In perpetuity . . . or longer

The airwaves yesterday were full of the news* about the secure, in perpetuity funding that the Crop Trust has awarded (annually USD1.4 million) to support the operations of the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines. The genebank conserves the largest and most genetically diverse collection of rice genetic resources that is the genetic base of rice improvement programs worldwide. It’s the first genebank to receive this sort of funding commitment.

In perpetuity! Forever! That’s a long time. In some ways, of course, it’s not a completely open-ended commitment. The agreement (to be signed on World Food Day, 16 October, during the 5th International Rice Congress in Singapore) will, I understand, be subject to five-year reviews, and the development of a business plan that will guide how, where and what will get done. That plan must inevitably evolve over time, as new technologies not only enhance how rice seeds can be better preserved but also how they can be used in rice improvement. Not that I can see IRRI screwing up and losing the funding. That behavior is not in the institutional DNA!

The collection holds more than 130,000 seed samples or accessions of landrace varieties, wild species, and other research materials, among others. You can check the status of the IRRI collection (and many more genebanks in the Genesys database).

My congratulations to Genebank Head and compatriot, Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton and his key genebank lieutenants, Genebank Manager Flora ‘Pola’ de Guzman and Sr Associate Scientist Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño, for guiding the genebank to this happy state.

It has been a long journey, almost 60 years, from 1960 when IRRI was founded and Dr TT Chang (the first head of the genebank) began to assemble a collection of rice varieties that soon became the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC).

L-R: Dr TT Chang was head of the International Rice Germplasm Center from 1962-1990; Mike Jackson served as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (here with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug) from 1991-2001; and Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton joined IRRI in 2002.

There was a significant change of direction, so to speak, to the genebank and its operations in 1991 after my appointment as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (the IRGC acronym was subsequently changed to International Rice Genebank Collection) with a mandate to rationalize and upgrade the genebank’s operations. I held that position for the next decade before moving on to the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications in 2001. Ruaraidh joined IRRI in 2002 and has been at the helm ever since.

In other stories posted on this blog I have described what it entails to run a genebank for rice, and some of the important changes we made to modernize genebank management and operations, especially how they were impacted with respect to the institute’s international obligations to FAO and subsequently under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

In 2015 I made my own video to illustrate many of the different operations of the genebank, some of which have been modified in the light of new research concerning the handling of rice seeds post-harvest. Nevertheless, the video reflects the changes I introduced during my tenure as head of the International Rice Genebank, many of which still prevail.

Ruaraidh built upon the changes I introduced, bar-coding all samples for example, and linking the collection with others in the CGIAR through the Genebank Platform. There have been further improvements to how data about the collection are managed, and seed management was enhanced through the research of former employee and seed physiologist Dr Fiona Hay and her PhD student Kath (now Dr) Whitehouse.

Ruaraidh has also successfully steered IRRI and its genetic resources through the turbulent currents of international germplasm politics that culminated in the entering into force of the International Treaty in June 2004, and the subsequent negotiations over access and benefit sharing. I can’t deny I was quite happy to leave these ‘political’ aspects behind when I left GRC in 2001. Management and use of genetic resources in the 1990s were increasingly affected by the various negotiations that affected access to and sharing of biodiversity after the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in December 1993. To some extent they were a distraction (but an important one) from the technical aspects of rice genetic resources that I tackling.

It’s quite humbling that for generations to come, I will have been a part of securing the genetic heritage of rice. Besides making the necessary technical changes to genebank structure and operations in the 1990s, I’m particularly proud of the personnel structures I introduced. These permitted staff to really fulfill their potential.

I quickly recognized that Pola should be placed in the role of Genebank Manger, and Ato given responsibility for all field operations. We built a team that believed in a culture of mutual support.

Ken McNally

Another aspect was the recognition, way back in 1998, of the power of genomics and molecular genetics to unravel the secrets of rice diversity. To that end I had organized an international workshop in The Hague in September 1999, which is described about two-thirds through this blog post. I was fortunate to hire Dr Ken McNally as a molecular geneticist in this respect, and he has taken the study of rice genetic diversity to another level, supported by someone who I believed in from my early days at IRRI, Dr Elizabeth Naredo.

But the genebank is also facing some changes. Ruaraidh is expected to retire in the near future, and Pola and Ato can’t be far off retirement. No-one is irreplaceable, but they will be a hard act to follow. Finding individuals with the same breadth of experience, commitment to genetic resources conservation, and work ethic will certainly be a challenge. Other staff from my era have already retired; the genebank did not fall apart. With this secure funding from the Crop Trust the genebank can, for the first time in its 60 year history, set itself on a trajectory into the future in a way that was always uncertain in the past (because of year-to-year funding), but always the Holy Grail of genetic resources conservation.

I also hope that IRRI will step up to the plate and secure other funds to build a completely new genebank appropriate for the 21st century. After all, the facilities I ‘inherited’ from TT Chang are approaching 40-50 years, and even those I improved are 25 years old. Relieving the institute of the genebank annual operating budget should open up other opportunities.

Congratulations to IRRI, and on behalf of the genetic resources community (especially those depending on rice) a big thank you to the Crop Trust!


* BBC, Nature, and New Food Magazine, among others.

 

The emperor has no clothes . . .

I have the Brexit blues.

While I probably can’t add much to the debate, I feel I have to express my frustration, angst even, about the Brexit state of play, and what it portends for this (soon to be impoverished) nation of ours. And hopefully explain to many of my blog followers and readers overseas what Brexit means. I offer no apologies for being decidedly pro-European Union (EU).

