Whither the grasspea?

Would you knowingly eat something that could harm you? That’s the dilemma facing millions of poor, subsistence farmers and their families from time to time, especially in India, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, when the alternative is not eating anything at all. Famine.

From the beginnings of agriculture and earlier, 10,000 or more years ago, farmers have cultivated and consumed in times of adversity, the seeds of a plant known scientifically as Lathyrus sativus L. Or, more commonly, the grasspea. It’s also an important fodder crop for livestock.

On the plus side, grasspea has a good protein profile and, as a legume, it supplies nitrogen to the soil through its root nodules. Its particular agricultural value is that it can be grown in times of drought, as well as when the land is flooded. It’s the ultimate insurance crop for poor, subsistence farmers.

Yet, it holds a deadly secret. β-ODAP. Or more precisely, β-L-oxalyl-2,3-diaminopropionic acid to give its full name, an amino acid that is also a neurotoxin responsible for the condition known as lathyrism, a non-reversible paralysis. No wonder, then, that its cultivation is banned in some Indian states. In the past, its consumption has also had severe consequences in Europe.

‘Gracias a la Almorta’ or ‘Thanks to the Grasspea’ by Francisco de Goya (painted between 1811 and 1813), painted during the Spanish War of Independence, when poor people turned to eating grasspea, and suffered paralysis from lathyrism. However, on the British Museum website it suggests grain (millet) rather than ‘grasspea’, and no mention of lathyrism. ‘Almorta’ is a Spanish word for grasspea.

Yet, when needs must, poor farmers turn to the grasspea when there is nothing else to eat because drought or floods have wiped out other crops.

So what’s being done to overcome the grasspea’s downside? Fortunately, an international collaborative research effort (funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund), Unlocking the Potential of Grass pea for Resilient Agriculture in Drought Prone Environments (UPGRADE), aims to breed ‘sweet’ varieties of grasspea with a low content of the neurotoxin.

I learned about this project yesterday evening when I happened to tune into BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science (you can listen from about 11′ 20″ into the program). The John Innes Centre in the UK is one of the project members, and in Prof. Cathie Martin‘s lab, Dr Anne Edwards is screening about 500 different grasspea lines, testing them for β-ODAP content, and also introgressing the lower content trait into different genetic backgrounds, for future testing in the field.

I was fascinated to hear how this international collaboration was making progress towards defeating the scourge of lathyrism, as I’d also worked on grasspea almost 40 years ago. But from a crop evolution and genetic resources point of view.

When I returned to The University of Birmingham in 1981, I decided to start a small research project on grasspea, looking at the diversity and broader genetic resources of this important but somewhat neglected crop, in addition to continuing my research on potatoes.

In 1981, one of the students attending the one-year MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources was Abdul bin Ghani Yunus from Malaysia. He worked on his dissertation project under my supervision, to study the diversity of grasspea. I already had assembled a collection of grasspea varieties from different sources around the world including the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg, so Ghani had quite a stock of varieties to work with.

His dissertation led to one scientific paper, Variation in the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L. and wild species, published in the journal Euphytica in 1984. There were two principal conclusions:

  • L. sativus is a highly variable species, and there is a clear distinction between the blue-flowered forms from south-west Asia, Ethiopia and the Indian subcontinent, and the white and white and blue flowered forms with white seeds which have a more westerly distribution. Differences in vegetative parts may be due to selection for forage types.
  • L. sativus appears to be closely related to L. cicera and L. gorgoni, and this relationship needs further investigation.

Ghani returned to Malaysia in 1982 to continue his research and teaching at the University of Agriculture, Selangor and I heard little from him, until about 1986. Then, he contacted me again, asking about the possibilities of returning to Birmingham to complete a PhD under my supervision. He wanted to work on a tropical species from Malaysia. But since he did not envision spending time back in Malaysia during his PhD program, I explained that working on this species (I don’t now remember what it was) was not feasible, since we wouldn’t be able to grow it successfully in the glasshouse at Birmingham. After all, it wasn’t the species per se that was the most important aspect for his PhD; it would be the focus, the scientific methods and approaches he would learn and employ that were more important.

I convinced him to continue his work on Lathyrus, but broadening its scope to study the biosystematics or biological relationships of the grasspea with the species considered to be its closest relatives. In that way we anticipated better defining the genetic resources or gene pools of the grasspea (an essential prerequisite if, at some time in the future, a breeding program was set up that needed to exploit more diversity), as well as trying to shed some light on the origin of this neglected food crop.

In 1990, Ghani successfully presented his PhD thesis, Biosystematics of Lathyrus Section Lathyrus with special reference to the grass pea, L. sativus L., leading to two more useful scientific papers that have been widely cited:

  • The genepools of the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L., in Plant Breeding (1991). This research concerned the cross-breeding relationships of the grasspea and its closest relatives, based on experimental pollinations, pollen tube growth microscopy, and chromosome pairing, confirming one of our earlier hypotheses about L. cicera.
  • Phenotypic polymorphism of six isozymes in the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.), in Euphytica (1991). Ghani concluded that there was more genetic variation than perhaps expected in this self-pollinating species, and we discussed the implications of exploiting this diversity in plant breeding.

Today, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) receives financial support from the Crop Trust to conserve almost 4200 samples of grasspea in its genebank, with 2000 safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault above the Arctic Circle.

Of course, grasspea is not the only edible plant species that comes with a health risk. In South America, for example, there are so-called ‘bitter’ varieties of cassava, an important source of carbohydrate, producing cyanogenic compounds that must be removed before the roots are safe to eat. Indigenous communities throughout Brazil evolved techniques to express the poisonous juice and make the food safe. In other parts of South America ‘sweet’ varieties were selected over thousands of years, and became the genetic base of commercial cassava varieties grown world-wide. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Cali, Colombia has the world’s largest cassava germplasm that I was privileged to see in 2016 when I was conducting an evaluation of the CGIAR’s genebanks program.

This grasspea story is a good example of how progress can be made when there’s a clear research project objective, funding is available, and researchers around the world agree to pool their expertise towards solving an important problem. With recent reports that the head of DFID (the UK’s government department managing overseas development assistance or ODA) is seriously considering making changes to the 0.7% of national income commitment to the ODA budget, grasspea improvement for marginalized communities goes to show just how important such funding is, and the potential impact it can have on the lives of some of the poorest people around the world. This is the raison d’être of international agricultural research for development, an endeavor in which I participated over four decades.

Bull is the name . . . history is the game

John Bull is, according to the article in Wikipedia, the national personification of the United Kingdom in general, and England in particular.

One of my family names is Bull.

My grandmother, Alice Maud Bull, born on 16 April 1880, married my grandfather Thomas (Tom) Jackson on 23 August 1904. They had four children together, and she was also stepmother to Tom’s daughter and son by his first wife Maria Bishop, who died in childbirth in 1900.

Alice hailed from the village of Hollington in Derbyshire, about halfway between Ashbourne and Derby. Tom and Alice set up married life together in Burton-on-Trent, but returned to Hollington after Tom retired. Grandma was 68 when I was born; grandad was almost 76. So I only ever knew them as elderly folks.

My parents and my elder brother Edgar and myself with Grandma and Grandad Jackson at Ebenezer Cottage in Hollington, around 1958.

My father Frederick was the second child born to Alice and Tom, in September 1908. My dad married Lilian Healy in 1936; I was born 12 years later in November 1948, the youngest of four children. My middle name is Thomas, after my grandad. My wife Stephanie and I named our younger daughter Philippa Alice after my grandmother.

