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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca near Puno


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


 

Killing me softly . . . memories maketh the man!

Memories. Powerful; fleeting; joyful; or sad. Sometimes, unfortunately, too painful and hidden away in the deepest recesses of the mind, only to be dragged to the surface with great reluctance.

Some memories float to the surface at the slightest instigation. Often all it takes is a glimpse of a treasured landscape, a word spoken by a friend, a few bars of music, or a particular song. Some memories need more persuasion.

And then, one is transported back days, months, years, even decades. Memories can be vague; they can be crystal clear, even while the precise context may be fuzzy round the edges – where, when, or why. They are part and parcel of who each and every one of us is as a person. Without memories, we are nobody.

I have one particular – and very strong – memory whenever Roberta starts to kill me softly . . . Yes, one song. Just a few bars, and I’m taken back 46 years to late January 1973. Lima, Peru.

So why this particular song?

I’d arrived in Lima at the beginning of the month to start my assignment as Associate Taxonomist at the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina on the eastern outskirts of the city (now totally subsumed into Lima’s urban sprawl).

After spending a couple of weeks holed up in the Pensión Beech (a guest house in the San Isidro district of Lima), I signed a contract for my own apartment on the 11th or 12th floor of an apartment building (still standing today) at Pasaje Los Pinos in the heart of the Miraflores District. In 1973, there was just a dirt parking lot in front of the apartment building, and the Todos Supermarket (no longer there) was to one side. Now the apartment building is surrounded by high-rise on all sides. It’s a wonder that it has survived about 50 years of earthquakes, including several rather large ones. It never did seem that sturdy to me, but there again, what do I know about engineering?

The arrow indicates the approximate location of my apartment. In January 1973 this building stood in a wide open space – no longer the case.

I moved in, just after my small consignment of airfreight (including a stereo system) had arrived a few days earlier. I had music!

Steph joined me in Lima at the beginning of July 1973, and we stayed in the same apartment for about six weeks more before moving to a larger one elsewhere in Miraflores. My stereo is prominently displayed on the left!

And on the radio station that I tuned into, Radio Panamericana, Killing Me Softly With His Song was played, almost non-stop it seemed, from its release on 21 January 1973 for the next couple of months. It became an instant worldwide success for Roberta Flack. But she wasn’t the first to record it.

KMSWHS was penned by American lyricist Norman Gimbel (who passed away in December 2018), with music by his long-time collaborator Charles Fox. However, there is some dispute over the song’s origins. KMSWHS was originally recorded by American singer Lori Lieberman in 1971.

Whatever the situation, KMSWHS remains a great favorite of mine. Whenever I hear it, I’m 24 years old again, starting out on a career in international agricultural research for development. The world was my oyster!

As I wrote a few years back, I would include KMSWHS on my list of eights discs to take to a desert island. That perspective has not changed.

I’m a 19th century sort of person . . . and a Kindle convert

I started to draft this post several weeks ago, with the intention of completing it between Christmas and the New Year. I was all set to put the finishing touches after Steph and I returned from our short Christmas break with family in the northeast. It was meant to be my last post of 2018. Instead, it’s my first of 2019.

I was laid low by a nasty respiratory viral infection, and that was that. Ten days later and I’m still not fully recovered, but at least I can face sitting at the keyboard and tapping out the few last thoughts of a post I’d expected to complete before now.

I spent much of 2017 working my way through all the novels of Charles Dickens, taking a mid-year break from those to pursue my other literary interest: history, and in recent years, history of the American Civil War. And also towards the end of the year after completing the ‘Dickens literary marathon’. In the process, I have become a convert to the Amazon Kindle.

A couple of years back, my elder daughter Hannah recycled an old Kindle to Steph, but she never really got to grips with it. Once I found there was a wealth of titles available, many free or at a very low cost, I decided to invest some time in this new-fangled gadget. Some of the books I fancied reading were not available in our local library, and we no longer have the shelf space to accumulate more books. I haven’t disposed of any of the many history books I bought over the years we lived in the Philippines. And, each year that we visit Hannah in Minnesota, I have added to that collection with regular visits to Half Price Books in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

But after fifteen Dickens novels, and five Civil War histories, I decided to take a short literary break at the beginning of this year, before starting a rather gruesome—but fascinating—book that my younger daughter Philippa and husband Andi had given me for Christmas.

