Plants deserve more than five minutes of fame . . .

I’m currently enjoying Frozen Planet II, broadcast on Sunday evenings on BBC1, presented and narrated by that icon of nature broadcasting, Sir David Attenborough.

It’s visually stunning, with so many awe-inspiring wildlife stories that film crews have taken months, years even, to capture sometimes for the very first time on camera. The cinematography itself is incredible — photographic technology has certainly come a long way since the first Frozen Planet series was broadcast in 2011.

Of course, Frozen Plant II is only the latest of a series of wildlife blockbusters produced by the BBC, but as with most of the others it is zoocentric. Where are the plants? The series title is, after all, Frozen Planet not Frozen Animals. Like so many nature programs, Frozen Planet II is basically plant blind.

Of course I am biased. After all, I trained (ever so many years ago) as a botanist.

Proud to be a botanist

The BBC has produced series about plants (although I’m not counting the various gardening ones), the most recent being The Green Planet, broadcast over five episodes at the beginning of 2022 (which I found somewhat disappointing). And the 1995 The Private Life of Plants, of course. Both narrated and presented by Attenborough.

On the whole, however, most nature programs focus on animals. Why? Well, as my friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote in Chapter 1 of our 1986 book on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources:

To most people the word ‘conservation’ conjures up visions of lovable cuddly animals like giant pandas on the verge of extinction. Or it refers to the prevention of the mass slaughter of endangered whale species, under threat because of human’s greed or short-sightedness. Comparatively few people however, are moved to action or financial contribution by the idea of economically important plant species disappearing from the face of the earth. Precious orchids with undoubted aesthetic appeal, or the vegetation of the Amazonian rain forest, where sheer vastness cannot fail to impress, may attract deserved attention. But plant genetic resources [or plant biodiversity as a whole, I would hasten to add] make little impression on the heart even though their disappearance could herald famine on a greater scale than ever seen before, leading to ultimate world-wide disaster.

And there was a similar—and understandable— reaction (from a professor of molecular plant pathology at Imperial College) to a tweet I posted after seeing the latest Frozen Planet II episode last Sunday evening

Yes, gory indeed. Lots of predator-prey footage involving penguins, seals, and killer whales in various combinations. But nevertheless very interesting, showing learned and coordinated behavior by the whales to capture their prey.

It took skill (and courage) to film a puma stalking guanacos in Patagonia in the dark using high resolution night vision cameras. But there was no mention that pumas only survive in that hostile environment because of the guanacos. And the guanaco population is healthy only because there is sufficient vegetation to support their herds. What mechanisms to the plants employ to thrive in these harsh environments? I’m hopeful—but not holding my breath—that in next Sunday’s program, featuring the Northern Hemisphere boreal forests there will be more than lip-service paid to the botanical elements of this enormous ecosystem.

For many years, the British Antarctic Survey had a botanical section (that was actually based in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham where I studied) before it moved to BAS headquarters in Cambridge. Botanical research per se no longer features prominently on the BAS website. At least after a cursory search, I have to admit, nothing stood out. In the past BAS botanists combined lab work in Birmingham on the taxonomy, ecology, and physiology of grasses and mosses in particular with fieldwork in the south, especially on the sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia.

And thinking of that work reminds me of one segment of last Sunday’s program featuring the Antipodean Wandering Albatross that nests on Antipodes island (49°40′12″S 178°46′48″E). I’m sure that outcrop in the southern ocean would be less inviting were it not for the various tussocky grasses that provide shelter.

Having proposed to a BBC producer, many decades ago, the idea of a series based around the topic of plants and man, I still believe it could/would make rather interesting TV. So many topics to choose from, but here’s a few off the top of my head:

  • Swedish naturalist, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus)

    Making sense of plant diversity – taxonomy, famous taxonomists, plant collectors, Linnaeus, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain Cook, Darwin.

  • The origins of agriculture – cradles of agriculture, archaeology, crop wild relatives, domestication, Vavilov.
  • The legacy of empire, colonization – slavery, cotton, tobacco, oil palm, bananas, sugarcane, and many more.
  • Farming on the edge – the Andes of South America (potatoes), hills of Southeast Asia (rice), among many.
  • Food security – genetic resources, genebanks, climate change, modern plant breeding, molecular biology, genetic modification, turbocharging photosynthesis, plants and pathogens.

It’s no wonder that applications to study plant sciences have declined. Plants (and the exciting times of plant science) just don’t receive the same airtime (apart from the multiplicity of gardening programs which I am discounting). I’m not suggesting for one moment that they should, but a little less plant blindness would be welcome.

I don’t believe there’s a single department of botany left in the UK universities (although some do still offer botany/plant sciences degree courses); they have all merged with other disciplines to form departments of schools of biological sciences. It’s also good to know that my alma mater, Birmingham, has increased the staff teaching and researching plants. In the USA many universities still retain healthy departments of botany or plant sciences.

Am I being overly pessimistic? Perhaps. I enjoyed a varied and successful career over almost 40 years after studying botany as an undergraduate, and gaining graduate degrees in genetic conservation and crop evolution. A career in agricultural research that took me to so many countries and interesting environments, natural and agricultural.

Let’s encourage a younger generation to take up the plant sciences because there are so many exciting developments to explore, and many central to our survival. Without interesting botanical air time, fewer perhaps are likely to be attracted in the first place.

Let’s remove the botanical blinkers. How about it, BBC?


 

Southampton @ 15

29 April 1952. A memorable day. Hartley University College, Southampton was granted a royal charter by Her Majesty The Queen (the first of her reign) to award its own degrees, and became the University of Southampton. As Her Majesty celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, so does the university with an interesting of program of events next month, on 14 May.

The University of Southampton is my alma mater. I graduated in July 1970 with a BSc combined honours degree in environmental botany and geography, after three very happy years there.

Studying at Southampton, 1967-1970

Anyway, having written in detail about the academics, I thought I’d put together a few anecdotes and tales of being a student at Southampton in the late 60s.


Mid-afternoon, late September/early October 1967. Almost 55 years ago, and I was searching for a seat on the train chartered by the university’s Student’s Union taking freshers from London’s Waterloo Station to Southampton.

Finding the last empty seat in one compartment, I sat next to Neil, a law student from Hemel Hempstead. Like me, Neil was heading to South Stoneham House, one of the university’s halls of residence on Wessex Lane, about a mile east of the Highfield campus, as were several others in the same railway compartment. Neil and I remained firm friends over the course of our degrees, and are still in touch today.

South Stoneham House – in its heyday.

Swaythling station, on the outskirts of the city, was the first stop where those joining South Stoneham, Connaught, and Montefiore halls were taken by coach the short distance to their destinations.

I had a room on the 6th floor as did Neil. Next door to me was John, also signed up for botany and geography. A couple of days later we discovered there were only five of us on that particular degree course.

Thus was my introduction to hall life, and looking forward to the next three years at the university.


So why had I chosen and ended up at Southampton? The university was not my first choice when I sent in my UCAS application the previous December. That honor went to King’s College, London to study for a degree in geography.

Back in the day, it was normal practice for all applicants to be interviewed. But, in February 1967, when the call came through to attend several interviews, I went down with the flu and had to reschedule all of them. Southampton was extremely accommodating. I contacted the university to say that I’d be in London on a certain day, and could I come on to Southampton the following day.

So, several weeks later, and on a bright, sunny, and quite warm day for the time of year, I was interviewed for about an hour by Dr Joyce Lambert, an ecologist and Reader in the Department of Botany, and Dr Brian Birch, a biogeographer and Lecturer from the Department of Geography.

I met them in the Geography department that, in those days, was based in the Hartley Building on the first floor at the rear, above the university administration offices and behind the university library.

The Hartley Building on University Road, Highfield, now the university library only.

I felt the interview had gone well. It’s hard to explain but I knew the moment that I walked through the doors of the Hartley Building that I could be very happy at Southampton. It just felt right! And a week or so later I received a generous offer of 3 Cs (in biology, geography, and/or English literature/general studies.


The first week at Southampton, Freshers’ Week, passed by in a blur. For many of us, this was our first time away from home. Freedom! Not only did we have to get used to the hall of residence regime, make new friends, there was the whole of the university to explore, very much smaller than it is today.

It was probably by the end of that week that we had our first introduction to the departments and our personal tutees. Joyce Lambert was my tutor in Botany, and Brian Birch in Geography, thus renewing directly my acquaintance from the interview. And also meeting the other members of the botany and geography cohort: Jane, Stuart, and Michael.

(I later learned that one of the combined honours students in the year ahead [1966 intake] reputedly was or became an infamous Mossad agent and assassin. I have had that ‘confirmed’ by someone who knew her).

Our course structure was explained, and in the case of geography we had to sign up immediately for a weekend of field trips around Southampton at the end of the first week of teaching. On one of those days we were taken to the northern outskirts of the city, and then as a group of more than 50 students, walked back into the city with the physical and historical geography features explained along the way. All in the pouring rain! Welcome to geography fieldwork.

Also at the end of Freshers’ Week, the Students’ Union organized the annual ‘Bun Fight’, where all the societies made pitches to recruit and welcome new members.

I signed up to join the English and Scottish Folk Dance Society, although I’d never danced a step before then. And dancing remained an enjoyable pastime during my three years.

Dance as if no one is watching . . .

From that initial folk dancing experience, I helped to found the university morris dance side, the Red Stags, at the beginning of my second year in October 1968.

Sticks and hankies – a tale of Red Stags

The Red Stags are thriving 54 years later, as a mixed male/female Border morris side, but no longer associated with the university.

One other thing I remember about Freshers’ Week were the short trips around the city in the Toastrack, a 1929 vintage Dennis bus, owned and maintained by the Southampton University Engineering Society since 1958.

In the late 60s, Southampton was engineering-heavy, and about one quarter of all undergrads were studying for one engineering degree or another.


In South Stoneham House there were shared rooms in the original Queen Anne mansion but single occupancy ones in the 16 storey tower block erected in 1964. It was all male, fewer than 200 students all told. And woe betide any student with a girl in his room, or attempting to smuggle one out, after the curfew hour of 9 pm. Each room had a wash basin, and there were two baths and toilet/showers on each floor.

The accommodation included breakfast and dinner Monday to Saturday, and breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea on Sundays. Dinner was always formal, and we had to wear a black gown. A bit pretentious, I guess; Southampton trying to emulate an Oxbridge college in some respects.

I enjoyed life in South Stoneham, and when, towards the end of my first year I discovered I’d not secured a place for my second year, I decided to stand for Vice President of the Junior Common Room (JCR, as opposed to the Senior Common Room comprising the Warden and several faculty members who had rooms in hall). Being duly elected, I was automatically allocated a room, moving up to the 13th floor, with a south-facing view over the gardens and the banks of the River Itchen, and all the way down to Southampton docks.

As Vice President I took responsibility for various entertainments, including the Stoneham November dance and fireworks, as well as the May Ball. Neil and I also took on the firework display, and I had a budget of £20 or so (almost £400 today) to source appropriate display fireworks. I was called before the Bursar who gave me a ticking-off for storing the fireworks in my room, and ordering me to put them safely in the basement under lock and key.

For the May Ball, we developed a Parisian theme and review. A great success. I wonder if anyone recognizes a few faces.

In my third year, Neil and I moved into digs at No. 30 University Road, just down from the recently-opened University Administration Building and bookshop (now the Student Services Centre). After I left Southampton in 1970 many of the houses on that side of University Road were taken over by the university as departmental expansion space. No. 30 has now been demolished.


In the late 60s the university was beginning to expand, and new buildings were being put up. Just a year before I arrived there, Botany moved from an old building (now demolished I believe) that stood next to the Hartley Building to Building 44 (now named the Shackleton Building and housing the Geography and Psychology departments) along with geology. Of course Botany no longer exists as a separate department, merging with Zoology (and others?) after I’d left Southampton.

In my second year, Geography moved from the Hartley Building to the new Arts II, which now houses the Southampton Business School and the Music department (formerly located around the Nuffield Theatre).

And talking of the Administration Building. The late 60s were a radical time at Southampton, and rumors abounded that the new building would be occupied within days of its opening. And it came to pass, with the Vice Chancellor (Professor Sir Kenneth Mather FRS) having to remain in his old suite of offices until the students were evicted and the extensive damage repaired. Not the best of times.

Professor Mather came to Southampton from the University of Birmingham where he had been head of the Department of Genetics. He taught a course on population genetics to a class of third year botany and zoology students, and often claimed he was the only teaching Vice Chancellor in the country. After retiring from Southampton, he returned to Birmingham, keeping an office in the School of Biological Sciences. By 1981, I was also a faculty member at Birmingham, and Professor Mather had an office just down the corridor from mine. We often shared Southampton anecdotes.


During my first year I had to attend two field courses. The geography course was held in Swansea in late March 1968 just after the end of the Spring term. We stayed in one of the university halls of residence there, making field trips to see the legacy of the industrial revolution in the Swansea Valley, and the physical geography of the Gower Peninsula. The weather was mixed. It was warm enough on some days for bathing suits on the beach, but on the final morning we woke to almost 12 inches of snow!

I attended two botany field courses. The first, in July 1968, was based near the Burren in County Clare in the west of Ireland. We had a great time.

“There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man”.

A year later, we spent two weeks in Norfolk, which coincided with the first Moon landing by Armstrong and Aldrin.

The Man [on] the Moon (updated 20 July 2019)

I guess I was lucky to attend both botany field courses. Until 1970, the university did not allow any students to resit exams they had failed. One strike and you were out, even if the failed course was an ancillary one. And large numbers of students were asked to leave, even at the end of their second year. I scraped my first year ancillary geology course by a whisker.

It all came to a head in 1969 when a very large number (almost 50% if my memory serves me right) of second year chemists failed one or more exams and were expelled. That was a step too far. There was a student uproar. The expelled students were not re-admitted but resit exams were introduced the following year.


Apart from the folk dancing, I guess I spent more than my fair share of time in the pub or the Student Union bar (in the old building), sometimes playing squash in the new Students’ Union building that had been opened in 1967. There were two pubs close to the university on Burgess Road, both now closed perhaps even demolished. I favored the Crown & Sceptre (above) over The Gate, and held my 21st birthday party there in November 1969.

In the summer term, we often had lunch on Saturday at a pub on Woodmill Lane (they did an excellent ploughman’s) on the bank of the River Itchen. It looks as if it’s no longer there. Across the road was a pitch and putt course.

Not having a car, I hardly ever went to the New Forest, but Bursledon on the Hamble River was much more easily accessible by train. My girlfriend Liz and I often missed Friday evening dinner in our respective halls for a pub meal at The Jolly Sailor overlooking the river (where they had an amazing selection of fruit wines). This pub featured several times in the BBC production Howard’s Way over six series from 1985 to 1990.


I joined the Folk Club that was held every Sunday evening in one of the Union bars. Tim Hart and Maddy Prior (later of Steeleye Span fame) were frequent performers at the club.

I even performed once or twice myself. And in February 1969, the Red Stags made their debut at a ceilidh that I organized, attended by several hundred students

I can remember attending only three rock concerts, and all during my first year, held in the Old Refectory.

The first was the Alan Price Set (former keyboard player with The Animals) on 25 November 1967. Then there was Pink Floyd on 26 January 1968 (without Syd Barrett) and supported by T-Rex. I can’t find a gig date for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown; in fact Southampton University is not even listed on several web lists. But he did perform because I remember him launching into his iconic Fire, and setting his hair alight!


Anyway, these are just a few of my Southampton memories. Good times, and an excellent launch pad for a later career in international agricultural research and academia.

On graduation in 1970 I moved to the University of Birmingham to study for an MSc in genetic resources conservation, and then completed a PhD on potatoes from Peru in 1975. I spent more than 8 years with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Costa Rica from January 1973, and another 19 years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines from 1991. In between, I spent a decade teaching botany at Birmingham.

Returning in 2010, I now just have happy memories of my time at Southampton and the successful career that stemmed from those first years. In 2012 I was awarded an OBE for services to international food science, and I like to think that in many ways it was a culmination of a career in science that began at Southampton in 1967.


 

Eat ’em to conserve ’em . . .

That’s right. Eat ’em to conserve ’em. Sounds counter-intuitive? Well, the answer is not what you might expect.

On a recent BBC Two program [1], Lisa, a pig breeder from North Yorkshire of rare—and very hairy—Hungarian Mangalica pigs, told one of the presenters (who’d wondered if he might turn vegetarian after seeing the cuteness of Mangalica piglets): “We need you to eat the meat, because if you don’t eat the meat, then farmers won’t breed them, and that’s how you lose them“.

Regular viewers of BBC One’s Countryfile (broadcast on Sunday evenings) will be familiar with the preservation of rare breeds in the UK. One of the presenters is Cotswold farmer Adam Henson, whose father Joe founded the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) in 1973. The RBST supports the UK National Livestock Gene Bank where semen and embryos are stored.

Joe Henson also set up the Cotswold Farm Park in 1971 on his farm near Guiting Power that Adam and his business partner continue to run, where the public can see different breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and poultry, most of which no longer play any significant role in commercial agriculture. They only survive because of the interest and efforts of farmers like Adam and the RBST. While preservation of rare breeds is one of Adam’s passions, he frequently acknowledges that they have to pay their way. So, for many farmers like pig breeder Lisa, keeping rare breed livestock is a commercial enterprise. And there is a growing interest in and demand for rare breed meat.