After my father passed away in 1980, my eldest brother Martin began a long search into our family ancestry, that has lasted more than 37 years. He has uncovered many of our family ties, stretching back (on the Bull line at least) to the late 15th century, some fifteen generations, and almost as far on several other lines.

I’m the 13th great-grandson of a man named Bull who was born around 1480 on the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border (where many of my ancestors hailed from), probably in or near Ellastone (as that was where his son and grandson were born and buried). Several generations of Bulls over 200 years lived in the village of Cubley in Derbyshire, less than five miles from Ellastone.

I’m also the 6th great-grandson of John Jackson (b. 1711, m. Hannah Clark 1732), the 9th great-grandson of Thomas Holloway (b. 1600, m. Isabella ?? around 1620), and 10th great-grandson of Hugh Tipper (b. 1574, m. Ellen Crichelowe in 1604 or 1605).

My father’s side of the family comprised, at the beginning of the 16th century, some 16,000+ direct ancestors, about 0.5% of the population of England. Do the maths. We can’t all have completely independent family lines, so they must come together in a vast web of inter-relatedness, sharing many ancestors in common, if we could just make the connections.

Knowing the names of my ancestors in this way also helps me connect vicariously with the major historical events through which they lived. But, because they were living in rural Staffordshire and Derbyshire, it’s hard to fathom how their lives might have been affected. The Bulls were, in general, farming and laboring stock.

King Richard III

Mr Bull was born, in 1480, at the end of the reign of King Edward IV, and five years before King Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field that, as the last major battle of the Wars of the Roses as they became known, heralded the founding of the Tudor dynasty by Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII. Henry Tudor passed through this area, or perhaps a little to the south on his way to Bosworth Field. Were men from the villages around forced to join his army?

Thomas (b. 1505) lived through the end of the reign of Henry VII, and the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, (Jane) and Mary Tudor. It’s highly probable that the Dissolution of the Monasteries (beginning in 1536) was keenly felt, as there were several nearby monastic houses in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Did they hear about the sinking of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, I wonder?

By the time his son and grandson, also both Thomas, had passed away, Elizabeth 1’s long reign had come to an end; the Tudors were history, and James I (and VI of Scotland) was on the throne, the beginning of the ill-fated Stuart dynasty. Thomas (b. 1581) and his son Robert (b. 1613) lived through the English Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651, the defeat of the Royalists, and the execution of Charles I in 1649, an event that must have rocked England to its very soul whether you favored the Royalist or Parliamentary side. Who did Thomas and Robert favor? The closest major conflict to where they lived in Cubley was the 1643 Royalist Siege of Lichfield, just 20 miles due south. Certainly both Royalist and Parliamentary armies criss-crossed this area of Mercia.

Here is a timeline of England during the 17th century.

Working class dress of the late 17th century

Robert (b. 1613), his son Robert (b. 1653), and grandson Joseph (b. 1679) knew the restoration of Charles II in 1680, then lived through the tumultuous years of James II and William III and Mary II, the Glorious Revolution, the consequences of which passed through to the late 20th century in Northern Ireland. During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united into a single nation, Great Britain, under the Acts of Union. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill) achieved significant military success in Europe during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Late 18th century dress, as depicted by Henry Singleton, ‘The Ale-House Door’ c. 1790

Joseph, son William (b. 1712), grandson Samuel (b. 1761), and great-grandson John (b. 1793) were Hanoverians through and through. This is an English timeline of the 18th century of industrial innovation.

Joseph lived through the two Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, the latter experienced very close to home as the Scots under Bonny Prince Charlie reached as far south as Derby. Fear and alarm must have spread throughout all communities in their path.

Samuel and John lived through the French Revolution in 1789, and the wars with Napoleon Bonaparte until his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Were they or their relatives called upon to serve under the Duke of Wellington?

John Bull, my 2nd great-grandfather was born in 1825, half way through the reign of George IV, and died in 1900 just as Queen Victoria’s reign was coming to an end. All my subsequent Bull ancestors were Victorians – a period of industrial expansion, the building of the railways (and demise of the canals), and Empire! My great-grandfather, John, was born in Hollington in 1855, and worked as smallholder farmer and coal merchant. The family remained in the same area of Derbyshire throughout the 19th century.

During five centuries many of my Bull family (and probably those who married into the Jackson line as well) came from and continued to live in quite a small area of Staffordshire and Derbyshire. People mostly married from the same communities, or from others not more than a handful of miles away. After all, a man had to do his courting on foot, until the late 19th century¹ at least. I’ve heard that Tom Jackson walked miles to court Alice.

It has been fascinating to see my family history unfold, and what Martin has achieved is truly incredible and inspiring. People, names, and dates bring history to life.


¹ John Jinks, who was Professor of Genetics at the University of Birmingham, hailed the safety bicycle as one 19th century invention that probably did more for human population genetics than had ever before occurred, since couples could now more easily court over greater distances.

 

 

Where’s Baldrick when you need him?

Surely one of Baldrick’s¹ ‘cunning plans’ can be no more preposterous than what Prime Minister (but for how much longer?) Theresa May² has tabled as her (non-negotiable) Brexit deal, or how the country will prosper post-Brexit?

I actually tweeted the other day that, for once, I was in agreement with Boris Johnson. Heaven forfend! He derided Theresa May’s Chequers Plan as ‘deranged’. I completely agree. But so are the ‘Titanic’ plans he and others have proposed. He’s also pretty deranged himself. Brexit and its adherents deserve to be taken down a peg or two in this video (that I came across on Facebook). The depiction of Jeremy Corbyn fiddling while the Titanic sinks is precious.

Almost everyone seems opposed to ‘Chequers’ – many of the PM’s own pro-Brexit MPs, as well as Remain MPs of all parties in the House of Commons. And, perhaps most significantly, those representing the EU in this Brexit negotiation (is it really a negotiation?). Everyone is getting brassed off by the whole Brexit process. Realistically, Chequers is dead in the water.

Brexit and the status of post-Brexit Britain has essentially become a belief system. Theresa May has accused those opposed to her ‘Chequers Plan’ as playing politics with the future of the country. But that’s what it’s been all about since before the referendum – appeasing the hard right of the Tory Party. No wonder Guy Verhoftadt made these comments yesterday in the European Parliament, in response to the latest proposals from Home Secretary, and Bromsgrove MP, Sajid Javid, about post-Brexit immigration and status of EU nationals.

Immigration was one of the key concerns that swung the referendum to the Leave side. Nevertheless, Conservatives continue to misunderstand how free movement can (and does) operate elsewhere in the Single Market. Just watch this interview yesterday with two Young Conservatives at the party’s annual conference in Birmingham.

And Theresa May’s stance and strategy on Brexit has been aided and abetted by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s equivocating leadership. He’s more interested in a General Election that, he believes, will sweep Labour into power, him into No 10 Downing Street, to implement its hard left agenda that the country will probably be unable to afford post-Brexit, and I guess the majority of the electorate would not support in any case.

In terms of what happens post-Brexit, the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group (ERG) of right-wing Brexiteer Tory MPs continually refer to the WTO option, as though membership of the EU is simply about trade. They never mention, never mind discuss, the implications of falling out of all the agencies that regulate (and mostly improve) our lives today – aviation, medicines, security, science, etc., to name just a few. Who knows what will be the consequences when we are no longer a member deriving the benefits of common regulations and standards.