Written by Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian with a doctorate from the University of Oxford, The Butchering Art is an account of how 19th century medicine, and particularly surgery, was transformed by Joseph Lister, a Quaker surgeon.

With that under my belt, so to speak, I looked round for my next literary challenge. I attempted to re-read Emma by Jane Austen, but soon grew dissatisfied with the main character. An attempt to re-read the first of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her (1864) also ended in failure. I’d first read these in the late 1970s when we lived in Costa Rica.

Then, in April, BBC TV screened a five-part adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s 1859 novel, The Woman in White, set in Cumberland. Having enjoyed the dramatization, I wondered how true it had been to the original. Of course I knew of the novel, but until then, had never considered reading it. And it was through A Woman in White that I decided that 2018 should be a year when I explored novels that are often considered among the finest of 19th century literature. And a couple of others.

So, I searched out novels by the three Brontë sisters, F Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Alexandre Dumas, and Leo Tolstoy, as well as enjoying three more American Civil War tomes mid-year.

Wuthering Heights, a text that’s almost compulsory reading on high school curricula (but was not on mine). So in my 70th year, I finally got round to investing time with Emily and her sisters Anne and Charlotte. A couple of years ago, in December 2016, the BBC screened an excellent 2-hour drama, To Walk Invisible, about the lives of the Brontë sisters. What that drama emphasized—and what one clearly sees in their writing—was just what extraordinary authors they all were. Sitting around their parlour table in the Haworth rectory, their words conjure up a world way beyond the close confines of their Yorkshire upbringing. Remarkable!

What a joy Wuthering Heights was to read. Heathcliff and Catherine!

Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was completely unknown to me, and like Wuthering Heights is a tale of love among the moors. And of mistaken identity and all its consequences.

Villette is regarded as one of Charlotte’s finest novels, and although it has its merits, the fact that large sections are written in French don’t make it particularly accessible. I have basic French so could more or less follow along. But it was a struggle. It’s based on Charlotte’s experiences in Belgium.

Jane Eyre is much more familiar. How many times has the BBC adapted it for the small screen? We’re currently watching the 2006 version starring Ruth Wilson in the lead role. And there have been large screen adaptations as well. The novel is so much better than any of the screen versions I have seen.

In between Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I decided to search out two masterpieces of 20th century American fiction: The Great Gatsby (1925) by F Scott Fitzgerald (and St Paul native), and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960). I knew Gatsby from the 1974 film version (script by Francis Ford Coppola) starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. What surprised me was how short the novel was, almost a short story.

Now that I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird, I’m still not sure why it’s regarded as such an outstanding novel. I’d only ever watched one or two scenes from the 1962 dramatization starring Gregory Peck, and had expected much of the novel to focus on the trial. Not so. It’s full of observations of small town life in Alabama during the 1930s, seen through the eyes of six year old ‘Scout’ Finch, daughter of town lawyer Atticus Finch who takes on the defence of a young African American accused of raping a white woman.

Considered a classic of American literature, and a Pultizer Prize winner, there’s no doubt that Mockingbird is a significant novel. But I’m still not certain just how significant it is.

The three novels by Alexandre Dumas that I tackled were just a romp, as it were. On reflection, I think that I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo most. The Man in the Iron Mask was not what I expected at all; it’s the third part of a much larger novel, but often distributed on its own.

Mid-year I purchased three more American Civil War biographies, and since our summer road trip took us through Ohio, the Buckeye State, these biographies (1656 pages in total) of murderous guerilla leader William Clarke Quantrill, and Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S Grant (all hailing from Ohio) were most illuminating.

And as 2018 drew to a close, I was less than one third of the way through Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace, published in 1869.

Even now, I’ve only just reached 40%, and I reckon it will take me a few more weeks yet. I hadn’t really expected to appreciate it very much. I was taken with the 2016 adaptation of the novel on the BBC, and look forward to seeing that again, once I have finished the novel. But War and Peace is a delight, much to my surprise.

Written by British author Bill Laws, I look forward to dipping into Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History (2010). This book was another Christmas present from Philippa and Andi. Laws apparently has a book on the potato coming out in 2019.

Having taken a peek at the chapters on potato and rice, I’m not entirely convinced of the focus he took with both of these crops – of which I know quite a bit myself. Anyway, time will tell, once I have delved into the various topics in more detail.

But that won’t be for a week or two yet. I still have to settle the demise of Napoleon Bonaparte, courtesy of Leo Tolstoy.

Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (3) Becoming a genebanker in the 1990s, and beyond

My decision to leave a tenured position at the University of Birmingham in June 1991 was not made lightly. I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, and I’d found my ‘home’ in the Plant Genetics Research Group following the reorganization of the School of Biological Sciences a couple of years earlier.

But I wasn’t particularly happy. Towards the end of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government had become hostile to the university sector, demanding significant changes in the way they operated before acceding to any improvements in pay and conditions. Some of the changes then forced on the university system still bedevil it to this day.

I felt as though I was treading water, trying to keep my head above the surface. I had a significant teaching load, research was ticking along, PhD and MSc students were moving through the system, but still the university demanded more. So when an announcement of a new position as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines landed on my desk in September 1990, it certainly caught my interest. I discussed such a potential momentous change with Steph, and with a couple of colleagues at the university.

Nothing venture, nothing gained, I formally submitted an application to IRRI and, as they say, the rest is history. However, I never expected to spend the next 19 years in the Philippines.


Since 1971, I’d worked almost full time in various aspects of conservation and use of plant genetic resources. I’d collected potato germplasm in Peru and the Canary Islands while at Birmingham, learned the basics of potato agronomy and production, worked alongside farmers, helped train the next generation of genetic conservation specialists, and was familiar with the network of international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

What I had never done was manage a genebank or headed a department with tens of staff at all professional levels. Because the position in at IRRI involved both of these. The head would be expected to provide strategic leadership for GRC and its three component units: the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC), the genebank; the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER); and the Seed Health Unit (SHU). However, only the genebank would be under the day-to-day management of the GRC head. Both INGER and the SHU would be managed by project leaders, while being amalgamated into a single organizational unit, the Genetic Resources Center.

I was unable to join IRRI before 1 July 1991 due to teaching and examination commitments at the university that I was obliged to fulfill. Nevertheless, in April I represented IRRI at an important genetic resources meeting at FAO in Rome, where I first met the incoming Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (soon to become the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute or IPGRI), Dr Geoff Hawtin, with whom I’ve retained a friendship ever since.

On arrival at IRRI, I discovered that the SHU had been removed from GRC, a wise decision in my opinion, but not driven I eventually discerned by real ‘conflict of interest’ concerns, rather internal politics. However, given that the SHU was (and is) responsible, in coordination with the Philippines plant health authorities, to monitor all imports and exports of rice seeds at IRRI, it seemed prudential to me not to be seen as both ‘gamekeeper and poacher’, to coin a phrase. After all the daily business of the IRGC and INGER was movement of healthy seeds across borders.


Klaus Lampe

My focus was on the genebank, its management and role within an institute that itself was undergoing some significant changes, 30 years after it had been founded, under its fifth Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, who had hired me. He made it clear that the head of GRC would not only be expected to bring IRGC and INGER effectively into a single organizational unit, but also complete a ‘root and branch’ overhaul of the genebank’s operations and procedures, long overdue.

Since INGER had its own leader, an experienced rice breeder Dr DV Seshu, somewhat older than myself, I could leave the running of that network in his hands, and only concern myself with INGER within the context of the new GRC structure and personnel policies. Life was not easy. My INGER colleagues dragged their feet, and had to be ‘encouraged’ to accept the new GRC reality that reduced the freewheeling autonomy they had become accustomed to over the previous 20 years or so, on a budget of about USD1 million a year provided by the United Nations Development Program or UNDP.

When interviewing for the GRC position I had also queried why no germplasm research component had been considered as part of the job description. I made it clear that if I was considered for the position, I would expect to develop a research program on rice genetic resources. That indeed became the situation.


Once in post at IRRI, I asked lots of questions. For at least six months until the end of 1991, I made no decisions about changes in direction for the genebank until I better understood how it operated and what constraints it faced. I also had to size up the caliber of staff, and develop a plan for further staff recruitment. I did persuade IRRI management to increase resource allocation to the genebank, and we were then able to hire technical staff to support many time critical areas.

But one easy decision I did make early on was to change the name of the genebank.  As I’ve already mentioned, its name was the ‘International Rice Germplasm Center’, but it didn’t seem logical to place one center within another, IRGC in GRC. So we changed its name to the ‘International Rice Genebank’, while retaining the acronym IRGC (which was used for all accessions in the germplasm collection) to refer to International Rice Genebank Collection.

