The vexation of vexillology . . . or name that flag!

I’m no Sheldon Cooper (thank goodness!), but I do find flags fascinating. There’s more to flags than just colored pieces of cloth fluttering in the breeze.

Indeed there’s a whole world of interesting vexillological facts out there waiting to be discovered. Vexillology is the study of flags.

I’m no vexillologist. By no means, but I do have more than a passing interest.

Flags are symbols of national pride. In the UK we don’t fly the Union Flag (Union Jack is its name when flown at sea) very much, only on government buildings and the like, or special occasions. It’s rare to see the flag flying from residences. However,in my many visits to the USA however, I’m always surprised at just how many households fly the Stars and Stripes on a daily basis.

The largest flags I’ve ever seen were being proudly flown in the center of Mexico City and outside government buildings in Brasilia.

L: raising the national flag of Mexico in El Zócalo, Mexico City; R: the national flag of Brazil flying over the Praça dos Três Poderes in the center of Brasilia. Source: Wikipedia.

Source: HuffPost

Many countries have a strict code about how, where, and when flags can be flown. When I moved to Peru in 1973 I was surprised to discover that it was a legal obligation to fly the national flag from every building on independence day, 28 July.

In the UK we are much relaxed about how the image of the national flag can be used and reproduced on merchandise and the like. Who doesn’t remember the Union Flag outfit worn by Ginger Spice Geri Halliwell in the 1990s?

Across The Pond, how many Americans were impressed by their President groping Old Glory? You can grab it by the flagpole.

Source: Metro News

Flags are, however, increasingly one of the most visible manifestations of a virulent authoritarian far-right nationalism that is re-emerging in so many European countries and elsewhere around the world. Watch any news broadcasts that report demonstrations of organizations like the English Defence League and you will see the English Cross of St George on display in abundance.

Source: BBC

In their hands, the English flag has become a symbol FOR hate and intolerance. In this way they emulate the symbolism of the swastika and abundant flags at the Nuremberg Rallies during the Nazi rise to power in post-First World War Germany, almost a century ago.

There’s so much to learn about flags. So, how did I come to take more than a passing interest?

It began in the early 1990s when I was head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI in the Philippines, with responsibility for the International Rice Genebank, the largest genebank for rice in the world.

On joining IRRI in 1991, I was amazed (and somewhat dismayed) at the number of visitors who came to the institute and were shown around the genebank. The way these visits were managed was not sustainable, because they were a constant interruption to the important workflow of the genebank, and a potential threat to the long-term security of the seeds themselves.

We needed to improve how we showed visitors the importance of rice genetic resources and the role of the genebank. So, in addition to improving the infrastructure of the genebank, we set about designing a better visitor experience. I’ve written elsewhere about the ‘tourism’ of genebanks.

Around 1994 (if memory serves me well) we held an Open House for institute employees and from the wider Los Baños academic community, an event that proved very successful, attracting more than 1000 visitors during the day.

One of the displays—and still in use today more than 20 years later—was a wall-mounted world map, with the countries shown by different rice seeds. We needed flags for each of the countries, and in the early 1990s, the internet resources that we rely on today were just not available. However, I happened to make a visit to UNDP in New York, that has its HQ just across the street from the UN Building overlooking the East River in Manhattan. After my meetings (I was trying to raise funds to support a germplasm exchange network, INGER) I decided to cross the street and visit the UN. In the gift shop I came across a large wall poster showing all the flags of UN Member States, which I duly purchased. We cut out all the flags and pinned them to our rice map.

Former head of the Genetic Resources Center (and my successor), Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton explains the work of the International Rice Genebank to Bill Gates during his visit to IRRI in April 2015. Credit: IRRI

When Klaus Lampe became Director General in 1988 he decided that the institute’s donors should be recognised by flying their flags on the buildings surrounding the ornamental pond, which can be seen in the image below.

I notice things. I can’t help it. Either something is right or it’s not right. One day, almost a couple of decades ago, as I came out of the admin building I noticed that one of the flags flying proudly didn’t seem quite right. It was the flag of Japan, one of IRRI’s most important donors and partners.

IRRI was flying the 1870 flag (the lower flag the image below) and not the 1999 version.