Just over a month ago I returned from a five week vacation in the USA. Prior to traveling I had become increasingly depressed about the whole Brexit fiasco and where this incompetent Tory government was leading us. I’d even decreased my exposure to Twitter as the exasperation that I read there only fueled my own anxieties. So, I took a break from the news and Twitter for five weeks. My spirits revived.

Five weeks on and I feel myself sinking into a state of despair once again. We’re still getting the Brexit is Brexit line from the government, and taking back control of our border, laws, and money. Following the publication of the ‘agreed’ but soon unraveling Chequers Plan that Theresa May foisted on her Cabinet, it’s clear that Leavers also  don’t have a plan for what happens following Brexit, be it a Cliff-edge Brexit, a Hard or a Soft one. Ask them to put it down on paper or explain in detail what the future holds under each scenario and they have little to say. Even the future status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic—a key sticking point in the negotiations with the EU—remains unresolved. Government and Parliament is paralyzed. The only solution is to ask the electorate again.


I need someone to square the circle for me and explain why Brexiteers can still claim that leaving the European Union is akin to entering the land of milk and honey. Facing the real risk of a no deal Brexit, HM Government has now started to publish technical notes (two years too late) outlining (and often short on crucial details) what will be the consequences of the UK leaving the EU next March without a withdrawal agreement. The government has even suggested that businesses should consult the Irish government regarding trade across the border post-Brexit. Talk about dereliction of duty.

It feels as though most of my waking hours are pervaded by Brexit news, and the half-truths as well as the outright mendacity of those on the Leave side of the referendum campaign who sold us (illegally, as it turned out) an illusion.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Even the most optimistic commentators and partners now fear that the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal. That would be disastrous. The Tory Party is at war with itself. Theresa May’s Chequers Plan has been dismissed by Hard Brexiteers on the right of the Tory party like Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group (ERG) cronies. The talk is all about trade and how we will be better off striking our own trade deals. No mention of the other benefits of EU membership that we will forfeit at 11 pm on 29 March next year if there is no deal.

Nigel Farage

Two years on, Brexiteers are unable to provide any details or are extremely vague about what a post-Brexit United Kingdom will look like, and what actual benefits we will gain. Arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage (MEP and former leader of UKIP) claims he never said that the UK would be better off outside the EU: I made ONE absolute promise in that campaign … We will be in control … for good or for bad … I never promised it would be a huge success, I never said it would be a failure, I just said we’d be in control. Independent, and with blue passports! Rees-Mogg has unequivocally stated that it might take 50 years for any benefits to accrue. Good grief! This is not the vision that the electorate was sold during the referendum campaign.

Jeremy Corbyn

Even Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn can’t—or won’t—state categorically whether we’d be better off or not outside the EU. What a pathetic politician. But that’s for another post some other time.

With nothing better to say, It’s the same old mantra of taking back control of our border, laws, and money. Well, I thought we always had control of our borders; there’s more immigration from countries outside the EU than from EU countries. In terms of laws, it comes down to alignment with EU frameworks and regulations, and oversight by the European Court of Justice (that’s anathema to Brexiteers). Furthermore, Parliament seems always to be busy, passing sovereign legislation on one thing or another. Even outside the EU we will still be subject to oversight by external bodies, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). That’s what peaceful coexistence means: compliance to agreed rules and standards. And while we make a financial contribution to the EU, we have successfully negotiated favorable rebates, we have our own currency, and many parts of the country (even those that voted overwhelmingly to Leave) have benefited from inward investment from the EU in ways that a UK government wouldn’t or couldn’t make.


It seems to me that we face four options:

  • No Withdrawal Deal, Catastrophic Brexit (it’s not just about trade), increasingly likely
  • Withdrawal Deal, Hard Brexit, beloved by many Brexiteers
  • Withdrawal Deal, Soft Brexit – but for some on the Brexit side, it will be like the curate’s egg, good (or softer) in parts: retaining membership of the Customs Union (CU), or the Single Market (SM), or both (but having no say in how regulation of the CU or SM continue to operate)
  • NO BREXIT – an aspiration that is growing. Having looked at what’s really on offer, not the illusion that was offered on the side of a large red bus during the referendum campaign, the electorate should be given the opportunity to pass judgment in a second referendum. This is only way to break the impasse of Parliament, and for the electorate to confirm its decision to leave the EU if that’s how the majority still feel.

Michael Morpurgo

Democracy is, however, also about changing one’s mind, and there is growing polling data to indicate that many who voted to Leave the EU now regret their decision. The problem is that many Brexiteers claim that the ‘British people’ have spoken, and there can be no reversal of that decision (even though it was taken without the necessary knowledge—or understanding—of what Brexit would entail). However, just a few years ago, even Rees-Mogg favored a second referendum once the terms of a withdrawal deal were known. Here’s a Twitter link that shows Rees-Mogg speaking to that effect in the House of Commons in 2011. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Radio 4 and heard this Point of View by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo. It lasts almost 10 minutes, but is well worth taking time out to listen to his words of wisdom. He makes a strong case for thinking again.


The Brexit lies continue. Just a few days ago (17 August) I saw an official tweet from the Department for International Trade about the UK’s trading links with the USA. Liam Fox (Secretary of State at the DIT) claimed that the USA was the UK’s single largest trading partner. Lie!

Yes, we have exports of almost £100 billion to the USA, according to the Office for National Statistics (2016 data published in 2017). And from what I can determine the USA is the largest country we trade with in terms of exports. But the DIT/Fox said trading partner, and the UK’s largest trading partner is the European Union (EU), with UK exports valued at £235.8 billion through seamless trading (compared with £284.1 billion with the Rest of the World, mostly conducted through trade agreements negotiated through our membership of the EU).