In various blog posts over the past year or so, I have written extensively about the genebank at IRRI, so I shall not repeat those details here, but provide a summary only.

I realized very quickly that each staff member had to have specific responsibilities and accountability. We needed a team of mutually-supportive professionals. In a recent email from one of my staff, he mentioned that the genebank today was reaping the harvest of the ‘seeds I’d sown’ 25 years ago. But, as I replied, one has to have good seeds to begin with. And the GRC staff were (and are) in my opinion quite exceptional.

In terms of seed management, we beefed up the procedures to regenerate and dry seeds, developed protocols for routine seed viability testing, and eliminated duplicate samples of genebank accessions that were stored in different locations, establishing an Active Collection (at +4ºC, or thereabouts) and a Base Collection (held at -18ºC). Pola de Guzman was made Genebank Manager, and Ato Reaño took responsibility for all field operations. Our aim was not only to improve the quality of seed being conserved in the genebank, but also to eliminate (in the shortest time possible) the large backlog of samples to be processed and added to the collection.

Dr Kameswara Rao (from IRRI’s sister center ICRISAT, based in Hyderabad, India) joined GRC to work on the relationship between seed quality and seed growing environment. He had received his PhD from the University of Reading, and this research had started as a collaboration with Professor Richard Ellis there. Rao’s work led to some significant changes to our seed production protocols.

Since I retired, I have been impressed to see how research on seed physiology and conservation, led by Dr Fiona Hay (now at Aarhus University in Denmark) has moved on yet again. Take a look at this story I posted in 2015.

Screen house space for the valuable wild species collection was doubled, and Soccie Almazan appointed as  wild species curator.

One of the most critical issues I had to address was data management, which was in quite a chaotic state, with data on the Asian rice samples (known as Oryza sativa), the African rices (O. glaberrima), and the remaining 20+ wild species managed in separate databases that could not ‘talk’ to each another. We needed a unified data system, handling all aspects of genebank management, germplasm regeneration, characterization and evaluation, and germplasm exchange. We spent about three years building that system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). It was complicated because data had been coded differently for the two cultivated and wild species, that I have written about here. That’s a genebank lesson that needs to be better appreciated in the genebank community. My colleagues Adel Alcantara, Vanji Guevarra, and Myrna Oliva did a splendid job, which was methodical and thorough.

In 1995 we released the first edition of a genebank operations manual for the International Rice Genebank, something that other genebanks have only recently got round to.

Our germplasm research focused on four areas:

  • seed conservation (with Richard Ellis at the University of Reading, among others);
  • the use of molecular markers to better manage and use the rice collection (with colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich);
  • biosystematics of rice, concentrating on the closest wild relative species (led by Dr Bao-Rong Lu and supported by Yvette Naredo and the late Amy Juliano);
  • on farm conservation – a project led by French geneticist Dr Jean-Louis Pham and social anthropologists Dr Mauricio Bellon and Steve Morin.

At the beginning of the 1990s there were no genome data to support the molecular characterization of rice. Our work with molecular markers was among use these to study a germplasm collection. The research we published on association analysis is probably the first paper that showed this relationship between markers and morphological characteristics or traits.

In 1994, I developed a 5-year project proposal for almost USD3.3 million that we submitted for support to the Swiss Development Cooperation. The three project components included:

  • germplasm exploration (165 collecting missions in 22 countries), with about half of the germplasm collected in Laos; most of the collected germplasm was duplicated at that time in the International Rice Genebank;
  • training: 48 courses or on-the-job opportunities between 1995 and 1999 in 14 countries or at IRRI in Los Baños, for more than 670 national program staff;
  • on farm conservation to:
    • to increase knowledge on farmers’ management of rice diversity, the factors that
      influence it, and its genetic implications;
    • to identify strategies to involve farmers’ managed systems in the overall conservation of
      rice genetic resources.

I was ably assisted in the day-to-day management of the project by my colleague Eves Loresto, a long-time employee at IRRI who sadly passed away a few years back.

When I joined IRRI in 1991 there were just under 79,000 rice samples in the genebank. Through the Swiss-funded project we increased the collection by more than 30%. Since I left the genebank in 2001 that number has increased to over 136,000 making it the largest collection of rice germplasm in the world.

We conducted training courses in many countries in Asia and Africa. The on-farm research was based in the Philippines, Vietnam, and eastern India. It was one of the first projects to bring together a population geneticist and a social anthropologist working side-by-side to understand how, why, and when farmers grew different rice varieties, and what incentives (if any) would induce them to continue to grow them.