What are the parallels in crops?

For decades now crops (and their wild relatives) have been conserved in genebanks around the world. Scientists in the 1960s acknowledged that unless these crop varieties were collected they might be lost forever. So the good news is that important genebank collections were established, crop varieties and diversity preserved, and used to create more productive varieties for farmers to grow.

Conservation in genebanks or seed banks (often referred to as ex situ conservation, and the plant equivalent of semen and egg or embryo storage) ensures that genetic diversity is protected over the long term, subject of course to the best genebank management practices.  However, there are crops, like potatoes that reproduce vegetatively by tubers (important for maintaining specific varietal identity), and others that either don’t produce seeds, or which are short-lived and cannot be stored in a seed bank.

In the UK there are several important genebank collections: the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee; the Germplasm Resource Unit (GRU, with important collections of wheat, barley, oat, and pea) at the John Innes Centre in Norwich; and the UK Vegetable Genebank (UKGVB) at the Warwick Crop Centre, Wellesbourne.

And the centers of the CGIAR around the world manage some of the largest and genetically most diverse genebank collections anywhere. I have been involved with two of these: for rice at the International Rice Research Institute, in Los Baños, in the Philippines, and for potatoes at the International Potato Center, in Lima, Peru. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides an extremely important safety backup to these and many national genebank collections.


However, what is the situation on farms? Do farmers continue to grow the varieties that have sustained their communities for generations? Is it feasible to conserve varieties on farm? And how many would opt to grow new varieties if these were available?

Just like livestock, crop varieties can only survive if farmers continue to care for them, and they are consumed. Eat ’em to conserve ’em.

Now many of these farmer varieties (often referred to as landrace or ‘heirloom’ varieties) are found in subsistence farm systems where the full impact of modern bred varieties has yet to be felt.

Take the situation of rice in the northern part of Laos in southeast Asia, for example. Many of the rice varieties grown there are upland rices, and modern rice breeding has produced fewer improved varieties for these agricultural systems. Farmers (many of them women) continue to grow hundreds of rice varieties. While I was head of genetic resources at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines during the 1990s, I spear-headed an international project to collect and conserve these varieties in Laos and many other countries, and one of my colleagues, Dr Seepana Appa Rao spent five years in Laos assisting local scientists there.

‘Heirloom’ rice varieties are an important cultural foundation of many societies throughout Asia (and Africa). But farmers need to make a living, aspire to a better life, producing food for their families, and generate income if possible to pay for their children’s education. Many farmers want something better than the drudgery of agriculture for their children.

Is it possible to make a profitable living from these varieties? What are the opportunities to make the old varieties more commercially appealing? To commodify them. Certainly if these traditional varieties could generate an income, then farmers would be more willing to grow them. And, in the process, fulfill an important objective of on-farm or in situ conservation in a sustainable manner, rather than having to rely on farmer-conservators or subsidies (which can always be taken away).

Nollie Vera Cruz

The Heirloom Rice Project (HRP) was a collaboration between the Philippines Department of Agriculture and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, coordinated by my former colleague, Dr Casiana ‘Nollie’ Vera Cruz) to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of ‘heirloom’ or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems. It focused on traditional rice varieties found only in the Cordillera Region provinces of Ifugao, Mountain Province, Benguet, and Kalinga or northern Luzon island.

As explained in one website story, ‘heirloom’ rice varieties come in grains of astonishing colors: brown, black, pink, purple, and pearly white; fragrant, nutty in taste, high in fiber; healthy to eat; a gourmet’s delight. Yet for all their captivating look and taste, they thrive in the most fragile places, on mountain tops, where dew, rain, and air are their only means of sustenance. 

Rice terraces at Banaue, Ifugao Province, Philippines.

Furthermore . . . ‘heirloom’ rice varieties have been grown on the terraces of the Cordillera Mountains of Luzon, Philippines [for centuries], terroirs known for their significant historical, cultural, and aesthetic values. However, heritage ‘heirloom’ rice farming is gradually being abandoned, mainly because of its lower productivity and the struggle of the sector to create a sustainable niche market for heirloom rice by branding its cultural, social, and nutritional values.

One of the important outcomes was to link farmers with markets so that these special rice varieties could find a particular niche in the market, even exported during the course of the project to the USA. And it’s those linkages that were so important.


Let’s now to cross to South America where there is a wealth of potato varieties grown throughout the Andes of Peru and Bolivia in particular, mainly (until now) for home consumption.

As I have seen for myself, as long ago as 1974 near Cuzco in southern Peru, farmers successfully combined the cultivation of commercial varieties for the market while cultivating the ‘old’ varieties in small plots close to the farmstead, the basis of household food security.

In this photo, northwest of Cuzco, large commercial plantings of improved varieties can be seen in the distance, while inside the wall surrounding the farmstead only native varieties were grown.

Have farmers found a way to make these ‘heirloom’ varieties more commercial? Well, there’s a very interesting initiative in Peru that has spread across quite a large part of the country.

Potato farmers have formed AGUAPAN(Asociación de Guardianes de la Papa Nativa del Centro del Perú) that is supported by Grupo Yanapai, an NGO that has considerable experience in participatory research.

Farmers commercialize their varieties directly to households in Lima, even delivered directly to the door, as mixtures (chaqru) under the trade name Miski Papa.

What is particularly interesting about the project is that individual farmers are identified, and the commercialization strategy is geared towards understanding their roles and the varieties they grow. See how Sra. Guerrero grows 180 different varieties!

Now look at these other photos (on AGUAPAN’s Facebook page) showing different farmers and their varieties.

AGUAPAN has taken the opportunity to increase farmer incomes through this project and at the same time ensuring farmers continue to grow ‘heirloom’ varieties. There is an interesting paper published in 2021 by a former colleague of mine at CIP, Andre Devaux (and others) that describes how these potato varieties have become a culinary sensation and a market innovation.


These two projects on rice and potatoes (there must be more around the world on the same and other crops) show how two objectives can be met:

  • Enhancement of farmer livelihoods through market innovations with native ‘heirloom’ varieties;
  • On-farm (in situ) conservation that permits the dynamics of farmer management to prosper, and exposing genetic diversity to environmental challenges, so important under a changing climate.

Personally, until now, I have had some doubts about the wisdom of prioritizing on-farm conservation for crop genetic resources. Certainly in the 1990s there was quite a push to promote in situ conservation, and in the rice biodiversity project that I referred to at the beginning of the post, we learned a great deal about the choices farmers make on a daily basis. And that is what on-farm conservation should be all about: allowing farmers to make informed choices, to change their varieties, to discard some, adopt others. Even though some farmers take on a role of conservators, I’ve never believed that subsidies paid to farmers to ‘conserve’ their varieties was a viable, long-term option. With the commercialization initiatives I’ve described here, there are now excellent opportunities to ensure the long-term survival of ‘heirloom’ varieties in the systems where they originated.

Eat ’em to conserve ’em!


[1] The Hairy Bikers Go North, Episode 4 North Yorkshire (not available everywhere), just before three minutes, first broadcast on 14 October 2021.

 

 

Collecting potatoes in Peru – following in Jack Hawkes’ footsteps (Part 2)

A year after returning from collecting in Ancash and La Libertad (as described in Part 1) I was heading north once again, this time to the Department of Cajamarca. In a long wheelbase Land Rover, a donation from the British government to CIP. But alone this time, almost. By May 1974 I was already quite fluent in Spanish, and had done more travelling around the country. It was assumed therefore I could look after myself, so we decided I should travel with just one of the CIP drivers, Octavio. I regret I cannot recall his surname.

Just about to head out (May 1974)

Parked on the side of the Panamericana Norte highway north of Lima

Cajamarca is also the capital city of the department, and is one of my favorite places in Peru. At 2700 m elevation, the city lies in a broad valley among rolling hills. The landscape of Cajamarca has a much gentler feel to it than the high peaks of Ancash or further south around Cuzco, or the altiplano surrounding Puno.

We must have split the journey to Cajamarca city. It’s almost 900 km and even today, on better roads, the journey is estimated to take more than 14 hours. North of the coastal city of Trujillo, the road to Cajamarca diverges east from the Panamericana Norte, winding through a lush river valley in the desert, and climbing into the mountains. Dropping down the other side, you eventually are treated to views of the city unfolding in the distance. The climate is spring-like, the food is good (the leche asada or caramel custard is a local treat), and the architecture of the (unfinished) cathedral on the main square of Plaza de Armas is a wonder.

We spent around three weeks travelling to remote areas, but were able to return from time to time to Cajamarca to enjoy the comforts of the Turista Hotel, and the Inca baths and their hot springs.

As with our collecting the previous year, we stopped to chat with farmers, ask about the varieties they and their neighbors cultivated, and requesting a sample of healthy tubers of each variety.

The market town of Bambamarca, 100 km or so north of Cajamarca was particularly interesting. It was a colorful, vibrant scene with many wearing their typical tall sombreros and russet-red ponchos, typical of Cajamarca.

On one day we stopped to chat with one farmer and his wife who became very interested why we were collecting potato varieties, and what we would do with them once back in Lima. They were so pleased to show me this particular variety with its large tubers. It’s one of my favorite images from my time in Peru.

There was even a little time for some sightseeing. Just 10 km northeast from the Plaza de Armas in Cajamarca stands an unusual archaeological site, the Ventanillas de Otuzco, a pre-Inca necropolis with more than 300 niches carved in the rock face. We even found wild tomatoes growing there.

If I have one abiding image of Cajamarca—city and landscape—it would be this one. Having eaten an early breakfast, Octavio and I headed north from the city, climbing above the valley. We stopped almost at the summit so I could take this photo of the Cajamarca valley. If you look carefully you can see the steam rising from the Inca baths in the distance.

Octavio and I got along quite well. He’d never traveled to that part of Peru before and, as a driver from the big city, had very little knowledge of potatoes. We had just the one falling-out, if you can call it that. He would insist in driving downhill along quite treacherous roads in high gear, or even in neutral, relying solely on the brakes alone to control our speed. I had to insist he use low gear to slow the vehicle or he wouldn’t be driving any more until we reached the coast and the Panamerican highway. Anyway, we arrived back in Lima after an incident-free trip.

Later on that year, I returned to Cajamarca with my wife Steph and two English friends from CIP. Again in 1988, as a member of a CIP project review team, I spent a few days in the city and surrounding countryside looking at seed production and storage systems.


When I visited CIP in 2016 as part of a review of the genebank, the staff showed me some herbarium sheets from some of the varieties I had collected on that trip to Cajamarca.


Earlier in 1974, in February, I traveled to Puno and Cuzco in the south of the country with Dr Peter Gibbs from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He was studying the floral biology of another Andean tuber crop known as oca (Oxalis tuberosa). He had contacted CIP’s Director General to see if anyone might be headed south for fieldwork with whom he could travel.

I’d already decided to carry out some field studies of potato varietal mixtures and was looking for suitable locations. Peter suggested that we might head to Cuyo Cuyo, a municipality just under 250 km northeast of Puno and Lake Titicaca. Famous for its agricultural terraces or andenes, there had been one study in 1951 describing the cultivation of oca in the valley. Peter convinced me that it was worth heading in that direction. Which is precisely what we did.

On this trip we drove a short wheelbase Land Rover, another donation to CIP from the British government. It had a separate cab; the rear was covered with a canvas hood, not the most secure vehicle for venturing into remote parts.

Heading south down the Panamericana Sur, we had a road trip of almost 1300 km ahead of us. I know we stopped in Nazca on the first night, after driving 447 km. From there to Arequipa was another 568 km, and the final leg into Puno was 295 km. I think we must have made it to Arequipa on the second day, resting up before the climb to the altiplano on the third day.

In Puno, we rested for a couple of days, checking our gear, and meeting with some officials from the Ministry of Agriculture for further advice before setting off for Cuyo Cuyo. Peter had developed a taste for algarrobina, a popular Peruvian cocktail, a bit like egg-nog, but with a kick, especially after one too many. We weren’t in the best shape to head off across the altiplano the next day.

Each time I crossed the altiplano it was hard to understand just how people managed to survive in such a harsh environment: flat, cold, and often over 4000 m. Yet we passed farms, growing the bitter and frost-resistant potatoes that are processed to make chuño as well as herding llamas and alpacas. Crossing several rivers, we finally reached the head of the Cuyo Cuyo valley and, descending into the cloud, encountered workmen struggling to clear a landslide. However that gave an opportunity for some impromptu botany, finding a beautiful begonia with flowers as large as saucers.

Once clear of the landslide, and out of the cloud, the most amazing vista opened up before us. The whole valley was terraced and, as we learned over the next few days, supported a rotation system involving potatoes, oca, barley and faba beans (both imported by the Spanish in the 16th century), and a fallow.

Arriving in the village it was important to find somewhere to stay. We hadn’t thought to make any enquiries before setting out for Cuyo Cuyo. There was no hotel, but the postmaster offered us space to set up our camp beds and herbarium drying equipment, and there we stayed for about five days. We were certainly a curiosity with the village children.

Peter set about collecting samples of oca with different floral structures for his study, and to make herbarium specimens to take back to St Andrews. At the time of our visit many of the oca fields were planted in the lower levels of the valley often close to the river. I set off on my own, guided by a local farmer, to potato terraces higher up the valley to study the varietal mixtures and to learn more about the agricultural system. That study was finally published in the journal Euphytica in 1980 and can be read here.

Peter’s oca samples were the devil to dry because of their fleshy stems. When he finally made it back to St Andrews a couple of months later, he found that his ‘dry’ specimens were still alive. So he planted them in a university glasshouse, and had the best of both worlds being able to continue his study with living plants.

Leaving Cuyo Cuyo, we headed back to Puno staying one night there before setting off for Cuzco some 385 km to the northwest.

I was interested in locating another site for study, and we settled on a community near Chinchero outside Cuzco. We hired horses to reach remote fields, and there I collected flower buds (for chromosome counts) from several fields.

It was interesting to find large commercial cultivation of potatoes (for sale in markets like Cuzco) alongside smaller plots of native varieties that farmers grew for home consumption. As I was collecting samples from one field, two women stopped close-by and one of them crouched down to feed her baby. Both were dressed in the typical costume of that region.

Soon we had all the information we thought we needed (in hindsight I would have done things very differently, and at Cuyo Cuyo), and headed back to Cuzco where we left the vehicle to be collected by Zósimo Huamán who was heading south for his own field studies, and who would drive it back to Lima.

While we in Cuzco, we visited the home of Professor César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist, who I had first met in January 1973 when Jack Hawkes introduced me to him. Jack first met Vargas when he was working in Colombia between 1948 and 1951. Also, Vargas’ daughter Martha was an MSc student at St Andrews so it was a good opportunity for Peter also to meet him.


I only made one field trip with Jack Hawkes, in March 1981 just a few weeks before I left CIP to return to the UK and take up a lectureship at The University of Birmingham.

Jack was in Lima on his way back to the UK having led yet another expedition to collect potatoes in Bolivia. He suggested that we take a long weekend to head up into the mountains and see what wild species of potato could be found. A CIP colleague, potato breeder Juan Landeo, came along for the trip.

On the first day, we set off east up the Carretera Central, over Ticlio at 4800 m and on to the smelting town of La Oroya, before heading north to the important mining center of Cerro de Pasco (4330 m), one of the highest (and bleakest) cities in the world.

The next morning we continued north, finally descending to the warmth of Huánuco, a lovely city at just 1880 m. We spent the night there.

I don’t recall if we split the journey back to Lima (or the exact route) or traveled from Huánuco in one day, stopping every now and then to collect potatoes.

Early in the day we came across some farmers using the traditional foot plough or chaqui tacclla. This is an iconic image.

We passed through some awesome landscapes. Even encountering a significant landslide that blocked our path. Closer to the coast the mountains were lost in the clouds as we made our way down the side of the valley.

I learned one very important lesson from Jack Hawkes: that a sound knowledge of the ecology of the species was very important (a point emphasized by Israeli geneticist Gideon Ladizinsky when I took a party of Birmingham students to a genetic resources course near Tel Aviv in 1982).

We’d be driving along, when Jack would suddenly ask us to pull over, saying that we’d find potatoes in the vicinity. Even naming which species we’d be likely to find. And I don’t remember him ever being wrong. It was fascinating to see how his deep knowledge guided his approach to collecting wild potatoes.

This is the only photo of me in the field with Jack, as we collected Solanum multiinterruptum (or was it S. multidissectum?).

It was a great experience, learning more about wild species in the field, from the master. These are memories that will stay with me for years to come.


 

 

Collecting potatoes in Peru – following in Jack Hawkes’ footsteps (Part 1)

Professor Jack Hawkes examines a specimen of the wild potato species Solanum raphanifolium in the ruins of Sacsayhuaman outside Cuzco, January 1973

Potatoes are native to the Americas; the wild Solanum species are found from Colorado in the United States, south through Mexico and Central America, and throughout the Andes as far south as northern Argentina. They even grow on the plains of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Different forms of potato were domesticated thousands of years ago in the Andean region and southern Chile. Even today, farmers in the Andes grow (and conserve) a wonderful range of potato varieties.

