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.


Turbocharging rice photosynthesis – the vision and legacy of John Sheehy, a brilliant scientist

Yesterday, I received the sad news that my dear friend and former colleague at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), John Sheehy, had passed away on 7 June after battling Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) for several years. He was just 76.

I first met John in 1995, when he applied for the position of Systems Modeller at IRRI. I was Chair of the Search Committee. John came to IRRI after a successful career at the Grassland Research Institute (GRI) in Hurley, Berkshire, until it closed in 1992. His groundbreaking (and award-winning) work at GRI on nodulation, gaseous diffusion, and nitrogen fixation in grassland legumes, and other aspects of crop physiology focused on yield potential.

I knew the first time I spoke with John he was someone who would bring a very different scientific perspective to IRRI’s research. And that’s just what he did. He wasn’t some fresh-faced graduate or postdoc expected to toe the line in terms of rice science orthodoxy, so to speak. Always polite, he often challenged the perspectives and approaches of some IRRI old timers who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) appreciate John’s breadth of quantitative expertise. He had graduated with a BSc degree in Physics, completed an MSc in Electronics, and then studied for his PhD in ecophysiology under Professor John Cooper, CBE FRS at the Welsh Plant Breeding Station in Aberystwyth.

In coming to IRRI, he led research on and supported breeding the so-called New Plant Type (NPT) that was expected to push the yield barrier in rice.

Setting up the Applied Photosynthesis and Systems Modeling Laboratory, John came to the conclusion that a completely new approach was needed if rice yields were to be increased significantly. That’s because photosynthesis in rice (known as C3 photosynthesis) is inefficient compared to the system (C4) in other cereals like maize. John began to develop ideas to turbocharge photosynthesis by introducing ‘C4’ traits into rice, thereby aiming to increase photosynthetic efficiency by 50%, as well as improve nitrogen use efficiency, and double water use efficiency.

Rather than me trying to explain the rationale for this vision, why not listen to John explaining the need for a C4 rice.

John appreciated that IRRI could not realize this dream of a C4 rice alone. So he set about persuading, and bringing together, a group of many of the best scientists worldwide in a C4 Rice Project, that is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The continuing Project is an important part of John’s scientific legacy.

It is now coordinated by Professor Jane Langdale, CBE FRS at the University of Oxford.

At the time of his death, and after 20 years of research, C4 rice is not yet a reality, but significant progress has been made.

John’s scientific output was prodigious, and his many publications appeared in some of the best rated journals in his field, like Field Crops Research for example, a reflection of his research stature at IRRI (and before he joined IRRI). You can check his publications on Google Scholar.

He also waded enthusiastically into the controversy over the System of Rice Intensification or SRI, questioning—based on solid quantitative analysis of yield potential in rice—the yield claims of SRI adherents.

John retired in 2009 and returned to the UK. Before leaving IRRI, he met with Gene Hettel (former Head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, and ‘IRRI Historian’) to record his thoughts on rice science and the challenges that IRRI would face.

In 2012, John was recognized in the New Year Honours (see page N.24) with an OBE for services to agricultural research and development, which was conferred during an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 14 February.

John receiving his OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales (L), and after the ceremony with wife Gaynor (L), and daughters Isabel (L) and Rhiannon (R).

In July 2014, John was honoured as a Fellow of his alma mater, Aberystwyth University.

In 2011, Steph and I joined John and Gaynor’s many friends and relatives to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

L-R: Rhiannon, Gaynor, John, and Isabel

While at IRRI, John had taken enthusiastically to golf, and could be seen almost every weekend out on the golf course south of Los Baños where he had become a member. On his retirement to the UK, he was unfortunately unable to continue with this passion, due to bouts of poor health.

After I retired in 2010 back to the UK, John and I kept in touch regularly by email, on the phone, or SMS, when either Wales or Ireland were doing well at rugby, especially in the Six Nations championship. He had divided loyalties, born in Wales of Irish ancestry.

The last time I saw John was in July 2017, when Steph and I spent the weekend with him and Gaynor in Marlow, and met up with other IRRI friends, Graham and Sue McLaren (who now reside in Canada),

L-R: Gaynor, Graham, Sue, Steph, John, and me.

