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!

 

 

Gelia Castillo – a synthesis tour de force

I was searching YouTube the other day for videos about the recent 5th International Rice Congress held in Singapore, when I came across several on the IRRI channel about a long-time friend and former colleague, Professor Gelia Castillo, who passed away in August 2017 at the age of 89¹.

Gelia was a distinguished rural sociologist, emeritus professor at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB) and, since 1999, a National Scientist of the Philippines, the highest honor that can be bestowed on any scientist.

I’m proud to have counted her among my friends.

I’d known Gelia since the late 1970s when she joined the Board of Trustees of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, the first woman board member and, if memory serves me correctly, one of the first women to serve on any board among the CGIAR centers when they were dominated by white Caucasian males (a situation that no longer obtains, thankfully).

The CGIAR centers in 2018 (from CIAT Annual Report 2017-2018).

I know that Gelia went to serve on the board of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (now Bioversity International) based in Rome, and other boards inside and outside the CGIAR.

I was a young scientist, in my late 20s, working for CIP in Costa Rica (and throughout Central America) when Gelia joined the center’s board, bringing (as she did everywhere she went) a welcome breath of fresh air—and a clarity of independent thinking—that categorized all her intellectual contributions. She influenced policymakers in government, international development circles, and academe, [and] pioneered the concept of participatory development.

Gelia was born into a poor family in Pagsanjan in Laguna Province, just 31 km east of Los Baños, the city² where she spent her entire academic career. She completed her graduate studies in the United States with MS (1953) and PhD (1960) degrees in rural sociology from Penn State and Cornell, respectively. She retired from UPLB in 1993, a couple of years after I landed in the Philippines, when we renewed our friendship after more than a decade.

But retirement did not mean slowing down. Besides her international board commitments, Gelia became ‘synthesizer-in-chief’ at IRRI, an honorary role through which she attended institute seminars and science reviews. She was also a valued adviser to successive Directors General. Let Gelia herself explain.

Gelia kept us honest! Why do I say this? She had an uncanny ability always to see the broader picture and bring together quite different perspectives to bear on the topic in hand. She herself admitted that, early in her career, she decided to concentrate on ‘synthesis’, an academic and intellectual focus and a skill (gift almost) that few manage to harness successfully. It wasn’t just her social sciences training.

In developing a research strategy and plan, any organization like IRRI needs skilled and dedicated researchers. But often, because each is deeply involved in his or her own projects, they find it hard to see (often necessary) links with other disciplines and research outcomes. Gelia was able to extract the essence of the institute’s research achievements and pull it together, mostly with approval but sometimes with justified criticism. Given her expertise in participatory research, working with poor families in rural areas (the ‘clients, as it were, of IRRI’s research and products), and promoting gender studies, Gelia could, almost at the drop of a hat, deliver a succinct synthesis of everything she had listened to, and provide suggestions for future directions. After a week of intense annual science review presentations and discussions, Gelia would be called upon, at the end of the final afternoon, to deliver her synthesis. Here she is, at the IRRI science review in 2010.

And almost without fail, she could hit the mark; and while she could be critical, never were criticisms aimed at individuals. Her analysis never became personal. I’m sure her wise words are sorely missed at IRRI.

Permit me to finish with a personal recollection. I retired from IRRI in April 2010 and, in subsequent years, I only saw her a couple of times, later that same year and in August 2014, when I was organizing the 3rd and 4th International Rice Congresses, and had to visit IRRI in that capacity.

Sharing cake and reminiscences with Gelia (in the DPPC office) on my last day at IRRI, 30 April 2010.

But just before I retired, in March 2010, I delivered my ‘exit’ seminar: Potatoes, pulses and rice – a 40 year adventure, a synthesis of my career in international agricultural research and academia. It must have struck a chord with Gelia. Because after it was all over, she came up to me, took me by the hand, and planted a large kiss on my cheek. That was praise indeed! A memory I cherish.