Over many decades potato scientists made expeditions to the Americas to collect wild and cultivated potatoes, to learn about their biology and ecology, and how they might be used to enhance potato productivity through plant breeding. Among the potato pioneers was my friend, colleague, and mentor, the late Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on potato diversity and taxonomy and a leading light in the genetic resources conservation movement that emerged in the 1960s.

The wonder of potato diversity

I began my own studies on potato under Jack’s tutelage in September 1971 at The University of Birmingham, after graduating with an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation. Jack took me under his wing, so to speak, to teach me about potatoes and prepare me for a posting at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru where (from January 1973) I worked as an Associate Taxonomist for three years. I had just turned 24 the previous November.

Jack made his first trip to South America in 1939 at the age of 23, turning 24 during the course of the expedition in June that year, as a member of the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America and spending nine months collecting wild and cultivated potatoes along the Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Jack Hawkes (second from right) with expedition leader Edward Balls (on Jack’s right) and two others outside a church in La Paz, Bolivia in March 1939.

Returning to Cambridge in December 1939, just after the Second World War broke out, Jack continued to study the materials collected on the Empire expedition, completing his PhD in 1941. He remained at Cambridge until 1948 when he was seconded by the Government of Colombia to set up a research station for potatoes near Bogota.

In 1952, he returned to the UK, joining The University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Botany, but he returned to the Americas many times over the next four decades to collect potatoes. Awarded a personal chair in taxonomic botany in 1961, he became Mason Professor of Botany and head of department in 1967.

In 1969 he launched the one year MSc course I referred to earlier, and that’s when I first met him a year later. It would be no exaggeration to state that Jack Hawkes played an incredibly important role in shaping my subsequent career in international agricultural research and academia.


In December 1970, just three months after I arrived in Birmingham, Jack joined his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting on an expedition to collect wild potatoes in Bolivia, accompanied by Jack’s research assistant and PhD candidate Phil Cribb.

Richard Sawyer

The expedition received support from the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima whose Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer kindly loaned a four-wheel drive vehicle. Joining the expedition was a young Peruvian scientist, Zósimo Huamán who had been hired by CIP to manage its large germplasm collection of native potato varieties.

While in Lima, Jack was asked to accept Zósimo on the Birmingham MSc course in September 1971. And then Sawyer asked Jack if he could recommend someone to join CIP on a one-year posting to cover for Zósimo while away in Birmingham. Apparently, so Jack later told me, my name immediately came to mind. Perhaps I’d mentioned that I had a burning ambition to visit South America and, in any case, I would graduate just when Zósimo was expected in the UK.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, immediately on his return to Birmingham at the end of February 1971, Jack told me about the opportunity at CIP. Was I interested? There was no question about it.

Zósimo and Jack in a potato field in Bolivia standing beside a variety of S. ajanhuiri

As it turned out, my departure to Peru was delayed by 15 months while different funding options for my posting were finalized. I began my PhD study, and after he graduated with his MSc in September 1972, Zósimo also registered for a PhD, studying the evolution of a frost-resistant form of cultivated potato known as Solanum ajanhuiri that he and Jack had collected at high altitude in Bolivia.

I departed for Lima on 4 January 1973, and by the beginning of April that year Zósimo had also returned to Peru having completed the first six month residency requirement for his PhD at Birmingham.


With hardly any time to get himself sorted after being outside Peru for 18 months, Zósimo and I organized a trip in May to collect potato varieties from two departments to the north of Lima: Ancash and La Libertad.

To say that I found the experiences beyond my expectations would be an understatement. Peru was everything I hoped it would be when I spent hours poring over a map of the country as a young boy. It is an extremely beautiful country, even if (at least in the 1970s) it was not the easiest country to travel around.


After 49 years, and without access to any notes we made, reports we wrote, or the books in which we recorded the germplasm samples collected, I am unable to detail the routes we took with any degree of confidence, except in the most broad terms. We were away from Lima for almost a month, and explored much of these two departments as best we could: by road, on foot, and on horseback.

At the end of the road, preparing to walk into a distant village; and below, riding back from a side-trip to a village

This was the first collecting trip that I had made. Time to put theory into practice. I bowed to Zósimo’s better knowledge, not only of potatoes and the terrain, but because he was a native Spanish speaker and after just a few months in Peru my Spanish was rudimentary to say the least. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Zósimo already had experience of collecting, having joined the Hawkes-led expedition to Bolivia in 1971.

We headed north on the Panamerican highway, destination Huaraz, the capital of Ancash located in the Callejón de Huaylas, a long north-south valley between the Cordillera Blanca to the east with the highest snow-covered peaks in the country and the Cordillera Negra to the west. Our aim was to explore regions right round these mountain ranges, and we certainly found ourselves in some remote locations.

We moved north into La Libertad, spending a little less time there than in Ancash before heading back to Trujillo on the coast for a well-deserved shower and rest at a good hotel, and better food before heading south to Lima, a journey of 575 km. I don’t recall if we attempted that last sector in one day or made an overnight stop about half way. In any case the journey would have taken about 10 hours or more, and given an incident on the way south that I’ll explain below, maybe we did split the journey.


In 1973, the Peruvian government was led by left-wing-leaning military junta headed by General Juan Velasco Alvarado who came to power in 1968 following a coup d’état. We encountered military checkpoints frequently on our travels in the mountains, often manned by young recruits or conscripts, teenagers even, armed with automatic weapons. Coming from a country where the police never carried firearms (at least then) nor were the armed forces deployed on the streets (that would change in Northern Ireland in the 1970s) I found it extremely disconcerting to be faced with soldiers pointing weapons at me and wondering if their discipline was as tight as I hoped. Needless to say we never encountered any specific threats or hostility.

What particularly struck me during this trip (and others that I made in 1974 and 1975, which I describe in Part 2) was the generosity of almost everyone we met. Farmers were generous with the potato varieties and knowledge they shared with us. Each potato variety collected was carefully labeled with a unique number inscribed on each tuber, and on the paper bags in which they were stored. All the details were recorded in a small booklet; I wonder if these are still archived in the CIP genebank in Lima.

Often we were invited to share a meal with a family, and only on one occasion did I baulk at what was put in front of me: fried cuy or guinea-pig (which are native to Peru and most households keep a small herd of them running around the house ready for the pot). I just couldn’t bring myself to tuck in. Guinea-pigs, to my mind, were furry pets. Needless to say that, as I grew older, such inhibitions diminished.

Despite being memory-deficient when it comes to the route or the places we stayed, there are several anecdotes that are still fresh today.

One experience was particularly emotional. Just 57 km north of Huaraz lies the town of Yungay, and a few kilometers closer to Huaraz, the town of Ranrahirca. On 31 May 1970 a powerful earthquake off the coast west of here, dislodged a massive landslide, a mixture of ice and rocks, that fell from Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

Looking north along the Callejón de Huaylas towards the twin peaks of Huascarán

Travelling at speeds up to 335 kph the landslide quickly reached and obliterated both towns, killing tens of thousands. In Yungay, when we visited almost three years later, the only remains of the town still standing were the cemetery mound with a statue of Christ with outstretched arms, and four palm trees. They had survived, yet everywhere else the landscape was dotted with crosses marking where houses used to stand and presumably families perished. What a sobering sight indeed.

The statue of Christ in the site of Yungay, May 1973

This was the site of Ranrahirca where the town had been obliterated by boulders the size of houses, May 1973


We followed the road south from Huaraz and round to the east of the Cordillera Blanca, to Chavín de Huántar.

A stone tenon head, one of the iconic features of the ruins at Chavín

The next day we headed north up a steep and extremely muddy road, slipping and sliding from side to side. Fortunately the road was wide and there were no drop-offs, until we reached the highest point. The road levelled off, snaking along the side of the valley, barely wide enough for our Toyota Landcruiser. It was also quite muddy there as well.

We could see there was a drop-off, but given that we were in cloud, couldn’t see more than about 50-100 m ahead. It was only on the return journey and checking our maps that we saw that the side of the road plunged about 1000 m to the valley below. Talk about a stressful situation.

Having enjoyed a good bistek in Chavín that evening, we both got very drunk on Ron Pomalca, regretting sincerely the following morning that we had imbibed so freely. Incidentally, Zósimo found that the rum was also a useful liniment after several hours on horseback, and kept a bottle for that purpose.


On one occasion, we drove as far as we could before walking to two villages some kilometers away. When we arrived at the first village, we found everyone celebrating the jubilee of its founding (and were informed that the next village was also in fiesta mode). We were made welcome, offered refreshments, and talked with village officials before explaining that we had to push on to the next village before it got dark. There we found almost everyone in an advanced state of inebriation, especially the schoolteacher, who spoke a little English.

As special guests on that auspicious day, the mayor invited us to a reception, where the whole village crammed into the town hall. Speeches were made, with Zósimo translating for me. It was clear we would have to respond, especially me as a representative of La Reina Isabel. I frantically whispered to Zósimo how to say such and such in Spanish, writing his translations on the palm of my hand. When it was my turn to make a short speech, I nervously complimented the village on its anniversary and how pleased we were to be there. On sitting down, everyone in that room, at least a hundred men and women, maybe more, came and shook my hand. What a memory.

Zósimo (on the right) beside the teacher, his wife and child in front of his house where we spent the night


Later in the trip in La Libertad, we arrived in one village looking for a hotel. There were two: one had been opened not many months before our arrival there; the other was quite run down. We chose the new hotel, ignoring ‘advice’ that it was flea-infested. Surely that couldn’t be the case? How wrong could we be, waking next morning covered in flea bites and itching madly. Those pesky fleas got everywhere, so we had to endure several days of purgatory until we reached the coast and could send all our gear for cleaning. And take a welcome shower.


Finally, on the return journey south on the Panamerican Highway south of Trujillo, there was a puncture in the rear nearside tyre. We quickly replaced it with the spare, and resumed our journey, hoping to find a grifo or garage soon where the tyre could be repaired. I was driving. Suddenly there was a bang, and the vehicle lurched wildly. I managed to bring it under control, even though the rear was touching the ground. You can imagine our surprise when the wheel passed beside us, travelling at speed ahead. Zósimo and I had each thought the other made a final check of the wheel nuts. They just worked their way loose until the wheel fell off. Our humble jack was not powerful enough to lift the vehicle, but we flagged down a truck driver who used his more robust jack. We retrieved the wheel several hundred meters down the road, and even located all four wheel nuts scattered across the highway. What luck! Fortunately there were no further incidents before we reached CIP’s headquarters in the La Molina district of the Lima.


What an experience, and despite some stressful incidents (and occasional differences of opinion with Zósimo) we returned to Lima after a successful collecting trip. Maybe there were a couple of hundred samples or more to add to CIP’s germplasm collection. That collection eventually grew to around 15,000 samples or accessions but was reduced to its current more manageable size of around 4000 accessions after possible duplicate samples were removed (although converted to botanical or true seed samples before discarding the tubers). On his trips to Peru after 1973 Jack would spend time in the collection at CIP’s high altitude station in Huancayo (3100 m), a six-hour drive east of Lima, working through the germplasm samples and giving his advice about their conservation status. In the photo below, taken in early 1974, I briefly left off my own research to join Jack as he studied different varieties.


In Part 2, I write about the trips I made to Cuyo Cuyo in the south of Peru in February 1974, then to Cajamarca in May the same year. Finally, I describe the trip over a long weekend I made in March 1981 with Jack and a CIP colleague to collect wild potatoes in the mountains northeast from Lima. This was the only time that I went collecting with Jack, but even in that short journey I learned so much.


 

Is it really five decades?

years ago today (Friday 17 December 1971) I received my MSc degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources from the University of Birmingham. Half a century!

With my dissertation supervisor Dr (later Professor) Trevor Williams, who became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International).

I hadn’t planned to be at the graduation (known as a congregation in UK universities). Why? I had expected to be in Peru for almost three months already. I was set to join the International Potato Center (CIP) (which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary) as an Associate Taxonomist after graduation, but didn’t actually get fly out to Lima until January 1973. Funding for my position from the British government took longer to finalize than had been envisaged. In the meantime, I’d registered for a PhD on the evolution of Andean potato varieties under Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned potato and genetic resources expert.

So let’s see how everything started and progressed.


1970s – potatoes
Having graduated from the University of Southampton in July 1970 (with a BSc degree in Environmental Botany and Geography), I joined the Department of Botany at Birmingham (where Jack Hawkes was head of department) in September that year to begin the one year MSc course, the start of a 39 year career in the UK and three other countries: Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. I took early retirement in 2010 (aged 61) and returned to the UK.

Back in December 1971 I was just relieved to have completed the demanding MSc course. I reckon we studied as hard during that one year as during a three year undergraduate science degree. Looking back on the graduation day itself, I had no inkling that 10 years later I would be back in Birmingham contributing to that very same course as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Arriving in Lima on 4 January 1973, I lived by myself until July when my fiancée Steph flew out to Peru, and join CIP as an Associate Geneticist working with the center’s germplasm collection of Andean potato varieties. She had resigned from a similar position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station near Edinburgh where she helped conserve the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

Later that year, on 13 October, Steph and I were married in Miraflores, the coastal suburb of Lima where we rented an apartment.

At Pollería La Granja Azul restaurant, east of Lima, after we were married in Miraflores.

My own work in Peru took me all over the Andes collecting potato varieties for the CIP genebank, and conducting field work towards my PhD.

Collecting potato tubers from a farmer in the northern Department of Cajamarca in May 1974.

In May 1975, we returned to Birmingham for just six months so that I could complete the university residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and successfully defend my dissertation. The degree was conferred on 12 December.

With Professor Jack Hawkes

Returning to Lima just in time for the New Year celebrations, we spent another three months there before being posted to Turrialba, Costa Rica in Central America at the beginning of April 1976, where we resided until November 1980. The original focus of my research was adaptation of potatoes to hot, humid conditions. But I soon spent much of my time studying the damage done by bacterial wilt, caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solancearum (formerly Pseudomonas solanacearum).

Checking the level of disease in a bacterial wilt trial of potatoes in Turrialba, July 1977.

Each year I made several trips throughout Central America, to Mexico, and various countries in the Caribbean, helping to set up a collaborative research project, PRECODEPA, which outlasted my stay in the region by more than 20 years. One important component of the project was rapid multiplication systems for potato seed production for which my Lima-based colleague, Jim Bryan, joined me in Costa Rica for one year in 1979.

My two research assistants (in blue lab-coats), Moises Pereira (L) and Jorge Aguilar (R) demonstrating leaf cuttings to a group of potato agronomists from Guatemala, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica, while my CIP colleague and senior seed production specialist, Jim Bryan, looks on.

There’s one very important thing I want to mention here. At the start of my career with CIP, as a young germplasm scientist, and moving to regional work in Costa Rica, I count myself extremely fortunate I was mentored through those formative years in international agricultural research by two remarkable individuals.

Roger Rowe and Ken Brown

Dr Roger Rowe joined CIP in July 1973 as head of the Breeding and Genetics Department. He was my boss (and Steph’s), and he also co-supervised my PhD research. I’ve kept in touch with Roger ever since. I’ve always appreciated the advice he gave me. And even after I moved to IRRI in 1991, our paths crossed professionally. When Roger expressed an opinion it was wise to listen.

Dr Ken Brown joined CIP in January 1976 and became Director of the Regional Research Program. He was my boss during the years I worked in Central America. He was very supportive of my work on bacterial wilt and the development of PRECODEPA. Never micro-managing his staff, I learned a lot from Ken about people and program management that stood me in good stead in the years to come.


1980s – academia
By the middle of 1980 I was beginning to get itchy feet. I couldn’t see myself staying in Costa Rica much longer, even though Steph and I enjoyed our life there. It’s such a beautiful country. Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978.

To grow professionally I needed other challenges, so asked my Director General in Lima, Richard Sawyer, about the opportunity of moving to another region, with a similar program management and research role. Sawyer decided to send me to Southeast Asia, in the Philippines, to take over from my Australian colleague Lin Harmsworth after his retirement in 1982.

However, I never got to the Philippines. Well, not for another decade. In the meantime I had been encouraged to apply for a lectureship at the University of Birmingham. In early 1981 I successfully interviewed and took up the position there in April.

Thus my international potato decade came to an end, as did any thoughts of continuing in international agricultural research. Or so it seemed at the time.

For three months I lodged with one of my colleagues, John Dodds, who had an apartment close to the university’s Edgbaston campus while we hunted for a house to buy. Steph and Hannah stayed with her parents in Southend on Sea (east of London), and I would travel there each weekend.

It took only a couple of weeks to find  a house that suited us, in the market town of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, about 13 miles south of the university. We moved in during the first week of July, and kept the house for almost 40 years until we moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England almost 15 months ago. However we didn’t live there continually throughout that period as will become apparent below.

Our younger daughter Philippa was born in Bromsgrove in May 1982. How does the saying go? New house, new baby!

With Brian when we attended a Mediterranean genetic resources conference in Izmir, Turkey in April 1972. Long hair was the style back in the day.

I threw myself into academic life with enthusiasm. Most of my teaching was for the MSc genetic conservation students, some to second year undergraduates, and a shared ten-week genetic conservation module for third year undergraduates with my close friend and colleague of more than 50 years, Brian Ford-Lloyd.