It was also an opportunity for John and me to swap OBE investiture reminiscences. I had also been made an OBE in the same New Year Honours as John, but attended an investiture two weeks later on 29 February.

John was a far better scientist than I could ever aspire to be. I always sought his advice on science issues. In return, he asked my advice about how to manoeuvre through institute politics and management to influence his research agenda, especially after I had moved upstairs, so to speak, to join IRRI’s senior management team.

But what I remember most about John was his cracking, but rather dry, sense of humor. His generosity of spirit. He was an excellent host. Many’s the dinner or BBQ Steph and I enjoyed with John, at his house or ours.

Christmas Day 2006 Chez Sheehy. L-R: John, Sue McLaren, Steph, Catherine McLaren, me, Gaynor, Alex McLaren, and Graham McLaren.

John, you will be sadly missed. Rest in Peace!

This obituary (written by Gene Hettel) was published on the IRRI website.

And this obituary (written by me) appeared in The Guardian on 5 July 2019.

The Times published an obituary on 28 August 2019 (No. 72937, page 48). Click on the image below to open or here to read a PDF version. It was also published online, but behind a paywall.

Also check this appreciation of John’s work and legacy that was published in Rice Today magazine in early 2010 not long after he retired from IRRI; click on the image below:


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

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 23: An Anglo-Italian connection

I’ve twice traveled by train, in 2004 and 2006, from my home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire to Rome in central Italy. And if I had my way, I’d travel everywhere by train, if that were possible.

When visiting government agencies that provided financial support to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) when I was Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), I tried to combine as many visits into a single trip as possible, thus making the best use of my time on the road. In Europe, traveling by train was by far the most convenient (and comfortable) way of visiting several cities on the way, rather than hopping on and off planes for relatively short flights. Not to mention the inconvenience of additional waiting time at airports and the hassle of actually getting to and from them.

Train travel in many European countries is reliable and, compared to the UK, competitively priced. Purchasing a Eurail pass was by far the cheapest option, even for First Class tickets, and could be bought online from the Philippines.

This was my itinerary on both occasions:

  • Bromsgrove – Birmingham New Street – London Euston (into Birmingham on London Midland—now operated by West Midlands Trains—then Virgin Trains to London; around 2 hours or so; map)
  • London Waterloo (Eurostar now operates from London St Pancras) – Brussels Midi (on Eurostar; around 2 hours; map)
  • Brussels Midi – Cologne – Bonn Central (on the Thalys to Cologne, and Deutsche Bahn, DB; just over 2 hours; map)
  • Bonn Central – Basel – Bern (Deutsche Bahn to Basel, then Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB/CFF/FFS), along the Rhine Valley (around 5½ hours; map)
  • Bern – Milan Central (on Swiss Federal Railways; around 4½ hours; map)
  • Milan Central – Rome Termini (on Trenitalia; 3 hours; map)

On the second trip I traveled with IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler (and his wife Crissan) to visit donor agencies in Brussels (Directorate General for International Cooperation or DGCI of Belgium, and the European Union, EU), the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Bonn, the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in Bern (and a side trip to Basel where Bob gave a seminar at the Syngenta Foundation), and finally, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, an agency of the United Nations) in Rome – all members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

Crissan and Bob Zeigler

We met at London’s Waterloo station for the Eurostar service to Brussels, arriving there mid-afternoon. Since no meetings had been arranged that same day, we enjoyed the warm afternoon sunshine for a stroll around La Grand-Place (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), before enjoying our dinner at one of the many cafes close by.

Bob and Crissan feasted on one of the local delicacies: moules (mussels).

I like mussels, but in moderation, just a few added to a fish pie or a fish soup. Not a whole meal. In any case, our meal was accompanied, of course, by several glasses of excellent Belgian beer.

The day after our meetings, we caught the Thalys (the Belgian TGV) to Cologne, and then a regional service for the short hop to Bonn. We had just one day of meetings in Bonn, with the German aid ministry (BMZ), and then spent an excellent day touring the vineyards of the Ahr Valley just south of Bonn. Our main contact was my old friend Marlene Diekmann who I’d known for many years before she joined the BMZ when she was a plant pathologist at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome.