From many statements I have heard from the likes of JR-M (a rather wealthy hedge fund manager as well as an MP) and the remarkably under-qualified Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox (a medical doctor by training), they have pretty limited understanding of how international trade works, especially under WTO rules, nor how trade negotiations are conducted. It’s illuminating therefore to listen to a seasoned trade negotiator explain the consequences of operating under WTO rules.

The UK expects to strike free trade deals all around the world as soon as it leaves the EU in March 2019. Well, the only free trade agreement (rather than ‘freer’ trade deals as most are) that we are likely ever to secure is the one under which we currently operate, in the Customs Union and Single Market as a member of the EU. Beyond that, it is pie in the sky. Maybe this should become the Brexiteers anthem (with apologies to Queen). Anyone for JR-M or BoJo in drag?

Anyway, to return to the ERG. I’m pretty certain they have no idea what the word ‘research’ actually means, nor what it entails. It’s certainly based on empiricism and a rigorous analysis of data and facts, something that seems to be lacking in much of what they have proposed. They also appear to have a serious problems with experts, people who actually do know what they are talking about, and have experience managing the very challenges the country faces as Brexit approaches.

In general, I have given up on BBC Radio 4’s Today program that I used to listen to religiously first thing in the morning, while supping a cup of tea in bed. Yesterday, however, I switched on and was fascinated to hear a Canadian trade expert, Christophe Bondy, talk about the signing of the new USMCA (US, Mexico and Canada) trade agreement. He was interviewed by the program’s business news presenter, Dominic O’Connell.

Dominic O’Connell (L) and Christophe Bondy (R)

Mr Bondy is an internationally-respected lawyer, now resident in London, who had held senior positions in Canada’s trade negotiations for USMCA, and even the Canada-Europe (CETA) deal that is being touted by so many Brexiteers as the model to follow, and knows what he is talking about. He has an impressive CV, one that not even the likes of JR-M can dispute.

Describing the Canada-USA trade negotiations as ‘bloody hard’, the discussion inevitably moved on to Brexit. It’s worth a few minutes of your time to listen to what Mr Bondy had to say.

Not only did he imply that the UK is not equipped to take on the task of negotiating ‘freer’ trade deals (just imagine the resources Canada deployed for USMCA), but by no longer protecting our biggest and closest or ‘home market’ of >350 million (i.e. the EU) we would enter into any future negotiations from a position of weakness, with a ‘home market’ of just 65 million. This is an approach that just doesn’t make sense from a trade point of view.

JR-M et al. take note!

So what now? One pace forward, please, Baldrick!


As a postscript, I should just mention that in a recent Brexit post I did state that I didn’t expect to write much more on this topic. I just couldn’t help myself.


¹ For my followers overseas, I must explain. Baldrick was a character in the four series comedy program Blackadder aired by the BBC in the 1980s. Baldrick (played by Tony, now Sir Tony, Robinson) was the dogsbody of the main character Edmund Blackadder, played by Rowan (‘Mr Bean’) Atkinson. Whenever a difficult situation arose from which Blackadder and Baldrick had to extricate themselves, Baldrick had his ‘cunning plan’, always and immediately dismissed by Blackadder.

For Baldrick and Blackadder read Theresa May (and others) and Michel Barnier (the EU Chief negotiator)?

In the context of this blog post therefore, a ‘Baldrick cunning plan’ is probably no more silly or outrageous than any other that I’ve yet heard – apart from remaining as a member of the European Union.

² Theresa May came on stage at her party’s annual conference today to give her keynote speech ‘dancing’ to the ABBA song Dancing Queen. I wondered if the Tories got permission to use this track. Embarrassing, to say the least.

Sometimes, history just passes me by . . . particularly in Ohio

William Tecumseh Sherman. Red-haired. Union Major-General in the American Civil War. Outstanding military strategist. Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Mastermind of the March to the Sea (that culminated in the capture of Savannah, GA) and the Carolinas Campaign, both of which contributed significantly to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Born in 1820, Sherman was a native of Lancaster, Ohio (map). I wish I’d known that just a few weeks ago.

As Steph and I crossed Ohio on our road trip from Massachusetts to Minnesota, we passed through Lancaster on the route I’d planned from Canton, OH to Bloomington, IN. I do recall saying to Steph how prosperous it looked compared to others.

I only learned of the Sherman connection from a biography that I’m reading right now¹, and which I picked up at my favorite bookstore in St Paul, Half Price Books on Ford Parkway in the Highland Park area. This year I added three more to my American Civil War collection.

I could have made the Sherman connection in Lancaster had I looked in my rear-view mirror at the right moment, but I was too intent on following the sat nav instructions.  There, on a west-facing wall on Main Street (we were heading west) is a full height mural of Sherman. I didn’t see it, more’s the pity. I would have stopped to explore further.

During the first part of our 2017 USA road trip, from Atlanta, GA (which Sherman ransacked in 1864) to Savannah, our route more or less mirrored Sherman’s March to the Sea. In the historic neighborhoods of Savannah his name appears on several historical markers, as you might expect.

And there were other surprises. Just 18 miles northeast of Lancaster is the small community of Somerset, OH. It has a lovely town square, in the middle of which is an impressive statue of a mounted soldier, Philip Sheridan, a Major-General of Cavalry during the Civil War, who was eventually promoted to four star rank. Sheridan grew up in Somerset. After the Civil War he served on the Great Plains during the Indian Wars. He was also instrumental in developing Yellowstone as a national park.

Despite its incredibly bloody outcomes and destructive consequences, the American Civil War, 1861-65 holds a certain fascination. To a large extent, it was the first war to be extensively documented photographically, many of the images coming from the lens of Mathew Brady.

But in terms of the war’s theater of operations, much of the fighting took place east of the Mississippi River, across the southern states, and into the maritime states as far north as Pennsylvania.

Imagine the topography, especially in the Appalachians, across which huge armies marched and fought each other. Imagine the effort needed to transport tens of thousands of men and their equipment and supplies over almost impenetrable terrain, along river valleys, crossing ridges, swamps, and huge rivers, while constantly being harassed by and engaging with the enemy.

We saw much of this landscape along our 2017 road trip. At Cumberland Gap there were even reminders how the opposing armies had fought to gain the upper hand and strategic overlook that was afforded on the hills surrounding this important pass through the mountains.

In that Sherman biography, I also learned that his superior, Major-General (then Brigadier General) Ulysses S Grant² (yet another Buckeye from Point Pleasant [map], just across the Ohio River from where we traveled this year) had his headquarters at Cairo (map) at the southern tip of Illinois in 1861, just a couple of miles north of Fort Defiance on the promontory at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Fort Defiance was on our route west in 2017.

Southwest from Canton, OH we passed by close to Dover (map), birthplace of one the Civil War’s most notorious Confederate raiders or bushwhackers, William Clarke Quantrill³. His theater of operations was the Kansas-Missouri border, an area that was already experiencing conflict between abolitionists and those who wanted to keep slavery in Missouri as early as 1858. Quantrill’s Raiders were the perpetrators of one of the Civil War’s most outrageous atrocity, the Lawrence (Kansas) massacre. Sherman’s brother-in-law, Thomas Ewing, Jr was a key Union general opposing Quantrill.

So while I may have missed out on some interesting historical aspects during this year’s road trip, that was not the case in 2011 when we toured extensively in Arizona and New Mexico. Earlier that year I had read an interesting biography of mountain man and Indian fighter Kit Carson whose campaigns against the Navajo are well documented. I planned parts of the trip around locations where he had been active. He is buried in Taos, NM, and after spending time at the Canyon de Chelly (site of a massacre of Navajos) in northeast Arizona, we headed for Taos.