¹ Written by my friend and former colleague, Gene Hettel (who had been Head of IRRI’s Communication & Publication Services), IRRI published this obituary shortly after her death. There you will also find links to the speeches at her memorial service.

² In 2000, under Presidential Proclamation Order No. 349, the Municipality of Los Baños was designated and declared a Special Science and Nature City of the Philippines.

Brexiteers are like turkeys voting for Christmas

But it’s Remain supporters who are getting plucked and stuffed.

I’ve tried hard over the past two years not to disparage the views of those who voted, in the June 2016 referendum, for the UK to leave the European Union, many of whom continue to support that aim. After all, civilized debate is (or should be) what it’s all about.

Now, however, the gloves are off! Because the negative social, economic, political, and constitutional consequences of Brexit, and especially a no-deal Brexit, are too grim to contemplate. In the long term, the nation will survive but not without self-inflicted pain and hardship.

Unless, this silly trajectory can be halted.

Brexiteers. Makes them sound like a bunch of mischievous rogues. But they are not. Many politician Brexiteers are dangerous, self-interested, ignorant, bigoted, and short-sighted individuals. All for one and one for all. Gobble, gobble.

Short-sighted, except one, perhaps. Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for the 18th Century, has conceded that the nation shouldn’t expect any real economic benefits from Brexit for a long time, perhaps 50 years. He’s obviously playing the long game, cushioned by the sort of wealth that most of us can never imagine.

50 years! Good grief. My grandchildren will be approaching pensionable age by then. Are we so callous, stupid even, to condemn the youth of this country to such an uncertain future?

I can’t remember, during my lifetime (I’ll be 70 in a month’s time), the nation ever being polarized by a single issue such as Brexit. The referendum result revealed an almost equally divided electorate, with a small majority on the Leave side. In my opinion they were conned, taken in by the lies and false promises (and illegality) of the Leave campaign.

I don’t deny that some Leavers’ views were (and are) deeply held. As I have followed the debate about Brexit since the referendum, and particularly during the last few months, I watch and hear Remainers clearly and considerately lay out scenarios, based on evidence, for a Brexit outcome. In contrast, what do we hear from the Brexiteers? Project Fear! they cry.

And that’s what gets me, I’m afraid: the continuing inability of Brexit-supporting politicians and public to clearly spell out what they expect from Brexit, and what their plans are, instead of just repeating, ad nauseam, that we will be taking back control of our borders, our money, and our laws, and that it’s the will of the people.

When it comes to the law, I haven’t seen Parliament resting on its laurels because there is a continuous stream of new legislation. It seems more to do with their prejudiced view about the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) with respect to the EU’s regulatory framework. But if we trade under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules post-Brexit, we’ll still be subject to external controls. Not from the ECJ, but instead from the unelected WTO bureaucrats in Geneva who will hold our collective feet to the fire.

We always had control of our borders. It’s just that successive governments chose not to apply existing EU regulations to manage immigration into the UK from EU countries. Incidentally, very little is mentioned in the immigration/free movement context that immigration from countries outside the EU runs many times higher than from EU countries. Nigel Farage, bless his cotton socks, racist that he is, played the immigration card to great effect during the referendum campaign.

When it comes to money, the UK chose not to join the euro, and has, for many years, been the recipient of a healthy annual rebate after paying into the EU budget. Assuming that Brexit does indeed go ahead, one possible scenario is the UK asking to re-join the EU at some later date. But it won’t be, I believe, on the same favorable terms we currently enjoy: we’d have to join the Euro, budget rebates would be less generous or non-existent, and I guess we’d also have to become a Schengen country and abolish all border controls with other EU members.

The other point that gets my goat is the referendum result being the ‘will of the people’ (it was ‘advisory’), and must therefore be respected as though no-one is permitted to change their mind, ever. Recent polls indicate however, that if the referendum were held today, based on what we know now and what was just speculation or false promises in 2016, there would be a majority to Remain in the EU. Voters are changing their minds – in both directions. The outcome might still be close.