On previous visits to Bonn, in all weathers, Marlene and I had gone walking along the terraces of the Ahr Valley, as I described in this blog post. On this current trip with the Zeiglers, as in the past, we sampled some of the fruits of the vintner’s art. And very good it was.

Each time I have visited the Ahr Valley I have never failed to be impressed at the cultivation of the vines on such steep slopes. In the early evening we headed to Rheinbach (map) to join Dr Hans-Jochen de Haas, who was Germany’s representative to the CGIAR, and became a good friend.

I’d last seen him the previous year in Bonn and presented him with a book on rice culture.

A few years later (and before I retired in 2010) he sadly passed away after contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

Bob and I (with Marlene) also made a one-day visit to Hannover (again by train) to visit the Volkwagen Foundation to try and tempt them to support a research project on rice and climate change involving a German scientist seconded to IRRI.

Commitments in Germany completed, Switzerland was our next stop, so we took the train along the River Rhine to Basel, and transferring to Swiss railways to Bern.

I first visited Switzerland in July 1984 when I attended the 9th Triennial Conference of the European Association for Potato Research (EAPR), that was held in Interlaken in the heart of the Bernese Oberland.

A group of us from the UK flew from London Gatwick to Bern (Switzerland’s capital city) on a Swissair BAe 146, and then taken the train for the 1 hour rail journey to Interlaken. There are no flights to Bern nowadays; Switzerland is served by two major international airports in Geneva (in the west) and Zurich (in the north central part of the country). And, in any case, rail services across the country are frequent, convenient, and comfortable.

In 1984, I’d taken a trip up to Wengen (1274 m) from Interlaken, with the last leg on the funicular railway from Lauterbrunnen. The Zeiglers and I repeated this trip. And after lunch in Wengen, we took the cable car up to Männlichen (2343 m), before dropping to Grindelwald (1034 m) on Europe’s longest gondola cableway (and third longest in the world).

At Männlichen there are fabulous views of the Eiger, Jungfrau and other mountains.

Watch this video that I found on YouTube of the cable car ride to Männlichen and the gondola cableway down to Grindelwald.

All too soon, our Swiss visit was over, and we took the train to Milan, an impressive journey through the Alps and the Italian lakes.

In Milan, we transferred to the high speed train to Rome. That was an interesting journey. In 2006, the 18th FIFA World Cup was hosted by Germany. Although Mexico had been eliminated from the competition by then, our train was full of supporters from Mexico on their way to Rome to enjoy the sights. Bob, Crissan and I all spoke Spanish. Bob and Crissan had actually lived in Mexico for a few years before returning to IRRI in 2005. So we had a great time with the Mexicans, and our fast train journey to Rome (a city I have visited numerous times) passed even faster it seemed.


Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 22: Iberian capitals

As Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC, from 2001 until my retirement in 2010) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), I managed the institute’s portfolio of research projects, reporting back to donor agencies on progress and outcomes, such as the UK’s DFID, USAID in the USA, or the SDC in Switzerland, to mention just three. And working with them to ensure continued financial support to the institute each year.

On a rolling basis, I tried to meet officials from these agencies on their home turf, so to speak, and would coordinate several meetings in a single trip. I often scheduled meetings with European donor agencies when I was back on leave in the UK each year. And this was the case in early July 2003 when I visited Portugal (Lisbon) and Spain (Madrid).

At that time, one of my IRRI colleagues, Dr Swapan Datta, had a joint research project with Professor M. Margarida Oliveira of the Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier (ITQB), a scientific research and advanced training institute of the Universidade NOVA de Lisboa in Portugal. One of her students, Marta Vasconcelos, worked on rice biofortification with ferritin in Datta’s lab. Another, Sónia Negrão, worked with IRRI’s plant breeders for part of her PhD study, and held a post-doctoral fellowship at IRRI as well.

On the beach at Oeiras close to ITQB, with Margarida, Marta, and Sonia (in the left image) and Sonia and Marta (right).

Prof. Oliveira and I visited the Portuguese overseas aid agency to seek funding for joint rice projects. Portugal, at that time, provided only a small amount of funding (if any—I don’t remember the details) to IRRI. I also got to see some rice growing at the ITQB experiment station.