Spider Rock in the Canyon de Chelly.

History is undoubtedly one of my principal hobbies, and occupies much of my reading. On retirement eight years ago I almost enrolled for a history degree with the Open University, but eventually decided to keep it just as a hobby. I read very little fiction, and the catalyst for my 2017 challenge – to read all of the novels by Charles Dickens – was a book (also bought at Half Price Books) about the terrible plight of children (early in the 19th century) in factories and cotton mills in the north of England.

Here in the UK, Steph and I are very active members of the National Trust and English Heritage. Whenever we get the opportunity, we head off to one of their many properties (stately homes, castles, archaeological sites, gardens) open to the public. And we learn a little more each time about the history of this country and the people who shaped events over the centuries, for better or worse.

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

¹ Robert L O’Connell (2014). Fierce Patriot – The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-8212-1.

² I picked up this biography of Grant which I have yet to start: HW Brands (2012). Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-307-47515-2.

³ I started this book about Quantrill’s Raiders first. Jesse and Frank James were members of Quantrill’s guerilla band. Edward E Leslie (1998). The Devil Knows How to Ride – the True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80865-X.

 

Taking back control?

It seems that the [Dis]United Kingdom is inexorably on the path to the ‘Brexit Promised Land’, the Conservative’s ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, as we prepare to leave the European Union (EU) less than one year from now (at 23:00 on Friday 29 March 2019 to be precise, midnight Brussels time). Can that Brexit rollercoaster be stopped in its tracks? Regrettably, I’m less sanguine about that prospect than I was just a month or so back. The UK’s place should be in Europe, taking an active and leading role, bringing our renowned pragmatism to bear on the issues of the day.

What have we done over the past 40 years? Carped and whinged from the sidelines.

As I read online the other day, we spent decades seeking various opt-outs under the terms of the various EU treaties. Now that we are on course to leave, our negotiators are seeking to secure various opt-ins—the cherished ‘bespoke’ agreement that Prime Minister ‘Come What’ May tells us is the government’s end game. Ironic.

Recently, Brexit was knocked off the headlines. Why? Russia! While I agree that there is considerable (circumstantial) evidence linking the Russian government to the recent poisoning by nerve agent of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury in the west of England, the government has done its best to exploit that incident, in my opinion, to remove Brexit from daily headlines. Isn’t that what all politicians do when faced with internal dissent. They try to galvanize support around an actual or perceived external threat. Result? Brexit hasn’t been hitting the headlines so much. Until yesterday, that is.

Woe is me! What have I done?

With one year to go, the Prime Minister embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the nation, visiting locations in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to spread the good word about our bright future once we have left the EU. She even raised, once again, the prospect of a ‘Brexit dividend‘ that would permit us to spend more on the National Health Service (NHS) and education. For my readers outside the UK, let me explain. During the 2016 referendum campaign, the Leave side toured the country in a bright red bus with this slogan emblazoned on its side:

Before the referendum, the UK had the fastest-growing economy among the G7 countries; now it’s the slowest, and we haven’t even left the EU yet.

It’s easy to quantify what we will lose when we leave the EU. What has not been spelled out without equivocation is what we stand to gain. Apart from the usual platitudes negotiating free trade agreements with nations around the world (assuming that they want to have agreements with us), the main driving force seems to be ‘taking back control’. But of what?

Of our borders, our laws, and our money, apparently. After 45 years of being a member of the EU (and the EEC/EC before that), our economy and fabric of the nation is intimately tied to Europe. Unraveling those close ties is complex and a daunting challenge.

The immigration card was played unashamedly by the Leavers during the referendum campaign, the despicable Nigel Farage (of UKIP) chief among them. Yes, membership of the Single Market does mean that citizens of other EU countries have the right to come to live and work in the UK. Many did come, and occupied jobs that UK citizens were often unwilling to take on (such as in the agricultural/horticultural and service/hospitality industries). They also paid their taxes and National Insurance (Social Security) contributions.

Already there has been a negative Brexit effect with EU citizens returning home, leaving vacancies that are hard to fill from local labor pools. The government has been and is obsessed by the immigration statistics, harking back surely to the time when Theresa May was Secretary of State for the Home Office. However, the data show that there has been more immigration from nations from outside the EU than from within.

What about our laws? I haven’t seen the British Parliament sitting on their laurels or out of a job since we joined the EU. Parliamentarians are constantly enacting new legislation. The bugbear of arch-Brexiteers such as Ian Duncan-Smith, Bernard Jenkin, Bill Cash, John Redwood, Peter Bone, and the pompous and inimitable Jacob Rees-Mogg, is the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Being a member of the European club, we are subject to its rules and regulations but benefit from common rights, and any infringements come under the jurisdiction of the ECJ which is anathema to Brexiteers. The worry for Remainers is that when we leave the EU, and powers are repatriated to the British Parliament, there will be a wholesale ditching of many of these hard-won rights. Time will tell, but will be resisted fiercely.

DaDa, LiFo, and BoJo – the three Brexiteers

The UK is one of the top financial contributors to the EU budget, and there will be a black hole when we leave. That’s why, in the Brexit negotiations, the EU has (rightly) insisted that the UK meets its financial contributions to commitments it has already made. These stretch into decades in the future and amount to tens of billions of pounds. So much for the ‘Brexit dividend’ that the delusional Boris Johnson promoted (and successfully duped a section of the electorate) on the Leave campaign bus. As our economy slows, as the tax base declines, as trading possibly becomes more difficult, what will be the real economic outcome for us all? I cannot believe it can be as rosy as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis has indicated, or the number of free trade agreements lined up as International Trade Secretary Liam Fox seems to believe.

At almost 70, I’m part of the demographic that overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. Which I didn’t, I hasten to add, something you must have realized by now reading this blog post.

The next years outside the EU are likely to be tough economically and financially. There will be inconveniences that I guess we will cope with, albeit grumbling all the time. I have fewer years ahead of me than I have enjoyed. I fear for the younger generations, and how life outside the EU will impact on them. Our younger daughter and husband live in the northeast, one of the areas that is predicted to be most negatively impacted by Brexit (even though a majority there voted to leave). They have two young boys, six and four. What does the future hold for them. Our elder daughter lives in the USA and will soon become a US citizen. There again, the USA is going through its own Trumpian dystopia right now.

Listening to pro-Leave supporters interviewed on various news channels yesterday, it seems to me that they haven’t yet fully understood the impact of their fateful voting decisions two years ago. It’s hard to appreciate just what factors drove their agendas. Even regions of the nation that have benefited from EU regional development funds voted to leave. Extraordinary! But it will come home to them in due course in a very personal way, when they make plans for their annual summer vacations in Spain or Portugal, the south of France or sunny Greece. No more reciprocal health cover arrangements probably, possible airline and flights issues, long queues to pass through immigration, unexpected mobile phone roaming charges, among many others. Once their pockets are hit—and hard—for things they have come to expect, they will complain that they never signed up for these restrictions when they voted Leave.

Of course, everything is going to be fine, say May & Co. Even though we are leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, we will eventually come to agreement with the EU for a sensible solution, if they would just stop bullying us. Or are we going to face that oft-quoted ‘cliff edge’ Here are two views.

And still nothing appropriate is said about the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK that has a land border with another EU country. David Davis seems to be in ‘La-La Land’ on this issue.