As you can see, the dimensions of the two flags are slightly different, 2:3 in the upper 1999 flag, and 7:10 in the lower 1870 version. While the size of the crimson disc, symbolizing the sun, has the same dimensions relative to the height of the flag, it is centered in the 1999 flag, but very slightly towards the hoist (on the left in this image) in the 1870 example.

I just knew that what I had seen online was not the version on display.

In developing our donor database in the Office for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) we wanted to show donor flags. Looking online, I came across two interesting sites

from which we could download jpeg or gif images of each of the flags. And on both sites there is a wealth of information about the history and design of all the flags. These are websites where it’s possible to become quite distracted and ‘waste’ a lot of time.

Some flags are instantly recognisable, and among those must sure rank the Union Flag, the Stars and Stripes, and the flags of Brazil, Canada, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, for example.

The flag of Nepal is unique. It’s the only flag that is not a rectangle, but instead based on two separate pennants.

Others are quite similar to one another, both in design and colors. Some have vertical stripes, others horizontal. The combination of colors is the same, or almost so. And two countries have identical flags. But which ones?

Can you name these flags? Answers (left to right) at the end of the blog.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2.

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Do take a look at the flags websites I have listed. In particular the historical details on the Flags of the World are fascinating indeed.

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.


Parlez vous?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Over many years I have traveled to more than 60 countries around the world (marked in grey on the map below).

And difficulty in communication was rarely a problem as so many people spoke English; in many cases exceptionally fluently, in others sufficient to get by. The ability of so many having English as a second (or third) language puts us native English speakers to shame. As linguists, we Brits do not excel.

Not so long ago, I watched with embarrassment as Master Chef presenter Greg Wallace tried to communicate with the manager of the world’s largest pasta factory in Italy in a TV program. This person did not speak much English, but had sufficient to explain—slowly—the various processes and stages in making pasta. That was really fascinating, but spoiled by Wallace demonstrating what a condescending ‘personality’ he is: speaking to his interviewee in a strange, broken accent, and ratcheting up the volume of his speech as though that would make understanding his questions and comments any easier. I don’t recall if he waved his arms about. It was almost Monty Pythonesque.

When I began high school in September 1960 I was immediately faced with learning two new languages: French and Latin. And we had formal lessons, examinations even, in English Language. On reflection, I wish I had given more effort to learning French. There were no other language opportunities at my school.

It was only when I moved to Peru in January 1973, and then on to Costa Rica in 1976 (I lived in Latin America for a little over eight years) that my deficiencies as a linguist were immediately apparent. I hadn’t had much aptitude nor interest until I was faced with the necessity of learning a new language—Spanish—just to survive.

And what a difference that made. Within a few months I’d become relatively fluent in Spanish, although I never did really master writing in that language. Being a good Anglo-Saxon, I always found it hard to express myself in Spanish in just a few words when many more was the accepted style.

Since I left Latin America in March 1981, I’ve not had much opportunity to speak Spanish. It’s rather rusty, although from time to time, I find myself thinking (ven talking to myself) in Spanish; my reading ability has not deserted me.

Learning a new language was indeed one of the principal legacies I took from the years I spent in the Americas. However, when I moved to the Philippines in 1991 (remaining there for the next 19 years) I never did pick up any Tagalog, apart from a few words here and there, although I could, on occasion, ‘follow’ a conversation among my Filipino colleagues.

As I said, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I think, as a nation, we’d be in a better position were we to have much better language skills. In the context of our (deteriorating) relations with the other members of the European Union, we might be in a better place if some of our politicians were better versed in the languages (and cultures) of our co-members.

How times are changing. Teaching of foreign languages is in serious decline in our schools. Last April, an article appeared in The Guardian describing schemes, funded by foreign governments, to teach languages in primary schools in the UK. Without that support, many schools would be unable to provide any language teaching whatsoever. That’s another sign of how support for education throughout the country has changed in recent years, not only in the amounts allocated, but also in the emphasis that the government has been promoting away from languages, humanities, and the like in favor of the so-called STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths.

The government seems hell bent on promoting a ‘core curriculum’ of ‘hard’ subjects in science and maths, almost it seems to the exclusion of all those other subjects that give someone a well-rounded education. Even subjects like history and geography are becoming optional. But the arts and humanities make us more rounded individuals. This, from Kurt Vonnegut, is apt:

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.