During the visit to ITQB, I gave a seminar about the genetic resources of rice and, with the donor visit, most of my second day in Lisbon was quite full. But, as was often the case in visits to donor capitals, there also was an opportunity for some sight-seeing.

I had arrived to Lisbon the day before, in the early afternoon. After settling into the Hotel Lutécia in the Areeiro district (map), north of the city center, I decided to see what Lisbon had to offer and took the metro to the city center, about a 20 minute ride from the Roma-Areeiro station to the Baixa-Chiado station.

Lisbon is a lovely maze of narrow streets, and large open plazas. One thing that immediately struck me, especially from the heights of the Castelo de S. Jorge, were the orange tile roofs of all the houses spread over the surrounding hills, and the views over the Tagus River, and west to the expanses of the Atlantic Ocean.

Anyway, I made my way from the metro, south along Rua Agustina (mostly traffic free) full of designer shops and cafes and restaurants towards the Praça de Comércio.

And although I’d intended to carry on walking around the city, I did something I’d never done before. Seeing a line of double-decker open top buses to one side of the plaza, I decided to take a city tour. Having only a short time in Lisbon I realized this would be the best way of seeing much of the city.

The tour lasted about two hours, and I certainly saw many of the important sites, some of which I went back to explore on foot afterwards.

The tour took in: Praça da Figueira; Praça D. Pedro IV; Praça da Restauradores; Av. da Liberdade; Praça do Marquês de Pombal; the view down to the coast from the Alameda Cardeal Cerejeira; west to the Torre de Belém; and back to the city center via the Praça do Império and the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, passing under the impressive  Ponte 25 de Abril over the Tagus.

Although it was getting on in the afternoon, I decided to walk up to the Castelo de S. Jorge and enjoy the views over the city.

Castelo de S. Jorge from Praça da Figueira (L) and the plaza from the castle (R).

Then, it was back down to enjoy a beer or three and a dish of bacalhau (a typical dish of cod), before heading back to my hotel.

On the second evening I decided to stay near my hotel, write up my notes, and get ready for a mid-morning departure to Madrid the following day.

I had just a couple of nights in Madrid. I’d been through the city’s airport in 1981 on my way to the Canary Islands. That was in June, and I remember stepping outside the airport terminal building to experience the heat. It was over 40ºC. Now, I’d lived in the tropics for over eight years up till then, but I’d never experienced heat like that.

In July 2003 it was pretty hot as well. I arrived mid-afternoon on my flight from Lisbon. I was booked into a boutique hotel near Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. By the time I was settled into my hotel, it was late afternoon, and fortunatley it was cooling down. So I took the metro to the Puerta del Sol plaza.

I wandered along the Calle Mayor, taking in the Plaza Mayor and Plaza de la Villa on my left, on on towards the Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena and the Palacio Real.

Nearby there was a cafe where I could sit outside and enjoy a cold beer, before I headed back towards the Puerta del Sol plaza to choose a restaurant for my evening meal. Then it was back on the metro to my hotel.

I had meetings the next day, all day at the Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria (INIA) in the Moncloa-Aravaca district, northwest of the city center.

In the evening I chose a small restaurant close to the hotel. Excellent food!

Then, early the next day, it was off to the Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport, and an Iberia flight to Switzerland (Zurich), where I had a meeting in Bern at the SDC.

Before heading back to BHX, I visited old friends in The Hague, Gordon and Joan MacNeil. Gordon had been IRRI’s Deputy Director General for Finance, and left the institute in 2002.

All in all, an enjoyable trip, but not very fruitful donor-wise, unfortunately.

In 2012, Steph and I had a short holiday in Portugal, visiting my eldest brother Martin and his wife Pauline who live about 100 km north of Lisbon.


Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 21: Taking in Tokyo (and Tsukuba)

I recently wrote about a trip to Bali in 2005 when the IRRI Board of Trustees (BoT) held one of its biannual meetings there.