But hey, why let facts get in the way of a good Brexit lie. Fox’s focus on expanding trade with the USA—some might say obsession—is a major part of his Brexit narrative about seizing opportunities to trade with other nations around the world on our terms, not the EU’s. However, these Brexiteers seem to forget (conveniently so) that negotiations are two-sided, and the completion of any trade agreement will require concessions on both sides. Would the price of an agreement with the USA lead for example to imports of food produced to lower standards than we currently enjoy under the EU, or more US healthcare company involvement in the NHS, for example?

It never ceases to amaze me that Brexiteers seem to imply that it’s only under post-Brexit trade deals that we can increase our exports. Even a recent trade deal with China was touted as an example of what the UK could achieve, notwithstanding it was signed under the trade agreement we already have with China through the EU. Liam Fox is certainly economic with the truth.

Post-Brexit, we will have to develop all the schedules to operate under WTO rules and, in any case, deals could take years to negotiate. Furthermore, I can see no reason why manufacturers are already unable to expand exports under the umbrella of existing trade agreements negotiated by the EU. Maybe increased exporting capacity is non-existent. We are no longer a manufacturing nation.

There’s hardly been mention of financial services, which account for about half of our exports. There are serious implications of leaving the EU without an agreement. Just listen to an experienced trade negotiator on James O’Brien‘s LBC show.

The focus has been/is almost entirely on trade post-Brexit, but there’s so much more to our membership of the EU that is not covered—and never will be—by the WTO. These are all the many frameworks and agreements that have brought 28 nations together (and probably more cost effectively than if they had acted independently) that regulate aviation and safety, nuclear fuels and isotopes, environmental protection, animal welfare, food standards, and employment law, to list just a few. I have yet to hear any of the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, Iain Duncan-Smith, David Davis, Peter Bone, Bernard Jenkin, not even Theresa May, raise any concerns or offer any perspectives on these issues that are as important—perhaps even more important—than the trade issues.

The Government’s narrative is that its Chequers Plan should be accepted, lock, stock and barrel, by the EU. Sorry Theresa, it doesn’t work like that any more. Gun boat diplomacy died with the Empire.


Although there is a groundswell of support for a second referendum, or at least a say on any agreement negotiated with Brussels, there’s no certainty that one will be held. For one thing the practicalities of legislating for a referendum rule out the possibilities before Article 50 becomes a reality next March, crashing, hard or soft.

Nevertheless, there does need to be some sort of People’s Vote. Furthermore, for an issue that has such long-lasting constitutional, economic, and social implications for the future of this country, politicians need to put the welfare of the country ahead of their own party political considerations. The fact that we have a divided and incompetent governing party, and an Opposition that’s equally divided, with a leader who’s inept and misguided in the face of what many Labour supporters are saying, is perhaps unprecedented. Political turmoil is the last thing that’s needed right now.

I’m sure many who voted to Leave did not foresee or expect many of the scenarios that are looming before us. For example, the National Health Service (NHS) will not reap any ‘Brexit Dividend’. Why? There simply is no dividend. Brexit will impact almost every aspect of our lives for years to come.

There. I’ve said it. I’ve expressed my frustrations. I don’t expect to write much more about Brexit. But once 29 March 2019 has come and gone, I expect I’ll have plenty more to say, no doubt.


 

Development aid is under threat . . . and Brexit isn’t helping

The United Kingdom is one of just a handful of countries that has committed to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on overseas development assistance (ODA or foreign aid) in support of the UN’s development goals. In fact that 0.7% target commitment is enshrined in UK law passed in 2015 (under a Conservative government), and the target has been met in every year since 2013. That’s something we should be proud of. Even the Tories should be proud of that. It seems, however, that many aren’t.

For a variety of reasons, the aid budget is under threat. After years of government austerity and the decline of home-grown services (NHS, police, education, and the like) through under-funding, and as we lurch towards Brexit, the right-wing media and politicians are seizing every opportunity to ignore (or actively distort, even trivialize) the objectives of development aid and what it has achieved around the world.  Or maybe they just lack understanding.

In 2016, the UK’s ODA budget, administered by the Department for International Development (DFID), was just over £13 billion (almost USD20 billion). Check this link to see where DFID works and on what sort of projects it spends its budget. That budget has ‘soared’, according to a recent claim by The Daily Mail.

In the post-Brexit referendum febrile atmosphere, the whole topic of development aid has seemingly become toxic with increasing calls among the right-wing media, headed by The Daily Mail (and supported by The Daily Express and The Telegraph) for the development budget to be reduced and instead spent on hiring more doctors and nurses, and other home-based services and projects, pandering to the prejudices of its readers. Such simplistic messages are grist to the mill for anyone troubled by the UK’s engagement with the world.

From: John Stevens and Daniel Martin for the Daily Mail, published at 22:42, 5 April 2018 | Updated: 23:34, 5 April 2018

There is unfortunately little understanding of what development assistance is all about, and right-wing politicians who really should know better, like the Member for Northeast Somerset (and the Eighteenth Century), Jacob Rees-Mogg have jumped on the anti-aid bandwagon, making statements such as: Protecting the overseas aid budget continues to be a costly mistake when there are so many other pressing demands on the budget.

Now there are calls for that 2015 Act of Parliament to be looked at again. Indeed, I just came across an online petition just yesterday calling on Parliament to debate a reduction of the development aid budget to just 0.2% of GNI. However, 100,000 signatures are needed to trigger a debate, and as I checked this morning it didn’t seem to be gaining much traction.

I agree it would be inaccurate to claim that all development aid spending has been wise, reached its ultimate beneficiaries, or achieved the impacts and outcomes intended. Some has undoubtedly ended up in the coffers of corrupt politicians.