The real negotiations for our future prosperity and security have yet to start. Liam Fox and others talk about free trade talks and agreements as if they are a one-way ticket. It is about arriving at a position acceptable to both parties to the negotiation. Compromise, give-and-take is the name of the game. Win some, lose some. That probably means that more of the so-called ‘red lines’ will be crossed, positions abandoned in the interests of an overall agreement. The fishermen (and their parliamentary supporters like Farage and Rees-Mogg) who were so enraged last week when the transition agreement was announced, and which did not exclude access to British territorial waters by boats from other EU countries, will probably find that in order to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, fishing rights will be sacrificed. That’s just the reality.

Here are some more broken promises. Just click on the image below to read the article in The Guardian from a couple of days ago.

Another concern is that the UK just not have the technical capacity to negotiate multiple trade agreements. The government is frantically recruiting trade negotiators. Surely, heavyweights like the USA (with whom we have been ‘promised’ a quick and comprehensive free trade agreement after Brexit, notwithstanding Trump’s current protectionist stance) will flex their muscles, to ensure access by US corporations to UK markets and the NHS, the former for food produced under lower standards than we currently enjoy through the EU, and the latter with the aim of privatizing health cover. I envisage our government just rolling over in its desperation to secure the deal.

Will there be a second referendum to vote on the actual terms of the final agreement with the EU? While I hope there will be, I’m not optimistic, although I will continue to support efforts to make one a reality.

With less than a year to go before Brexit, and almost two years after the referendum, we are still no closer to knowing, never mind understanding, what a post-Brexit relationship with the EU (or the rest of the world for that matter) will look like. Either the Theresa May, David Davis et al. are playing their cards very close to their chests, or they simply have no idea, nor have effectively planned for the future. I fear the latter. The sooner the Conservatives are voted out of power the better. Unfortunately, the Labour alternative under left-wing Jeremy Corbin looks no more rosy. Where is the middle ground of politics? Where are the statesmen and women who are more concerned about the fate of the nation rather than their own political party or career? I despair of politics in the UK today, and I despair that the country is meandering down a path to its own economic decline.

Taking back control? Humbug! This must be the first time, as someone wrote recently, that a government is actively working to bring about a decline in the nation’s prosperity rather than the reverse.

There’s more to genebanking than meets the eye (or should be)

The weather was awful last Sunday, very cold, with snow showers blowing in on a strong easterly wind throughout the day. From time to time, I found myself staring out of the window at the blizzards and letting my mind wander. A couple of seemingly unconnected ideas were triggered by a tweet about genebanks I’d read earlier in the day, and something I’d seen about a former IRRI colleague on Facebook the day before.

That got me thinking. It’s almost eight years now since I retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I worked for almost 19 years from July 1991 until the end of April 2010. As the snowflakes fell in increasing abundance, obscuring the bottom of our garden some 15 m away, I began to reminisce on the years I’d spent at IRRI, and how they’d been (mostly) good years to me and my family. My work had been very satisfying, and as I retired I felt that I’d made a useful contribution to the well-being and future of the institute. But one thought struck me particularly: how privileged I felt to have worked at one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes. It was though I was recalling a dream; not reality at all.

In rice fields at IRRI, with magnificent Mt. Makiling in the background.

Behind the plough – now that IS reality. I still have that sombrero, which I purchased shortly after I arrived in Peru in January 1973.

That journey began, as I said, in July 1991 when I became the first head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) taking responsibility for one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks, the International Rice Genebank (IRG), as well as providing administrative oversight to the International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). I gave up genebanking in 2001 and joined the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (DPPC, later Communications). As I had made many important changes to the genebank operations and how rice germplasm was managed, my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton (who joined IRRI in 2002) probably did not face so many operational and staff challenges. However, he has gone on to make several important improvements, such as bar-coding, commissioning new facilities, and overseeing the first germplasm deposits (in 2008) in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Any success I achieved at IRRI during those 19 years is also due to the fine people who worked closely with me. Not so long ago, I wrote about those who brought success to IRRI’s project management and resource mobilization. I haven’t, to date, written so much about my Filipino colleagues who worked in GRC, although you will find several posts in this blog about conserving rice genetic resources and how the genebank operates (or operated until 2010). The 15 minute video I made about the genebank shortly before leaving IRRI shows what IRRI’s genebank is and does, and featuring several staff.

The tweet I referred to earlier was posted by someone who I follow, Mary Mangan (aka mem_somerville | Wossamotta U, @mem_somerville), commenting on a genebank video produced by the Crop Trust on behalf of the CGIAR’s Genebank Platform.

She tweeted: Finally someone did a genebank video. People don’t understand that scientists are doing this; they are told by PBS [the broadcaster] that some grizzled farmer is the only one doing it.

What particularly caught my attention (apart from viewing the entertaining and informative video) was her comment about the role of scientists and, by implication I suppose, that genebanking is (or should be) supported by scientific research. From my own experience, however, a research role for genebanks has not been as common as you might think, or wasn’t back in the day. Unlike IRRI, where we did have a strong genebanking research program¹.

When I interviewed for the head of GRC in January 1991, I made it quite plain that I hoped for—expected even, almost a condition of accepting an appointment—a research role around germplasm conservation and use, something that had not been explicitly stated in the job description. Once I was appointed, however, at the same senior level as any other Division (i.e. department) Head or Program Leader, I was able to bring my genebanking perspectives directly to discussions about the institute’s research and management policies and program. In that respect, I was successful and, having secured an appropriate budget and more staff, I set about transforming the genebank operations.

The IRG organizational structure then was extremely hierarchical, with access to the head by the national staff often channeled through one senior member, Eves Loresto. That was how my predecessor, Dr TT Chang ran the genebank. That was not my style, nor did I think it an effective way to operate. I also discovered that most of the Filipino scientific staff, as Research Assistants, had been in those positions for several years, with little expectation of promotion. Something had to be done.

In 1991, the genebank collection comprised more than 70,000 seed samples or accessions² of cultivated rices (Oryza sativa or Asian rice, and O. glaberrima or African rice) and the 20 or so wild species of Oryza. I needed to understand how the genebank operated: in seed conservation; data management; the various field operations for regeneration, characterization and evaluation of germplasm; and germplasm exchange, among others. I’d never worked on rice nor managed a genebank, even though my professional formation was in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. That was a steep learning curve.

So I took my time, asked lots of questions, and listened patiently (mostly) to the detailed explanations of how and why rice germplasm was handled in this way and not that. It was also the period during which I got to know my Filipino staff. I say ‘got to know’ with some reservation. I’m ashamed to admit that I never did learn to speak Tagalog, although I could, at times, understand what was being said. And while almost all the staff spoke good English, there was always a language barrier. Obviously they always spoke Tagalog among themselves, even when I was around, so I came to rely on one or two staff to act as go-betweens with staff whose English was not so fluent.

After six months I’d developed a plan how to upgrade the genebank operations, and felt confident to implement staff changes. I was also able eventually to find a different (and more significant) role for Eves Loresto that took her out of the ‘chain of command’ between me and other staff members. We took on new ‘temporary’ staff to assist with the burdensome seed handing operations to prepare samples for long-term conservation (many of whom are still with the institute a quarter of century later), and I was able, now that everyone had better-defined responsibilities, to achieve the promotion of more than 70% of the staff.