The final report of this 5-year project can be read here. We released the report in 2000 on an interactive CD-ROM, including almost 1000 images taken at many of the project sites, training courses, or during germplasm exploration. However, the links in the report are not active on this blog.

During my 10 year tenure of GRC, I authored/coauthored 33 research papers on various aspects of rice genetic resources, 1 co-edited book, 14 book chapters, and 23 papers in the so-called ‘grey’ literature, as well as making 33 conference presentations. Check out all the details in this longer list, and there are links to PDF files for many of the publications.


In 1993 I was elected chair of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources, and worked closely with Geoff Hawtin at IPGRI, and his deputy Masa Iwanaga (an old colleague from CIP), to develop the CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Program or SGRP. Under the auspices of the SGRP I organized a workshop in 1999 on the application of comparative genetics to genebank collections.

Professor John Barton

With the late John Barton, Professor of Law at Stanford University, we developed IRRI’s first policy on intellectual property rights focusing on the management, exchange and use of rice genetic resources. This was later expanded into a policy document covering all aspects of IRRI’s research.

The 1990s were a busy decade, germplasm-wise, at IRRI and in the wider genetic resources community. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force in 1993, and many countries were enacting their own legislation (such as Executive Order 247 in the Philippines in 1995) governing access to and use sovereign genetic resources. It’s remarkable therefore that we were able to accomplish so much collecting between 1995 and 2000, and that national programs had trust in the IRG to safely conserve duplicate samples from national collections.

Ron Cantrell

All good things come to an end, and in January 2001 I was asked by then Director General Ron Cantrell to leave GRC and become the institute’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (that became Communications two years later as I took on line management responsibility for Communication and Publications Services, IT, and the library). On 30 April, I said ‘goodbye’ to my GRC colleagues to move to my new office across the IRRI campus, although I kept a watching brief over GRC for the next year until my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, arrived in Los Baños.

Listen to Ruaraidh and his staff talking about the genebank.


So, after a decade with GRC I moved into IRRI’s senior management team and set about bringing a modicum of rationale to the institute’s resource mobilization initiatives, and management of its overall research project portfolio. I described here how it all started. The staff I was able to recruit were outstanding. Running DPPC was a bit like running a genebank: there were many individual processes and procedures to manage the various research projects, report back to donors, submit grant proposals and the like. Research projects were like ‘genebank accessions’ – all tied together by an efficient data management system that we built in an initiative led by Eric Clutario (seen standing on the left below next to me).

From my DPPC vantage point, it was interesting to watch Ruaraidh take GRC to the next level, adding a new cold storage room, and using bar-coding to label all seed packets, a great addition to the data management effort. With Ken McNally’s genomics research, IRRI has been at the forefront of studies to explore the diversity of genetic diversity in germplasm collections.

Last October, the International Rice Genebank was the first to receive in-perpetuity funding from the Crop Trust. I’d like to think that the significant changes we made in the 1990s to the genebank and management of rice germplasm kept IRRI ahead of the curve, and contributed to its selection for this funding.

I completed a few publications during this period, and finally retired from IRRI at the end of April 2010. Since retirement I have co-edited a second book on climate change and genetic resources, led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program, and was honored by HM The Queen as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 2012 for my work at IRRI.

So, as 2018 draws to a close, I can look back on almost 50 years involvement in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. What an interesting—and fulfilling—journey it has been.


 

 

 

 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Unfortunately, politics in the UK is broken and requires more than a sticking plaster.

A minority Conservative government under Prime Minister Theresa May has been rent asunder by Brexit. The draft withdrawal deal announced yesterday already appears dead in the water. Even as the Cabinet ‘approved’ the draft text at a marathon meeting yesterday, there were reports that as many as nine cabinet members were opposed, although apparently going along with the whole charade.

It’s now just before noon, and already two Cabinet members have resigned, including the second idiot in charge of the Brexit negotiations, Dominic Raab. And several junior ministers have gone as well. More are expected. Theresa May is entering a dark place.

Immediately on release of the draft agreement, the Brexiteer vultures began to circle. Without having read the text (a 580 page document, which was published online later in the evening), they rejected the draft out of hand. It has not found favor with Remainers either. In speaking briefly to the assembled press outside No 10, Theresa May said it was her deal, no deal, or no Brexit. Hope lingers eternal that if Parliament rejects the draft, a sane way out of this chaos might yet be found. One thing is clear. Theresa May is going to struggle to win support for the agreement in the House of Commons. Opinion is too divided.