I cannot agree however, with Conservative MP for Wellingborough and arch-Brexiteer, Peter Bone, who is reported as stating: Much of the money is not spent properly … What I want to see is more of that money spent in our own country … The way to improve the situation in developing countries is to trade with them.

As an example of the trivialization by the media of what development aid is intended for, let me highlight one example that achieved some notoriety, and was seized upon to discredit development aid.

What was particularly irksome apparently, with a frenzy whipped up by The Daily Mail and others, was the perceived frivolous donation (as high as £9 million, I have read) to a project that included the girl band Yegna, dubbed the Ethiopian Spice Girls, whose aim is to [inspire] positive behavior change for girls in Ethiopia through drama and music.

I do not know whether this aid did represent value for money; but I have read that the program did receive some positive reviews. However, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact raised some concerns as far back as 2012 about the Girl Effect project (known as Girl Hub then).

From their blinkered perspectives, various politicians have found it convenient to follow The Daily Mail narrative. What, it seems to me, they failed to comprehend (nor articulate for their constituencies) was how media strategies like the Girl Effect project can effectively target (and reach) millions of girls (and women) with messages fundamental to their welfare and well-being. After being in the media spotlight, and highlighted as an example of ‘misuse’ of the aid budget, the support was ended.

In a recent policy brief known as a ‘Green Paper’, A World for the Many Not the Few, a future Labour government has pledged to put women at the heart of British aid efforts, and broaden what has been described by much of the right-wing media as a left-wing agenda. Unsurprisingly this has received widespread criticism from those who want to reduce the ODA budget or cut it altogether.

But in many of the poorest countries of the world, development aid from the UK and other countries has brought about real change, particularly in the agricultural development arena, one with which I’m familiar, through the work carried out in 15 international agricultural research centers around the world supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR that was founded in 1971, the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network.

In a review article¹ published in Food Policy in 2010, agricultural economists Mitch Renkow and Derek Byerlee stated that CGIAR research contributions in crop genetic improvement, pest management, natural resources management, and policy research have, in the aggregate, yielded strongly  positive impacts relative to investment, and appear likely to continue doing so. Crop genetic improvement research stands out as having had the most profound documented positive impacts. Substantial evidence exists that other research areas within the CGIAR have had large beneficial impacts although often locally and nationally rather than internationally.

In terms of crop genetic improvement (CGI) they further stated that . . . estimates of the overall benefits of CGIAR’s contribution to CGI are extraordinarily large – in the billions of dollars. Most of these benefits are produced by the three main cereals [wheat, maize, and rice] . . . average annual benefits for CGIAR research for spring bread wheat, rice (Asia only), and maize (CIMMYT only) of $2.5, $10.8 and $0.6–0.8 billion, respectively . . . estimated rates of return to the CGIAR’s investment in CGI research ranging from 39% in Latin America to over 100% in Asia and MENA [Middle east and North Africa].

DFID continues to be a major supporter of the CGIAR research agenda, making the third largest contribution (click on the image above to open the full financial report for 2016) after the USA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At £43.3 million (in 2016), DFID’s contribution to the CGIAR is a drop in the ocean compared to its overall aid budget. Yet the impact goes beyond the size of the contribution.

I don’t believe it’s unrealistic to claim that the CGIAR has been a major ODA success over the past 47 years. International agricultural research for development has bought time, and fewer people go to bed hungry each night.

Nevertheless, ODA is under threat everywhere. I am concerned that in the clamour to reduce (even scrap) the UK’s ODA international collaborations like the CGIAR will face even more funding challenges. In Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ dystopia there is no certainty that enormous support provided by USAID will continue at the same level.

Most of my professional career was concerned with international agricultural research for development, in South and Central America (with the International Potato Center, or CIP, from 1973 to 1981) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines (from 1991 to 2010). The conservation of plant genetic resources or  agrobiodiversity in international genebanks (that I have highlighted in many stories on this blog) is supported through ODA. The crop improvement programs of the CGIAR centers like CIMMYT, IRRI, ICARDA and ICRISAT have released numerous improved varieties for use in agricultural systems around the world. Innovative research is combating the threats of new crop diseases or the difficulties of growing crops in areas subject to flooding or drought².

This research (often with critical links back into research institutes and universities in donor countries) has led to improvements in the lives of countless millions of poor people around the world. But the job is not finished. Populations continue to grow, with more mouths to feed. Civil unrest and conflicts continue to blight some of the poorest countries in the world. And biology and environment continue to throw challenges at us in the form of new disease strains or a changing climate, for example. Continued investment in ODA is essential and necessary to support agricultural research for development.

Agriculture is just one sector on the development spectrum.  Let’s not allow the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone, or The Daily Mail to capture the development debate for what appear to be their own xenophobic purposes.

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

¹ Renkow, M and D Byerlee, 2010. The impacts of CGIAR research: A review of recent evidence. Food Policy 35 (5), 391-402. doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.04.006

² In another blog post I will describe some of this innovative research and how the funding of agricultural research for development and greater accountability for ODA has become rather complicated over the past couple of decades.

Fashion, so said Louis XIV, is the mirror of history

Amber Butchart (photo by Jo Duck – used with permission)

Just when you least expect it, a real gem of a television series comes along. You’re gathered in. Then you’re hooked!

And that was our experience with fashion historian Amber Butchart’s six part series, A Stitch In Time, recently screened on BBC4.

This is what Amber has to say about the series on her blog: Fusing biography, art and the history of fashion, throughout A Stitch in Time I get to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore, while key garments are recreated using the original techniques.

