about this post’s content, I need to point out that, as a former botany student, I’m referring to sex among plants! And plant breeding. The real flower power!


Joe Smartt and Edgar Anderson

I guess it all started with two final year honours course on plant speciation (how different species evolve) and plant breeding, taught by geneticist Dr Joe Smartt. It was through the first that I discovered the beauty of introgressive hybridization (a mechanism that blends the gene pools of separate species; see a diagrammatic explanation in this post), a concept first expounded by another of my botanical heroes, Dr Edgar Anderson. And, there was this transformative book to dip into: Variation and Evolution in Plants (published 1950) by another great American botanist, G Ledyard Stebbins. In Joe’s introduction to plant breeding, we followed yet another classic text: Principles of Plant Breeding by American plant breeder and geneticist, Robert W Allard.

Trevor Williams

And when I moved to the University of Birmingham as a graduate student in September 1970, to study for a Master’s degree in plant genetic resources, Trevor Williams taught a fascinating course on plant variation, emphasising their breeding systems, and how understanding of these was important for the conservation and use of genetic resources. Much of my career subsequently was then spent studying variation and breeding systems in two important crop species, potatoes and rice, and a minor legume species, the grasspea.


Plants reproduce in the most weird and wonderful ways. If they didn’t, humanity’s days would be numbered. Where would we be if wheat and rice plants failed to produce their grains, the potato its underground treasure of tubers, or the banana those abundant hands of green fruits? No wonder in times past folks celebrated a Harvest Festival each autumn to give thanks for a successful harvest.

Beautiful acorns on the pedunculate oak, Quercus robur

You only have to look about you in late summer, as I did each day on my walks last year, to see Nature’s bounty all around—the consequence of plant sex. The trees and bushes were dripping with fruit—2020 was a mast year (as I have written about before). I don’t think I’ve seen such a year for acorns on the oak trees. And the chestnuts, hazels, and so many others. Such exuberant fecundity!


Have you ever looked closely at a ‘typical’ flower? Well, for the most part you can see the female pistil(s) comprising the style, stigma, and ovary, and the male stamens that carry the pollen.

However, there are many variations on this basic theme, different arrangements of the sex organs, even separate male and female flowers on the same plant (known as monoecy; maize is a good example) or separate plants (dioecy; holly). Differences in plant reproductive morphology promote self fertilization or cross fertilization. In addition, there is a host of physical and genetic mechanisms to promote or prevent self fertilization, as well as limiting sex between different species. All of this is aimed at ensuring a next generation of plants, and the one after that, and so on.

Plants attract a host of pollinators: visiting insects such as bees and moths, even some nectar-feeding marsupials and bats. I watched a remarkable sequence on David Attenborough’s latest blockbuster series, A Perfect Planet a few nights ago, about the fascinating pollination role of fig wasps.

Then I came across this tweet. Cockroaches of all creatures!

Wind pollination is a common feature of many grasses. However, several wheat and rice species, for example, promiscuously dangle their stamens apparently seeking cross fertilization. But they have often self fertilized before their flowers open. That’s not to deny that some cross pollination does occur in these species, but it’s generally the exception.

Some plants appear to reproduce sexually, but they have got around actual sex through a mechanism known as apomixis. These plants produce seeds but not following the normal fertilization process, so each seedling is a genetic copy of the ‘mother’ plant.

Berries on a diploid potato species, Solanum berthaultii

Other species have given up sex (almost) altogether, instead reproducing vegetatively with the ‘offspring’ being genetically identical (or essentially identical) to the mother plant. In others, like the potato, propagation is primarily through tubers. Yet, in the Andes especially where potatoes were first domesticated, many varieties are extremely sexually fertile, and produce berries rather like small tomatoes, although they are inedible. They contain lots of small seeds that we often refer to as true potato seed or TPS. In fact, in one experiment I observed at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru where I worked during the 1970s, a colleague of mine recorded a particular variety known as Renacimiento producing more than 20 t/ha of berries, in addition to about 20 t of tubers.


Anyway, I digress somewhat. During the years I was active scientifically (before I joined the ranks of senior management at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, IRRI in the Philippines), I looked into various aspects of reproductive biology of several species.

In my doctoral research, carried out in the Andes of Peru, I investigated the breeding relationships between potato varieties with different numbers of chromosomes. The potato we consume almost on a daily basis (at least in my home) is known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, and has four sets (48 in total) of chromosomes. It is what we call a tetraploid. Many other potato species have only two sets or 24 chromosomes, and are known as diploids. The tetraploid forms are mostly self fertile; diploids, on the other hand, have a genetic system of self incompatibility, and will only produce seeds if pollinated with pollen from a different genetic type.

This or similar system of self incompatibility is known from other species, like poppies for example. Anyway, the outcome is that ‘self’ pollen will not germinate on the stigma. The two images below (of various pollinations among wild potatoes), show a typical compatible pollination and fertilization event. Lots of pollen grains have stuck to the stigma, have germinated and grown the length of the style to reach the numerous ovules in the ovary.

In these next images, showing incompatible pollinations, few pollen grains remain on the stigma, not all germinated, and those that did, grew erratically. A few pollen tubes may reach the ovules but compared to the compatible pollinations, they are many fewer.


In the 1970s, one of my colleagues at CIP, Chilean breeder/agronomist Primo Accatino, championed the use of TPS as an alternative to propagation from seed tubers. One of the weak links, as it were, in any potato production cycle is the availability and cost of disease-free seed tubers. So TPS was seen as potentially fulfilling a gap in many developing countries that had neither the infrastructure nor staff to support seed potato production.

As I mentioned earlier, the common potato is a tetraploid with four sets of chromosomes, and this complicates the genetics and breeding. Breeding at the diploid level could be more straightforward. At least that was the hope and the challenge when I embarked on a project to produce TPS lines through inbreeding diploid potatoes and single seed descent. Funded by the British government, it involved scientists at the University of Birmingham (where I had joined the staff in 1981), the former Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and CIP in Peru.

Was this just a pipe dream? Perhaps. Before developing the project concept, I’d had extensive discussions with my colleague at Birmingham, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence who worked on self incompatibility in poppies (that has a similar genetic system to that in potatoes). His experience with poppies showed that if one tried long and hard enough, it was possible to break the self incompatibility.

Flowers of Solanum chacoense

We tried—and ultimately failed—closing the project after five years. We decided it would take just too much investment to make progress. If only we’d had available then what are now helping to transform potato breeding: self compatible diploid lines. At the end of the 1990s, scientists working at the USDA potato collection in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin identified self compatible lines in the widespread wild species Solanum chacoense. The Sli gene that confers self compatibility is apparently more widespread than previously thought, and has now been bred into diploid lines. Had we had those self compatible lines back in the 1980s, our work would have perhaps have reached a better conclusion.


When I moved to the Philippines in 1991 to head IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), I had a collection of around 100,000 different lines of rice, cultivated and wild, to conserve in the institute’s International Rice Genebank.

With my colleagues in GRC, Dr Lu Bao-Rong, Amita ‘Amy’ Juliano and Dr Ma Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, I spent several years investigating the breeding relationships between the cultivated forms of rice, Oryza sativa from Asia, and O. glaberrima from West Africa, and the closest wild Oryza species with a similar AA genome. We made thousands of crosses with the aim of understanding not only the breeding relationships, which is important to be able to better use wild species in rice breeding, but also to understand the taxonomy of wild and cultivated rices.

Pollinations (L) in the genebank screenhouse among AA genome species from Asia, Australia, and the New World, and (R) a crossing polygon from those pollinations expressed in terms of spikelet fertility.

This work led to several scientific publications, which you can access here: just look for publications with our names.


Another aspect of plant sex, important for genebank managers, is how the environment can affect plant fertility. While the seeds of many species (including rice and potatoes) can be stored at a low temperature (typically -18ºC) and for decades if not longer, it is essential that only the best seeds are placed in a genebank for long term conservation. That means ensuring that the growing conditions are the best possible to produce seeds of high quality—and in abundance—during an initial multiplication or later on for rejuvenation after some years of storage, if seed stocks are running low, or there are signs that seed viability may be declining.

At IRRI, in Los Baños south of Manila, we were faced with managing a large germplasm collection of rice lines from all over Asia, from Africa, and South America as well. And these had been collected over a very broad latitudinal range, while Los Baños sits at around 14ºN. We were attempting to grow in a single location many different rice lines, some of which had evolved under more temperate conditions, under different temperature regimes and daylengths.