Maybe some of the 27+% who didn’t exercise their democratic right in 2016 will come to understand the consequences of the Leave vote. Those who were too young to vote last time are already expressing their desire for continued membership of the EU. Older voters (part of my demographic that overwhelmingly voted Leave – but not me, I hasten to add) have died since the referendum. The balance of the electorate is not what it was.

The electorate deserves, demands even, the right to pass judgment on whatever Theresa May salvages from her negotiations with the EU. And one of the options must be the right to Remain.

It’s time for the electorate to take a second look, hold a #People’sVote. And for that cause, a major demonstration will be held in London tomorrow (which I am unable to attend).

I can however express my support through this blog.


 

I was angry (still am), but now I’m also embarrassed

Embarrassed . . . to be British. But come autumn 2019, however, I’ll be able to thumb my nose at the world with my new iconic blue and gold passport (to be manufactured, apparently, in France – oh the irony!). Even though I might not be able to visit as many countries, visa-free, as UK citizens currently enjoy under membership of the European Union (EU).

Let’s go back a couple of years.

I woke up on the morning of Friday 24 June 2016 and, as was my wont, tuned into BBC Radio 4’s Today news program at 06:00. I say ‘wont’ because I seldom listen nowadays. But more of that later.

From: the Daily Express, 3 February 2016

I was keen to hear the result of the previous day’s referendum on continuing membership of the EU, expecting a majority in favor. How cruel reality can be!

I was amazed, bewildered, dismayed even, when the result sank in. The nation was divided, voting 52-48% (a difference of 1,269,501 votes on a turnout of 72.2%) to leave the EU. Brexit was now on the cards. Or was it?

I just couldn’t believe that the electorate had turned its back on an institution it had been part of, and benefited from, for over 40 years. Leave supporters had swallowed the false promises, mistruths, downright lies even (and, as we now know, the illegality) of the Leave campaign.

But since the referendum was not legally binding (just check the legislation that gave substance to the referendum) I thought (misguidedly as it has transpired) everyone would come their senses and reach a suitable compromise, allowing us to stay in the EU. However, the ‘will of the people’ has become almost an article of faith that cannot (may not), under any circumstances if you are a Brexiteer, be challenged.

I’ve long argued that since the referendum would potentially have far-reaching social, economic, and constitutional consequences, the bar should have been set much higher. By this I mean that a minimum voter turnout must have been reached, e.g. 75%, and that the margin voting to Leave should have been >50% of the electorate, not just those who voted. I guess I can be accused of wanting it both ways: heads I win, tails you lose. But the referendum was to decide a fundamental transformation of this (once proud) nation. So, if the voter turnout did not meet the agreed threshold, or less than 50% of the electorate (22,750,063 in June 2016) voted to leave, then the referendum would have been declared null and void.

That, unfortunately was not the case, because former Prime Minister David Cameron was too complacent during the whole referendum campaign and the lead up to its implementation. Holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was a political sop to the right wing of the Conservative Party. He never imagined that he would have to contend with the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove on the Leave side, never mind Nigel Farage of UKIP, who had few if any scruples about telling like it wasn’t. And he expected to win. Having lost, he bowed out of politics leaving the consequences for an even more incompetent Prime Minister to address.

It didn’t take long for my dismay to turn to anger. But now I’m also embarrassed. Embarrassed by the complete shambles (I could use stronger language) of the way that Theresa May’s inept (but ostensibly ‘stable and strong’) government has attempted to reflect the ‘will of the British people’ in a withdrawal agreement with and from the EU, and establish a new relationship post-Brexit. The UK has become a laughing stock among the nations of the world. We are on a trajectory to becoming an irrelevant little island off the coast of Europe. Under those circumstances, can (should?) the UK still lay claim, for example, to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council? Its status will be diminished. Yes, for many, the UK will become an irrelevance.