The genebank needed, I believed, a flatter organizational structure, with each area of the genebank’s critical operations assigned to a single member of staff, yet making sure that everyone had a back-up person to take over whenever necessary. In the structure I’d inherited it was not uncommon for several members of staff to have overlapping responsibilities, with no-one explicitly taking a lead. And no-one seemed to be accountable. As I told them, if they wanted to take on more responsibility (which was a common aspiration) they had to be accountable for their own actions. No more finger-pointing if something went wrong.

How they all grew in their posts! Today, several of the national staff have senior research support positions within the institute; some have already retired.

Flora de Guzman, known to one and all as Pola, is the genebank manager. It soon became obvious to me that Pola was someone itching to take on more responsibility, who was dedicated to germplasm conservation, and had a relevant MS degree. She didn’t let me down, and has become one of the leading lights in genebank management across the eleven CGIAR genebanks that are supported through the Genebank Platform that I mentioned earlier.

Pola manages all the operations inside the genebank: germplasm acquisition; seed cleaning and storage; and exchange (and all the paperwork that goes with that!). Take a peek inside the genebank with Pola, from 1:00 in the video. She worked closely with Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño for the multiplication/regeneration of seeds when seed stocks run low, or seed viability declines. She has done a fantastic job, leading a large team and has eliminated many of the seed conservation backlogs that were like a millstone around our collective necks in the early 1990s. She will be a hard act to follow when the time comes for her to retire.

Ato is a self-effacing individual, leading the genebank field operations. Just take a look at the video I mentioned (at around 2:03 onwards) to see Ato in his domain of several hectares of rice multiplication plots.

Taking the lead from my suggestions, Ato brought all the genebank field operations back on to the institute’s experimental station from farmers’ fields some distance away where they were when I joined IRRI. He enthusiastically adopted the idea of separating multiplication/regeneration of germplasm accessions from those related to characterization, effectively moving them into different growing seasons. For the first years, his colleague Tom Clemeno took on the germplasm characterization role until Tom moved away from GRC and eventually out of the institute. After a battle with cancer, Tom passed away in 2015. ‘Little Big Man’ is sadly missed.

Soccie Almazan became the curator of the wild rices that had to be grown in a quarantine screenhouse some distance from the main research facilities, on the far side of the experiment station. But the one big change that we made was to incorporate all the germplasm types, cultivated or wild, into a single genebank collection, rather than the three collections. Soccie brought about some major changes in how the wild species were handled, and with an expansion of the screenhouses in the early 1990s (as part of the overall refurbishment of institute infrastructure) the genebank at last had the space to adequately grow (in pots) all this valuable germplasm that required special attention. See the video from 4:30. Soccie retired from IRRI in the last couple of years.

I’ve written elsewhere about the challenges we faced in terms of data management, and the significant changes we had to make in fusing what were essentially three separate databases using different coding systems for the same characters across the two cultivated species of rice and the wild species. There were three data management staff in 1991: Adel Alcantara, Vangie Gonzales, and Myrna Oliva.

L to R: Myrna, Adel’s daughter, Adel, and Vangie, during a GRC reunion in Tagaytay, just before my retirement in 2010.

One of the first changes we made during the refurbishment of GRC was to provide each of them with a proper workstation, and new computers. Each time our computers were upgraded, the data management staff were the first to benefit from new technology. Once we had made the necessary data structure changes, we could concentrate on developing a genebank management system that would incorporate all aspects from germplasm acquisition through to exchange and all steps in between. After a year or so we had a working system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). Myrna left IRRI by the mid-90s, and Adel and Vangie have retired or moved on. But their contributions to data management were significant, as access to and manipulation of data were fundamental to everything we did.

In terms of research per se, there were two young members of staff in 1991, Amy Juliano and Ma. Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, who were tinkering with several projects of little consequence. They were supervised by a British scientist, Duncan Vaughan (who spent about six months a year collecting wild rices and writing his trip reports). As I said, I was keen to establish a sound research base to rice conservation in GRC, and felt that Amy and Yvette’s talents were not being put to good use. In my opinion we needed a better taxonomic understanding of the genus Oryza based on sound experimental taxonomic principles and methods. After all, the genebank contained several thousand samples of wild rice seeds, a resource that no other laboratory could count on so readily. Despite my best efforts to encourage Duncan to embrace more research he was reluctant to do so. I wasn’t willing to tolerate ‘passengers’ in my group and so encouraged him to seek ‘pastures greener’ more suitable to his personal objectives. By mid-1993 he had left IRRI for a new position in Japan, and we could recruit his replacement to lead the taxonomic research effort.

L to R: Duncan Vaughan inside the genebank’s cold store; Bao-Rong collecting wild rices in Irian Jaya.

Bao-Rong Lu joined us in 1994, having completed his PhD in Sweden, and took Amy and Yvette under his taxonomic wing, so to speak. Amy and Yvette flourished, achieving thousands of crosses between the different wild and cultivated rices, developing tissue culture techniques to rescue seedlings through embryo culture and, once we had a collaborative research project with the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre (funded by UK government department for international aid, DFID), establishing a laboratory to study molecular markers in rice germplasm.

Amy Juliano in the molecular marker laboratory in GRC that she developed (with Sheila Quilloy).

Amy spent a couple of months at Birmingham around 1996 learning new molecular techniques. She was destined for so much more. Sadly, she contracted cancer and passed away in 2004, a great loss to her family and GRC.

I knew from my early days at IRRI that Yvette had considerable promise as a researcher. She was curating the wild species collection, among other duties, and her talents were under-utilized. She took the lead for the biosystematics and cytogenetic research, and under my partial supervision, completed her MS degree at the University of the Philippines – Los Baños (UPLB).

Bao-Rong moved back to China around 2000, giving us the opportunity of moving the research in another direction, and recruiting molecular biologist/biochemist Ken McNally. Ken was already at IRRI, completing an assignment on a perennial rice project. Ken took GRC’s molecular research to another level, with Yvette working alongside, and expanding the research into genomics, culminating in the 3000 rice genomes project. Yvette completed her PhD at UPLB in 2013 as part of that international collaboration, but has now recently retired from IRRI. It was the Facebook post about her being recognized last weekend as a UPLB Outstanding Alumnus that partly triggered this post.

In the early 90s Dr Kameswara Rao and I, supported by Ato, looked at the effects of seed-growing environment and its effect on long-term viability of rice seeds. More recently, Ato worked with Fiona Hay, a British seed physiologist who was recruited to GRC around 2007 or 2008 to extend this research, and they made some interesting changes to seed multiplication protocols and how to dry them post harvest.

The collection grew significantly between 1995 and 2000, with funding from the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), especially with regard to germplasm from the Lao PDR where GRC staff member Dr Seepana Appa Rao was based. We also had an important research component about on-farm conservation of rice varieties recruiting staff with expertise in population genetics and social anthropology. You can read more about that particular Swiss-funded project, and the staff involved, in this story from 2015.

The GRC secretaries who worked with me (L ro R): Zeny (1997-2001); Sylvia (1991-1997), and Tessie (1991 until her retirement a couple of years ago).

There were many support staff who all played their roles, and formed a great team. But I cannot end this post without mentioning the secretaries, of course. When I joined GRC, my secretary was Sylvia Arellano. She helped me through those first months as I was finding my feet. Syl was supported by Tessie Santos. When Sylvia was ‘poached’ by the Director General George Rothschild to become his secretary in 1997 (a position she would occupy until her retirement a couple of years back), Zeny Federico became my secretary. When I crossed over to senior management in 2001, Zeny came with me.