Kameswara Rao

With my colleague Dr Kameswara Rao (and Professor Richard Ellis from the University of Reading, UK) we spent three years carefully analyzing the effects of different growing environments on seed quality for conservation. Just look for publications here under our names to check out what we achieved. The important changes we made to how we grew rice lines for optimum seed quality have endured until today, although (as I have reported elsewhere) changes to post-harvest handling of seeds have been improved through the work of former IRRI seed physiologist, Dr Fiona Hay.


So, as you can see, there are many different, and interesting, facets to plant sex. And as plant breeders and gene conservationists, we aim to exploit the idiosyncrasies of each species to produce more productive crop varieties or ensure the long term survival of varieties that no longer find favor with farmers, or wild species whose habitats are threatened through agricultural expansion, increasing urbanization, or climate change.


 

There is no way you can deny it . . .

It was July 1979. I was in Santiago de Chile for a few days, as a member of a three person team from the International Potato Center (CIP) to undertake a short review of the Chilean National Potato Program.

Joining me were my Lima-based colleagues, potato breeder Dr Nelson Estrada (a Colombian national) and Regional Representative for South America, Dr Oscar Malamud (from Argentina). I’d flown in from Costa Rica where I was leading CIP’s Regional Program for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean at the time..

It was a chilly evening, maybe 5ºC, mid-winter in Chile; Santiago lies at 33ºS. Street vendors were roasting chestnuts on open fires. We were out and about doing some tourist shopping (in my case) or buying beef to carry back to Lima (Nelson and Oscar) in spare suitcases, as there was a meat shortage and rationing in Peru in those days.

Then, as I wondered among the shops and market stalls, I heard this song floating over the hubbub of the street:

Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong
You’re enchained by your own sorrow
In your eyes there is no hope for tomorrow
How I hate to see you like this
There is no way you can deny it
I can see that you’re oh so sad, so quiet

It was ABBA, of course, and this song, Chiquitita, immediately had an impact on me. It was released as the first single from their album Voulez-Vous in January that year. But I’d not heard it until then.

Here are ABBA performing (but lip-synching) the song at the Music for UNICEF Concert that same year, after which the group donated half of the royalties to UNICEF. Being one of ABBA’s most successful recordings, those royalties must have been quite significant.

I’m not sure why, but I hadn’t really been much aware of ABBA before encountering them on that Santiago street, so to speak. I was living in Peru in 1974 when they won the Eurovision Song Contest, with Waterloo. And, never having been a Eurovision fan, and because it didn’t figure in any news that I heard in Lima, their win passed me by. Neither was glam rock my thing. I came late to the ABBA party.

Anyway, after my Chiquitita experience, I went out and purchased a vinyl copy of Voulez-Vous the next time I passed through Miami, and thereafter enjoyed dancing around the living room back home in Costa Rica with my young daughter Hannah (then approaching two) to the many excellent songs that featured on that album, such as I Have A Dream, Angeleyes, Does Your Mother Know, and Kisses of Fire.

It wasn’t until I returned to the UK in 1981 that I really became an signed-up ABBA fan, and got hold of cassette tapes of some of their albums like Arrival (later replaced by CDs of Gold and Greatest Hits Vol. 2 when I moved to the Philippines in 1991).

In early 1982, I accompanied a group of my MSc students in plant genetic resources conservation on a two week course in Israel offered by Professors Gideon Ladizinsky and Amos Dinoor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Rehovot near Tel Aviv. I’d taken several cassettes of music to enjoy during the various field trips, and my ABBA tapes were among those. I distinctly remember one of the Birmingham group, a Polish PhD student pulling my leg about my enthusiasm for ABBA’s music. But she did reluctantly have to agree that their music was quite special.

The wonderful melodies and arrangements composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the beautiful voices and harmonies between Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Just a winning combination all round. So many hits. It’s no wonder that Mamma Mia! was such a hit show (I loved the film—don’t tell anyone; I watched it twice on one Emirates flight back to Manila not long after it was released in 2008).

However, having set up Spotify the other day to play through my Amazon Echo Dot and a Bluetooth speaker, I came across the entire ABBA catalogue, and decided to shuffle play the lot. And that’s when I realised that besides the many glorious songs that ABBA released, there were just as many (maybe more), and especially the early tracks, that are simply naff. Awful. I was really rather surprised. It’s no wonder these don’t get too many plays. So let’s forget about those and luxuriate in the many catchy and incredibly well-crafted songs that are their greatest hits.

So I suppose I have to tell you what my favorite ABBA song is. So many to choose from. But the one I keep coming back to is . . . drum roll:

It was released on The Visitors album in 1981.


 

I was doctored . . . but the benefits were long-lasting

Philosophiae Doctor. Doctor of Philosophy. PhD. Or DPhil in some universities like Oxford. Doctorate. Hard work. Long-term benefits.

Forty-five years ago today I was awarded a PhD by the University of Birmingham. As a freshman undergraduate at the University of Southampton in October 1967, I was naïvely ignorant of what a PhD was [1]. And I certainly never had any ambition then or inkling that one day I would go on to complete a doctorate in botany. Let alone a study on potatoes!

Although registered for my PhD at the University of Birmingham, I actually carried out much of the research while working as an Associate Taxonomist at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. My thesis was supervised by eminent potato experts Professor Jack Hawkes, head of the Department of Botany (later Plant Biology) in the School of Biological Sciences at Birmingham, and Dr Roger Rowe, head of CIP’s Department of Breeding & Genetics.

Jack Hawkes (L) and Roger Rowe (R)

On 12 December 1975 I was joined at the Birmingham graduation ceremony or congregation by Jack and Dr Trevor Williams (on my left below, who supervised my MSc dissertation on lentils). Trevor later became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International). I’d turned 27 just a few weeks earlier, quite old in those days when it wasn’t all that unusual for someone to be awarded a PhD at 24 or 25, just three years after completing a bachelor’s degree. My research took four years however, from 1971, when I was awarded the MSc degree in genetic resources conservation at Birmingham.

The moment of being ‘doctored’ in the university’s Great Hall.

Sir Peter Scott, CH, CBE, DSC & Bar, FRS, FZS (by Clifton Ernest Pugh, 1924–1990)

As a biologist, it was particularly special that my degree was conferred by one of the most eminent naturalists and conservationists of his age, Sir Peter Scott (son of ill-fated Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott), who was Chancellor of the University of Birmingham for a decade from 1973.


According to the Birmingham PhD degree regulations today, a candidate must enter on a programme, normally of three years’ duration, in which the key activity is undertaking research, combined with appropriate training. Registered students must produce a thesis which makes an original contribution to knowledge, worthy of publication in whole or in part in a learned journal.

It was much the same back in the 1970s, except that we had eight years from first registration to submit a thesis. By the end of the 1980s this had already been reduced to four years.

Like the majority of PhD theses I guess, mine (The evolutionary significance of the triploid cultivated potato, Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk.) was a competent piece of original research, but nothing to write home about. However, I did fulfil the other important criterion for award of the degree as three scientific papers from my thesis research were later accepted for publication in Euphytica, an international journal of plant breeding:

  1. Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes & PR Rowe, 1977. The nature of Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk., a triploid cultivated potato of the South American Andes. Euphytica 26, 775-783. PDF

  2. Jackson, MT, PR Rowe & JG Hawkes, 1978. Crossability relationships of Andean potato varieties of three ploidy levels. Euphytica 27, 541-551. PDF

  3. Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes & PR Rowe, 1980. An ethnobotanical field study of primitive potato varieties in Peru. Euphytica 29, 107-113. PDF


It took me just over six weeks to write my thesis of about 150 pages. I achieved that by sticking to a well-defined daily schedule. I was under a tight time constraint.

Having returned from Peru at the beginning of May 1975, I still had a couple of things to wrap up: checking the chromosome numbers of some progeny from experimental crosses, then preparing all the hand drawn diagrams and maps (fortunately my cartographic skills from my geography undergraduate days at the University of Southampton placed me in good stead in this respect) and photographs. My thesis was typed on a manual typewriter; none of that fancy word processing and formatting available today. Nevertheless, I did submit my thesis by the mid-September deadline to meet the December graduation. I could hardly return to CIP by the beginning of the New Year without a PhD in my back pocket.

Looking at my thesis 45 years on, it does seem rather ‘thin’ compared to what PhD students can achieve today. In the early 1970s we didn’t have any of the molecular biology techniques that have become routine (essential even) today, to open up a whole new perspective on plant diversity, crop evolution, and crop domestication that were the basic elements of my thesis research.

Back in the day, it was normal for a PhD thesis to be examined by just one external examiner and an internal university one, usually from a candidate’s department and often the person who had supervised the research. Today the supervisor cannot be the internal examiner at many if not all universities in the UK, and it has become more common for a PhD student to have a committee to oversee the research.