I say ‘attempted to reflect’ because almost 2½ years on from the referendum, we still seem to have no idea of what the UK’s post-Brexit status will be. Given the growing prospect that no deal is agreed by the Brexit date (29 March 2019, just five months away), the government apparently has no plan, but has started to publish grim impact papers of what a no deal or hard Brexit would encompass. But ask any of the Brexiteers what their reaction is (more of ‘Project Fear’) or their plan, and you are faced with the same old platitudes: we’re taking back control of our borders, money, and laws. Hang the economic, social and constitutional consequences. What a parlous state we have reached.

All I can assume is that when Theresa May invoked Article 50 on 29 March 2017 (triggering the process to leave the EU), she thought that any agreement with the EU would be done and dusted in a matter of weeks. In fact, former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis (now there’s a clown of a politician if ever I saw one), stated that this agreement would be one of the easiest to achieve.

From Twitter on 19 June 2018: Robert Campbell #FBPE Deeply Unhelpful @madman2. David Davis with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier.

Theresa May didn’t have to invoke Article 50 in March 2017, but she did. And we were then locked into a situation that seems to be heading for failure. She must have assumed that the EU members would simply accede to any of the ‘having our cake and eat it’ proposals put forward by the British government. In fact, I’m surprised that the other 27 members hadn’t shown the door to the British a long time ago.

It seems to me that Brexiteers feel the EU owes us something. Nonsense! We’re the ones asking to leave; or at least some of us are (don’t count me among them). It’s been made crystal clear that the UK’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit cannot be equal to what we currently enjoy as full members: frictionless trade, freedom of movement, and the like. Indeed as a ‘third country’ post-Brexit, we will be at a serious disadvantage, and all those trade and other agreements that the UK participates in as a member of the EU will have to be renegotiated, one by one. A Canada +++ agreement to fill the void? Canada +++, my backside!

Brexiteers simply talk about an independent UK outside the EU in terms of trade, and their desire to negotiate free trade agreements (FTA) on our own terms, notwithstanding that we already have FTAs with more than 60 counties or blocks of countries through membership of the EU. At 11 pm on 29 March next we lose all of those. Brexiteers object to the role of the European Court of Justice overseeing the EU’s regulatory framework. But even operating under the rules of the World Trade Organization we will still be subject to the authority of that body, and trading under far less favorable conditions than at present. It doesn’t take Economics 101 to see that. But at least our Secretary of State for International Trade will be able to travel globally on his new blue passport to negotiate all those trade deals that he assures us are just waiting to be signed.

Membership of the EU has brought so much more. For one thing, the EU has, among its members ensured peace in Europe over many decades. Joint membership of the EU by the UK and Republic of Ireland is one of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. The future of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is one of the main stumbling blocks of further progress in the withdrawal agreement, as it was long foreseen by many on the Remain side but discounted by Brexiteers, chief among them Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

In the early 2000s, when I was working at IRRI in the Philippines, risk assessment was one of the conditions insisted upon by the donors to the international agricultural research centers to continue receiving overseas development assistance support. It’s ironic that the UK government, through the Department for International Development, DFID, was one of the leading proponents of such conditions. And clearly, as far as Brexit is concerned, the government does not appear to have made an appropriate risk assessment or developed a contingency plan. Or if it has, it’s not telling anyone.

I still live in some hope that a #PeoplesVote will be held to pass judgment on any agreement that the government brings back from Brussels, and that one of the options would be to remain in the EU. But I’m not holding my breath.

Once the bastion of impartiality and independent journalism, the BBC is now perceived as taking a very partisan, pro-government stance on Brexit. For a long time now I have deplored the presenting and interviewing style of the program’s senior broadcaster, John Humphrys. Not only does he come across as a self-opinionated bully, but also as favoring one side (i.e. Brexit) over another in his interviews, often lacking a basic understanding of the issues. It’s time for Humphrys to be superannuated.