She peers into the mirror and helps us to interpret the costume clues held within Van Eyck’s mysterious Arnolfini portrait, the role of hand-me-downs among 18th century workers, the impact of cotton on British life, a flamboyant armorial piece which sits at odds with the allegedly brutal nature of its wearer and the impact a scandalously informal gown would have on an already unpopular queen.

What an eye-opener A Stitch in Time has been! And from what I’ve seen in various media, we are not alone in being enthralled by the series.

My wife Steph and I enjoy watching almost any history-related program, so tuned into the first episode on 3 January almost by default. We had no idea what to expect, and we’d never heard of Amber Butchart (herself a fashion icon) even though (as I’ve now discovered) she has broadcast regularly over the past four or five years on BBC radio.

To recreate the items of clothing, Amber relied on the talents and experience of historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila  and her team, Harriet Waterhouse and Hannah Marples. It was amazing to see how every item of clothing was hand stitched. Not a sewing machine is sight, nor an electric iron.

L to R: Harriet, Ninya, Amber, and Hannah

In each program Amber talked about a particular painting—and a tomb effigy in one program—and what each tells us about the person(s) portrayed, how their clothing speaks to us about their social status, and the society in which they lived. And then she enjoyed modeling each of the recreated costumes.

She also delved into other background issues that are part of the story, none perhaps more emotive than that of Dido Belle, born in 1761 the natural (i.e. illegitimate) daughter of Sir John Lindsay and a slave, who moved in the highest circles of English aristocracy since her great uncle was Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. I was already familiar with her story having read the 2014 book that same year by Paula Byrne.

Choosing the topics
I asked Amber how she came to choose the six subjects for the series. She replied: I wanted to show a real range of clothing from history—not just womenswear and royalty. I also wanted to touch on stories that are harder to uncover, to show the difficulties that can be part of the process when looking at marginalised histories. So I chose the artworks for a mixture of these reasons—plus some which are more well known within fashion history, such as Marie Antoinette and Charles II.

Charles was the subject of the first program (depicted receiving a pineapple from his head gardener, in a painting from around 1667, now part of the Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) and “how he used fashion as propaganda with an outfit that foreshadowed the three piece suit”. From what appeared a rather drab suit of clothes in the painting, the completed reconstruction was extremely elegant, with its shot silk lining and black silk ‘bows’ on the trousers, shoulder and sleeves. The other fashion statement is the fantastic number of handmade buttons and their corresponding button-holes.The second program considered the famous Arnolfini portrait by Van Eyck from 1434, that hangs today in the National Gallery.

Once thought to portray a pregnant Mrs Arnolfini, wife of a wealthy merchant, this is no longer believed to be the case. She’s just holding up the rather large amount of cloth that went into making her dress—just because she could, a sign of the family’s wealth. The resulting recreation was stunning, and it was also interesting to watch how the green dye was made. Not for those of a weak olfactory constitution!

The ‘common man’ was the subject of the third program, depicted in a full-size portrait at Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire. Portraits of working men are uncommon. Just take a visit to any National Trust property, as Steph and I do all year round, and there are a thousand and one portraits of members of the aristocracy in all their finery. Such statements of power and fashion!

But The Hedge Cutter at Broughton shows a working man wearing a hand-me-down leather coat, evidently worn by several  generations and generously patched. It’s dark and stained, tattered in places.

The coat expertly recreated by Ninya and her team from soft, pale leather was a delight to behold. Even more compelling were the sewing techniques they had to employ to join the expensive pieces of leather together.

The story of Dido Belle in Program 4, was particularly interesting. In the painting of Dido (with Lady Elizabeth Murray), on display at Scone Palace in Scotland, not all of her dress can be seen, so Ninya and her team had to interpret how it might have been made.

Calling upon all their knowledge and experience, they recreated a dress that they believe was close to the original. Ninya confirmed to me that Dido’s clothes were the biggest challenge to research, mainly because so much of them are obscured in the painting, and because very little survives in the way of informal dress. Loose, voluminous garments made from expensive silk are prime targets for being made over, cut and reused. As we said in the programme, we were very happy with the results, but there were definitely several possible answers for how this gown was actually cut and constructed!

The Black Prince, son of King Edward III and father of King Richard II, is buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and Amber took us to look at the prince’s gilt-bronze tomb effigy, which shows the item of clothing that was the focus of this episode. The prince is wearing a jupon, a close-fitting tunic worn over a suit of armor and bearing heraldic arms. Warriors wore such an item of clothing in battle so they could be recognized and serve as a rallying point for their troops.

What was particularly interesting about this program (5) is that the prince’s original jupon still exists although no longer on display. After 600 years it’s just too fragile. But after his death in 1376, the jupon was hung above the prince’s tomb and remained there for centuries. Now stored carefully away in a box at the cathedral, the jupon no longer displays its vibrant colors, and although there was perhaps less interpretation needed to reconstruct it, there were still some challenges. The principal one was how to sew the cotton protective wadding between the layers of linen as a backing and the red and blue velvet of the outer layer.

Nevertheless, the completed garment was the most exuberant of the series. As Ninya told me: I loved working on the Black Prince’s jupon. It was an incredibly time-consuming process but it was so rewarding seeing it emerge in all its brightly coloured, gold-embellished glory!

Apparently the gold embroidery alone took 900 hours to complete, stitched on to a linen backing, cut out, and then sewn on to the jupon. Stunning!

In the final programme, Amber explained the court reaction to the most unroyal-like muslin dress (chemise de la reine) worn by the unpopular Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, in an infamous portrait painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1783. Such was the uproar, that the artist had to paint another portrait in a more appropriate dress worthy of a French queen. Muslin was used for undergarments, not for royal portraits. Vigée Le Brun painted more than 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette.