Working with such dedicated staff in GRC made my job easier, and very enjoyable. It was always a pleasure to show others just what the staff had achieved, and invariably visitors to the genebank came away impressed by what they had seen. And they understood that conserving rice varieties and wild species was not just a case of putting seeds in a cold store, but that there were many important and inter-linked components, underpinned by sound research, that enabled to the genebank to operate efficiently and safely preserve rice germplasm long into the future.

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

¹ The research led to many publications. Click here to see a list (and many more that I have published on crop species other than rice).

² The collection has now grown to almost 128,000 samples. During my tenure the collection grew by more than 25%.

No time for complacency . . .

There was a germplasm-fest taking place earlier this week, high above the Arctic Circle.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault celebrated 10 years and, accepting new seed samples from genebanks around the world (some new, some adding more samples to those already deposited) brought the total to more than 1 million sent there for safe-keeping since it opened in February 2008. What a fantastic achievement!

Establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault really does represent an extraordinary—and unprecedented—contribution by the Norwegian government to global efforts to conserve plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Coinciding with the tenth anniversary, the Norwegian government also announced plans to contribute a further 100 million Norwegian kroner (about USD13 million) to upgrade the seed vault and its facilities. Excellent news!

An interesting article dispelling a few myths about the vault was published in The Washington Post on 26 February.

The CGIAR genebank managers also met in Svalbard, and there was the obligatory visit to the seed vault.

Genebank managers from: L-R front row: ICRAF, Bioversity International, and CIAT, CIAT; and standing, L-R: CIMMYT, ILRI, IITA, ICRISAT, IRRI, ??, CIP, ??, Nordgen, ICRAF

Several of my former colleagues from six genebanks and Cary Fowler (former director of the Crop Trust) were recognized by the Crop Trust with individual Legacy Awards.

Crop Trust Legacy Awardees, L-R: Dave Ellis (CIP), Hari Upadhyaya (ICRISAT), Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton (IRRI), Daniel Debouck (CIAT), Ahmed Amri (ICARDA), Cary Fowler (former Director of the Crop Trust). and Jean Hanson (ILRI). Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

This timely and increased focus on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, celebrities getting in on the act, and HRH The Prince of Wales hosting (as Global Patron of the Crop Trust) a luncheon and meeting at Clarence House recently, help raise the profile of safeguarding genetic diversity. The 10th anniversary of the Svalbard vault was even an item on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today news program this week. However, this is no time for complacency.

We need genebanks
The management and future of genebanks have been much on my mind over the past couple of years while I was leading an evaluation of the CGIAR’s research support program on Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections (otherwise known as the Genebanks CRP, and now replaced by its successor, the Genebank Platform). On the back of that review, and reading a couple of interesting genebank articles last year [1], I’ve been thinking about the role genebanks play in society, how society can best support them (assuming of course that the role of genebanks is actually understood by the public at large), and how they are funded.

Genebanks are important. However, don’t just believe me. I’m biased. After all, I dedicated much of my career to collect, conserve, and use plant genetic resources for the benefit of humanity. Genebanks and genetic conservation are recognized in the Zero Hunger Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

There are many examples showing how genebanks are the source of genes to increase agricultural productivity or resilience in the face of a changing climate, reduce the impact of diseases, and enhance the nutritional status of the crops that feed us.

In the fight against human diseases too I recently heard an interesting story on the BBC news about the antimicrobial properties of four molecules, found in Persian shallots (Allium hirtifolium), effective against TB antibiotic-resistance. There’s quite a literature about the antimicrobial properties of this species, which is a staple of Iranian cuisine. Besides adding to agricultural potential, just imagine looking into the health-enhancing properties of the thousands and thousands of plant species that are safely conserved in genebanks around the world.

Yes, we need genebanks, but do we need quite so many? And if so, can we afford them all? What happens if a government can longer provide the appropriate financial support to manage a genebank collection? Unfortunately, that’s not a rhetorical question. It has happened. Are genebanks too big (or too small) to fail?

Too many genebanks?
According to The Second Report on The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture published by FAO in 2010, there are more than 1700 genebanks/genetic resources collections around the world. Are they equally important, and are their collections safe?

Fewer than 100 genebanks/collections have so far safeguarded their germplasm in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, just 5% or so, but among them are some of the largest and most important germplasm collections globally such as those in the CGIAR centers, the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan, and national genebanks in the USA and Australia, to name but a few.

I saw a tweet yesterday suggesting that 40% of the world’s germplasm was safely deposited in Svalbard. I find figure that hard to believe, and is more likely to be less than 20% (based on the estimate of the total number of germplasm accessions worldwide reported on page 5 of this FAO brief). I don’t even know if Svalbard has the capacity to store all accessions if every genebank decided to deposit seeds there. In any case, as explained to me a couple of years ago by the Svalbard Coordinator of Operation and Management, Åsmund Asdal, genebanks must meet several criteria to send seed samples to Svalbard. The criteria may have been modified since then. I don’t know.

First, samples must be already stored at a primary safety back-up site; Svalbard is a ‘secondary’ site. For example, in the case of the rice collection at IRRI, the collection is duplicated under ‘black-box’ conditions in the vaults of the USDA’s National Lab for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has been since the 1980s.

The second criterion is, I believe, more difficult—if not almost impossible—to meet. Apparently, only unique samples should be sent to Svalbard. This means that the same sample should not have been sent more than once by a genebank or, presumably, by another genebank. Therein lies the difficulty. Genebanks exchange germplasm samples all the time, adding them to their own collections under a different ID. Duplicate accessions may, in some instances, represent the bulk of germplasm samples that a genebank keeps. However, determining if two samples are the same is not easy; it’s time-consuming, and can be expensive. I assume (suspect) that many genebanks just package up their germplasm and send it off to Svalbard without making these checks. And in many ways, provided that the vault can continue to accept all the possible material from around the world, this should not be an issue. It’s more important that collections are safe.

Incidentally, the current figure for Svalbard is often quoted in the media as ‘1 million unique varieties of crops‘. Yes, 1 million seed samples, but never 1 million varieties. Nowhere near that figure.

In the image below, Åsmund is briefing the press during the vault’s 10th anniversary.

Svalbard is a very important global repository for germplasm, highlighted just a couple of years ago or so when ICARDA, the CGIAR center formerly based in Aleppo, Syria was forced to relocate (because of the civil war in that country) and establish new research facilities—including the genebank—in Lebanon and Morocco. Even though the ICARDA crop collections were already safely duplicated in other genebanks, Svalbard was the only location where they were held together. Logistically it was more feasible to seek return of the seeds from Svalbard rather than from multiple locations. This was done, germplasm multiplied, collections re-established in Morocco and Lebanon, and much has now been returned to Svalbard for safe-keeping once again. The seed vault played the role that was intended. To date, the ICARDA withdrawal of seeds from Svalbard has been the only one.

However, in terms of global safety of all germplasm, blackbox storage at Svalbard is not an option for all crops and their wild relatives. Svalbard can only provide safe storage for seeds that survive low temperatures. There are many species that have short-lived seeds that do not tolerate desiccation or low temperature storage, or which reproduce vegetatively, such as potatoes through tubers, for example. Some species are kept as in vitro or tissue culture collections as shown in the images below for potatoes at CIP (top) or cassava at CIAT (below).

Some species can be cryopreserved at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, and is a promising technology for potato at CIP.

I believe discussions are underway to find a global safety back-up solution for these crops.