May lost her overall parliamentary majority in the disastrous 2017 General Election (for the Conservatives anyway), and has since been kept in power by 10 members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But even they are preparing to abandon the May Brexit ship, despite having accepted a £1 billion ‘bribe’ after the General Election to provide May with a working majority under a confidence-and-supply agreement. They are even more blinkered than usual. It has not been a pretty sight, especially as the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic became the major sticking point in the withdrawal agreement negotiations with the European Union (EU).

Given the ‘civil war’ within the ranks of the Conservative Party, Labour should have won the 2017 election, hands down. Or perhaps I should say it could have won the election if its stance on Brexit had been unequivocally in favor of Remain. Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn, has consistently proved just what a weak and prevaricating leader of the Labour Party he is. Certainly there is now a clear majority of Labour supporters—in every Labour-held constituency—in favor of remaining, as evidenced by a nationwide poll of 20,090 people that Channel 4 commissioned recently. Even regions of the UK that voted heavily in favor of Brexit: the northeast, Wales, and the southwest, now have majorities in favor of remaining members of the EU.

Referendums are, to some extent, a clumsy democratic tool. However, in Switzerland they are used all the time. But, if social mores change, then the Swiss can change their minds, and this shift in opinion can be reflected in another referendum. Referendums are employed in California to guide opportunities to change the law (such as the legalization of cannabis), if I understand that situation correctly.

The Brexit referendum was different. Why? Although it was ‘advisory’, it is now seen (on the Brexiteer side) as immutable, the ‘will of the British people’, cast in stone, never to be challenged or overturned. But clearly public opinion has moved on, now that the actual consequences of Brexit are becoming clearer, already realized in some instances.

On the other hand, referendums have one important aspect that normal elections (at least in the UK) do not have. Every vote counts. For example, with our first-past-the-post electoral system, there’s hardly any chance that my vote ever counts in parliamentary elections in our Bromsgrove constituency, held by the Conservatives with a comfortable majority; Home Secretary Sajid Javid is the sitting MP.

So, the 2016 referendum result, 51.9-48.1% in favor of leaving the EU was an accurate reflection of those who voted. But since only 72.2% of the electorate turned out to vote (actually high by other election standards), those explicitly in favor of leaving were only about 37%. I’ve always maintained that for this referendum that would have such economic, political, constitutional, and social implications, there had to be a minimum agreed voter turnout for the referendum to be valid in the first place (which I think would be the case for 2016), and an overall majority of the electorate (not just those who voted).

Goodness knows what the outcome is going to be. Politics has become so tribal, factional, and disjointed, I have no idea where the country is heading – except down the bowl, perhaps. The extremes of politics, on the right and on the left, are center stage right now. It’s time to claim back the center ground, but that’s increasingly difficult with our first-past-the-post system.

Reluctantly—and I never thought I would ever come to this position—I do believe it’s time to take really hard and serious look at proportional voting and representation. Compromise is denigrated quite often in politics today, but working to reach compromise does focus minds.

Proportional representation in many European countries most often leads to coalition governments that take months to agree a parliamentary agenda. Is that such a bad thing? Is coalition government per se such a bad thing?

After the 2010 election the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Conservatives and, based on reaction to at least one key decision in government (student tuition fees), the Liberal Democrats were hammered in the 2015 General Election. But was their participation in the coalition so terrible? I sincerely believe that they did help reduce the impact of the hard right (who hated the Lib-Dems with a vengeance), and the natural orientations of Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne.

I, for one, would be willing to give coalition government a try once again. And if that means introducing proportional representation, then that’s what needs to be done. After all, future governments can always reverse that decision, something that apparently we are unable or powerless (forbidden?) to effect now to steer a course away from the omnishambles that Brexit has become.

Changes to how we elect our politicians would certainly be more than a sticking plaster.

Riding a big wave of nostalgia for Peru

I recently posted a link on a Facebook group to a photo album that shows many of the places Steph and I visited when we lived in Peru in the early 1970s. We worked at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. One friend and former colleague expressed her surprise that we’d lived there only three years.