The recreation was an elegant, free-flowing gown, but not (to our modern eyes) the scandalous display for which Marie Antoinette was censured. She would have worn this type of dress in informal settings such as her retreat in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, the Petit Trianon, surrounded by intimates. Underneath the dress Marie Antoinette would have worn stays, and these were also part of the recreation. Ninya told me: . . . the silk damask stays that Harriet made for Marie Antoinette were ridiculously beautiful. There was an elegant sash at the waist, made by Hannah.

Even though the dress looks simple in style, it would nevertheless have been costly to make in the 18th century, as was demonstrated in its reconstruction. Ninya also gave a useful tip to all budding seamstresses on how to make a level hem. Tip of the series!

Perspectives
On reflection, I found the story of Dido Belle the most compelling. And while her dress appeared the most simple among the six, it was, as Ninya told me, a challenge for her team.

But as I think back on the last program and the beautiful dress that was worn by Marie Antoinette, I have to say that was my favorite. Elegant in its ‘simplicity’.

I asked Amber which costume she found the most challenging. This is what she told me: The most challenging to research in many ways was Dido Belle, and also the Hedge Cutter. Researching working dress can be difficult as it doesn’t tend to be kept in museums and wasn’t seriously written about until relatively recently. Dido has a really compelling story, and the transatlantic slave trade played a huge part in our history but is often overlooked. It runs like a thread through fashion history as it relates to cotton, and so I felt it needed to be addressed.

But what was her favorite costume? Having discovered online (from an interview she once gave) that green is apparently her favorite color, I expected her to choose the Arnolfini dress. But no!

In terms of aesthetic, I love the Charles II suit and would absolutely wear it, she replied (in the photo above it does really look elegant on her). In terms of uniqueness of experience, she continued, and historical revelation, it would be the Black Prince’s jupon. Such an incredible experience to literally walk in his shoes, and so far from the clothing that we’re used to today. Experimental archaeology at its best!

So there you have it.

I don’t think I’ll look at a portrait again in quite the same way during one of my many National Trust visits. This series has certainly opened my eyes to another aspect of social history that had, until now, passed me by.

If I have one criticism of the series, it would be this. Each program was short by about 15 minutes, that would have allowed just a little more time to explore the background story, and to focus in on some more detail of the actual techniques for making the costumes. BBC producers take note!

So, I hope that the BBC will commission another series, and allocate sufficient air time to do justice to this fascinating subject. Amber Butchart’s A Stitch in Time has been a joy to watch. This is why we willingly pay the TV licence fee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brexit means Brexit. What an almighty cock-up!

Forty-five years ago today, 1 January 1973, the United Kingdom (along with Denmark and Ireland) became a member of the European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Union (EU). Now we are on the verge of leaving the EU. March 2019 is not so far away.

Brexit is and, I believe, will become a social, political, and economic catastrophe for this country. I am firm Remainer, yet a member of that demographic who apparently swung the referendum vote in favour of Leave (I turn 70 in November this year). I refuse to be labelled a ‘Remoaner’.

What beggars belief is that the government apparently had no end-plan developed when Article 50 was triggered earlier in 2016 (and only just beginning to discuss this!), nor had they carried out comprehensive risk analyses or impact studies, never mind what Brexit Secretary David Davis has or has not said. His vagueness and the way he has approached the Brexit negotiations seemingly as a game with limited or no consequences is an insult to the nation.

What I still cannot fathom—and the blame must be placed at the door of former Prime Minister David Cameron—is why the referendum bar (which was ‘advisory’) was never set higher. By this I mean that there should there have been an absolute majority of the electorate required in favour of leaving the EU. As it is, only 37% of the electorate (almost 52% of those who voted) are forcing us out of the EU with all the consequences for our economy, for trade, security, travel, education, science, health, human rights. Every part of the fabric of the nation will be affected in one way or another. It’s also astonishing to me that parts of the UK that have benefited especially from EU membership (in terms of regional grants and the like) voted to leave, or that constituencies like the fishermen believe that things will improve for them post-Brexit.

I’m sick to death of hearing Brexit means Brexit, the will of the British people, the best deal possible, or taking back control. Well, Theresa, David, Boris Johnson and all you other second class politicians (or failed ones like Ian Duncan-Smith and Chris Grayling, to mention but two among the many, especially on the Conservative benches), I’m afraid the EU holds all the cards in these negotiations. Our status as a small island of diminishing consequence off the coast of mainland Europe will be confirmed.

Our accession to the EEC came a decade after the President of France, Charles de Gaulle famously failed to back the UK’s application to become a member stating that the British government lacks commitment to European integration. In November 1967, he vetoed the UK’s application a second time.

In the light of what has happened ever since, including a confirmatory membership referendum in 1975 under the Labour government headed by Harold Wilson, and subsequent constant carping from the sidelines by the British government under Margaret Thatcher, you have to admit that de Gaulle’s perspective was somewhat prescient.

From my own perspective, I was proud that Prime Minister Edward Heath eventually prevailed and signed the terms of accession to the EEC in December 1972.

I believe that membership has brought a level of stability and economic prosperity to the UK that we could not have achieved on our own. The EU represents a market for 50% or more of our international trade. And now we are about to throw that away and jeopardise our future. Talk about baby and the bath water.

More than 50% of the UK population (based on 2011 census demographic data) were born at or after the UK joined the EEC. That goes up to around 75% if you take into account those who were teenagers or so on accession. The UK inside the EEC/EU is all they have ever known.