So, towards the end of October 1975 I met with my examiners for what turned out to be a viva voce of over three hours. It got off to a good start because the external examiner told me he had enjoyed reading my thesis. That allowed me to relax somewhat, and we then embarked on an interesting discussion about the work, and potatoes and their evolution in general. The examiner found just one typographical error, and I corrected that immediately after the viva. I then sent the thesis for binding and official submission to the university library (where it languishes on a shelf somewhere, or maybe reduced to just a microfilm copy).


On the evening of my examination I rang my parents to tell them the good news, only to discover that my dad had suffered a heart attack earlier in the day. That certainly but a damper on the exhilaration I felt at having just passed my final exam – ever! Dad was resting, but expected to make a full recovery. By December, when the congregation was held, he was back on his feet, and he and mum attended the congregation. Having been allocated only two guest tickets, Steph gave hers up so mum and dad could attend.

They gave me a Parker fountain pen, engraved with my name and date, as a graduation present. I still have it.


So, I completed a PhD. Was it worth it? I actually waxed lyrical on that topic in a blog post published in October 2015. When the idea of working in Peru was first mooted in February 1971, it was intended to be just a one year assignment from September. Registering for a PhD was not part of the equation. But circumstances changed, my departure to Peru was delayed until January 1973, so Jack registered me for a PhD, setting me on a path that I have never regretted.

In any case, once I was established at CIP in Lima, I quickly came to the viewpoint that a career in international agricultural research was something I wanted to pursue. And without a PhD under my belt that would have been almost impossible. The PhD degree became a sort of ‘union card’, which permitted me to work subsequently in Central America, as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham for a decade, and almost 19 years up to my retirement in 2010 at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in roles managing the world’s largest genebank for rice, and then as one of the institute’s senior management team.


[1] Unlike our two daughters Hannah and Philippa. They grew up in a home with parents having graduate degrees (Steph has an MSc degree in genetic resources from Birmingham). And when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, almost every neighbor of ours at IRRI Staff Housing had a PhD degree. So although it was never inevitable, both went on to complete a PhD in psychology (although different branches of the discipline) in 2006 and 2010 respectively, at the University of Minnesota and Northumbria University.

L (top and bottom): Phil, Hannah, and Steph after the graduation ceremony; Hannah with her cohort of graduands, Emily and Michael in Industrial & Organizational Psychology on 12 May 2006. R (top and bottom): Phil’s graduation at Northumbria University on 11 December 2010.

Combatting jet lag for job interviews across the globe

I started my first job on 1 January 1973. I retired (at 61) on 30 April 2010, after more than 37 years continuous employment. All but ten years were spent working abroad, in South and Central America, and in Asia. I also got to travel to more than 60 countries in the course of my work in international agricultural research and academia.

I’ve held five different positions in three organizations: the International Potato Center (CIP, in Lima, Peru); the University of Birmingham; and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, in the Philippines). However, I was interviewed for just two of those five positions, although during the course of my career I have flown all over the world for at least three other job interviews, none of which were successful as there always seemed to be an ‘internal candidate’ waiting in the wings. And in all cases, I had to combat jet lag to a greater or lesser extent all the while. You run on adrenaline and a certain degree of sang froid through the interviews [1].


Jack Hawkes

My first job at CIP, as an Associate Taxonomist, came about almost by chance. In September 1970 I had enrolled on a one year MSc course on plant genetic resources conservation and use in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham. The head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes, was an internationally-renowned potato expert and one of the pioneers of the 1960s genetic conservation movement. Just before Christmas that year he set off for a two month wild potato collecting trip to Bolivia, calling at CIP in Lima to seek some logistical help with the expedition. It was during that visit to CIP that the Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer mentioned that he wanted to send one of his young staff to the Birmingham course in September 1971. And did Jack know anyone who could come to CIP, for just one year, to help look at after the center’s growing germplasm collection of native Andean potato varieties (of which there are thousands).

On returning to the UK at the end of February 1971, Jack phoned me within a day of his return, and mentioned the position at CIP, and asked if I would be interested. I had no hesitation in saying an emphatic Yes! I’d always wanted to visit Peru, and having a position, albeit short-term, in genetic resources conservation was almost too good to be true.

Things didn’t go exactly to plan. There was a delay, while CIP negotiated with the UK government through the Overseas Development Administration (or was it Ministry of Overseas Development back in the day). My travel to Peru was put on hold, but I did register for and begin studies on potatoes towards a PhD in botany.

Richard Sawyer

Sometime during 1972 (I don’t remember exactly when) Richard Sawyer visited Birmingham, and I had an opportunity to sit down with him and Jack to discuss my posting in Lima. By then it had been agreed that it would be longer than just one year, and that I’d stay there long enough to complete the research for my PhD. I must have said all the right things, since Sawyer agreed to this arrangement. What I can say is that it wasn’t a formal interview as such. He had a habit of meeting prospective candidates around the world, often in airports, and deciding there and then if he wanted to hire them.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I flew to Lima on 4 January 1973 and remained there until April 1975, when I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my PhD and to submit my thesis. But before returning to the UK, I met with Sawyer concerning my future ambitions with CIP. And he made me an offer to move into CIP’s Outreach Program (later Regional Research) provided I successfully defended my thesis.

I was back in Lima just before the end of December, but not sure then to which regional office I would be posted although we had already initiated some plans for a move to Central America, about which I wrote recently. In April 1976, Steph and I left Lima headed for Turrialba in Costa Rica. And we remained there for almost five years, until the end of November 1980 in fact.

Returning to Lima, I had expected to move on to another of the CIP’s regional offices. Brazil was proposed, but when that fell through, we set about planning to move to the Philippines.


But fate intervened. Around September or October 1980 I heard about a new lectureship (in plant genetic resources) in my old department (by then renamed Plant Biology) at the University of Birmingham. I was torn. I was very happy at CIP and enjoyed the work I had been doing in various aspects of potato production. There again, a tenure-track university lectureship was too good an opportunity to ignore. So I sent in an application.

Around mid-December or so, I received feedback that my name would be put on the short list of candidates for interview, with one proviso. I had to commit to travel to Birmingham (at my own expense) for interview. After a long discussion with Steph, and looking at the most economical way of flying back to the UK (I eventually used Freddie Laker’s Skytrain airline into London-Gatwick from Miami), I confirmed my availability for interview during January.

I was in Birmingham for just over 36 hours (two nights) and afterwards I took the opportunity of visiting my mother who was staying with my eldest brother Martin and his family in Gloucestershire, south of Birmingham. I was in the UK for just under a week all told.

We were three candidates (one female, two male) and I guess that I was, to all intents and purposes, the ‘internal candidate’ (so I can’t rail too much about internal candidates) being the only one with an existing affiliation with the university. I was the last to be interviewed and arrived at the interview room a short while before my turn, to find the first candidate waiting in the corridor while the second was being grilled. We had been told to wait outside the interview room until all interviews had been concluded. One of us would be then invited back in to discuss a possible job offer.

With dry mouth and somewhat sweaty palms (and feeling rather jaded through jet lag) I entered the interview room with some trepidation. However, I was greeted by some friendly faces. The interview panel (certainly five persons) was chaired by Professor John Jinks, head of the Genetics Department and a formidable intellect. He was supported by Professor Derek Walker, head of the Biochemistry Department and Dean of the Science Faculty. There were three staff from Plant Biology: Jack Hawkes, Dr Dennis Wilkins (a fierce ecologist whose interviewing style seemed like a dog worrying a bone – I’d already come across him during my interview for a place on the MSc course, and as a graduate student), and Dr (later Professor) Brian Ford-Lloyd, who I’d known since my early graduate days and who has remained a lifelong friend and colleague with whom I have since published three books and many scientific papers. There may have been another person from the university administration, but I don’t recall.

I guess the interview must have lasted about 40 minutes, each member of the panel taking turns to probe my suitability for this lectureship. Unlike interviews for academic and research positions nowadays, I did not have to present a seminar to the department or be ‘interviewed’ by anyone outside the panel. (Incidentally, when the Mason Chair of Botany became vacant in 1982 on Jack Hawkes’ retirement, none of the staff met any of the professorial candidates nor were they expected to present a seminar).

Interview over, I joined the other two candidates outside, each of us deep in our own thoughts and very little conversation among us. After what seemed an age, but was probably no more than about 15 minutes, the door opened, and Brian came out to invite me back. John Jinks told me that the panel had agreed to offer me the lectureship and asked if I would accept it. I had already discussed with Steph what my answer would be under these circumstances. Unequivocally yes!

I don’t remember much after that. Except that Jack invited me for dinner at his house. I was staying in one of the guest rooms at Staff House in the center of the Birmingham campus. Early next morning, I made my way to the railway station and headed south for a few days before flying back to Peru and telling Steph (and our young daughter Hannah, almost three) the good news.