In 1976, after we moved to Costa Rice (but still working for CIP), I continued to visit Peru regularly, at least once a year for CIP’s annual science review meetings. Then, after I left the center in 1981 to return to the UK, I visited Peru several times during the 1980s in connection with my potato research at the University of Birmingham. I also had a consultancy in the late 1980s to help the UK chocolate industry scope a cocoa (Theobroma cacao) conservation project [2] in the northeast of Peru, similar to the one it had supported in eastern Ecuador [3] some years earlier.

Moving to the Philippines in 1991, my genetic resources and CGIAR system-wide management roles at IRRI took me back to Lima on at least a couple of occasions. And the last time I was there was July 2016; and how Lima had changed!


Every day I am reminded of the brief time we spent in Peru.

I find my nostalgia for Peru can be quite overwhelming sometimes. I’d had such a strong ambition to visit Peru from an early age that I sometimes wonder if, almost 46 years since I first landed there (on 4 January 1973) it was, after all, just a dream. But no, it was for real. Steph and I were even married in Lima, in October 1973.

Just take a look at all the stories I have written about Peru in this blog, which highlight its beauty and diversity: the landscapes, people, cultures and heritage, history, and archaeology. And not least, its fascinating agriculture and indigenous crops. Peru is the full monty! [1]

Why not listen to a haunting melody, Dolor indio, played on the Peruvian flute or quena by Jaime Arias Motta (with Ernesto Valdez Chacón on charango and guitar, and Elias Garcia Arias on bass) while reading the rest of this post.


Each morning I wake to see these three watercolors on the wall opposite. I’ve experienced scenes just like these so many times in my travels around the country.

Our home is graced with many other reminders. In the kitchen/diner we have a number of ornaments that we picked up at ferias and markets.

In our living room, there are several iconic pieces that you just can’t miss. On one wall we have two framed cushion covers from Silvania Prints. And, of course, finely-carved gourds from Huancayo, and a copper church

 

The centerpiece, however, is an oil painting hanging above the fireplace. For me, this painting evokes so many memories. I have seen that image in so many places, a family walking to market perhaps. Although I bought this painting in Miraflores (at the Sunday market there) it depicts a family, probably from Cajamarca in the north of the country. You can tell that by the style of hat.


After I’d posted the link to that photo album on a ex-CIP Facebook group, another member commented that I’d probably seen more of the country than many Peruvians. And 45 years ago that was probably the case.

Then, travel around Peru was rather difficult. Few roads were paved, although gravel roads were passable under most circumstances. Landslides commonly affected many roads (such as the main road to the Central Andes from Lima, the Carretera Central) during the rainy season, between December and May. And improving the roads can’t take away that particular risk.

Many of the people I knew in Lima had never traveled much around Peru, at least not by road. I guess this will have changed as communications improved in the intervening years. Air travel to distant cities, such as Cuzco was the preferred mode of transport for many.

However, that point got me thinking. So I searched for a map of Peru showing the major administrative districts or Departments as they are known; Peru has twenty-four.

I’ve visited them all except seven: Tumbes, Piura, and Amazonas in the north; Ucayali and Madre de Dios in the east-southeast; and Moquegua and Tacna in the south. But I’m not really sure about Moquegua. I was checking the road from Arequipa to Puno, and if it still takes the same route across the altiplano as it did more than 40 years ago, it cuts across the northwest corner of Moqegua for a distance of about 3 km. So technically, I guess, I can say I’ve been to that department. But in all the others I have done some serious traveling. Well, most of them.


Steph and I took the opportunity whenever we had free time to jump in the car and explore the Santa Eulalia valley, east of Lima. Steph had (has) an interest in cacti and succulents, and this was a great place for some relaxed botanizing. Further up the valley, at higher altitudes wild potatoes were quite common by the side of the road.

And it was in relation to several extensive trips that I made to collect native potato varieties that I got to see parts of Peru that perhaps remain quite isolated even today. In May 1973, my colleague Zosimo Huaman and I spent almost a month traveling around the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad. A year later, I went by myself (with a driver) to explore the Department of Cajamarca. I was so impressed with what I saw in all three that I took Steph and a couple of friends back there. But my work-related travels took me off the beaten track: by road as far as the roads would take us, and then on foot or on horseback. Again, take a look at the Peru stories and photo album to marvel at beauty of the landscapes and sights we experienced, the archaeology we explored, the botanizing we attempted.