I also supervised several PhD students during my time at Birmingham, and I found that role particularly satisfying. As I did tutoring undergraduate students; I tutored five or six each year over the decade. Several tutees went on to complete a PhD, two of whom became professors and were recently elected Fellows of the Royal Society.

One milestone for Brian and me was the publication, in 1986, of our introductory text on plant genetic resources, one of the first books in this field, and which sold out within 18 months. It’s still available as a digital print on demand publication from Cambridge University Press.

This was followed in 1990 by a co-edited book (with geography professor Martin Parry) about genetic resources and climate change, a pioneering text at least a decade before climate change became widely accepted. We followed up with an updated publication in 2014.

The cover of our 1990 book (L), and at the launch of the 2014 book, with Brian Ford-Lloyd in December 2013

My research interests in potatoes continued with a major project on true potato seed collaboratively with the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge (until Margaret Thatcher’s government sold it to the private sector) and CIP. My graduate students worked on a number of species including potatoes and legumes such as Lathyrus.

However, I fully appreciated my research limitations, and enjoyed much more the teaching and administrative work I was asked to take on. All in all, the 1980s in academia were quite satisfying. Until they weren’t. By about 1989, when Margaret Thatcher had the higher education sector firmly in her sights, I became less enthusiastic about university life.

And, in September 1990, an announcement landed in my mailbox for a senior position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. I applied to become head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (GRC, incorporating the International Rice Genebank), and joined IRRI on 1 July 1991. The rest is history.

I’ve often been asked how hard it was to resign from a tenured position at the university. Not very hard at all. Even though I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer. But the lure of resuming my career in the CGIAR was too great to resist.


1990s – rice genetic resources
I never expected to remain at IRRI much beyond 10 years, never mind the 19 that we actually spent there.

Klaus Lampe

I spent the first six months of my assignment at IRRI on my own. Steph and the girls did not join me until just before the New Year. We’d agreed that it would be best if I spent those first months finding my feet at IRRI. I knew that IRRI’s Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, expected me to reorganize the genebank. And I also had the challenge of bringing together in GRC two independent units: the International Rice Germplasm Center (the genebank) and the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). No mean feat as the INGER staff were reluctant, to say the least, to ever consider themselves part of GRC. But that’s another story.

Elsewhere in this blog I’ve written about the challenges of managing the genebank, of sorting out the data clutter I’d inherited, investigating how to improve the quality of seeds stored in the genebank, collaborating with my former colleagues at Birmingham to improve the management and use of the rice collection by using molecular markers to study genetic diversity, as well as running a five year project (funded by the Swiss government) to safeguard rice biodiversity.

I was also heavily involved with the CGIAR’s Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR), attending my first meeting in January 1993 in Addis Ababa, when I was elected Chair for the next three years.

The ICWG-GR at its meeting hosted by ILRI (then ILCA) in Addis Ababa, in 1993.

In that role I oversaw the development of the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP), and visited Rome several times a year to the headquarters of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) which hosted the SGRP Secretariat.

But in early 2001 I was offered an opportunity (which I initially turned down) to advance my career in a totally different direction. I was asked to join IRRI’s senior management team in the newly-created post of Director for Program Planning and Coordination.


The 2000s – management
It must have been mid-January 2001. Sylvia, the Director General’s secretary, asked me to attend a meeting in the DG’s office just after lunch. I had no idea what to expect, and was quite surprised to find not only the DG, Dr Ron Cantrell, there but also his two deputies, Dr Willy Padolina (DDG-International Programs) and Dr Ren Wang, DDG-Research.

To cut a long story short, Cantrell asked me to leave GRC and move into a new position, as one of the institute’s directors, and take over the management of resource mobilization and donor relations, among other responsibilities (after about one year I was given line management responsibility for the Development Office [DO], the Library and Documentation Services [LDS], Communication and Publications Services [CPS], and the Information Technology Services [ITS]).

With my unit heads, L-R: me, Gene Hettel (CPS), Mila Ramos (LDS), Marco van den Berg (ITS), Duncan Macintosh (DO), and Corinta Guerta (DPPC).

In DPPC, as it became known, we established all the protocols and tracking systems for the many research projects and donor communications essential for the efficient running of the institute. I recruited a small team of five individuals, with Corinta Guerta becoming my second in command, who herself took over the running of the unit after my retirement in 2010 and became a director. Not bad for someone who’d joined IRRI three decades earlier as a research assistant in soil chemistry. We reversed the institute’s rather dire reputation for research management and reporting (at least in the donors’ eyes), helping to increase IRRI’s budget significantly over the nine years I was in charge.

With, L-R, Yeyet, Corinta, Zeny, Vel, (me), and Eric.

I’m not going to elaborate further as the details can be found in that earlier blog post. What I can say is that the time I spent as Director for Program Planning and Communications (the Coordination was dropped once I’d taken on the broader management responsibilities) were among the most satisfying professionally, and a high note on which to retire. 30 April 2010 was my last day in the office.


Since then, and once settled into happy retirement, I’ve kept myself busy by organizing two international rice research conferences (in Vietnam in 2010 and Thailand in 2014), co-edited the climate change book I referred to earlier, and been the lead on a major review of the CGIAR’s Genebank Program (in 2017). Once that review was completed, I decided I wouldn’t take on any more consultancy commitments, and I also stepped down from the editorial board of the Springer scientific journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.

As I said from the outset of this post, it’s hard to imagine that this all kicked off half a century ago. I can say, without hesitation and unequivocally, that I couldn’t have hoped for a more rewarding career. Not only in the things we did and the many achievements, but the friendships forged with many people I met and worked with in more than 60 countries. It was a blast!


 

The Commonwealth Potato Collection – it really is a treasure trove

A few days ago, a friend and former colleague, Dr Glenn Bryan posted a link on his Facebook page to a story—Treasure trove could hold secrets to potato problems—that appeared in the online edition of Dundee’s The Courier on 20 August.

It was all about the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that is held at The James Hutton Institute at Invergowrie, just west of Dundee.

Glenn leads the Potato Genetics and Breeding Group there, and also has overall responsibility for the CPC, ably assisted by collection curator Gaynor McKenzie.

Glenn Bryan and Gaynor McKenzie at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, where wild potato species in the Commonwealth Potato Collection are conserved.

Glenn and I go back almost 30 years when, as a young scientist at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, he was a member of a rice research project, funded by the British government, that brought together staff at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I was Head of the Genetic Resources Center, the University of Birmingham (where I had been a faculty member for a decade from 1981), and the JIC to use molecular markers to study IRRI’s large and globally-important germplasm collection conserved in its International Rice Genebank.

L-R: me, Glenn, and John Newbury (who later became professor at the University of Worcester) during a spot of sight-seeing near IRRI in 1993

The Commonwealth Potato Collection has a long and distinguished history, going back more than 80 years, much longer than the rice collection at IRRI. It is one of a handful of potato germplasm collections around the world in which breeders have identified disease and pest resistance genes to enhance the productivity of cultivated varieties. The CPC is particularly important from a plant quarantine perspective because the collection has been routinely tested and cleaned for various pathogens, particularly seed-borne pathogens.

Jack Hawkes

It is a collection with which Steph and I have both a personal and professional connection, from the 1970s and 80s. It’s also the legacy of one man, Professor Jack Hawkes (1915-2007) with whom I had the privilege of studying for both my MSc and PhD degrees.

Let me tell that story.


In December 1938, a young botanist—just 23 years old the previous June—set off from Liverpool, headed to Lima, Peru to join the British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, the adventure of a lifetime.

Jack in Bolivia in 1939

John ‘Jack’ Gregory Hawkes, a Christ’s College, Cambridge graduate, was destined to become one of the world’s leading potato experts and a champion of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.

He was the taxonomic botanist on the 1939 expedition, which was led by experienced plant collector Edwards Kent Balls (1892-1984). Medical doctor and amateur botanist William ‘Bill’ Balfour Gourlay (1879-1966) was the third member of the expedition. Balls and Gourlay had been collecting plants in Mexico (including some potatoes) in 1938 before moving on to Peru for the ‘Empire’ expedition.

The expedition had originally been scheduled to start in 1937, but had to be delayed because of ill health of the original expedition leader, Dr PS Hudson, Director of the Empire Bureau of Plant Breeding and Genetics in Cambridge. Jack had been hired as his assistant. Whilst waiting for the expedition to get underway, Jack took the opportunity—in August 1938—to visit Leningrad to pick the brains of Russian botanists, Drs SM Bukasov, VS Juzepczuk, and VS Lechnovicz who had already collected potatoes in South America. Jack openly acknowledged that ‘as a raw recently graduated student, [he] knew very little about potatoes’.

Nikolai Vavilov

Not only did Jack receive useful advice from these knowledgeable botanists, but he also met with the great geneticist and ‘Father of Plant Genetic Resources’ Nikolai Vavilov on several occasions during his visit to Leningrad and Moscow, ‘an experience that changed [his] life in many ways’. Vavilov had a profound effect on Jack’s subsequent career as an academic botanist and genetic resources pioneer. Alas there do not appear to be any surviving photos of Jack with Vavilov.

‘Solanum vavilovii’ growing at an experiment station near Leningrad in 1938

In Leningrad, Jack took this photo (right) of a wild potato species that had been described as Solanum vavilovii by Juzepczuk and Bukasov in 1937. Sadly that name is no longer taxonomically valid, and vavilovii is now considered simply as a variant of the species Solanum wittmackii that had been described by the German botanist Friedrich August Georg Bitter in 1913.


The Empire expedition lasted eight months from January 1939, covering northern Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and ending in Colombia (a country where Jack was to reside for three years from 1948 when he was seconded to establish a national potato research station near Bogota).

Route taken by the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition

More than 1150 samples of cultivated and wild potatoes were collected in these five countries as well as a further 46 samples collected by Balls and Gourlay in Mexico in 1938.

Here is a small selection of photographs taken during the expedition, reproduced here by courtesy of the Hawkes family.


By the time the expedition ended in early September 1939, war with Germany had already been declared, and Jack’s return to the UK by ship convoy from Halifax, Newfoundland was not as comfortable as the outbound voyage nine months earlier, docking in Liverpool early in November.

Jack published an official expedition report in March 1941. Then, in 2003, he published an interesting and lengthy memoir of the expedition, Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes.

Redcliffe N Salaman

Potato tubers (and presumably seeds) were shipped back to the UK, and after a quarantine inspection, were planted out in a glasshouse at the Potato Virus Research Station, Cambridge whose director was the renowned botanist (and originally a medical doctor) Redcliffe Nathan Salaman, author of the seminal work on potatoes, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, first published in 1949 and reprinted with a new introduction by Hawkes in 1985. I jealously guard the signed copy that Jack gave me.

On his return to the UK in 1939 Jack began to study the collected germplasm, describing several new species, and completing his PhD thesis (supervised by Salaman) at the University of Cambridge in 1941.

South American potato species in the Cambridge glasshouse in the summer of 1940

Among the species identified in the course of Jack’s dissertation research was Solanum ballsii from northern Argentina, which he dedicated to EK Balls in a formal description in 1944. However, in his 1963 revised taxonomy of the tuber-bearing Solanums (potatoes), Jack (with his Danish colleague Jens Peter Hjerting, 1917-2012) recognized Solanum ballsii simply as a subspecies of Solanum vernei, a species which has since provided many important sources of resistance to the potato cyst nematode.


Jack Hawkes in the glasshouse of the Empire Potato Collection at Cambridge in July 1947.

The 1939 germplasm was the foundation of the Empire Potato Collection. When the collection curator Dr Kenneth S Dodds was appointed Director of the John Innes Institute in Bayfordbury in 1954, the collection moved with him, and was renamed the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

By the end of the decade (or early 1960s) the CPC was on the move again. This time to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh when Dr Norman W Simmonds moved there in 1959. He rose through the ranks to become the station’s Director.

But that was not the end of the CPC’s peripatetic existence. It remained at the SPBS until the early 1980s, when the SPBS amalgamated with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute (which became the Scottish Crop Research Institute or SCRI, and now known as the James Hutton Institute), and the collection moved to its present site near Dundee.


I am not sure how much the CPC grew in the intervening years, but there was a significant boost to the size and importance of the collection around 1987. Let me explain.

As I already mentioned, Jack spent three years in Colombia from 1948, returning to the UK in 1951 when he was appointed Lecturer in Taxonomy in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham. He was given a personal chair as Professor of Taxonomic Botany in April 1961, and became Head of Department and Mason Professor of Botany in July 1967. He remained at Birmingham until retirement in September 1982.

It was during his Birmingham years that Jack’s work on the tuber-bearing Solanums expanded significantly with several important monographs and taxonomic revisions published, based on his own field work over the years and experimental studies back at Birmingham on the potato samples he brought back to the UK and which formed an important collection in its own right. Because of the quarantine threat from these seeds (particularly of sexually-transmitted pathogens or new variants of potato viruses already present in the UK), Jack had a special licence from the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to maintain his collection at Birmingham. I’ve written about that special quarantine situation here.

In 1958, with Peter Hjerting and young research assistant Richard Lester (who later joined the Department of Botany as a Lecturer), Jack made a six month expedition to the USA , Mexico, and Central America. Here is an account of that trip. Besides potatoes, many other species were made for other institutions and botanic gardens.

Collecting a sample of Solanum agrimonifolium (No. 1854) in Guatemala. L: Jack Hawkes, Peter Hjerting, and Morse (driver?); R: Richard Lester

Just three months after I arrived at Birmingham in September 1970 to enrol on the MSc course on plant genetic resources, Jack was off on his travels once again, this time to Bolivia (report) accompanied by Peter Hjerting once again, his research assistant Phil Cribb and, in South America by Zósimo Huamán from the International Potato Center (CIP) and Moisés Zavaleta and others from Bolivia. Jack and Peter made another trip to Bolivia in 1974 (with research assistant Dave Astley), and another in 1980. They published their monograph of The Potatoes of Bolivia in 1989.

Here are some images from the 1971 expedition, courtesy of Phil Cribb.


In September 1971, Zósimo Huamán and Moisés Zavaleta came to Birmingham to study on the genetic resources MSc course. In that same cohort was a young botanist, Stephanie Tribble, recently graduated from the University of Wales – Swansea (now Swansea University). During the summer of 1972, Steph and I became ‘an item’, so-to-speak. However, by then I was already making plans to leave the UK and join CIP in Lima by January 1973, and on graduation, Steph was keen to find a position to use the experiences and skills she had gained on the course.

Just at that time, a Scientific Officer position opened at the SPBS, as assistant to Dalton Glendinning who was the curator of the CPC. Steph duly applied and was appointed from about October that year. Jack must have supported her application. Coincidentally, the MSc course external examiner was no other that Norman Simmonds who met Steph during his course assessment.

I moved to Peru in January 1973, and within a few days discovered that Jack had mentioned Steph to CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer. Well, to cut a long story short, Steph was offered a position as Assistant Geneticist at CIP, to support management of CIP’s large potato collection, similar to the role she’d had at Pentlandfield. She resigned from the SPBS and joined me in Lima in July that year. We married there in October. We remained with CIP in Peru and Central America for another eight years

Steph working in one of CIP’s screen-houses at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of Lima in 1974.

In April 1981 I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at Birmingham, 18 months before Jack’s retirement, the aim being that I would assume Jack’s teaching commitments on the MSc course. When I also took over the Hawkes potato collection in 1982, I had high hopes of identifying funding for biosystematics and pre-breeding research. That was not the case, and as the collection needed a dedicated glasshouse and technician I could not justify (nor financially support) holding on to such valuable research space. And, in any case, continuing with the Hawkes collection was actually blocking the opportunities for other potato research because of the MAFF-imposed restrictions.

Dave Downing was the glasshouse technician who carefully managed the Hawkes collection at Birmingham for many years.

So, with some regret but also acknowledging that Jack’s collection would be better placed elsewhere, I contacted my colleagues at the CPC to see if they would be interested to receive it—lock, stock, and barrel. And that indeed was what happened. I’m sure many new potato lines were added to the CPC. The germplasm was placed in quarantine in the first instance, and has passed through various stages of testing before being added officially to the CPC. Throughout the 80s and 90s Jack would visit the CPC from time-to-time, and look through the materials, helping with the correct identification of species and the like.

His interest in and contributions to potato science remained with him almost up to his death in 2007. By then he had become increasingly frail, and had moved into a care home, his wife of more than 50 years, Barbara, having passed away some years previously. By then, Jack’s reputation and legacy was sealed. Not only has his scientific output contributed to the conservation and use of potato genetic resources worldwide, embodied in the CPC that he helped establish all those decades earlier, but through the MSc course that he founded in 1969, hundreds of professionals worldwide have continued to carry the genetic conservation torch. A fine legacy, indeed!


Not so good in the field . . .

I have a rather embarrassing confession to make. Although I have degrees in botany, I’m not very good at all at identifying plants in the field. It’s just not something that has ever come easily. But I do know how to identify different species. More of that later.

Birds are a different kettle of fish altogether (says he, mixing his metaphors). I have little difficulty in identifying most of the species I come across. Maybe that’s because I’ve had an interest in bird watching since I was a small boy.