I joined the Plant Biology faculty on 1 April 1981 and spent ten years teaching undergraduate classes in flowering plant taxonomy, agricultural systems (as a component of a second year common course), and an honours course (with Brian) on plant genetic resources. But most of my teaching was at graduate level, to students from all over the world, who came to Birmingham for its world-renowned MSc course on genetic resources.

Then there was research on potatoes and legumes, and during this decade I supervised a number of graduate students to successfully submit their PhD theses. I had some administrative responsibilities that we were all expected to carry, some more than others. Towards the end of the 80s, however, things were changing at the university, and Margaret Thatcher’s government intervention in higher education was causing considerable disruption and disquiet. I found myself increasingly disillusioned with academic life.

Fate intervened, once again. I received notice of a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines to lead one of the world’s most important genebanks. I decided to throw my hat in the ring. It was not an easy decision. Since IRRI was a sister institute to CIP, funded the same way through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) I knew, more or less what I would be letting myself in for if I joined IRRI.

However, there were more pressing personal issues. When we returned to the UK in 1981, our elder daughter Hannah was almost three. Her sister Philippa was born in May 1982. In 1991 they were thirteen and nine, and about to make the transition from from middle to high school, and from first to middle school, respectively. How would they cope with a move halfway across the world, leaving everything familiar behind, all their friends, and moving into an entirely new education system (we’d already decided that boarding school in the UK would not be an option).


Klaus Lampe

In early January 1991 I was invited for interview at IRRI, and flew with British Airways on a flight from London-Gatwick via Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong. The interviews were scheduled for Tuesday to Thursday, three rather intensive days of panel discussions, one-on-one meetings with senior staff, and a seminar. So I chose a flight that would get me into Manila on the Monday afternoon. Well, that was the plan. Arriving at Gatwick I discovered that my flight was delayed about 12 hours. Our designated 747 had a mechanical fault that could not be sorted easily, so we had to wait for a replacement plane to arrive from Florida before being turned around for the flight to the Far East. What a miserable experience. As a result I arrived to IRRI’s research campus in Los Baños (about 65 km south of Manila) around 01:30 on Tuesday morning and, checking over the interview schedule that had been left in my room at IRRI’s guesthouse, noted to my distinct discomfort that I had a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, and his three Deputies at 07:00. Having left a request to be woken at 06:15, I took a sleeping pill, not that it helped much .

My internal clock was eight hours awry, but somehow I made it through the breakfast, and the next three days, taking a flight back to the UK late on Thursday night. I think I must have slept for a week once I was back in the UK.

There were three candidates for the genebank position. And we all had MSc (genetic resources) and PhD degrees (two on potatoes, one on rice) from the University of Birmingham and with Jack Hawkes as our PhD supervisor. I knew the other two candidates very well. One managed the Vegetable Genebank at Wellesbourne near Birmingham and the other headed the genebank at another CGIAR center in Nigeria, IITA. Although we overlapped some days at IRRI, our schedule of interviews and meetings meant that we hardly saw anything of each other.

On reflection, the interview schedule was gruelling, with hardly any time to catch one’s breath. We were kept on the go all the time, often with just short breaks between one interview and the next. It was an IRRI tradition to involve as many of the staff in interviewing candidates as possible, with a multiplicity of interview panels representing the different disciplines or a mixture [2]. And of course there was the more detailed interaction with staff in the genebank in my case.

Because the different panels did not interact with one another, candidates (as in my case) were faced with the same line of questions across different panels. Very repetitive and tiresome. And there were, in my opinion, the totally unacceptable and asinine questions from some IRRI staff, some of which received short shrift from me.

Let me give you two or three examples. I was asked if I was prepared to work hard. One line of questioning seemed to question my suitability for joining a center like IRRI and the CGIAR in general. I answered by a question: when did the person join the CGIAR? I was able to reply that I had joined and left the CGIAR years before this particular person had even first entered international agricultural research. 15: love to me! Another scientist, British, was obsessed with my undergraduate career and how successful I had been, notwithstanding that I had graduate degrees, and had been working already for almost 20 years.

A couple of weeks after arriving back in the UK I received a phone call from Lampe offering me the position, which I accepted after some negotiation over the salary and benefits package they originally put on the table. I joined IRRI on 1 July that year, and remained there until my retirement a decade ago.

After successfully running the genebank, in 2001 I was asked by Director General Ron Cantrell (with Board of Trustees approval) to join the senior management team, and become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Communications, a position I held until my retirement 2010.


[1] At one interview for the Crop Trust in Rome, I was interrupted by someone as I was delivering my seminar, a vision for the future of the organization. After the second interruption, in which this person had tried to ‘correct’ me, I had to tell her that this was my seminar, not hers, and went on to explain my thoughts on web presence. As it turned out I was not selected, but the organization did adopt my proposal for a more meaningful URL for its website.

On another occasion at Trinity College, Dublin, I delivered my seminar in the very lecture theater (in the Department of Botany) where Michael Caine had his wicked way with Julie Walters in the 1983 film Educating Rita.

When I interviewed for a position at ICARDA in Syria, much to my consternation and many members of staff the internal candidate accompanied me to one of the panel interviews, and even sat in on the interview. Needless to say a stop was soon put to that. Very unprofessional for senior management to even allow this to happen.

[2] When I joined IRRI and was involved in interviewing candidates (sometimes as chair of the selection committee) I tried to streamline the process somewhat, reducing the number of panel interviews per se, but giving more time for informal interactions, but giving more responsibility to the selection panel.


 

Growing potatoes – growing professionally

November 1980. After almost five years (from April 1976) Steph and I were preparing to leave Costa Rica, the small Central American country sandwiched between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978. But our time in that beautiful country was coming to an end, and we were headed back to Lima.

So how come I ended up in Costa Rica working on potatoes, since agriculture there is dominated by rice and beans? And coffee and bananas, of course. Potatoes are small beer [1].

Let me explain.

It all started in January 1973, when I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima and, in the process, fulfilled an ambition I’d had since I was a small boy: to visit Peru.

During the three years I was based in Lima, working as an Associate Taxonomist and helping to conserve CIP’s large collection of native Andean potato varieties, I completed research for my PhD degree, awarded by the University of Birmingham in December 1975.

Earlier that year, in April, I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my degree, and to submit my thesis (which was examined in October). However, before leaving for the UK, I had discussions with CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, about rejoining CIP after I had completed my PhD. I wanted to broaden my horizons and learn more about and contribute to potato production around the world, rather than continue working with the potato collection or taxonomy research. He offered me a post-doctoral position in CIP’s Outreach Program, being posted to one of the regional offices.

Exploring options
In 1975, CIP’s Region II program, encompassing Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, had its regional office in Toluca, Mexico (about 64 km west of Mexico City). Potatoes are not a major crop in this region—maize and beans being the staples—although they are locally and economically important in each country.

It was a year of transition. CIP’s regional representative at that time, Ing. Agr. MS Manuel J. Villareal González, had just been named leader of Mexico’s national potato program (in Toluca). My Lima colleague, Ing. Agr. MS Oscar Hidalgo, a plant pathologist, took over as Region II leader and moved to Mexico.

Manuel Villareal and Oscar Hidalgo

The other members of the CIP team in Toluca were local support staff: José Gómez and secretary Guillermina Guadarrama, formerly employees of the Rockefeller Foundation potato program, and some field and glasshouse technicians.

Jose and Guillermina

CIP management proposed setting up a sub-regional office in Costa Rica, without yet deciding what its programmatic responsibility and research focus might be.

To explore various possibilities, Steph and I were asked to visit Costa Rica and Mexico in April on our way back to the UK. And that’s what we did. I should add that I was nervous the whole trip. Why? I was carrying a briefcase full of my thesis research data. I was paranoid that some light-fingered individual might relieve me of the briefcase. There was no computer cloud storage in those days, let alone floppy disks or flash drives.

For many years it was not possible to fly direct between Lima and San José, the capital of Costa Rica. The journey inevitably required a stop-over in Panama City, usually overnight. On our trip north we stayed at the airport hotel but had time enough to explore parts of the city center (not the Canal Zone, unfortunately). And that’s when we had our first McDonald’s hamburgers. I have this distinct memory of my immediate boss, head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Breeding & Genetics, Dr. Roger Rowe, coming back to Lima from one of his home leaves in the USA and telling us all about these ‘new’ hamburger joints that we should try when we had the opportunity. I had thought that, in 1975, McDonald’s was new to Panama, but from what I have found on the internet, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant there in 1971. Notwithstanding, it was a first for us.