Boris Johnson is a mendacious ****!

****? Maybe *****, even ******.

I leave it to you, my readers, to substitute an appropriate epithet. A few come to mind, but I prefer not to say in print.

This coming Sunday it will be three years since the referendum was held to determine our future inside or outside the European Union. Three years! I wholeheartedly voted Remain, and still have [fading] hopes the decision to Leave can be reversed. Based on what I heard in the ‘debate’ on BBC1 a couple of nights ago among five contenders who made it to the fourth ballot among MPs, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, and Rory Stewart, for leadership of the Conservative Party (and de facto Prime Minister), we don’t appear to have made much progress. 

L-R: BoJo, JeHu, MiGo, SaJa, and RoSt.

None of the contenders had a viable plan, no clear idea of how they would deliver Brexit.

While Boris Johnson has been egregiously mendacious throughout his career, three of the other candidates were also living in cloud-cuckoo-land. And, in hopes of winning the Tory Party election, were trying to ‘out-Brexit’ each other.

Listening to Sajid Javid (my local constituency MP) I did wonder whether Dominic Raab (who was eliminated from the contest in a ballot earlier in the day) had reappeared on stage. Only one of the candidates, Rory Stewart, has adopted the reality of the situation that the nation is facing. But even he was floating around in cloud-cuckoo-land in proposing some measures to unblock the parliamentary impasse. Must be the residual effects of the opium he is reported to have smoked in Iraq.

And the same goes for three of the other candidates: Boris Johnson (“I was once at university offered a white substance, none of which went up my nose, and I have no idea whether it was cocaine or not”), Michael Gove (who has admitted taking cocaine on several occasions 20 years ago), and Jeremy Hunt (who admitted drinking a cannabis-infused drink while backpacking in India years ago). What next? Javid admitting he has a drink problem?

Anyway, two days on, and we’re down to the final two candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy HUnt, who will now go forward to hustings around the country and a vote by 160,000 or so members of the Conservative Party only.

But the clear favourite (so we are led to believe), and winner of the ballot among MPs, is BoJo. A man who has openly spoken or written racist comments, who has lied through his teeth (and denied he ever said such things), and who was, as far as commentaries from insiders go, a disaster as Foreign Secretary.

This is the man who even his former employer Max Hastings¹ (former editor of The Telegraph) says can’t be trusted and is unfit to be Prime Minister, in comments widely circulated on social media:

Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor – from painful experience – my wallet. His chaotic public persona is not an act – he is indeed manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless and frankly, nastier, figure than the public appreciates. I would not take Boris’s word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday. He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect, save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgement, loyalty or discretion. Only in the star-crazed, frivolous Britain of the 21st Century, could such a man have risen so high, and he is utterly unfit to go higher still. 

So, there we have it. The MP ballots have been cast. From the original ten candidates, there are now just two: a mendacious **** up against a disastrous and incompetent former Health Secretary (not something I’d want on my CV) and current Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. And both believing that a new deal can be negotiated with the EU to deliver the Brexit 17.4 million citizens of this benighted nation of ours supposedly voted for. Except nobody (on the UK side at least) seems to agree on what the endgame really was. And none of the candidates for Conservative Party leader and PM had a clear vision for the future. Except that the Promised Land is over the horizon, and the unicorn breeding program is doing just fine.

Boris Johnson soon to reside in No 10 Downing Street? Already there are predictions that his premiership will last no longer than a few months. The parliamentary arithmetic has not changed.

However, another thing that concerns me equally is the thought of a General Election, and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn winning the keys to No 10.  Either Johnson or Corbyn in No 10? It’s the stuff of nightmares. I think I prefer the incumbent — Larry!

Update: 23 June After I’d posted this story, David Thompson left the comment below, to which I have just replied. And he rightly raises the spectre of The Brexit Party winning a General Election, and Nigel Farage becoming Prime Minister. He’s an even bigger buffoon than BoJo. Nevertheless, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this could come to pass. What has politics come to in the UK?

As Private Frazer from the BBC’s series about the Home Guard during the Second World War, Dad’s Army, would probably have said: We’re doomed, doomed!

¹ This article, by Max Hastings, was published in The Guardian on 24 June 2019. It totally destroys Boris Johnson.