I came late to botany, however. It wasn’t until I was studying for my university entrance exams (known here in the UK as the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level exams) that I realized that botany was the degree course for me, something I achieved at the University of Southampton (in a combined honors degree with geography) for three years from 1967.

Les Watson

During that first year, and on a field trip to the west of Ireland, we systematically studied the different families of flowering plants, under the careful guidance of fellow Leekensian¹ Les Watson who was a lecturer in plant taxonomy at Southampton.

But after graduation, my interest in all things botanical turned to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, and that became my research interest for the next 40 years, focusing on potatoes in South and Central America during the 1970s, on potatoes and grain legumes when I taught at the University of Birmingham in the 1980s, and then rice after I joined the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in 1991 up to my retirement in 2010.

With my Birmingham PhD supervisor, Professor Jack Hawkes, identifying potato varieties in the field genebank of the International Potato Center in Peru in 1974, and collecting wild species in the Andes northeast of Lima in March 1975.


So I’ve never been much focused on field botany, and unlike many amateur botanists and naturalists, didn’t have much enthusiasm for naming all the plants I came across. It’s a bit ironic really because in 1981 when I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in plant biology, I was ‘asked’ to contribute to a second year module on flowering plant taxonomy. My contributions had less to do with identifying and studying the various plant families per se than understanding how and why variation in plant species comes about, and how variation patterns are treated in formal taxonomy.

In recent months, however, my interest has turned to plant identification. Since Steph and I moved to the northeast of England last October, I have tried to get out for a walk every day, a minimum of two miles, weather permitting. We have discovered the fantastic waggonways that crisscross Tyneside, the remnants of a busy coal mining industry that opened up in the nineteenth century and eventually met its demise in the second half of the last century. The waggonways are the routes of the railway lines that carried coal from the mines to quays (or staiths as they were known locally) on the River Tyne from where it was shipped all over the world.

Nowadays the waggonways are a haven for wildlife, and a lush abundance of plant species almost too numerous to count. They have become important (vital even) biodiversity corridors connecting different habitats across Newcastle and into the surrounding Northumberland landscape.

And, as I walking along the Cramlington Waggonway recently close to home on my way to the Silverlink Biodiversity Park (developed on a former coal waste tip), I was struck about how many of the plants I could not identify, although many were familiar. But I did want to know their names.

Now, as part of my student training in botany, I learnt how to use a flora, which is a list of all the species known to grown in a particular area or region. For the UK, the most comprehensive flora was the Flora of the British Isles, by Clapham, Tutin and Warburg, first published in 1952, and still in print today after several editions and revisions, but supplanted to some extent perhaps by Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles, first published in 1991 and now in its 4th edition.

The essential thing about these floras is that they have a key to help you identify plants.

However, recognizing many of the plant families or genera as I can, I don’t have to start at the beginning of a key, but can jump to a particular family or genus to narrow down my search for the correct identity.


But my quest to identify plants has been made a whole lot easier. I follow lots of botanical related feeds on Twitter, and a couple of weeks ago, I came across one tweet referring to a plant identification site called Pl@ntNet, for which there is an app for use of mobile phones and the like. So I thought I’d give it a try.

Essentially, you upload an image to the site, and it comes back with a probability (%) of it being a particular species, but also suggesting other candidates albeit at a lower probability.

So what is Pl@ntNet? On its website, it states that Pl@ntNet is a citizen science project available as an app that helps you identify plants thanks to your pictures. This project is part of the Floris’Tic initiative, which aims to promote scientific, technical and industrial culture in plant sciences. For this, it relies on a consortium of complementary expertise in Botany, IT and Project Animation.

Pl@ntNet is a French project under the Agropolis Foundation initiated in 2009 with the objective of developing new forms of identification, sharing and accumulation of data on plants. The mobile application allows you to take photos of a plant, and to compare these photos with those of an expertly-validated and dynamically updated image base, so as to facilitate the identification of a plant. The application, with more than a million downloads, and several thousand daily users demonstrates the keen interest of the general public and the educational world for this type of technology, and a thirst for knowledge about the plants around us. This initiative illustrates the great motivation of the teams involved to produce and disseminate new forms of access to knowledge in the field of botany.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I decided to give it a whirl. Like all projects of this type, it depends on expert feedback, so there is a large database of photos of correctly identified species, and these are also cataloged into the floras from different parts of the world, such as Western Europe or Costa Rica, for example. In fact there are 35 subcategories to narrow down your selection. And thousands upon thousands of images of flowers, leaves, habit and habitat, fruits and the like.

So I started with a plant I did know to test how the app worked and its accuracy. I came across a patch of bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum L., Geraniaceae) on the sand dunes close to home. I took a closeup of the flowers and submitted it to Pl@ntNet there and then. Within seconds, a result came back: bloody cranesbill, 95%!

On a walk last week in Northumberland, I saw a daisy-like plant that looked familiar. I’d seen something similar growing at Biddulph Grange (a National Trust property in North Staffordshire some years back). Again, within seconds, Pl@ntNet suggested Doronicum pardalianches L, Asteraceae, commonly known as giant leopard’s-bane), but with only a 56% certainty based on the flowers. So I took another photo, of the leaves this time, and Pl@ntNet again proposed the same species, with 80% certainty. So I’m pretty confident that this was indeed giant leopard’s-bane.

I must say how impressed I am with this app. As I take my smartphone with me on all my walks, Pl@ntNet will be part of my armory to identify wildlife, along with my binoculars and camera. It really is worth having a go. The app is a little memory hungry at 231 MB, but already I’m finding that my field botany is improving, and it’s so much fun having at least an indication there and then of a species identity that can be verified later on with reference to a flora, should the app not give a high identification value.

Maybe, one day, I’ll even become a competent field botanist. Although that might be stretching things a little too far.


¹ A native of Leek, a small market town in North Staffordshire where I grew up.

That’s not a fair question . . .

I worked overseas for much of my career—just over 27 years—in three countries. For those who are new to my blog, I’m from the UK, and I worked in agricultural research (on potatoes and rice) in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines, besides spending a decade in the UK in between teaching plant sciences at the University of Birmingham.

I have been asked, from time to time, which of the three countries Steph and I enjoyed the most. That’s not really a fair question.

Each country was a totally different experience, reflecting to a large extent that stage of our lives. We were young and newly-married in Peru in the early 1970s, our first time abroad. We raised our elder daughter Hannah in Costa Rica in the late 1970s, and were already in our early 40s when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, with two growing daughters: Hannah was 13, and Philippa just nine (born in Worcestershire in the UK). I got to learn a second language, Spanish, and became quite fluent by the time we left the Americas in 1981.

Now that I’ve been retired for over a decade, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on those years spent abroad.


laurent_amerique_du_sud_politiqueI won’t deny that I have a particular soft-spot for Peru. It was a country I’d wanted to visit since I was a small boy, when I often spent hours poring over maps of South America, imagining what those distant countries and cities would be like to visit. 

I don’t know why I was particularly drawn to the map of South America. I guess it’s the iconic shape for one thing. But, when I first moved up to high school in 1960, just before my 12th birthday, our geography lessons focused on several South American countries. I wrote to a number of embassies in London asking for information packs, and was rewarded over the following weeks with a host of brochures, maps, and the like.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (I have posted several stories elsewhere about my early days in Lima), I was offered, in February 1971, the opportunity to work in Peru, initially for just a year from September that year. Things didn’t go to plan, and it wasn’t until January 1973 that I actually landed in Lima, which became my home for the next three years.

19731013 003 Wedding

13 October 1973

Steph joined me in July, and we married the following October in the Miraflores suburb where we rented an apartment. Working at the International Potato Center (known as CIP through its Spanish acronym) we both traveled frequently to the center’s research station in Huancayo, an important town in the central Andes of Peru, in the broad and fertile Mantaro valley, a 300 km journey that often took six hours or more. The highway, the Carretera Central, crossed the Andes at a highest point of 4,843 metres (15,890 ft) at Ticlio (around Km 120).

peru-037

In my own work collecting indigenous varieties of potatoes, I traveled to many parts of northern Peru, in the Departments of Ancash, La Libertad, and Cajamarca in 1973 and 1974.

And to the south around Lake Titicaca in the Department of Puno and near Cuzco, where I continued my research towards a PhD.

_DSC2828

Collecting potato flower buds for chromosome counts, from a farmer’s field near Cuzco, in February 1974.

Steph and I also took great pleasure in taking our Volkswagen deep into the mountains, and on long trips down the coast to Arequipa and up to Lake Titicaca. And north to the Callejón de Huaylas in Ancash, below Peru’s highest mountain Huascarán, and on to Cajamarca further north.

Peru 050(1)

Looking north to the Callejon de Huaylas, and Nevado Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu just a week after I arrived in Peru, and had great pleasure taking Steph there in December the same year. In fact we delayed our honeymoon so we could book a stay at the tourist hotel at Machu Picchu (a hotel that closed many years ago).

Enjoying Machu Picchu in December 1973.

Our years in Lima were special. As I said, it was the first time Steph and I had worked abroad. CIP was a young organization, founded just over a year before I joined. There was a small group of staff, pioneers in a way, and there weren’t the layers of bureaucracy and procedures that bedevil much larger and longer-established organizations.

Peru is a stunningly beautiful country, and lived up to all my expectations. I was not disappointed. It had everything: culture, history, archaeology, landscapes. And wonderful food. You name it, Peru had it. 


But, after three years, it was time to move on, and that’s when we began a new chapter in Costa Rica from April 1976 a new chapter. Professionally, for me it was a significant move. I’d turned 27 a few months earlier. CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program to adapt potatoes to hot and humid conditions, so-called ‘tropical potatoes’. I was on my own; I had to rely on my own resources to a large extent. It was a steep learning curve, but so worthwhile and stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.

We remained in Costa Rica for almost five years, based at a regional agricultural research institute, CATIE, in the small town of Turrialba, some 70 km east of San José, the capital city.

The CATIE administration building

We enjoyed trips to the volcanoes nearby: Turrialba, Irazú, and Poás, to the beaches of northwest Costa Rica, just south of the frontier with Nicaragua on the Guanacaste Peninsula.  Also to the north of Panama where potatoes were the main crop in the volcanic region just south of the international border.

Hannah was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. It was a great place to raise a small child. In 1980 we took her the Monteverde National Biological Reserve in the northwest of the country (and many hours drive from Turrialba) in search of the Resplendent Quetzal.

Professionally, I learnt a lot about potatoes as a crop, about the management of potato diseases, and seed production, and contributed to setting up one of the first multi-country programs among any of the CGIAR centers. PRECODEPA as it was known set the standard for multilateral cooperation between national programs for many years to come.

I had a great team, albeit small, working with me: Jorge, Moisés, and Leda, and I wrote about them and catching up again after 40 years in a recent blog post.

Costa Rica is such a beautiful, green country, a tropical paradise, with about 25% of its land area set aside for national parks and the like. It’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and I spent many hours sitting on the doorstep at home, sipping a super ice-cold beer (Cerveza Tropical was my beverage of choice) watching the multitude of birds that visited our garden. On one Christmas bird survey in the Turrialba valley, me and my birding partner spotted around 100 different species in half a day! And mammals as well: skunks, armadillos, and coatimundi among those found in the garden, not to mention some of the world’s most poisonous snakes.

After almost five years there, it was time to move on, with the expectation of a posting with CIP to the Philippines. Instead we returned to the UK in 1981, and didn’t actually make it to the Philippines until a decade later. An archipelago of more than 7600 islands; the Land of Smiles.


By the end of the 1980s I was much less enamored of academic life, and had begun to look out for new opportunities. One particularly interesting one came along in September 1990 when I applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.

Having been interviewed at the beginning of January 1991, I was offered the position a couple of weeks later, and I moved to the Philippines (without the family) on 1 July that year. Steph and the girls joined me just after Christmas.

We had a comfortable single storey residence at IRRI Staff Housing, a gated community that nestled under a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling.

Mt Makiling, from the IRRI research farm.

The IRRI research center was about ten minutes from home, and an institute bus took us to and fro over the course of the day. Staff Housing had tennis courts and a swimming pool, as well as basketball and volleyball courts, all in regular use by my colleagues and their families. Lilia was our full-time, live-in helper for almost the whole 19 years we lived in the Philippines.

In the early 1990s there was also a large group of children the same age as Hannah and Philippa, and Staff Housing was a safe environment for them to play, although I have since learned that they all got up to some daring escapades at night. Like climbing the water tower!

Steph kept herself busy with her daily swim, and a range of hobbies, including her small orchid collection, and beading (one hobby that has grown and grown!) I had a busy time at work, and less time for leisure at home. I enjoyed a barbecue whenever we could, and for many years I kept a small aviary of budgerigars. Just after I arrived in the Philippines I adopted a Siamese cat, Pusa, who finally succumbed to the ripe old age of 20 in 1998, when we acquired another Siamese, Tara. I wrote about our feline companions in this post.

But one thing Steph and I shared in common, though not to the same degree in one respect, was our love of the beach and sea. Before moving to the Philippines, I had never even snorkeled. That all changed in February 1992 when we made our first (and only) visit to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Shortly afterwards, Hannah learned to scuba dive, and I followed a year later in 1993 eventually completing more than 360 dives, all at Anilao south of Los Baños. Philippa learned a few years later when she was old enough (you had to be 13), but Steph never did take to scuba diving, being content with snorkeling the stretch of beach in front of our favorite beach resort, Arthur’s Place.

Road travel in the Philippines was always a bit of a nightmare. Inadequate roads, too many vehicles, and not enough road discipline, especially among the jeepney and tricycle drivers.

The drive to Manila could take a couple of hours, often more, and it wasn’t until just before we left the Philippines in 2010 that the main highway to Manila, the South Luzon Expressway or SLEX was finally upgraded significantly. Likewise the road connecting SLEX to the south coast where we went to the beach.

Hannah and Philippa attended the International School Manila (ISM) that was, in those days, located in the heart of Makati, the main business district of Manila. The school day started at 07:15 which meant they had to be on the road by 06:00 in those fist years. By the time Philippa graduated from high school in 1999, the buses were leaving for Manila by 04:30, and not returning home until about 16:00 or so (the school day finishing around 14:00). Phil would often go for a swim, have her dinner, and in her final two years at ISM, when she was studying for the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB), she would have homework until about midnight. Then she snatched a few hours sleep before heading off early the next morning to school once again. All the children took blankets and pillows on the bus and caught with what sleep they could.

For both Hannah and Philippa these were stressful, but ultimately fulfilling, school years. The system was very different from the English system, the academic side very demanding and competitive, especially the IB curriculum. However, both girls did flourish and the hard work and discipline required to get through saw them in good stead later on in their university careers, with both earning a PhD degree in psychology!

Professionally, my years at IRRI were very rewarding. As Head of GRC, one of my most important responsibilities was to manage the world’s largest and genetically most-diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species (with more than 130,000 different seed samples) in the International Rice Genebank. I had a staff of about 75 researchers and assistants. I learnt a lot about people management. However, my task were made so much easier by having so many dedicated professionals to support me.

After a decade genebanking, I moved to IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), and set up an office to handle the institute’s interactions with its donors and fund-raising. And I remained as DPPC until my retirement in 2010.

Much as I had enjoyed my years with GRC, setting up the DPPC Office with hand-picked staff was very rewarding. I had a great team: Corinta, Zeny, Sol, Yeyet, Vhel, and Eric, and they never (well, hardly ever) let me—or IRRI—down.

Christmas 2004 at Antonio’s in Tagaytay. L-R: me, Sol, Eric, Corinta, Vhel, and Zeny.

30 April 2010, and my last day at IRRI. L-R: Eric, Corinta, Zeny, me, Vhel, and Yeyet.

We had such a lot of fun together. There was a lot of laughter in the DPPC Office. We even played badminton together once a week.

But we took our work seriously enough, and helped raise the institute’s annual budget to USD60 million.

In 2009, Steph and I had the opportunity of our first and only long road trip in the Philippines. We always took our annual leave in one block and returned to the UK each summer, so spent little time exploring the Philippines, something I now regret. Anyway, me and my DPPC team decided that we’d take a few days off (with Steph joining us) to visit the world famous (and World Heritage Site) rice terraces in the north of Luzon. That was a fantastic trip, which I wrote about here.

The rice terraces above Banaue.

Enjoying a beer together after a long day in the sun. L-R: Corinta, Zeny, our driver, Vhel, Yeyet, Eric, and me.

At the Batad rice terraces, after a long walk down the mountain. L-R: Yeyet, Steph, Eric, Vhel, and Corinta.


So there we have it: a short trip down memory lane. I have been very fortunate, blessed even, to have worked in three remarkable countries and alongside some of the best professionals I could have hoped for. I have no regrets about making that decision, in early 1973 to move abroad. It has been a fulfilling career in international agricultural research, and I’ve certainly been able to explore this wonderful world of ours, as you will have discovered if you ever perused my blog to any depth.

Getting the message out about genetic resources

For much of my career, I have taken a keen interest in science communication. Such that, a couple of years after I’d become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning & Coordination in 2001, I was asked to take on line management responsibility for several of IRRI’s administrative units, including the Communication and Publications Services (CPS) headed by my good friend Gene Hettel. My job changed to some degree, as did my title: Director for Program Planning & Communications.