How times have changed
Fifty years ago, there was a consensus (as far as I can determine from different publications) among the pioneer group of experts (led by Sir Otto Frankel) that just a relatively small network of international and regional genebanks, and some national ones, was all that would be needed to hold the world’s plant genetic resources. How times have changed!

Sir Otto Frankel and Ms Erna Bennett

In one of the first books dedicated to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources [2], Sir Otto and Erna Bennett wrote: A world gene bank may be envisaged as an association of national or regional institutions operating under international agreements relating to techniques and the availability of material, supported by a central international clearing house under the control of an international agency of the United Nations. Regional gene banks which have been proposed could make a contribution provided two conditions are met—a high degree of technical efficiency, and unrestricted international access. It is of the greatest importance that both these provisos are secured; an international gene bank ceases to fulfil its proper function if it is subjected to national or political discrimination. In the light of subsequent developments, this perspective may be viewed as rather naïve perhaps.

Everything changed in December 1993 when the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force. Until then, plant genetic resources for food and agriculture had been viewed as the ‘heritage of mankind’ or ‘international public goods’. Individual country sovereignty over national genetic resources became, appropriately, the new norm. Genebanks were set up everywhere, probably with little analysis of what that meant in terms of long-term security commitments or a budget for maintaining, evaluating, and using these genebank collections. When I was active in genebank management during the 1990s, and traveling around Asia, I came across several examples where ‘white elephant’ genebanks had been built, operating on shoe-string budgets, and mostly without the resources needed to maintain their collections. It was not uncommon to come across genebanks without the resources to maintain the integrity of the cold rooms where seeds were stored.

Frankel and Bennett further stated that: . . . there is little purpose in assembling material unless it is effectively used and preserved. The efficient utilization of genetic resources requires that they are adequately classified and evaluated. This statement still has considerable relevance today. It’s the raison d’être for genetic conservation. As we used to tell our genetic resources MSc students at Birmingham: No conservation without use!

The 11 genebanks of the CGIAR meet the Frankel and Bennet criteria and are among the most important in the world, in terms of: the crop species and wild relatives conserved [3]; the genebank collection size (number of accessions); their remarkable genetic diversity; the documentation and evaluation of conserved germplasm; access to and exchange of germplasm (based on the number of Standard Material Transfer Agreements or SMTAs issued each year); the use of germplasm in crop improvement; and the quality of conservation management, among others. They (mostly) meet internationally-agreed genebank standards.

For what proportion of the remaining ‘1700’ collections globally can the same be said? Many certainly do; many don’t! Do many national genebanks represent value for money? Would it not be better for national genebanks to work together more closely? Frankel and Bennett mentioned regional genebanks, that would presumably meet the conservation needs of a group of countries. Off the top of my head I can only think of two genebanks with a regional mandate.  One is the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Plant Genetic Resource Centre, located in Lusaka, Zambia. The other is CATIE in Turrialba, Costa Rica, which also maintains collections of coffee and cacao of international importance.

The politics of genetic conservation post-1993 made it more difficult, I believe, to arrive at cooperative agreements between countries to conserve and use plant genetic resources. Sovereignty became the name of the game! Even among the genebanks of the CGIAR it was never possible to rationalize collections. Why, for example, should there be two rice collections, at IRRI and Africa Rice, or wheat collections at CIMMYT and ICARDA? However, enhanced data management systems, such as GRIN-Global and Genesys, are providing better linkages between collections held in different genebanks.

Meeting the cost
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provides the legal framework for supporting the international collections of the CGIAR and most of the species they conserve.

Running a genebank is expensive. The CGIAR genebanks cost about USD22 million annually to fulfill their mandates. It’s not just a case of putting seed packets in a large refrigerator (like the Svalbard vault) and forgetting about them, so-to-speak. There’s a lot more to genebanking (as I highlighted here) that the recent focus on Svalbard has somewhat pushed into the background. We certainly need to highlight many more stories about how genebanks are collecting and conserving genetic resources, what it takes to keep a seed accession or a vegetatively-propagated potato variety, for example, alive and available for generations to come, how breeders and other scientists have tapped into this germplasm, and what success they have achieved.

Until the Crop Trust stepped in to provide the security of long-term funding through its Endowment Fund, these important CGIAR genebanks were, like most national genebanks, threatened with the vagaries of short-term funding for what is a long-term commitment. In perpetuity, in fact!

Many national genebanks face even greater challenges and the dilemma of funding these collections has not been resolved. Presumably national genebanks should be the sole funding responsibility of national governments. After all, many were set up in response to the ‘sovereignty issue’ that I described earlier. But some national collections also have global significance because of the material they conserve.

I’m sure that genebank funding does not figure prominently in government budgets. They are a soft target for stagflation and worse, budget cuts. Take the case of the UK for instance. There are several important national collections, among which the UK Vegetable Genebank at the Warwick Crop Centre and the Commonwealth Potato Collection at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland figure prominently. Consumed by Brexit chaos, and despite speaking favorably in support of biodiversity at the recent Clarence House meeting that I mentioned earlier in this post, I’m sure that neither of these genebanks or others is high on the agenda of Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Michael Gove MP or his civil servants. If a ‘wealthy’ country like the UK has difficulties finding the necessary resources, what hope have resource-poorer countries have of meeting their commitments.

However, a commitment to place their germplasm in Svalbard would be a step in the right direction.

I mentioned that genebanking is expensive, yet the Crop Trust estimates that an endowment of only USD850 million would provide sufficient funding in perpetuity to support the genebanks. USD850 million seems a large sum, yet about half of this has already been raised as donations, mostly from national governments that already provide development aid. In the UK, with the costs of Brexit becoming more apparent day-by-day, and the damage that is being done to the National Health Service through recurrent under-funding, some politicians are now demanding changes to the government’s aid budget, currently at around 0.7% of GDP. I can imagine the consequences for food security in nations that depend on such aid, were it reduced or (heaven help us) eliminated.

On the other hand, USD850 million is peanuts. Take the cost of one A380 aircraft, at around USD450 million. Emirates Airlines has just confirmed an order for a further 36 aircraft!

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation continues to do amazing things through its generous grants. A significant grant from the BMGF could top-up the Endowment Fund. The same goes for other donor agencies.

Let’s just do it and get it over with.

Then we can get on with the job of not only making all germplasm safe, especially for species that are hard to or cannot be conserved as seeds, but by using the latest ‘omics’ technologies [4] to understand just how germplasm really is the basis of food security for everyone on this beautiful planet of ours.

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[1] One, on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog (that is maintained by two friends of mine, Luigi Guarino, the Director of Science and Programs at the Crop Trust in Bonn, and Jeremy Cherfas, formerly Senior Science Writer at Bioversity International in Rome and now a Freelance Communicator) was about accounting for the number of genebanks around the world. The second, published in The Independent on 2 July 2017, was a story by freelance journalist Ashley Coates about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and stated that it is ‘the world’s most important freezer‘.

[2] Frankel, OH and E Bennett (1970). Genetic resources. In: OH Frankel and E Bennett (eds) Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation. IBP Handbook No 11. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[3] The CGIAR genebanks hold major collections of farmer varieties and wild relatives of crops that feed the world’s population on a daily basis: rice, wheat, maize, sorghum and millets, potato, cassava, sweet potato, yam, temperate and tropical legume species like lentil, chickpea, pigeon pea, and beans, temperate and tropical forage species, grasses and legumes, that support livestock, and fruit and other tree species important in agroforestry systems, among others.

[4] McNally, KL, 2014. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd and M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp.166-189 (Chapter 10).