Drs. Luis Carlos Gonzalez (L) and Rodrigo Gamez (R)

My Lima colleague, bacteriologist and head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Pathology & Nematology, Dr. Ed French made arrangements for us to visit with fellow bacteriologist Dr. Luis Carlos Gonzalez Umaña and plant virologist Dr. Rodrigo Gámez Lobo (who, in later years went on to found and become President of the renowned INBio, the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad) at the University of Costa Rica.

Luis Carlos and Rodrigo made us very welcome and, with the leader of the Costarrican potato program, Ing. Agr. Luis Fernando Cartín, took us to see potatoes growing on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano east of San Jose, to labs in the university, and, as a side ‘tourist’ visit, to the Instituto Clodomiro Picado nearby where anti-snake venom serum is produced on a large scale (often in horses). Costa Rica has more than 20 highly venomous snake species.

I think we spent about four days in Costa Rica before travelling on to Mexico. We certainly came away from Costa Rica with a favorable impression. San José is dominated by a stunning landscape of volcanoes (Poás, Irazú, Turrialba), some active or recently active, covered in lush, tropical forest and, on the lower slopes, coffee plantations for which the country is famous. Back in the day, San José was a small city of about 456,000 inhabitants.

In Mexico, we stayed with our friends from Lima, John and Marian Vessey who had moved there in 1974 to work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City. Apart from a visit to the potato program in Toluca, we had the opportunity for some sightseeing, with a memorable visit to the pre-Columbian pyramids at Teotihuacán about 32 km north from CIMMYT.

Steph and me on the top of the Sun Pyramid looking towards the Moon Pyramid at Teotihuacan (April 1975).

Ken Brown

Settling on Costa Rica
Steph and I returned to Lima just after Christmas, all set to move on later in 1976. But where? A decision had not yet been made about Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, a new Director of CIP’s Outreach Program, Dr. Ken Brown, had been appointed while I was back in the UK, and joined CIP in January. In due course, Outreach became the Regional Research Program. As both Ken and his family (wife Geraldine, and five boys) and Steph and I were staying in the center’s guest house for several weeks, we got to know the Browns quite well.

Prof. Luis Sequeira

In order to hasten our move to Region II, we needed to identify an appropriate international institute to host my posting in Costa Rica. So, Roger Rowe, Ed French, and I flew to Costa Rica for a week in early January [2]. There we met with Luis Carlos and Professor Luis Sequeira from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a world renowned plant bacteriologist (and Costarrican by birth) with whom Luis Carlos had completed his PhD, who happened to be visiting family at the time.

We visited sites on the Irazú Volcano and near Alajuela (a regional town northwest of San José) where Luis Carlos was testing potato breeding lines for resistance to bacterial wilt.

We also visited the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), a regional center in Turrialba dedicated to research and graduate education in agriculture, and the management, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, established originally in 1942 as the headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Sciences (IICA).

The CATIE ‘Henry Wallace’ administration building

CATIE plant pathologist Dr. Raul Moreno from Chile explains the focus of the center’s farming systems research to (L-R) Luis Sequeira, Ed French, and Roger Rowe.

Turrialba is a small town just over 70 km due east of San José, although at a much lower elevation—around 650m compared with almost 1200m in the city.

The drive to Turrialba from San José via Cartago was not straightforward. Until around 1978 (or maybe later) the section between Cartago and Turrialba was a dirt road, and quite dangerous. It was also the main route from the Caribbean port of Limón to San José so there was a continual stream of heavy (and noisy) trucks travelling between the two cities. The road passed through a zone of frequent low cloud (neblina) with reduced visibility, sometimes quite severely. And, passing through several sugarcane plantations, there would be tractors towing ‘trains’ of carts carrying harvested cane snaking along the road to local sugar mills, and often without displaying any hazard lights. With the state of the road, the frequency of the heavy traffic, and limited visibility, one could get stuck behind one of these slow-moving ‘trains’ for many kilometers. Very frustrating!

At CATIE, we met with the Acting Director, Dr. Jorge Soria (a cocoa breeder) to discuss signing an agreement between CIP and CATIE that would allow me to work from CATIE as a regional base, and set up a research program to breed potatoes for hot humid climates. Turrialba has an average annual temperature of 22.9°C (73.2°F), and more than 2854 mm (or 112.4 inch) of rainfall per year. The wettest months are May to December, with heaviest rainfall in June and July. This, we assumed, would be an ideal, if not challenging environment in which to attempt to grow potatoes.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, an agreement was signed between CIP and CATIE, under which I was to be attached to CATIE’s Crops Department. It was also agreed that CIP would contribute to CATIE’s cropping systems program (funded through USAID’s Regional Office for Central America and Panama, ROCAP) once suitable potato varieties had been identified.

Steph and I headed to Costa Rica in early April 1976, and we remained there until the end of November 1980. I’ve been back there just once, in 1997.

Getting started in Turrialba
Back in 1976, I can’t deny that I was rather daunted about setting out on my own. I’d turned 27 only the previous November. And communicating with colleagues back in Lima was not straightforward, as I have described in another post.

We didn’t plant our first potato experiments in Turrialba until May 1977 to check whether any varieties would yield under the warm and humid conditions there. Instead, we were faced with bacterial wilt, a devastating disease of potatoes and other related crops like tomato (as well as bananas!), about which I have blogged before.

Between arriving in Costa Rica the previous year and then, I’d had to renovate screenhouses for our research, acquire a vehicle (that took several months), hire a research assistant and a secretary, as well as attend to other regional duties that Oscar Hidalgo asked me to undertake. In fact within a few weeks of arriving in Costa Rica he whisked me off to Mexico for a month to participate in a potato production course, leaving Steph on her own in (to her) a very strange Turrialba.

Within a couple of months or so, I’d hired a young man, Jorge Aguilar Martinez, as my research assistant. Jorge lived in Santa Rosa, a small village just outside Turrialba, where his father grew coffee on a small farm (finca). Jorge was 20 in June that year, recently married to Carmen (a secretary in the animal husbandry department at CATIE), and with a small boy, Leonardo (who is now Head of Information and Communication Technology at CATIE).

Jorge Aguilar

Jorge had applied for a position in the Crops Department at CATIE before I arrived there, but there were no vacancies. He seemed an ideal candidate: keen, interested to get on in the world. He was studying at night at the local campus of the University of Costa Rica for a qualification in business management. Apart from his coffee background, he had no field experience in crop agronomy, let alone potatoes! But Jorge was a quick learner. In fact, we learned a lot together how to grow potatoes. What particularly impressed me about him was his willingness to innovate, look for solutions. And have a flexible attitude to how we worked. We got the job done, and that often meant leaving for our experimental field plots higher up one of the nearby volcanoes before daybreak, and not returning to Turrialba until late in the afternoon once everything had been completed.

One of our isolation plots for seed multiplication high on the slopes of the Turrialba volcano.

Then a young woman, Leda Avila, from Alajuela joined my project as a bilingual secretary. Her support was fantastic. She had a bubbly and confident character, and was always curious to understand exactly what we were doing in the field. One day she asked me if she could join us on one of our visits to experimental plots we had planted on the slopes of the two local volcanoes, Irazú and Turrialba. She told me that as she typed research reports for Lima she had no idea what the work involved, but wanted to find out. So, one day, and donning her field boots, Leda joined the CIP team in the field.

She was so enthusiastic about her first field experience that she would join us thereafter as and when circumstances permitted. Much to the consternation of our CATIE colleagues. They’d never heard of such a thing. But to me, it just made sense to include Leda as a key member of the team.

Moisés Alonso Pereira

In late 1977, Oscar Hidalgo registered for his PhD at North Carolina State University, and left for the USA. On Ken Brown’s recommendation, Richard Sawyer asked me to take over leadership of the Region II Program. As a consequence, my travel schedule increased significantly (especially as we were developing an important cooperative program on potatoes involving six countries, PRECODEPA), and I had to find permanent technical support for Jorge. I hired Moisés Alonso Pereira as Research Technician, who was 17 or 18 then.

Searching for resistance to bacterial wilt (caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum) and ways to control it became an important focus of our research in Turrialba. But we also developed rapid multiplication techniques for seed production, and that work accelerated once my colleague and dear friend, Jim Bryan, joined the project in Costa Rica for one year in the late seventies, seen in some of the photos below passing on his encyclopedic knowledge about seed production and rapid multiplication techniques to Jorge and others. We also trained potato scientists from neighboring countries about these techniques through PRECODEPA.

At the same time as we were developing these rapid multiplication methods, my colleagues Bob Booth and Roy Shaw in Lima were adapting diffuse light potato storages for use on farm. We took one of their designs, and adapted it for use in Turrialba. With a double sandwich of fiberglass panels, a wide roof overhang to shade the sides, and an air conditioner to drop the temperature to a reasonable level (it was often more than 30ºC outside) we could successfully store potatoes for several months.