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:


Walking with my mobile: [3] Water and steel

Milestone, near the Queen’s Head pub, a couple of miles south of Tardebigge.

It’s 1807, and fields around Tardebigge, a small settlement east of Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire, are swarming with hundreds if not thousands of workmen, known as navvies (from the name by which canals were also known at the end of the 18th century: ‘navigations’) facing their next challenge in the construction of the 29 mile Worcester and Birmingham Canal that would finally open in 1815 after reaching Worcester on the River Severn. That’s what I imagine it must have been like.

Tardebigge is almost equidistant between Birmingham and Worcester. It had already taken 15 years just to dig this first level section of the canal, on the same level as Birmingham (at 453 feet above sea level).

While engineers had avoided building any locks as far as Tardebigge, they had to construct four tunnels, the longest (at 2726 yards) taking the canal under the Lickey Hills (the Wast Hills Tunnel). North of Tardebigge they also constructed the Bittell Reservoirs, to feed the canal.

The Tardebigge Tunnel entrance.

South from Tardebigge the engineers and surveyors had to drop the canal almost 430 feet over the next 15 miles to Worcester, constructing 56 narrow (7 foot) locks, and two larger ones at Worcester where the canal meets the River Severn.

The Tardebigge Flight south of the Tardebigge Reservoir.

Tardebigge Bottom Lock near Stoke Pound.

Immediately below Tardebigge there is a flight of 30 locks, the longest in the country, in the space of under three miles. And another reservoir, and a pumping house (now converted to luxury apartment).

Following the Tardebigge flight is one of my favorite walks. On 11 April, I made a walk of just over six miles, covering much of the same route I described in an earlier post. On this latest walk, I went beyond the Tardebigge Reservoir, leaving the towpath where London Road crosses the canal, and less than half a mile from the last lock of the flight, Tardebigge Top Lock (the deepest of all the 56 narrow locks).

Take a look at the route of this walk. There is an image (or more than one) linked to each of the red via points.

Overlooking the canal at Tardebigge is the late 18th century church of St Bartholomew. From there one can see  the spire of 12th century St John’s Church in the center of Bromsgrove itself. In the image below, the spire can be seen just to the right of the chimney on the right. Click to enlarge the image.

Looking east to Tardebigge church and the canal, from Dusthouse Lane.

What I find myself thinking about, as I walk the towpath, is just what it took to dig the canal, and construct the locks. How did they achieve all this without recourse to machinery? Each of the locks is brick-lined, and some are edged with large and beautifully dressed sandstone blocks. Were the bricks made on site, or transported to each lock? Where did the sandstone come from? And the lock gates (double on the lower side, single on the upper), made from huge oak beams, weighing (when assembled) over a tonne? You can’t help wondering how they managed to position all these into place. On many sections there are no nearby roads linking with the canal. How many navvies were injured, or killed even, during the whole construction.

For 25 years, the Worcester and Birmingham Canal had no competition. However, in June 1840 the railway came to Bromsgrove with the opening of its station on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, linking Birmingham with the Bristol and Gloucester Railway at Gloucester. Constructed just east of Bromsgrove town center, the line climbs the famous Lickey Incline, a gradient of 1 in 37.7 over a distance of two miles, that begins immediately north of Bromsgrove station.

My walk route also parallels the rail line south to Stoke Pound, crosses underneath there, and again at Finstall on the north side. Approaching the line one cannot but be impressed by the engineering needed to raise level embankments over undulations in the landscape, yet climb the gradient of the Incline to its summit north at Barnt Green.

How many more thousands of navvies swarmed once again into Bromsgrove and surrounding areas while the line was being constructed?

Today the line through Bromsgrove carries commuter services on the recently-electrified Cross City extension (of West Midlands Railways) from Birmingham (and connecting with Lichfield in Staffordshire), or on diesel units south to Hereford via Worcester and Malvern. CrossCountry services hurtle through Bromsgrove (as seen above) on their way south to Penzance at the tip of Cornwall, via Bristol, or north to Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland, via Birmingham, York, Newcastle, and Edinburgh.

So much industrial history to absorb, and so much to think about while enjoying the tranquility and beauty of this north Worcestershire landscape. I never ceased to be awed by what was achieved.