Steph and I drove around central Peru in Ayacucho, Junin, and down to the selva lowlands to the east. In the south we drove to Arequipa and Puno (where my potato collecting work also took me to Cuyo Cuyo), as well as to Cuzco (by air) and Machu Picchu of course.

My cocoa consultancy took me to Tarapoto in San Martin (proposed site of the cocoa field genebank), and to Iquitos where I crossed the two mile-wide Amazon in a small motorboat to reach a site of some very old cocoa trees (the ‘Pound Collection‘) on the far bank.

I’ve written also about Peru’s cuisine and its famous pisco sour. Lima now boasts some of the world’s most highly acclaimed restaurants.

And talking of food and drink, Steph and I loved to dine at La Granja Azul, a former monastery on the eastern outskirts of Lima along the Carretera Central. We had our wedding lunch there. The restaurant only served chicken grilled on the spit; and the most delicious chicken liver kebabs or anticuchos. These were served while waiting in the bar for dinner to be served. And, in the bar, there were (and still is) the most cocktails. We often enjoyed a particular one: Batchelor’s Desire. I don’t recall all its ingredients, but I think it had a base of gin, with kirsch among other ingredients. What a kick! Its signature however was a small ceramic statue of a naked female embellishing the cocktail. It must have made an impression, as we still have one of the figures displayed in a cabinet! From the image I just saw on the restaurant website, the naked lady is no longer part of the experience. Very 1970s perhaps.

Peru is a country that should be on the bucket list of anyone with a hankering for travel. Don’t take my word for it. Go and and experience it for yourself.


[1] A British slang phrase of uncertain origin. It is generally used to mean everything which is necessary, appropriate or possible; ‘the works’.

[2] The project never got off the ground. The political situation in Peru had deteriorated, the terrorist organization Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path was in the ascendant nationwide, and drug traffickers (narcotraficantes) were active in the region of Peru (near Tarapoto) where it was hoped to establish the field genebank.

[3] In that context, a story in The Guardian recently is quite interesting, putting back the domestication of cacao some 1500 years, and to Ecuador not Central America and the Mayas as has long been surmised.

Feeling a little moonstruck today . . .

Christmas Eve 1968. I can remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing.

I was trudging around the streets of my hometown of Leek, in North Staffordshire, ankle-deep in snow (quite a novelty for that time of year) delivering Christmas mail as a temporary postman, something that I had done each year since about 1964.

So why do I remember this Christmas Eve especially? The newspapers were full of it.

Apollo 8 had lifted off just three days earlier from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to make the first manned orbit of the Moon, paving the way for the historic Apollo 11 mission seven months later, the first of only six manned Moon landings, thereby fulfilling President Kennedy’s commitment to land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s, and bring him safely back to Earth. It’s hard to believe that, with Apollo 17, the manned landings were over by December 1972.

Earthrise on 24 December 1968, taken by crew member Bill Anders on board Apollo 8. This photo must be one of the most widely viewed images of all time. This image was catalogued by Johnson Space Center of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under Photo ID: AS08-14-2383.

On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8, commanded by Frank Borman (who remembers him now?) with crew members Jim Lovell (who commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission), and Bill Anders, entered Moon orbit, becoming the first humans to leave Earth orbit, completely isolated from the Earth as they sped behind the Moon, and experiencing the wonder of Earthrise.

So why has this Apollo mission come to my mind today of all days?

Well, I’d gone downstairs in the dark just around 6 am to make our usual early morning cup of tea, and heard the rain falling quite heavily, just as had been forecast. Imagine my surprise a couple of hours later when I looked out of the kitchen window to see a clear, bright sky, not a cloud in sight.

And there, setting towards the western horizon, was the waning Moon just a couple of days past its full Hunter’s Moon phase.

The setting Moon over Bromsgrove around 8:15 am today, 26 October 2018.

And as I gazed up into the sky, making out various details of the Moon’s surface, some 384,400 km away, I found myself marveling at the fact that humans had actually walked on the surface of this extraterrestrial body that has fascinated humans since time immemorial. I began to ‘feel’ its power, its influence, its attraction.

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

Half a century on, and that period of intense lunar exploration hardly seems possible. Did it really happen? That’s an idea that some conspiracy theorists promote – but not me I hasten to add.

What also amazes me is that there is probably more computing power in your average smartphone than that which took humans to the Moon in Apollo 8 and on the other lunar missions. Thank you, Margaret Hamilton!