I’ve always felt that scientists have a responsibility to explain their work to the general public in plain language. We’re fortunate here in the UK; there are several leading lights in this respect who have made their mark in the media and now represent, to a considerable extent, ‘the face of science’ nationally. None of them is shy about speaking out on matters of concern to society at large.

Sir David Attenborough (far left, above) is one of the world’s leading advocates for biodiversity conservation who also eloquently explains the threat and challenges of climate change. Professors Alice Roberts (second left, of The University of Birmingham) and Brian Cox (second right, The University of Manchester) have both made their mark in TV broadcasts in recent years, bringing fascinating programs covering a range of topics to the small screen. And then again, there’s Sir Paul Nurse (far right), Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and former President of the Royal Society. I was particularly impressed with his Richard Dimbleby Lecture, The New Enlightenment, on the BBC in 2012 about his passion for science. It’s well worth a watch.


I would never claim to be in the same league as these illustrious scientists. However, over the years I have tried—in my small way—to raise awareness of the science area with which I am most familiar: plant genetic resources and their conservation. And in this blog, I have written extensively about some of my work on potatoes at the International Potato Center in Peru and on rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, as well as training genetic resources scientists at the University of Birmingham.

So, when I was approached a few weeks ago to be interviewed and contribute to a podcast series, Plant Breeding Stories, I jumped at the chance.

The podcasts are hosted by Hannah Senior, Managing Director of PBS International, a world leading company in pollination control. So far, there have been eleven podcasts in two series, with mine broadcast for the first time just a couple of days ago. In this clip, Hannah explains the rationale for the series.

Just click on the image below to listen to our 35 minute conversation about genetic resources, genebanks, and their importance for plant breeding and food security. Oh, and a little about me and how I got into genetic resources work in the first place.

I hope you find the podcast interesting, and even a little bit enlightening. A transcript of the broadcast can be downloaded here. Thanks for listening.


Nothing comes for free . . .

Ask almost any scientist, and the one thing they (mostly) have in common is their dislike (I could put it stronger) of having to write reports or to be held to deadlines.

Many would prefer never to be reminded they have reporting commitments, and just bury their heads in the academic sand. Just yesterday, I came across a twitter thread started by an academic deploring the lack of support from her institute in terms of reporting and, for her, making the whole process unacceptably complicated.

Reports come in many guises: progress reports to supervisors or project leaders, to their institutions, and perhaps most importantly, to the body that provided funds for their research project.

So having labored for hours, days, weeks or longer to prepare a proposal for submission to a funding body, and having that agonizing wait until the project is actually approved for funding, research scientists then have to prepare reports periodically on progress, and how the funding has actually been spent. Nevertheless, it’s important that scientists appreciate that they do have a responsibility, commitment even, to account for their projects and funding, even though many see this as an unacceptable chore taking them away from valuable research time and writing scientific papers, rather than just another component of the project implementation.

Now, if you work for one of the international agricultural research institute sponsored by the CGIAR [1], like I did for about 27 years in South and Central America (on potatoes at the International Potato Center or CIP) and in the Philippines (on rice at the International Rice Research Institute or IRRI), report writing came with the territory, so to speak. But the demands for reports have changed over the decades since I first became involved in 1973.

Back in the day, there were no electronic communications to permit instantaneous delivery of research reports. For example, when I worked for CIP in Costa Rica from 1976 to 1980, I had to submit quarterly reports to headquarters in Lima. These were sent in the mail, taking two to three weeks to reach their destination. That was accepted practice.

Not today, however. Some donors have become increasingly dysfunctional, with constant demands for information. Now! Because reports can be submitted as email attachments, requests are often posted at the last minute, without ever appreciating that to provide the necessary information might take hours, even days, to compile.

That’s not to say that responding to such requests with some urgency is unnecessary. But to compile and analyse information into a coherent report takes time. And for many scientists, time is of the essence.


When it comes to international agricultural research, the ultimate donors are tax payers, and governments have to satisfy that their investment is used appropriately and, more importantly, delivers the expected outcomes. I’ve written about those aspects in another blog post a few years back.

And, in the case of the CGIAR centers, that means having a positive impact of the welfare and livelihoods of farming families around the world, and those who depend on their agricultural productivity to survive, especially urban populations in cities and mega-cities who do not produce their own food. Take the case of rice, for example. Half the world’s population—several billion people—eats rice at least once a day, over a million tons a day worldwide, maybe more. That’s . And rice farmers must maintain their productivity, increase it even, if the demand for this staple crop is met. So it’s important to use the diversity in genebank collections to breed new varieties, or to fight pests and diseases. Then again, supply constraints must be understood if farmers are to be empowered to sell their rice, or what prevents women farmers in particular from improving their livelihoods.


In 2001, I gave up day-to-day science to join IRRI’s senior management team, as Director for Program Planning and Communications with the brief (and mandate) to beef up the institute’s management of its many research projects, to liaise with its donor community, and increase donor support for IRRI’s overall research agenda. It would be no exaggeration to state that when we set up the Program Planning and Communications office, IRRI’s relations with its donor had almost hit rock bottom.

The PPC Team on my last day at IRRI on 30 April 2010. L-R: Eric Clutario, Zeny Federico, Corinta Guerta, me, Vel Hernandez-Ilao, Yeyet Enriquez.

For one thing, senior management had no clear picture of how many research projects were currently being funded, nor what commitments had been made to the respective donors. Indeed, things were so bad that some donors had threatened to pause existing funding support and not even consider new initiatives until the institute got its house in order.

Ron Cantrell

The Director General, Ron Cantrell, asked me to sort this deplorable situation and do whatever necessary to retrieve our standing with the donors. I can’t say that my efforts were universally welcomed by my colleagues at the outset. They had grown accustomed to not being held to account. But eventually they came to appreciate the value of having a support office like PPC.

First things first. It took a week to come up with a first but incomplete list of all donor-funded projects. The next step was to make sure we could identify each one uniquely. And like assigning an accession number to a sample of germplasm in a genebank, each project was given its own identity (DPPC-year-number), notwithstanding that each donor might also have assigned an ID according to their own project management. Even at the project concept stage, we assigned a DPPC number that remained with the project funded or not. We never re-assigned a DPPC number to another project. Eventually, as we built our project management system, we linked all the projects with the institute’s finance systems. Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet.

Whereas IRRI was probably behind in its reporting on more than 75% of its projects when I set up the Program Planning & Communications Office in May 2001, we had recovered to less than 10% six months later. And, having worked with the donors by explaining what we were doing, they were very supportive. However, having made good progress in terms of improvement our relationship with donors, there were always a couple of prima donnas at IRRI who wouldn’t play ball, didn’t feel that any project management regime was their concern, and despite our best efforts rarely complied on time with requests for information and reporting. To the overall detriment of the institute, it has to be said. Having these scientists write a report was akin to getting blood from a stone.

Once we had a handle on the scope of IRRI’s projects, we set about establishing some standard operating procedures (SOP) to develop project ideas, to submit projects to donors, and to provide IRRI’s scientists with the appropriate support to meet donor expectations. We set up reporting schedules for each project, so that no scientist could claim they hadn’t realized a report was due, assisted scientists to finalize their reports in terms of donor formats, and editing, submitting reports on behalf of the institute and taking care of any follow up. One of the complexities we had to face were the different reporting formats and requirements that each donor adopted. But with support from my colleague Gene Hettel and his team (especially science editor Bill Hardy) in Communication and Publications Services (CPS) we always submitted quality reports easily recognizable as coming from IRRI.

The CPS Team in 2008. Gene Hettel (head of CPS) is second from the left, front row. Bill Hardy (scientific editor) is kneeling (right behind Gene), to my right.

Reporting became just another component of any successfully-managed project, not an undesirable add-on seen by scientists as an imposition on their freedom and time. But the type of reports needed by donors were not the same as writing a scientific paper for example, and we had to unlearn many scientists from their usual publication habits. Donors are interested in progress and need sufficient technical information to establish scientific credibility. They don’t want to be swamped by technical jargon that too many scientists rely on. The information needed to be accessible to a non-technical readership, and that’s how the PPC team helped out, supported by our CPS colleagues.

Donors do not like surprises, so I ensured that my office maintained good communications with the many donor offices around the world, by email, by telephone, and making personal visits at least once a year. Establishing that personal relationship with my donor counterparts was an important aspect of my job as Director for Program Planning & Communications. If a project encountered a problem, or we expected a report to be delayed, or anticipated a project overrun, we talked with our donors from the outset, not leaving things until after the fact, so to speak.

Project implementation and management is a two way affair. Once made, donors should honor their commitments. And one donor, the UK government, has palpably failed in this respect regarding overseas aid (from which the CGIAR centers are funded), reducing its statutory commitment of 0.7% of gross national income (or GNI) to 0.5% for the foreseeable future, in response to the financial crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. The UK gave its support through the Department for International Development (DFID) that has now merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to form the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Overseas aid no longer has its own profile, much to the detriment of the program, and because of the reduction in aid commitment, a significant number of projects worldwide (not just CGIAR) that relied on British aid have been cut and even staff made redundant. This is an appalling situation, and although I don’t have to hand how this aid commitment has affected the CGIAR centers, I’m sure there will be a negative budgetary consequence.

So, while the donors require (demand even) accountability for the funds they allocate, I believe it is equally important that donors like the British government maintain their financial commitments, and behave responsibly.


[1] CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food secure future dedicated to reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security, and improving natural resources.

Almost as rare as hen’s teeth . . .

For about a two week period each Spring, around the end of April, The Alnwick Garden comes alive with an abundance of Japanese cherry blossoms, just as the rest of the garden is beginning to emerge from its winter slumber. We made a return visit there last Thursday only a week after we had been there, which I wrote about at the time. We noted then that the orchard was about to bloom, and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see this wonder of Nature.

In 2008, this orchard of more than 320 great white cherry trees (Prunus ‘Taihaku’) was planted in the east-southeast section of the garden. Now 20 feet tall or more, words are insufficient to describe the wonder of this cherry orchard in full bloom.

The orchard is touted as the largest in the world of ‘Taihaku’ cherries. And this particular variety has an interesting history linking Japan, an Englishman, and a Sussex garden.

Cherry trees are central to Japanese culture, but tastes in different varieties have changed over the centuries. ‘Taihaku’ cherries apparently went extinct in Japan in the late 19th century. Move on a few decades, and up steps a very interesting Englishman, Captain Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981) who, after an early career interest in ornithology, became one of the world’s authorities on cherries. Indeed he was often referred to as ‘Cherry’ Ingram, a colossus, introducing many different Prunus species and varieties to the UK.

And it was through his passion for cherries that, in the 1920s, he came across a single, rather decrepit tree of Prunus ‘Taihaku’ in a Sussex garden. He successfully took cuttings, returning some to Japan. The trees at Alnwick (and indeed all ‘Taihaku’ trees worldwide) derive from that single Sussex tree.

In 2016, Japanese author Naoko Abe published an account about Ingram’s contribution to the survival of Japanese cherries. Here is a 2019 review of that book published by the Irish Garden Plant Society.

Abe herself also wrote an article for the Literary Hub, which is well worth the time to delve into. It gives some interesting background about Japanese cherry culture, why varieties became extinct, and of course, how Ingram turned this situation around.


Since all ‘Taihaku’ trees are derived from a single individual following vegetative propagation, there is zero genetic diversity worldwide for this variety. It’s an extreme example of genetic vulnerability, but that’s not a situation unique to Prunus ‘Taihaku’. The danger is that a pest or disease may emerge to which the trees have limited or no resistance, and there are no opportunities for selection of genetically-different individuals that might withstand such challenges.

Another example is the potato in Ireland. During the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s which decimated the Irish population, potato crops (predominantly of the variety ‘Irish Lumper’ or ‘Lumper’) were wiped out by the late bight pathogen Phytophthora infestans, all plants equally susceptible to the disease. Unfortunately there are too many examples of crops with a narrow genetic base that are under threat.

Let’s look at the situation in rice, a crop I am familiar with. It’s the world’s most important staple crop, providing sustenance daily (and indeed often several times a day) to half the world’s population. Since time immemorial farmers have cultivated tens of thousands of varieties. But over the past half century, new varieties such as IR36 and IR72 (from the breeding program at the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, in the Philippines where I worked from 1991-2010) have been adopted across across millions of hectares in Asia, replacing many of those farmer varieties, and effectively becoming genetic monocultures.

In the world of genetic resources conservation, which was the focus of much of my professional life over many decades, scientists are continually concerned about losing different varieties, and genetic diversity overall. However, this loss of diversity, or genetic erosion as it’s known, has been occurring forever, as farmers swap varieties and adopt new ones, the sorts of choices that farmers make all the time. There’s nothing strange or concerning about that as such.

Let me elaborate with an example from the Philippines. In the mid-1990s, a major typhoon swept across the north of the main island of Luzon, destroying in its path much of the local rice agriculture. Since we had been carrying out fieldwork in that region prior to the typhoon and, with permission from the farmers, taken small samples of their varieties for genetic analysis, we were able (after seed increase at IRRI) to return to farmers the varieties they had been growing before the catastrophe. Some willingly took them back. Others decided that this was an opportunity to make changes to their farming systems and adopt new varieties. But that was their choice, not ours (Pham et al., 2002).

Varieties may be lost, but is the actual genetic diversity itself totally lost? We have some evidence from rice (Ford-Lloyd et al., 2008) that’s not the case:

. . . where germplasm and genetic data have been collected throughout South and Southeast Asia over many decades, contrary to popular opinion, we have been unable to detect a significant reduction of available genetic diversity in our study material. This absence of a decline may be viewed positively; over the 33-year timescale of our study, genetic diversity amongst landraces grown in traditional agricultural systems was still sufficiently abundant to be collected for ex situ conservation.

However, the authors go on to raise concerns about future threats to diversity caused by climate changes or different agricultural practices. While landrace varieties are grown they can continue to adapt to environmental changes.

Overall, however, with thousands of different varieties of rice (and a multitude of other crops and their wild relatives) safely conserved in genebanks around the world, genetic diversity has not been lost. It’s available to dip into by breeders who incorporate traits from the landraces into new varieties (just look at the example of IR72 below that has 22 landrace varieties and one wild species in its pedigree), or as we showed in the Philippines example above, returned to farmers so they can continue to benefit in different ways from these old varieties.

Just recently I’ve been involved in an online discussion among old friends and colleagues about the loss of genetic diversity over the decades, and how much has actually been lost. As Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote in our 1986 introduction to genetic conservation:

Hard facts relating to genetic erosion are not easy to come by; what has been lost already can no longer be accounted. One therefore has to resort mainly to personal impressions and subjective accounts.

What is important is that over the past half century, efforts have been stepped up to safely conserve old varieties and wild species in a network of genebanks across the globe. And, in recent years, that effort has been backstopped financially and technically by the Crop Trust with grants in perpetuity to major world genebanks (such as those managed by eleven CGIAR centers) and the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the permafrost high above the Arctic Circle.

However, even as these initiatives gain traction and deliver on their promises, we cannot remain complacent. Situations such as the ‘Taihaku’ cherry will continue to emerge (although perhaps not so extreme), and crops, wild species—and rare breed animals—will remain under threat. With habitat loss, and the threat of climate change that is gaining pace, never has genetic conservation (and use) been so important. ‘Taihaku’ can teach us a lesson if we take our eye off the ball.


 

I never aspired to be an academic

If, in the summer of 1970, someone had told me that one day I would be teaching botany at university, I would have told them they were delusional. But that’s what happened in April 1981 when I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. Hard to believe that’s already 40 years ago today. I stayed at Birmingham for a decade.

Birmingham is a campus university, one of the first, and also the first of the so-called ‘redbrick‘ universities. The campus has changed radically in the 30 years since I left, but many of the same landmarks are still there. The beauty of the campus can be appreciated in this promotional video.


I never, ever had any pretensions to a life in academia. As an undergraduate studying for a combined degree in Environmental Botany and Geography at University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970, I was a run-of-the-mill student. It wasn’t that I had little enthusiasm for my degree. Quite the contrary, for the most part. I enjoyed my three years at university, but I did burn the candle more at one end than the other. Also, I didn’t really know (or understand) how to study effectively, and no-one mentored me to become better. And it showed in my exam results. So while I graduated with a BSc (Hons.) degree, it was only a Lower Second; I just missed out, by a couple of percentage points, on an Upper or 2(i) degree. Perhaps with a little more effort I could have achieved that goal of a ‘better degree’. Que será . . .

However, about halfway through my final year at Southampton, I applied to Birmingham for a place on the recently-established graduate MSc course on Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR) in the Department of Botany. And the rest is history, so to speak.

I was interviewed in February 1970 and offered a place, but with no guarantee of funding. It wasn’t until late in the summer—about a couple of weeks before classes commenced—that the head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes phoned me to confirm my place (notwithstanding my ‘poor’ degree) and that he’d managed to squeeze a small grant from the university. It was just sufficient to pay my academic fees, and provide an allowance of around £5 per week (about £67 at today’s value) towards my living expenses.

So, in early September 1970 I found myself in Birmingham alongside four other MSc candidates, all older than me, from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Venezuela, excited to learn all about plant genetic resources. I discovered my study mojo, redeeming myself academically (rather well, in fact), sufficient for Jack Hawkes to take me on as one of his PhD students, even as I was expecting to move to Peru to join the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. And that’s what I did for the rest of the decade, working in South and Central America before returning to Birmingham as a member of staff.