Turrialba became a prime site for testing potato varieties for their resistance to bacterial wilt, and CIP scientists from Lima would pass through to see for themselves how we were getting on. Given his interest and expertise in bacterial wilt it wasn’t surprising that Ed French visited us on at least one occasion.

Ed French and Jorge Aguilar checking the yield of some potato varieties after exposure to bacterial wilt. This plot is surrounded by the remains of wilted plants.

We also worked with colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (MAG) in San José to test different potato lines against various diseases such as viruses, and worked with farmers to find ways to increase productivity.

The productivity of many potato farms was quite low. Why? Overuse of fertilizers and agrochemicals, and not applying these in the most effective way to control pests and diseases, especially control of the late blight disease to which the two main varieties Atzimba and Rosita were highly susceptible. Many farmers worked on the basis that twice the dose of a fungicide, for example, would provide twice the control. Sadly that was never the case. Working with individual farmers was possible, but having the potato growers association on side was important. And their president was a young and forward-looking farmer, Olman Montero.

With Olman Montero on his farm on the slopes of the Irazu volcano.

Our work led to a few publications. Scientific publication was always welcome, but was never a driving force in our work. We were more concerned to make a difference in farmers’ fields by providing clean seed, improving productivity, identifying resistant potato varieties, or managing diseases in the field.

  • Bryan, J.E., M.T. Jackson & N. Melendez, 1981. Rapid Multiplication Techniques for Potatoes. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T., L.F. Cartín & J.A. Aguilar, 1981. El uso y manejo de fertilizantes en el cultivo de la papa (Solanum tuberosum L.) en Costa Rica. Agronomía Costarricense 5, 15-19. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T. & L.C. González, 1981. Persistence of Pseudomonas solanacearum (Race 1) in a naturally infested soil in Costa Rica. Phytopathology 71, 690-693. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T., L.C. González & J.A. Aguilar, 1979. Avances en el combate de la marchitez bacteriana de papa en Costa Rica. Fitopatología 14, 46-53. PDF

The five years that I spent in Costa Rica were among the best of my career. I really had to become self-reliant, learning to stand on my own two feet and grow professionally as a scientist and a project manager. There was no alternative. Being so far from CIP headquarters in Lima, and with communications vastly slower than today, I just couldn’t call on someone if I found myself in a spot of bother. Phone calls had to be booked at least a day in advance, or we could use telex – who remembers that? Otherwise I just mailed quarterly progress reports to keep everyone up to date with what was going on in Central America, and whether I was keeping to the work plans developed in December each year when the Regional Research staff from around the world congregated in Lima for a two week planning meeting. Ken Brown was an excellent Regional Research director; he let me and my Regional Research colleagues get on with things with only minor adjustments as and when necessary (keeping his staff ‘on a light rein’), so different from today when scientists are assailed frequently and from many quarters to account for their work and performance.

I owe a great debt to Jorge, Moisés, and Leda for all their contributions to the success of the CIP project in Costa Rica. And all my friends and colleagues in Costa Rica’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, as well as other programs contributing to PRECODEPA.

It was with some sadness that Steph, Hannah, and I upped sticks and moved back to Lima. You might ask why we would make such a move when things were going well in the Costa Rica program. By November 1980 I felt that I had achieved what I’d been sent there for, and even if I stayed on for another year or so, the scope of the work wouldn’t have changed significantly. In any case, the PRECODEPA project was ticking along quite nicely, managed by the national programs themselves, and everyone felt that a more distant relationship with CIP would allow the project to grow and mature. In any case, I was also looking for another potato challenge. And I expected that to come with another Regional Research posting. Little did I know, at the end of November that year, what life would have in store for me in 1981 [3].


Where are they now?
Since leaving Costa Rica at the end of November 1980, I have only been back to Costa Rica once, in 1997 when I was managing a worldwide project on rice biodiversity for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) funded by the Swiss government. I did meet both Jorge and Leda on that trip; I don’t recall if I saw Moisés during that visit to Turrialba. I stayed a couple of days in Turrialba. Maybe Jorge, Moisés and I spent an evening at the hilltop bar-restaurant at Turrialtico (now a fancy lodge) near CATIE where we would venture to enjoy a few beers (and some typical bar snacks or bocas) after a day in the field. And I had mostly lost contact with all three former colleagues—until quite recently. Such is the power of social media!

Jorge, Leda, and Moisés are all now retired, more or less, although involved in various volunteer activities. They would be in their early to mid-sixties now.

Jorge continues to live in Turrialba, and still manages a small finca on a part-time basis. He and his wife Carmen have three sons and two granddaughters. Sofía and Amanda are Leonardo’s daughters.

Jorge and Carmen

L-R: Fabian (40), Leonardo (44). Carmen, Jorge, and Daniel (30).

Sofia (7) and Amanda (2)

After leaving CATIE in early 1980, Leda returned to Alajuela, and spent many years working at the headquarters of IICA on the outskirts of San José. She has enjoyed traveling in her retirement, most recently in Myanmar in 2019.

She has one son, Enrique (29) who I met in 1997. I stayed with Leda for a couple of nights in Alajuela, and Enrique graciously gave me his room.

Enrique and Leda on 9 November 2020 in her garden in Alajuela.

Moisés now lives in the La Pitahaya neighborhood of Cartago, a city at the heart of the Costarrican potato industry, lying more or less halfway between San José and Turrialba.

Leda, Moisés, and José Alonso

With his second wife Leda, he has one son José Alonso, who celebrated his 11th birthday just a few days ago. Moisés also has two daughters Ana Amelia (26) and Karen (24) from his first marriage. He also has two granddaughters aged sixteen and fifteen.

It’s wonderful to have reconnected with old friends.


[1] In 1983, I contributed a short piece on potatoes in Costa Rican Natural History, a book edited by eminent tropical biologist, Daniel Janzen who spent many years studying biodiversity in Costa Rica.

[2] I have two enduring memories of that trip. Actually, of the flight from Lima to Panama, and the return. As I mentioned earlier, there were no direct flights from Lima to Costa Rica back in the day. We took an early morning flight (around 06:30 or so) on Air Panama from Lima to Panama City, with an onward connection there to San José. Hardly had the aircraft (a Boeing 727) lifted off the runway in Lima when it was ‘open bar’ for the remainder of the flight. I think Roger, Ed, and I all enjoyed rum cocktails before breakfast! Then on the return flight from Panama (I have this idea at the back of my mind that it was a Braniff DC8 flight), we hit an air pocket somewhere over the Colombian Andes, and it felt as though the plane dropped 1000 feet. Bang! That was my first experience of some serious turbulence, but not the last by a long chalk over the next 45 years.

[3] We returned to Lima, with the expectation of moving to Brasilia (for the southern cone countries of South America). When that fell through, the next option was to join the CIP program for Southeast Asia, based in Los Baños in the Philippines. In the event, that didn’t come about since I had applied for a faculty position in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at the University of Birmingham, being offered the position in January 1981. We moved back to the UK in March that year. It would be another decade before landing up in the Philippines. But that’s another story.

What is it about September?

. . . often a mellow month, the transition from the hot, summer months to the cooler days of autumn.

When we worked overseas during the 1970s we would return to the UK each September on home-leave. And mostly enjoyed excellent weather.

I think September Song, that classic from 1938 and performed here by Jeff Lynne on his 1990 album Armchair Theatre, sums up the month just right.

September is also a Jackson birthday month. My father, Fred Jackson, was born on 15 September 1908. My eldest brother Martin and youngest grandson Felix share a birthday, 1 September, but 74 years apart, being 81 and seven respectively this year. And second grandson Elvis celebrates his birthday on 24 September. He will be nine.

Felix and Elvis in May 2020


It’s also a month when significant things happened during my career.

Fifty years ago, in September 1970, I enrolled at the University of Birmingham for the one year MSc degree course in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources run by the Department of Botany in the School of Biological Sciences. I had been in the university just once before, in the early summer of 1967, when I sat my Biology Advanced Level practical exam in the School’s first year laboratory, never anticipating I would be there again to study three years later.

A year later, in September 1971 I had expected to be on my way to Peru in South America, to join the International Potato Center (CIP) on a one-year contract to help manage the center’s potato germplasm collection. That didn’t happen then, but took until January 1973 before I departed these shores.

In September 1980, while winding down my five year assignment in Costa Rica, I heard about a lectureship that had just been advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at Birmingham. I sent in my application and successfully interviewed for the position in January 1981, joining the faculty in April.