I’m a passionate supporter of continued membership of the EU. Well, perhaps passionate is a little strong. But I’m certainly an keen advocate for continued (and pro-active) membership. Yes, there are problems, issues, challenges being a member of the EU; no doubt about it. The EU is not a perfect institution, by any stretch of the imagination. Had the UK been a more committed member (rather than carping constantly from the sidelines), then I believe we could have brought much of our renowned British pragmatism to help resolve many of the structural and operational issues that bedevil the EU.

Theresa May’s government is incompetent (more a Coalition of Chaos than Strong and Stable), and while the Brexit ‘divorce’ negotiations are said to have made some progress (although I’m not really sure what), her ministers, especially David Davis, have become increasingly mendacious. Their arrogance and lack of respect for the electorate and facts is truly staggering. The Conservative Party has become a party of ostriches (especially MPs like the honorable member for the eighteenth century, Jacob Rees-Mogg). Furthermore we are being held to ransom by the short-sighted, bigoted, and lack of imagination Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, that May now has to rely on for support in the House of Commons. What a mess we are in.

The lack of focus and understanding in particular over the border issues between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are not only worrying but potentially dangerous. In September I spent 10 days in Northern Ireland, and witnessed how that part of the UK has benefited from a couple of decades of prosperity and peace, now in jeopardy because of Brexit.

But a dilemma I face is that I cannot imagine the opposition Labour Party flourishing in government under Jeremy Corbyn, nor can I see myself supporting Labour in an election. I make no bones about it. I am no fan of Corbyn and his closest acolytes. He is not a credible Prime Minister-in-waiting. I regret that he and his party did not take a stronger pro-EU position. His equivocation is reprehensible. I worry for the future of the Labour Party as the left-wing Momentum group strengthens its stranglehold. Likewise, I am no supporter of what the Conservatives now stand for, and its right-wing agenda.

I can only hope that sounder minds will prevail and brought to bear during 2018. Can Brexit be stopped? More from hope than expectation, I think it just might. But will the EU exert a forfeit to allow us back in, requiring the UK to sign up for measures that we have opted out of? Perhaps.

That is my wish for 2018, and although I never make New Year resolutions, I will continue to support pro-EU initiatives as I am able.

 

Laos – jewel in the rice biodiversity crown

From 1995 to late 2000, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) through its Genetic Resources Center (GRC, now the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center) coordinated a project to collect and conserve the genetic diversity of rice varieties that smallholder farmers have nourished for generations in Asia and Africa. The collecting program also targeted many of the wild species relatives of cultivated rice found in those continents as well as Latin America.

With a grant of more than USD3 million from the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) the project made significant collections of rice varieties and wild species at a time when, in general, there was a moratorium on germplasm exploration worldwide. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force at the end of December 1993, and many countries were developing and putting in place policies concerning access to germplasm. Many were reluctant to allow access to non-nationals, or even exchange germplasm internationally. It’s not insignificant then that IRRI was able to mount such a project with the full cooperation of almost 30 countries, and many collecting expeditions were made, many of them including IRRI staff.

As Head of GRC from 1991 to 2001, I developed the project concept and was responsible for its implementation, recruiting several staff to fill a number of important positions for germplasm collection, project management, and the research and training components. I have written about the project in more detail elsewhere in this blog.

One of the most important strategic decisions we took was to locate one staff member, Dr Seepana Appa Rao, in Laos (also known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) where IRRI already managed the Lao-IRRI project for the enhancement of the rice sector. This project was also funded by the SDC, so it was a natural fit to align the rice germplasm activities alongside, and to some extent within, the ongoing Lao-IRRI Project.

The leader of the Lao-IRRI Project was Australian agronomist, Dr John Schiller, who had spent about 30 years working in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and whose untimely death was announced just yesterday¹.

Until Appa Rao moved to Laos, very little germplasm exploration had taken place anywhere in the country. It was a total germplasm unknown, but with excellent collaboration with national counterparts, particularly Dr Chay Bounphanousay (now a senior figure in Lao agriculture), the whole of the country was explored and more than 13,000 samples of cultivated rice collected from the different farming systems, such as upland rice and rainfed lowland rice. A local genebank was constructed by the project, and duplicate samples were sent to IRRI for long-term storage as part of the International Rice Genebank Collection in GRC. Duplicate samples of these rice varieties were also sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault when IRRI made its various deposits in that permafrost facility inside the Arctic Circle.

Appa Rao and John Schiller (in the center) discussing Lao rice varieties. Im not sure who the person in the blue shirt is. In the background, IRRI scientist Eves Loresto describes rice diversity to her colleague, Mauricio Bellon.

Of particular interest is that Lao breeders immediately took an interest in the collected germplasm as it was brought back to the experiment station near the capital Vientiane, and multiplied in field plots prior to storage in the genebanks. There are few good examples where breeders have taken such an immediate interest in germplasm in this way. In so many countries, germplasm conservation and use activities are often quite separate, often in different institutions. In some Asian countries, rice genebanks are quite divorced from crop improvement, and breeders have no ready access to germplasm samples.

Appa Rao was an assiduous rice collector, and spent weeks at a time in the field, visiting the most remote localities. He has left us with a wonderful photographic record of rice in Laos, and I have included a fine selection below. We also published three peer-reviewed papers (search for Appa Rao’s name here) and seven of the 25 chapters in the seminal Rice in Laos edited by John and others. 

The rices from Laos now represent one of the largest components (maybe the largest) of the International Rice Genebank Collection. Many are unique to Laos, particularly the glutinous varieties.

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¹ Yesterday, I received an email from one of my former IRRI colleagues, Professor Melissa Fitzgerald who is now at the University of Queensland, with the very sad news that John Schiller had been found in his apartment just that morning. It’s believed he had passed away due to heart failure over the course of the weekend.