The years before Birmingham
I spent over eight years with CIP, between January 1973 and April 1976, working as an Associate Taxonomist in Lima, and helping to manage the multitude of potato varieties in the center’s field genebank, participating in collecting trips to different parts of Peru to find new varieties not already conserved in the genebank, and continuing research towards my PhD.

In the meantime, my girlfriend Stephanie (who I met at Birmingham) and I decided to get married, and she flew out to Peru in July 1973. We were married in Lima in October [1].

In May 1975, Steph and I returned to Birmingham for six months so I could complete the residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and defend my thesis. We returned to Lima by the end of December just after I received my degree.

From April 1976 and November 1980, Steph and I lived in Costa Rica in Central America on the campus of the regional agricultural research center, CATIE, in Turrialba, a small town 62 km due east of the capital, San José.

I had joined CIP’s Regional Research Department to strengthen the regional program for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In 1976, the regional headquarters were in Toluca, Mexico where my head of program, Oscar Hidalgo lived. After he moved to the USA for graduate studies in 1977, CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, asked me to take on the leadership of the regional program, and that’s what I did for the next four years, with an emphasis on breeding potatoes adapted to hot tropical environments, seed systems, bacterial disease resistance, and regional program development.

By November 1980 I felt it was time to move on, and requested CIP to assign me to another program. We moved back to Lima. However, with one eye on life beyond CIP, and with a growing daughter, Hannah (born in April 1978, and who would, in the next couple of years, be starting school) I also began to look for employment opportunities in the UK.


Looking for new opportunities
Towards the end of 1980 (but before we had returned to Lima) I became aware that a new lectureship was about to be advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany, my alma mater) at Birmingham. With the retirement of Jack Hawkes scheduled for September 1982, the lectureship would be recruited to fill an anticipated gap in teaching on the CUPGR Course.

I sent in an application and waited ‘patiently’ (patience is not one of my virtues) for a reply to come through. By the end of December (when we were already back in Lima, and in limbo so to speak) I was told I was on a long short list, but would only proceed to the final short list if I would confirm attending an interview in Birmingham (at my own expense) towards the end of January 1981. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and with the encouragement of the Dr Sawyer (who promised to keep a position open for me if the Birmingham application was unsuccessful) I headed to the UK.

Since completing my PhD in 1975, I had published three papers from my thesis, and a few others on potato diseases and agronomy. Not an extensive publication list by any stretch of the imagination, compared to what might be expected of faculty candidates nowadays. In reality my work at CIP hadn’t led to many scientific publication opportunities. Publications were not the be-all and end-all metric of success with the international centers back in the day. It’s what one achieved programmatically, and its impact on the lives of potato farmers that was the most important performance criterion. So, while I didn’t have a string of papers to my name, I did have lots of field and managerial experience, I’d worked with genetic resources for a number of years, and my research interests, in taxonomy and biosystematics, aligned well with the new position at Birmingham.

I interviewed successfully (eminent geneticist Professor John Jinks chairing the selection panel), and was offered the lectureship on the spot, from 1 April. The university even coughed up more than half the costs of my travel from Peru for interview. Subject to successfully passing a three-year probation period, I would then be offered tenure (tenure track as they say in North America), the holy grail of all who aspire to life in academia.


Heading to Birmingham
Saying farewell to CIP in mid-March 1981, and after more than eight happy years in South and Central America, Steph, Hannah, and I headed back to the UK via New York, where I had to close our account with Citibank on 5th Avenue.

Steph and Hannah at the top of the Empire State Building

This was just a couple of weeks or so before I was due to begin at Birmingham. We headed first to Steph’s parents in Southend-on-Sea. Since we had nowhere to live in Birmingham, we decided that I should move there on my own in the first instance, and start to look for a house that would suit us.

A few months before I joined Plant Biology, the department had recruited a lecturer in plant biochemistry, Dr John Dodds, a few years younger than me (I was 32 when I joined the university). John and I quickly became friends, and he offered me the second bedroom in his apartment, a short distance from the university.

The search for a house didn’t take long, and by mid-April we’d put in an offer on a house in Bromsgrove, some 13 miles south of the university, which was to remain our home for the next 39 years until we sold up last September. We moved in at the beginning of July, the day before I had to go away for the following two weeks as one of the staff supervising a second year undergraduate ecology field trip in Scotland. Not the most convenient of commitments under the circumstances. But that’s another story.


I start teaching
So, 40 years on, what are my reflections on the decade I spent at Birmingham?

It was midway through the 1980-81 academic year when I joined the department. I spent much of April settling in. My first office (I eventually moved office three times over the next decade) was located in the GRACE Lab (i.e., Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution Lab) where the CUPGR MSc students were based, in the grounds of Winterbourne House, on the edge of the main university campus, and about ten minutes walk from the department.

The GRACE Lab

The lab had been constructed around 1970 or so to house the Botanical Section of the British Antarctic Survey (before it moved to Cambridge). One other member of staff, Dr Pauline Mumford (a seed physiologist, on a temporary lectureship funded by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources – now Bioversity International) also had her office there.

Pauline Mumford (standing, center) with the MSc Class of ’82 (my first full year at Birmingham) from (L-R) Malaysia, Uruguay, Germany, Turkey, Bangladesh (x2), Portugal, and Indonesia.

By September, an office had been found for me in the main building. This was necessary since, unlike Pauline, I had teaching commitments to undergraduate students on the honours Biological Sciences degree course, as well as having undergraduate tutees to mentor and meet with on a regular basis.

As I said, I’d been recruited to take over, in the first instance, Jack Hawkes’ teaching commitments, which comprised a contribution to the second year module in plant taxonomy, and evolution of crop plants, one of the main components of the CUPGR course. There were also opportunities to develop other courses, and in due time, this is what I did.

At the end of April 1981, Jack called me into his office, handed me his taxonomy lecture notes and said ‘You’re up tomorrow morning’. Talk about being thrown in the deep end. Jack lectured about ‘experimental taxonomy’, patterns of variations, breeding systems and the like, and how taxonomic classification drew on these data. Come the next day, I strode into the lecture theater with as much confidence as I could muster, and began to wax lyrical about breeding systems. About half way through, I noticed Jack quietly walk into the room, and seat himself at the back, to check on how well I was doing (or not). That was one of his mentor roles. He was gone before I’d finished, and later on he gave me some useful feedback—he’d liked what he had seen and heard.

But the lecture hadn’t nearly taken place. One of my colleagues, Dr Richard Lester, who was the lead on the taxonomy module, blithely informed me that he would be sitting in on my lecture the next day. ‘Oh no, you’re not‘ I emphatically retorted. I continued, ‘Walk in and I stop the lecture’. I had never really seen eye-to-eye with Richard ever since the day he had taught me on the MSc Course. I won’t go into detail, but let me say that we just had a prickly relationship. What particularly irked me is that Richard reported our conversation to Jack, and that’s why Jack appeared the next day.

I had quite a heavy teaching load, compared to many of my colleagues, even among those in the other three departments [2] that made up the School of Biological Sciences. Fortunately, I had no first year teaching. Besides my second year plant taxonomy lectures, I developed a small module on agroecosystems in the Second Year Common Course (of which I became chair over the course of the decade).

In their final year, students took four modules each of five weeks (plus a common evolution course). My long-time friend Brian Ford-Lloyd and I developed a module on plant genetic resources. Besides daily lectures, each student had to complete a short research project. I can’t deny that it was always a challenge to come up with appropriate projects that would yield results in such a short period. But I found working alongside these (mostly enthusiastic) students a lot of fun.

Dave Astley

Each year I’d take the group a few miles down the road to the National Vegetable Gene Bank (now the UK Vegetable Genebank) at Wellesbourne, where we’d meet its Director, Dr Dave Astley (who had completed his MSc and PhD, on potatoes with Jack Hawkes at Birmingham). It was a great opportunity for my students to understand the realities of genetic conservation.

I taught a 25 lecture course to the MSc students on crop diversity and evolution, with two practical classes each week during which students would look at as wide a range of diversity as we could grow at Winterbourne (mostly under glass). In this way, they learned about the taxonomy of the different crops, how diversity had developed, their breeding systems, and the like. The practical classes were always the most challenging element to this course. We never knew until each class just what materials would be available.

In 1982, I took a group of students to Israel for a two week course on genetic resources of the eastern Mediterranean. Not all of that year’s intake, unfortunately, as some came from countries that banned travel to Israel.

I developed a module on germplasm collecting, and in the summer months set some field exercises on a synthetic barley population comprising up to ten varieties that differed morphologically, and also matured at different times, among other traits. We would sample this population in several ways to see how each method ‘captured’ the various barleys at the known frequency of each (obviously I knew the proportions of each variety in the population).

The functioning of agroecosystems was something I’d been drawn to during my time in Costa Rica, so I passed some of that interest on to the MSc group, and helped out on some other modules like data management. And I became the Short Course Tutor for students who came to Birmingham for one or other of the two taught semesters, or both in some instances. Looking after a cohort of students from all over the world, who often had limited language skills, was both a challenge and a worthwhile endeavour. To help all of our MSc and Short Course students we worked with colleagues in the English Department who ran courses for students with English as a second language. Each member of staff would record a lecture or more, and these would be worked up into an interactive tutorial between students, ourselves, and the English staff. Once one’s lectures have been pulled apart, it’s remarkable to discover just how many idiomatic phrases one uses quite casually but which mean almost nothing to a non-native speaker.

Each MSc student had to write a dissertation, examined in September at the end of the year (just as I had on lentils in 1971), based on research completed during the summer months after sitting the written exams. Over my decade with the course, I must have supervised the dissertations of 25 students or more, working mainly on potatoes and legumes, and leading in some cases to worthwhile scientific publications. Several of these students went on to complete their PhD under my supervision often in partnership with another research institute like CIP, Rothamsted Experiment Station (now Rothamsted Research), MAFF plant pathology lab in Harpenden, and the Food Research Institute in Norwich.

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With PhD students Ghani Yunus (from Malaysia) and Javier Francisco-Ortega (from Spain-Canary Islands).

The course celebrated it 20th anniversary in 1989, and among the celebrations we planted a medlar tree (sadly no longer there) in the Biological Sciences quadrangle.

Left of the tree: Professor Smallman, Jim Callow, Trevor Williams, Jack Hawkes. Right of the tree: Mike Jackson, Richard Lester, Mike Lawrence. And many students, of course.


Tutees
Earlier, I mentioned that at the beginning of each academic year every staff member was assigned a group of students (the annual intake then was more than 100 students, and is considerably larger today) as tutees, with whom we would meet on a regular basis. These tutorial sessions, one-on-one or in a small group, were an informal opportunity of assessing each student’s progress, to set some work, and overall to help with their well-being since for many, attending university would be the first time they were away from home, and fending for themselves. The tutorial system was not like those at the Oxbridge colleges.

Most students flourished, some struggled. Having someone with whom to share their concerns was a lifeline for some students. I always thought that my tutor responsibilities were among the most important I had as a member of staff, and ensuring my door was always open (or as open as it could be) whenever a tutee needed to contact me. Not all my colleagues viewed their tutorial responsibilities the same. And I do appreciate that, today, with so many more students arriving at university, staff have to structure their availability much more rigidly, sometimes to excess.

In October 1981, my first final year tutee was Vernonica ‘Noni’ Tong* who went on to complete a PhD with my close colleague, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence on incompatibility systems in poppies. Noni joined the Genetics Department and rose to become Professor of Plant Cell Biology (now Emeritus). Several others also went on to graduate work. Another, Julian Parkhill, graduated around 1987 or 1988, went on to Bristol for his PhD, and is now Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2014.

I like to think that, in some way, I helped these students and others make wise career choices, and instilled in them a sense of their own worth. At least one former tutee (who completed her PhD at the University of Durham) has told me so, and that made it all worthwhile.


The School of Biological Sciences
In September 1982, Jack Hawkes retired from the Mason Chair of Botany, and a young lecturer, Jim Callow from the University of Leeds, was elected to the position. Jim took on the role of MSc Course leader, but the day-to-day administration fell to Brian Ford-Lloyd (as Tutor) and myself (for the Short Course students). Jim was a physiologist/ biochemist with an interest in biotechnology, but nothing about genetic resources. He also had little understanding (or sympathy, so I felt) for my areas of research and teaching interests. He frankly did not understand, so I never developed a good relationship with him.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

My closest colleague in the department was Brian who had been appointed to a lectureship around 1977 or 1978. He had completed his PhD in the department in 1973, and he and I were graduate students together until I moved to Peru. We became good friends, and this friendship has lasted until today. He also lived in Bromsgrove, and after I returned to the UK on retirement in 2010, Brian (now Professor Ford-Lloyd) and I would meet up every few weeks for a few beers at the Red Lion on Bromsgrove’s High Street, and to put the world to rights.

On reflection, I can say that relationships among the staff of Plant Biology were pretty harmonious, notwithstanding the comment I made earlier. But several staff were approaching retirement as well, so there was quite a change in the department when a couple of young lecturers were also appointed within a year of me, Drs John Newbury and Jon Green, both of whom also rose to professorships late in their careers.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the School of Biological Sciences underwent a fundamental reorganization, abandoning the federal system, and transforming into a single department with a unitary Head of School. Much to the chagrin of my friends and colleagues in Genetics, Jim Callow was selected as the first Head of School under this new arrangement. To replace the old four department structure, we organized ourselves into five research themes. I joined the Plant Genetics Group, moving my office once again closer to other group members. As a member of this group, I probably had two or three of the best years I spent at Birmingham, with Dr (later Professor) Mike Kearsey as my head of group.


Research and publications
My research interests focused on potatoes and legumes, often sustained by a healthy cohort of MSc and PhD students.

One project, funded by the British government from overseas aid budget in partnership with CIP, investigated the options for breeding potatoes grown from true potato seed. A project that we had to pull the plug on after five years.

In another, Brian and I worked with a commercial crisping (potato chips, in US parlance) company to produce improved potato varieties using induced somaclonal variation, leading to some interesting and unexpected implications for in vitro genetic conservation. There was also an interesting PR outcome from the project.

All in all, my group research led to 29 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, several book chapters, and a range of contributions to the so-called grey literature (not peer-reviewed, but nonetheless important scientifically). You can open a list of those Birmingham publications here.

I’m also proud of the introductory textbook on genetic resources that Brian and I wrote together, published in 1986. It quickly sold its print run of more than 3000 copies.

Then, in 1989, we organized a weekend conference (with Professor Martin Parry of the Department of Geography) on climate change, leading to the pioneer publication of the conference proceedings in 1990 [3] in this newly-emerged field of climate change science. Brian, Martin and I collaborated almost a quarter of a century later to edit another book on the same topic.

I was fortunate to undertake one or two consultancies during my years at Birmingham. The most significant was a three week assignment towards the end of the decade to review a seed production project funded by the Swiss government, that took us Huancayo in the Central Andes, to Cajamarca in the north, and Cuzco in the south, as well as on the coast. This was an excellent project, which we recommended for second phase funding, that ultimately collapsed due to the conflict with the terrorist group Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso that affected all parts of Peruvian society.

The seed project review team (L-R): Peruvian agronomist, me (University of Birmingham), Cesar Vittorelli (CIP Liaison), Swiss economist (SDC), Carlos Valverde (ISNAR, team leader)

With funding from the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega was able to collect an indigenous legume species from his native Canary Islands in 1989, for his dissertation research. I joined Javier for three weeks on that trip.

Collecting escobon (Chamaecytisus proliferus) in Tenerife in 1989


All work and no play . . .
Each December, the Plant Biology Christmas party was usually held at Winterbourne House. For several years, we organized a pantomime, written and produced by one of the graduate students, Wendy (I don’t remember her surname). These were great fun, and everyone could let their hair down, taking the opportunity for some friendly digs at one staff member or another. In the photos below, I played the Fairy Godmother in a 1987 version of Cinderella, and on the right, I was the Grand Vizier in Aladdin, seen here with graduate student Hilary Denny as Aladdin. In the top left photo, kneeling on the right, and wearing what looks like a blue saucepan on his head, is Ian Godwin, a postdoc from Australia for one year. Ian is now Professor of Crop Science at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation. To Ian’s left is Liz Aitken, also a postdoc at that time who came from the University of Aberdeen, and now also a Professor at the University of Queensland.

Then, in the summer months, I organized a departmental barbecue that we held in Winterbourne Gardens, that were part of the department in those days, and now open to the public. In this photo, I’m being assisted by one of my PhD students, Denise Burman.

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Moving on
So why did I leave in July 1991?

Professor Martin Parry

Towards the end of the 1980s I also became heavily involved in a university-wide initiative, known as Environmental Research Management or ERM, to promote the university’s expertise in environmental research, chaired by Martin Parry (I became the Deputy Chair). So, coupled with my own teaching, research, and administrative duties in Biological Sciences, I was quite busy, and on my way to promotion. I was doing all the ‘right things’, and working my way up the promotions ladder (competing with all other eligible staff in the Science Faculty). It was quite helpful that the Dean of the Science Faculty, Professor George Morrison (a nuclear physicist), and someone with his finger on the promotions pulse, also took a close interest in ERM, and I got to know him quite well.