Moving on a decade, it was during September 1990 that I first heard about a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center. I was interviewed in January 1991 and joined the institute in July that year remaining there for almost 19 years before retiring in April 2010.


It’s now 2020. So what does September hold in store? Hopefully, it will be the month our house sale is completed and we move north to Newcastle upon Tyne.

Living the life in Costa Rica . . . 1970s style

For almost five years, from April 1976 until the end of November 1980, Steph and I had the great good fortune to live in Costa Rica in Central America (it’s that small country with Nicaragua to the north and Panamá to the south). I was working for the Peru-based International Potato Center (CIP) in its regional program for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. How the years have flown by since then.

We lived in Turrialba, a small town around 70 km east of Costa Rica’s capital, San José, on the campus of The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (known by its Spanish acronym as CATIE). Although many features of CATIE’s 900 ha campus have changed since our time there, this recent official video simply highlights its beauty. Surrounded by lush tropical forest, with the Reventazón River snaking around the campus on the east side, it is a haven for the most incredible wildlife (particularly birds), and made it a special place to raise our elder daughter Hannah who was born there in April 1978.

We occupied a single storey, two bedroom residence on the south side of the campus, next door to the International School. Since our time, the school has been expanded, and our house is now part of the school.

Water apples in a San Jose market

Our garden was full of fruit trees, some of which (like lemons and papayas) we planted ourselves. Just beside the house entrance there was a mature and very tall water apple tree (manzana de agua, Syzygium malaccense, Myrtaceae) that produced abundant fruit each year. Loved by the locals, I never really did acquire a taste for them. If taste is the right word. I just found them bland and watery.

Common animal visitors to our garden included white-nosed coatimundis (known locally as pizotes), skunks, the marsupial opossums (which often made themselves noisily at home in the roof of our house), and armadillos. Snakes were also quite common, and fierce; Costa Rica is home to many different snake species. In fact one of the world’s most venomous snakes, the fer-de-lance (terciopelo in Spanish), was quite common on the CATIE campus. Poisonous coral snakes sometimes found their way inside the house and we had to call someone in to rescue them. Not something I was ever up for!

The bird life in Costa Rica is extraordinary. Something to write home about! One year, I took part in the annual Christmas Bird Count (number of different species, and their abundance) organized by the National Audubon Society. We set off in pairs, counting all the birds we observed over a six hour period, in our assigned area of the Turrialba valley. Altogether the spotters observed more than 100 species.

And around our house, on the edges of the Reventazón ravine, and behind my office we saw so many different species. The sunbirds and hummingbirds were always amazing. As were the motmots with their swinging pendulum-like tails, and several migrant species that stopped off in Turrialba on their travels between North and South America. Like the summer tanager (Piranga rubra) below, one of the brightest birds that showed up each year in the garden.

However, two of the most flamboyant—and vocal—birds, seen in abundance high up the trees around the campus were the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and Montezuma’s oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma) [1].

My work took me away frequently from Turrialba, to meetings every couple of weeks or so at the University of Costa Rica or the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in San José, to the potato-growing areas on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano, or outside the country to work with colleagues in government potato programs in the region.

Potatoes at Llano Grande, Cartago Province, on the slopes of the Irazu Volcano.

In the 1970s (until just a year or so before we left) the road between Turrialba and Cartago (about half the way to San José) was unpaved, and rather tricky to navigate. Steph and I didn’t travel around the country much, exploring the Caribbean coast for instance near the port city of Limón just once.


On our first visit to Costa Rica in April 1975 (on our way back to the UK from Lima) we drove to the summit of the Irazú Volcano (at over 3400 m or 11,200 ft), looking down into the deep turquoise lake that fills the crater. Since potatoes are grown on the slopes very close to the summit, I would often take visitors to the summit while in the field.

On another occasion, a CATIE entomologist colleague and his wife, Andrew and Heather King, and I ascended to the summit of the Turrialba Volcano.

The Turrialba Volcano from CATIE’s experimental field plots.

It was quiet in those days, just some steaming vents around the large crater into which you could descend.

Inside the Turrialba crater.

Occasionally we felt an earth tremor that was probably associated with rumblings inside the volcano. But Turrialba started to show signs of activity in 2001, and became explosively active after 2014 (video), although it’s quiet again now.


For the first three years, we traveled around in our white VW Brasilia, even taking it south to Boquete, a small town in the heart of the potato-growing region of north Panamá, just south of the border with Costa Rica. The Inter-American Highway heading south crosses the Talamanca Range of mountains. Its highest point, Cerro de la Muerte (Summit of Death) is notorious for catching out careless drivers who pay the ultimate price. The road is winding, and often covered in cloud. [2]


We enjoyed short breaks on the northwest coast in the province of Guanacaste at Playa Tamarindo, more than 350 km from Turrialba, and a journey of more than eight hours. There was a gorgeous stretch of beach, and on both occasions (in March 1977 and 1979) we were the only residents at our chosen hotel. During our second time there, Hannah was a toddler, her first time at the beach. It’s much more developed now, and I’m sure the highway between Liberia (where there’s now an international airport to accommodate all the ‘snowbirds’ from the USA) and Tamarindo beach (almost 80 km) is now paved. Back in the day, it was a haven of tranquillity.

Apart from one evening that is, in March 1979. We’d enjoyed dinner, and getting Hannah ready for bed. We had chosen a suite with two rooms, so Hannah could sleep alone. I was reading her a story, when my foot accidentally tipped over an open bottle of Coca Cola. It was ice cold. I don’t know whether it was the temperature, or how the bottle made contact with the tile floor. The bottle simply exploded, and we found ourselves covered not only in frothing Coca Cola but shattered glass fragments. Everywhere! Hannah’s bed was full of glass. And soaking wet. There was no alternative but to ask the hotel management to quickly change our suite for another.


Besides the Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes, there’s another, Poás, northwest of San José. In 1978/79 when we visited, it was at least a four hour road trip from Turrialba to the summit, even though it was only 116 km or so. Poás has one of the largest craters (in diameter) in the world. When we arrived there it was smothered in cloud and we didn’t see anything!

Steph and Hannah on the summit of Poas.


Closer to Turrialba is the archaeological site of Guayabo, just 20 km north of CATIE but, in the 1970s, the road was completely unpaved, deep mud in places. I have written about our visit to that national monument here.

Exploring Guayabo.


Perhaps the most spectacular (if that’s the right word)—and saddest—trip was the one we made to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in the northwest of Costa Rica, in April 1980. Spectacular, because of the location and wildlife. Saddest, because we heard from home that my father had passed away from a heart attack the very day (29 April) we went into the Reserve. Hannah had just celebrated her second birthday five days earlier.

We hired horses to take us from our guesthouse into the reserve; it was several kilometers, and too far a two-year old to walk.

Although Hannah did decide, once we were in the forest, to explore on foot or ride on Dad’s back as well.

Why is Monteverde so special?

  • Monteverde houses 2.5% of worldwide biodiversity;
  • 10% of its flora is endemic; and
  • 50% of flora and fauna of Costa Rica is in this paradise.

Monteverde is home to some large mammals like jaguar and tapir. We didn’t see them.

We actually went in search of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). It’s the national bird of Guatemala and also the name of its currency.

But there’s a larger population of quetzals apparently in Costa Rica. And Monteverde is a quetzal hotspot. And did we find it? You bet we did!

If you are lucky to come across a quetzal, as we did, it’s not hard to identify with its brilliant emerald green plumage, bright red breast, and tail streamers (on the males) as long as 26 in (65 cm). This is the best image I could take. But at least we saw this magnificent bird.

Another bird that is heard more than it’s seen in the dense forest is the three-wattled bellbird. Its call is unmistakable. We did however see it flying among the trees. Its plumage is quite distinctive.

Because of my father’s death, we had to cut short our visit to Monteverde and head back to Turrialba the next day, a journey of more than 200 km, and over six hours in those days.


Among its neighbors Costa Rica was a peaceful haven. While these countries had insurgencies (Guatemala) or civil war (Nicaragua), Costa Rica was not affected until the end of the 1970s, when refugees from the Nicaraguan civil war started to spill south over the border. This put pressure on the civil and social authorities, especially in San José, and there were reports that crime was increasing there. We saw, for the first time, armed police on the streets. Costa Rica suffered a civil war in 1948 that lasted just 44 days. In the aftermath, its armed forces were abolished. Investment in social welfare programs and education became the norm in the country, making Costa Rica an enlightened outlier among its neighbors. When we first arrived in Costa Rica traffic police were ‘armed’ with screwdrivers, to remove the licence plates from any vehicle infringing traffic regulations.