Four years later, in September 2009,  Steph joined me when I attended the BoT meeting in Japan that was held in Tsukuba, the science city just over 60 km or so northeast of Tokyo, followed by a couple of days in Tokyo itself. Since  the meeting was held in the week before Steph’s 60th birthday, we decided to stay on an extra couple of nights and see something of Tokyo. I had been in Tokyo just once before¹, around 1994; Steph had never visited. However, we’d both passed through Tokyo’s Narita airport many times while flying to the USA.

In the good old days, before Northwest Airlines merged with and was taken over by Delta. Narita was a major hub for NW flights to and from the USA, as is the case now with Delta.

Leaving Manila for Tokyo on the early morning flight (a very early start from Los Baños to check-in three hours ahead of the flight) was not without its challenges, and we weren’t entirely certain we’d be able to fly. The Philippines had been hit the day before by Typhoon Ketsana (known in the Philippines as Ondoy), the first of two typhoons to hit the country within one week. There was extensive flooding in parts of Manila (which we saw as the Delta 747 climbed out of the city). At Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport or NAIA there was chaos at the check-in and in the departure areas. Many flights had failed to leave the previous day, and with so many passengers with nowhere else to go, the airport was heaving with people hoping to get a flight out.

Since Steph was traveling with me, I used air miles to upgrade our booking to Business Class as a special treat. The flight to Narita takes four hours. On arrival at Narita, we had a short wait for the bus to Tsukuba, around an hour northwest from the airport. We stayed at the Okura Frontier Hotel (the square building on the right) in the center of the city.

The Board and IRRI Management (and scientists as needed) met for three and a half days at the Tsukuba International Conference Center (just over a five minute walk south from the hotel).

The entrance to the Tsukuba International Conference Center.

Meanwhile, Steph joined the other spouses for several excursions in the surrounding region, as well as into Tokyo, to visit markets, see local handicrafts, take part in traditional Japanese flower arranging, a tea ceremony, and the like.

Then, after four days in Tsuskuba, we all decamped to central Tokyo, to the the Sheraton Miyako Hotel where, close-by, several events were organized by IRRI’s Japanese partner organization, the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences or JIRCAS.

The Sheraton Miyako Hotel (on the left) in the Minato district of Tokyo.

As I mentioned earlier, Steph and I stayed on for an extra couple of nights, so we could explore parts of Tokyo at the weekend, on Saturday 3 October, departing for Manila on the Sunday evening flight.

I’ve marked the places we visited on the map below.

We took full advantage of the extensive Tokyo subway system. We were able to purchase day tickets that gave access to the whole of the Tokyo subway system, over both the Toei Line and the Tokyo Metro Line. However, our first challenge was to purchase two tickets using the ticket machines. Eventually a very kind Japanese gentleman saw we were having a little difficulty, and helped us successfully navigate the menu.

The entrance to Shirokanedai subway station.

Starting at Shirokanedai Station (station I02, center bottom left on the map) on the Mita Line (Toei Line system), we traveled to the commercial district of Akihabara (I08), well known for its many electronics outlets. From there we visited Hibiyakōen (via Hibiya station, I08/H07), a park (near the Imperial Palace) where an agricultural exhibition was being held, that also featured a booth for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (including IRRI). Then it was on to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (via Shinjuku-Gyoemmae station, M10), and back to the hotel.

One thing struck us quite forcefully during this day excursion: how quickly one could get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. It was a haven of peace and tranquility. Early October was perhaps not the best time of the year to see the garden. But it was lovely, nevertheless, and being enjoyed by locals with their families, although not at all busy.

Here is a 17 minute video that I made of the day.

One day is surely not enough to explore a city the size of Tokyo, but we did get to visit three areas that we had chosen. Getting around Tokyo was much easier than I anticipated, and more so than I remembered from my visit in the 1990s.

Of course there are many other places in Japan that we never had the opportunity and maybe one day we will return. The only other city I have seen—from the airport constructed on an artificial island—is Osaka.

¹ During that trip, when I was hosted by a former member of IRRI’s Board of Trustees, and another who was currently serving on the Board, I visited both Tsukuba and Tokyo. In  Tokyo I met officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF), and there I came across one of my former students, Yoshi Nishikawa, who attended the University of Birmingham plant genetic resources MSc course in 1987-88.