I first met John in November 1991, a few months after I’d joined IRRI. He and I were part of a group of IRRI scientists attending a management training course, held at a beach resort bear Nasugbu on the west coast of Luzon, south of Manila. The accommodation was in two bedroom apartments, and John and I shared one of those, so I got to know him quite well.

Our friendship blossomed from 1995 onwards when we implemented the rice biodiversity project, Appa Rao was based in Vientiane, and I would travel there two or three times a year. In February 1997, I had the opportunity of taking Steph with me on one trip, and that coincided with the arrival of another IRRI agronomist, Bruce Linquist (with his wife and small son) to join the Lao-IRRI Project. We were invited to the Lao traditional welcoming or Baci ceremony at John’s house, for the Linquists and Steph. I’d already received this ceremony on my first visit to Laos in 1995 or 1996.

John also arranged for Appa and Chay to show Steph and me something of the countryside around Vientiane. Here were are at the lookout over the Ang Nam Ngum Lake, just north of the capital, where we took a boat trip.

L to R: Mrs Appa Rao, Appa, Kongphanh Kanyavong, Chay Bounphanousay, Steph, and me.

After he retired from IRRI, John moved back to Brisbane, and was given an honorary fellowship at the University of Queensland. He continued to support training initiatives in Laos. As he himself said, his heart was with those people. But let John speak for himself.

My other close colleague and former head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, Gene Hettel, overnight wrote this eloquent and touching obituary about John and his work, that was published today on the IRRI News website. Just click on the image to read this in more detail.

 

The sting was in the tail . . . or was it?

Sting in the tail. An unexpected, typically unpleasant or problematic end to something.

That’s what the Nawaz Sharif and his family has just found out. If you recall, Sharif was, until yesterday, Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Sharif and his family got caught up in the Panama Papers scandal that erupted in 2016, although they denied (as one might expect) all guilt or culpability. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s Supreme Court justices unanimously decided that Sharif should be excluded from office. Who would credit that a typeface would bring a political dynasty to its knees?

There was one rather unlikely source of evidence against the family that no-one could have anticipated. Among the documents presented by the family in its defence was one dated from 2006 and using one the Calibri fonts. Not a font with a tail on many of the characters. Unfortunately for the Sharifs, the date on the document pre-dated the commercial release of Calibri by Microsoft by some months. There was little chance that the document could be genuine.

I’m sure that’s the last thing anyone would have expected; it was unpleasant and problematic, and Fontgate (as it’s come to be known) has had far-reaching consequences. Here’s something I found on the endgadget website:

The documents from 2006 submitted by Maryam Nawaz (daughter of PM Nawaz Sharif) were in the Calibri font. That font, according to the investigation team’s leaked report, wasn’t publicly available until 2007 . . .

A cursory glance at the history of Calibri reveals it became the default font on Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, and WordPad in 2007. However, Microsoft’s website states that version 1.0 of the font was available to download separately as far back as 2005. And, according to font consultant Thomas Phinney, Calibri was also available as part of a Windows pre-release in 2004 . . . 

Pakistan’s leading English newspaper Dawn even reached out to Calibri creator Lucas de Groot, who seemed skeptical of the font’s use before its public release. “Why would anyone use a completely unknown font for an official document in 2006?” he questioned.

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a font geek, but I hadn’t realised that Sans Serif Calibri had become the default typeface for several Microsoft products. I use it all the time, Calibri 12 pt. Incidentally, check out a list of type designers here.

Sans Serif typefaces have become more popular in recent years, no doubt because of the Microsoft default font decision, although until the release of Calibri, Arial (and also Helvetica and Tahoma to some extent) was more commonly used. In earlier versions of Microsoft Word, maybe even Outlook (I don’t remember), the default was I believe Times New Roman (TNR). It’s a typeface that I find particularly ugly. Text appears, to my eyes at least, as rather cramped compared to others. I made a conscious decision to change the default in my Microsoft Office settings from TNR to something else.

When I was setting up the Office for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications)—DPPC—at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2001, I decided we should give all the documents sent to donor agencies (such as project proposals, reports, and the like) a distinctive look and ‘feel’. We felt it was important that IRRI documents stood out from others they might receive. At a glance, a document had to be recognised as one from IRRI, notwithstanding that we also placed the institute’s logo on the cover sheet, of course.

From the outset, I excluded Times New Roman (TNR) as the DPPC typeface, and of course Calibri was not available then. We chose Palatino Linotype 12 pt as our default font. It’s an elegant serif font, but more open, rounded even than Times New Roman. And I find it much easier to read than a document in TNR.

What do you think? Click on the text below in three different fonts: TNR 12, Palatino Linotype 12, and Calibri 12, justified and left justified.

The design and release of typefaces goes back centuries of course to the first experiments in printing in the 1400s. Digital printing has opened up many new avenues for design, as the work of Luc(as) de Groot shows.

I often check the typeface of the books I read, if that information is provided. Mostly it’s not, which for typeface geeks like me, is a pity. I’m halfway through a book about Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Titled Embattled Rebel, it’s by James M McPherson, George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of Hostory at Princeton University, and publsihed by Penguin Press in 2014. Not only is it well written, but Penguin chose a typeface and font that just adds to the overall reading enjoyment. Here’s a sample below.

Incidentally, the default font of the regular text in this Dusk to Dawn blog theme is Verdana, and PT Serif for the headings.

Returning to the original story, however, Sharif was caught out by a Sans Serif font. It was another sting in the tail, but not of the Serif kind. Maybe we should be talking about Nawaz Sharif as Nawaz (Sans) Serif instead.