Clinica Santa Rita

Being a small town, Turrialba did not have access to many of the extended commercial and health facilities available in San José. I guess we took time off every fortnight or so to do a big shop there, and fit in any other appointments as necessary. Hannah was born in the Hospital Clínica Santa Rita in San José.

While I had a badly sprained ankle attended to and put in a cast at the hospital in Turrialba, I checked myself into a clinic in San José when I had a tonsillectomy (just a few weeks before Hannah was born).

So, on reflection, these were five good years, in a beautiful country. After all, there can’t be much wrong with a country that dedicates 25% of its land area to 29 national parks. Although, back in the day, it was definitely a slower pace of life. In 1976, the population of San José was around 456,000. Today, it’s closer to 1.4 million. One sign of that slower pace were the typical ox-carts used on farms all over the country. I wonder how many are used today on a regular basis?

I’ve been back to Costa Rica just once since we left, in 1997, when I joined a group of scientists from the University of Costa Rica and the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) to collect wild rices in the Palo Verde National Park in Guanacaste.

Collecting seeds of Oryza latifolia with Alejandro Zamora.

Will I go back to Costa Rica? Perhaps. It would be great to see my old CIP team with whom I’m still in contact. But since there are so many other places I would like explore (Covid-19 permitting), it may be just a pipe dream. So many good memories.


[1] This YouTube video was actually filmed in Guatemala. However, it’s the same species as in Costa Rica, and I chose this particular video because it shows to perfection the display and call of Montezuma’s oropendola.

[2] Just one species of wild potatoes is found in Costa Rica: Solanum oxycarpum Schiede. We came across this species on the Cerro de la Muerte.

You’ve got mail . . . maybe

Email. Something we take for granted. In these Covid-19 lockdown days, where would be without email to keep in touch with family and friends? In fact, for many, working from home without access to emails would not be an option.

And what about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Zoom, and all the other messaging apps?

Bob Zeigler

Yet it’s not so long ago that none of us had access to any of these. How things have changed over the past 40 years, even just the last decade.

My former colleague and IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler often said that we were living through three revolutions: in telecommunications, computing, and molecular biology. It was the combination of these three that allowed scientists to collaborate world-wide in real time, using the ‘new’ computing power to handle the vast amounts of data that molecular biology was generating.

That wasn’t so . . . not so long ago.

When, in 1976, the Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP), Dr Richard Sawyer, asked me to set up a satellite research program in Costa Rica (at a regional center, CATIE, in Turrialba) the only ways we had to communicate with HQ in Lima were ‘snail mail’, telephone, or Telex. Even making a phone call was difficult. I had to book an international call to Peru at least a day ahead.

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

There were no personal computers. Even hand-held calculators were a novelty. I remember one scientist at CATIE, soil scientist Warren Forsythe, proudly showing off a newfangled—and basic—electronic calculator (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication functions only) that he’d recently spent more than USD400 on (that’s about USD1800 today!). They almost give them away nowadays. There’s more processing power in your basic smartphone than took the first astronauts to the Moon.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton in the late 1960s we used either logarithmic tables (log tables) or a hand-cranked calculating machine like the one shown below. I’m not sure if I remember nowadays how to use log tables. I never did master the slide rule.

The first computer I ever saw was at a major steelworks (Ravenscraig I think it was, at Motherwell, just south of Glasgow) where my eldest brother Martin was a computer engineer. He took me along one afternoon when he had access to the computer (an ICL mainframe if memory serves me right) for routine maintenance.

He showed me how paper tapes were used to run routines. Paper tape? I can’t remember the last time I saw that.

Completing an honours ecology project for my undergraduate dissertation in 1970, I used the university’s mainframe computer to complete a type of vegetation analysis known as Association Analysis.  Ecologist Joyce Lambert was my supervisor, and she and former head of the Department of Botany, Professor Bill Williams, were pioneers in the use of computers and quantitative methods in ecology [1]. I encoded my data on punched cards, with the help of one of the graduate students, John Barr (studying for a PhD in numerical taxonomy).

When I moved to Birmingham in 1970 (to study for the one year MSc course on plant genetic resources) there was a short module on data management, taught by Brian Kershaw, a programmer in the university’s Computer Centre. He developed the computer programs to sort and collate data, and print maps, for A Computer-Mapped Flora: A Study of The County of Warwickshire [2] published in 1971, and the first of its kind. His MSc module was more about basic programming than data management per se and not, in my opinion, very helpful, or enlightening. Things changed once we had access to personal computers over a decade later.

IBM launched its first personal computer (PC) in August 1981, just a few months after I had returned to the UK and joined the faculty of the University of Birmingham. My memory is fuzzy. We must have had one of these in our lab in the Department of Plant Biology (School of Biological Sciences). I can remember that we used 5¼ inch floppy disks, but also installed an 8 inch disk reader. MS-DOS was the operating system.

It wasn’t until one of my colleagues, plant physiologist Dr Digby Idle secured a grant to purchase half a dozen Apple Macintosh computers that we had access to personal computers, mainly for teaching. They certainly revolutionized the teaching of data management to MSc students by my colleague Dr Brian Ford-Lloyd.

Staff were sometimes allowed to take a machine home for weekend. My young daughters Hannah and Philippa had great fun exploring a couple of the games (rudimentary by today’s standards) that came with each computer.

Personal computing really took off, however, once Alan Sugar released the first IBM clones under the Amstrad brand in the 1980s. I bought several machines for my lab. We were still using the university’s mainframe computer for analysis of large data sets. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that PCs began to have the power to carry out some of these same analyses.

I even purchased an Amstrad for home use. It had twin 5¼ inch floppy disk drives, each with a capacity of about 500 Kb if I’m not mistaken. But then I installed a 32 MB hard drive, and then we were really cooking! There was no internet of course, and no WiFi. But connected to a dot matrix printer (are they around any more?), and using a word processing package called PFS First Choice. By today’s standards it wasn’t sophisticated at all, but it was convenient for home use [3].

We even took that Amstrad to the Philippines in 1991 and used it for a couple of years. I found it at the back of a cupboard 19 years later when we were packing to return to the UK.

But I digress. Back to emails.

I don’t really remember when we started to use email in a rather simple way at the university during the 1980s. Even after I had moved to IRRI in July 1991 I had to ‘fight’ to have a PC on my desk. Again I’m not certain when email was routinely used at the institute.

But by the time I had moved from the Genetic Resources Center to become Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) in May 2001, email was well established as the most convenient and regularly used method of communication among staff at IRRI, and with external collaborators and donors. In fact, as I set up the DPPC Office much of what we achieved was based on a systematic use and filing of emails in lieu of communication through hard copies.

I’m the sort of person who attends to all incoming correspondence—memos, letters, emails—more or less straight away, deciding whether to respond immediately or taking a decision to put that to one side for a response later on. At the very least, I tried to send an acknowledgment that someone’s communication has been received. Being in a senior management position, I felt it was really important to keep on top of emails and the like, because without a response, the sender might not be able to move ahead without a decision from me. Even if that meant working through 10s if not 100s of emails a day. I never liked the grass to grow beneath my feet, so to speak.

But communication by email was both a blessing and a curse as far as project management was concerned. Because emails could be sent instantaneously, more or less, it was possible to send off project reports, or even funding requests, right up to any deadline, not having to prepare several weeks ahead for ‘snail mail’ delivery.

However, the use of emails also made some donors (like USAID, for example) somewhat dysfunctional. Knowing that we would be able to send replies in by email, they would often make demands of us for information, reports, or whatever, just before their deadline, without understanding that we also needed appropriate lead time to compile and prepare the information requested. The transmission by email was just a bonus.

But there’s no doubt that how we used email in DPPC, straight to our donor contacts, greatly enhanced fund-raising capability at IRRI.

I still look forward to receiving emails from family and friends. For many years I have used Fastmail as my platform of choice, although I do keep a Gmail address as a backup. And, for most of my continuing business and utility contacts, emails are the preferred method of communication. It’s always a pleasure when an unexpected email drops into my mailbox especially from someone I haven’t heard from for some time.

Yes, I’ve got mail . . .


[1] Williams, WT and JM Lambert, 1960. Multivariate methods in plant ecology: the use of an electronic digital computer for Association-Analysis. Journal of Ecology, 48: 689-710.

[2] Cadbury, DA, JG Hawkes and RC Readett, 1971. A Computer-Mapped Flora: A Study of The County of Warwickshire. Academic Press, London and New York.

[3] After I’d published this story yesterday (4 May 2020) a friend reminded me of the word processing software we used in the 1980s: WordStar, written for the CP/M operating system. It was generally replaced by WordPerfect, a package I never got to grips with. I became really quite proficient in the use of WordStar. Who can forget all those formatting tools for bold, underlining, and italics, etc?

 

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.


 

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!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.