When I handed in my resignation in March 1991, I knew that my application for promotion to Senior Lecturer was about to be approved (I was already on the Senior Lecturer pay scale). By then, however, life in academia had lost some of its allure. And Margaret Thatcher was to blame.

Around 1998 or 1989, the Thatcher government forced a number of ‘reforms’ on the universities, bringing in performance initiatives and the like, without which the government would not consider either increased funding to the system or pay increases for staff.

So we all underwent performance management training (something I became very familiar with during the next phases of my career). It was made clear that staff who were struggling (as teachers, researchers, or even with administration) would be offered help and remedial training to up their game. Those of us performing well (which included myself) were offered the opportunity to take on even more. It was a breaking point moment. With the increased emphasis on research performance and research income, I felt that my time in academia had almost run its course. My research interests did not easily attract research council funding. I was beginning to feel like a square peg in a round hole.

So, when in September 1990, a job advert for the position of head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI landed on my desk, I successfully threw my hat in the ring, and joined IRRI in July 1991, remaining there for the next 19 years, before retiring back to the UK in May 2010.

With few regrets I resigned and prepared for the move to the Philippines. I had to see my students (both undergraduate and MSc) through their exams in June before I could, with good conscience, leave the university. My last day was Friday 30 June, and Brian often reminds me that when he came round to our house in Bromsgrove to say goodbye and wish me well the following day, he was shocked at how white-faced and stressed I appeared. Well, it was a big move and I was leaving the family behind for the next six months, and heading off into the unknown to some extent. Early on Sunday morning I headed to Birmingham International Airport to begin the long journey east via London Heathrow.


But that’s not quite the end of my academic life. Not long after I joined IRRI, I was appointed Affiliate Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). Then, with Brian, John Newbury, and colleagues at the John Innes Centre, we developed a collaborative research project looking at the application of molecular markers to study and manage the large rice germplasm collection at IRRI. I was appointed Honorary Senior Lecturer at Birmingham, and for several years when I was back on home leave I would visit the university and lecture to the MSc students on the realities and challenges of managing a large genebank, as well as following up on our research collaboration.

That came to an end when the funding ran out after five years, and I moved out of research and genebank management at IRRI into a senior management position as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

As Director for Program Planning and Communications, I had line management responsibility for (L-R) Communications and Publications Services (Gene Hettel), IRRI’s library (Mila Ramos), IT Services (Marco van den Berg), the Development Office (Duncan Macintosh), and Program Planning (Corinta Guerta).


Was I cut out for a life in academia? Yes and no. I think I fulfilled my duties conscientiously, and with some success in some aspects. I admit that my research contributions were not the strongest perhaps. But I did mostly enjoy the teaching and the interaction with students. I always felt that not enough weight was given to one’s teaching contributions. Back in the day research was the main performance metric, and increasingly the amount of research funding that one could generate. That was a bit of a treadmill. So while I mostly enjoyed my decade at Birmingham, I found the next nineteen years at IRRI far more satisfying. I had the opportunity to put my stamp on an important component of the institute’s program, bringing the genebank and its operations into the 21st century, and ensuring the safety and availability of one of the world’s most important germplasm collections. Having left genebanking behind in 2001, I then enjoyed another nine years as a member of the institute’s senior management team. And, on reflection, I think those management years gave me the most satisfaction of my career.


Roger Rowe

[1] Steph also worked at CIP as an Associate Geneticist assisting the head of department, Dr Roger Rowe (who co-supervised my PhD research), to manage the germplasm collection. Prior to joining CIP, Steph had been a research assistant with the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that, in those days, was housed at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh. The CPC is now maintained at the James Hutton Institute west of Dundee.

[2] These were: Zoology & Comparative Physiology; Genetics; and Microbiology. With Plant Biology, the four departments were administratively semi-independent in a federal School of Biological Sciences, coming together to teach a degree in Biological Sciences, with specialisms in the component disciplines. All first year biologists took the same common course, as well as a multidisciplinary common course in their second year and an evolution course in the third and final year.

In 2000, the School of Biological Sciences merged with the School of Biochemistry to form the School of Biosciences. Then, in 2008, there was a much larger university-wide reorganization, and Biosciences became part of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, one of five Colleges that replaced Faculties across the university.

[3] Jackson, M., B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), 1990. Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, p. 190.

* On 6 May 2021, it was announced that Noni had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society!

Fifty is a mature number . . .

I came across a tweet a few days ago from the International Potato Center (CIP, based in Lima, Peru), reminding everyone that the center will celebrate its Golden Jubilee later this year. Fifty years of successfully bringing improved potato and sweet potato varieties and enhanced technologies to the world!

And that got me thinking about the achievements of international agricultural research in general over the past half century, and even a little longer. Let me expand.

CIP’s founding Director General (1971-1991) was Dr Richard Sawyer who envisioned a regional research [network] and collaboration with researchers around the world to develop new technologies and innovations to improve food security. He was my first boss. I joined CIP in January 1973 (when it was still a small institute finding its feet), and just after it had become one of the first international agricultural research centers (often referred to as IARCs) sponsored by the nascent Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

CGIAR? As Bill Gates wrote in 2019: Never heard of CGIAR? You’re not alone. It’s an organization that defies easy brand recognition . . . It’s too bad that more people don’t know about CGIAR. Their work to feed our hungry planet is as important now as it’s ever been.

The CGIAR was founded on 19 May 1971 and also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was set up as an informal organization of countries, international development agencies and private foundations [1] that cooperate in underwriting a network of independent, international agricultural research institutes, and originally co-sponsored by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The CGIAR has undergone a series of transformations since its founding and has, in my opinion, spent far too long navel gazing over the past 30 years about what its role should be—and those of the constituent centers—and how all that research effort could or should be organized. Goodness knows what the opportunity costs (and the actual costs) of interminable consultations, meetings, and the like have been.

Despite the organizational and funding bumps (and scientific challenges, sometimes failures) in the 50 year road, the CGIAR and the IARCs it supports have been incredibly successful. The return on investment in international agricultural research (particularly with regard to plant breeding) has been impressive, not only in monetary terms, but more crucially in terms of the numbers of people who were brought out of poverty or who avoided chronic food shortages.

Let me again quote Bill Gates: No other institution has done as much to feed our world as CGIAR.


Today, there are 15 IARCs in the CGIAR network in 14 (mainly tropical or sub-tropical) countries across the globe, although two, Bioversity International in Rome and the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, have recently formed an Alliance under a single Director General and Board of Trustees.

Four of them pre-date the CGIAR, but were immediately adopted in 1971 once the CGIAR was up and running.

The oldest, at 61 years, is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), founded in 1960 [2] in the Philippines, where I happily (and productively) spent almost 19 years from 1991 to 2010. IRRI was responsible for the Green Revolution in Asia, releasing many high-yielding, short-strawed rice varieties (perhaps the most famous of which was IR8) that were widely adopted because they out-yielded the varieties that farmers were growing in the 1960s.

The International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (known as CIMMYT by its Spanish acronym) is located just northeast of Mexico City, and was founded in 1966. It was the institutional home for many years of that pioneer of the Green Revolution and 1970 Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr Norman Borlaug.

Two regional centers, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA, in Ibadan, Nigeria) and CIAT, were founded in 1967 in 1970, respectively. Unlike the crop specific mandates of IRRI and CIMMYT (on rice, wheat, and maize), these two centers had a broader ecogeographic focus on a range of crop and livestock systems.

The International Centre for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT, located in Hyderabad, India) was established in 1972, and along with CIP was adopted by the CGIAR that same year.

By 1980, there were 13 centers, and five more were added by 1990. There then followed a period of consolidation. Two centers in Ethiopia and Kenya working on livestock and animal diseases merged. A banana and plantain network in France was absorbed into the genetic resources institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome, and in 2002 another institute, ISNAR (in The Hague, Netherlands) was shut down.

So for the past decade and a half, the CGIAR system has stabilised around 15 centers, and to quote Bill Gates once again: . . . most referred to by their own confusing acronyms . . . leaving the uninitiated feeling as if they’ve fallen into a bowl of alphabet soup.

It was a privilege to work at CIP (1973-1981) and IRRI (1991-2010), over 27 years in total. And even while I was teaching at the University of Birmingham between 1981 and 1991, I retained research links with and visited CIP, and also carried out other consultancy work with it and other centers.


Much of the early CGIAR-sponsored research was directed towards increasing crop productivity, breeding new crop varieties that yielded better than existing varieties as I mentioned above in relation to rice. And delving into the large and impressive—and genetically diverse—genebank collections that the centers had set up as a safety net to preserve heritage varieties. There was increased adoption of new varieties by farmers seeking to improve their livelihoods, and old varieties had, in many instances, been cast aside. Who could question their desire to improve their lots, to feed their families, and send their children to school with the hope and expectation that education would help bring them out of poverty and a better life than as a subsistence farmer?

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, more attention was focused on natural resources such as soils and water, and how these could be managed sustainably. And of course, lying at the heart of everything (which I’m bound to stress, given my background in conservation and use of plant genetic resources) are the eleven center genebanks, the largest and most important network of genebanks worldwide, safely conserving more than 760,000 samples (known as genebank accessions) of cereals, grain legumes, forages, tree species, root and tuber crops, and bananas. This network is supported in part through the Crop Trust.

By the 1990s the early CGIAR model of productivity-focused research was being challenged and, as I mentioned above, research was expanding on the sustainability of natural resources. Furthermore, even the role of international centers was being questioned, whether they were needed any longer. National programs were becoming stronger and less dependent on the international centers for resources and research support, although training of agricultural research professionals remained an important partnership outcome. The centers produce what are known as international public goods, having an impact across multiple locations and sites. The sharing of breeding lines and new varieties is perhaps one of the best examples. National program research is much more site specific.

The international framework within which the centers operated was also becoming more challenging. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in 1993, followed by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture adopted in 2004. These directly affected how centers could maintain their collections of genetic resources and share them globally. On the financial front there was growing concern about the long-term funding to support these collections that has now been resolved, in part, by the intervention of the Crop Trust and its grants to support the center collections in perpetuity from the Endowment Fund.

Then, in September 2000, at its Millennium Summit, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) setting out an ambitious agenda to be reached by 2015. A review of progress made in 2015—not as much as hoped for—culminated in the adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by UN Member States.

Clearly the adoption of the MDGs, followed by the upgraded SDGs was something that the CGIAR could not ignore, it it wanted to remain relevant. Centers quickly set about explaining how CGIAR-supported researched aligned with and contributed towards achieving these important development goals.

Research across the CGIAR system was reorganized into a series of programs and other initiatives. In its latest reincarnation, One CGIAR is a dynamic reformulation of CGIAR’s partnerships, knowledge, assets, and global presence, aiming for greater integration and impact in the face of the interdependent challenges facing today’s world . . . providing scientific innovations for food, land and water systems. Here is an example how IITA . . . has participated in the unfolding plans and is strategically positioned to contribute to the One-CGIAR agenda in sub-Saharan Africa.

I should also add that, importantly, response to climate change (and its impact on agriculture and natural resources) has been an important element of the CGIAR agenda for many years now.

I don’t wish to sound cynical, but I think the jury is still out. The CGIAR hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in its previous attempts to reorganize. When it comes to change management, it has, in my opinion, taken its collective eye off the ball in terms of the system’s greatest assets: the actual centers and their loyal staff. A former colleague recently shared with me a piece he’d written describing the various attempts to restructure the CGIAR over the years: A solid long-term programme of change management must be put in place which addresses the required culture change needed on merging institutions with long, proud histories and staff who may have served for decades becoming deeply steeped in a given institutional culture.


So, how was research organized and funded? The two are obviously not independent one from the other.

Back in the day, centers received block grants or ‘core’ funding (often referred to as ‘unrestrictive funding’) from donor countries and agencies through the CGIAR. Being independent of one another (and the CGIAR not having any legal identity then) centers set their own research agendas, reporting annually on what had been achieved (outcomes and impact being the name of the game) and how the funding had been spent. The enthusiasm for the IARC model in the 70s and 80s was reflected in the growth of support, and the expansion of the CGIAR agenda to include new centers.

But around the mid-90s, this funding model was under threat. Donors demanded more accountability for their funds, and to influence directly the actual research that centers carried out. They did this by resorting to competitive funding for defined and time-limited project grants, which also meant more time and effort to prepare, submit, and account (scientifically and financially) for these projects than centers had been accustomed to. But it was a model that was here to stay. Unrestricted funding is now almost a thing of the past.

When I left research in 2001 to become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) I took on responsibility for the institute’s research project portfolio. Not what we did; that was the role of the Deputy Director General-Research. My role, among other responsibilities, was to liaise with donors and keep them happy and, in doing so, grow the institute’s budget (which we did very successfully).

When centers were solely responsible, as it were, for their research agendas, they had to accommodate project funding into their research strategic plans—their research blueprints. But it’s important to emphasise that IARC research was never (or hardly ever) science for the sake of science. It was scientific research with a purpose, aimed at real-life issues and constraints. And it had to be the right science of the highest quality. Not that this lofty goal was always achieved.

When I arrived at IRRI in July 1991, its research was organized through the notoriously difficult matrix management, which does have its conceptual appeal. The research program had two axes: programs on one axis, and the contributing scientific divisions on the other. The programs set the research agenda, and the research divisions contributed the scientific expertise. Or, as another former colleague, and head of IRRI’s Plant Pathology Division, Tom Mew explained it (and here I paraphrase): the programs choose the right science (i.e., what needs to be done) and the divisions do the science right. What I soon realised was that at CIP (back in 1973) there was a form of matrix management, with the research arranged in Research Thrusts. But IRRI’s not-altogether-successful implementation of matrix management was probably the first real attempt to employ this approach. It depends on an equal balance (and some tension) between program leaders and division heads. And it was my perception that a couple of long-serving division heads didn’t take kindly to any ‘erosion’ of their influence under matrix management and therefore did not support its implementation as enthusiastically as one might have expected. I’ll say no more.

In this diagram, I have assigned illustrative percentage values of how each research division allocated its resources (particularly staff time) to each of the rice ecosystem-focused programs.

Just a few years later, as the CGIAR navel gazing began in earnest, the research agenda was being reformulated in system-wide programs, organized in a type of matrix management (read ‘centers’ for ‘divisions’) and involving many more players outside the CGIAR as full partners in the research. I should mention that healthy and extensive research partnerships between centers and other institutions had existed even from the early days. However, external players are now much more intimately involved in determining (and implementing) the research.


Since I’ve been retired for eleven years, I’ll be interested to see—from afar—how the CGIAR and its centers fare. While I feel that both have lost their way somewhat, I still have faith that the system will eventually come good, and bring about outcomes and impacts that were the signatures of the system’s heyday. Hopefully, there are better days ahead for international agricultural research. Whether that means another half century or less remains to be seen. Getting past the next decade will be challenge enough.


[1] The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now one of the largest donors to the CGIAR.

[2] The agreement between the Government of the Philippines and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations was signed on 9 December 1959. IRRI’s Board of Trustees met for the first time on 14 April 1960 and approved the institute’s constitution an by-laws. The 1960 date is often cited as the foundation date.

 

Exploring the mysteries of sex . . . and taking control!

I’ve been fascinated with sex (especially controlled sex) since my undergraduate days at the University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970. We were the socially permissive flower power generation.

But before you get too excited about this post’s content, I need to point out that, as a former botany student, I’m referring to sex among plants! And plant breeding. The real flower power!


Joe Smartt and Edgar Anderson

I guess it all started with two final year honours course on plant speciation (how different species evolve) and plant breeding, taught by geneticist Dr Joe Smartt. It was through the first that I discovered the beauty of introgressive hybridization (a mechanism that blends the gene pools of separate species; see a diagrammatic explanation in this post), a concept first expounded by another of my botanical heroes, Dr Edgar Anderson. And, there was this transformative book to dip into: Variation and Evolution in Plants (published 1950) by another great American botanist, G Ledyard Stebbins. In Joe’s introduction to plant breeding, we followed yet another classic text: Principles of Plant Breeding by American plant breeder and geneticist, Robert W Allard.

Trevor Williams

And when I moved to the University of Birmingham as a graduate student in September 1970, to study for a Master’s degree in plant genetic resources, Trevor Williams taught a fascinating course on plant variation, emphasising their breeding systems, and how understanding of these was important for the conservation and use of genetic resources. Much of my career subsequently was then spent studying variation and breeding systems in two important crop species, potatoes and rice, and a minor legume species, the grasspea.


Plants reproduce in the most weird and wonderful ways. If they didn’t, humanity’s days would be numbered. Where would we be if wheat and rice plants failed to produce their grains, the potato its underground treasure of tubers, or the banana those abundant hands of green fruits? No wonder in times past folks celebrated a Harvest Festival each autumn to give thanks for a successful harvest.

Beautiful acorns on the pedunculate oak, Quercus robur

You only have to look about you in late summer, as I did each day on my walks last year, to see Nature’s bounty all around—the consequence of plant sex. The trees and bushes were dripping with fruit—2020 was a mast year (as I have written about before). I don’t think I’ve seen such a year for acorns on the oak trees. And the chestnuts, hazels, and so many others. Such exuberant fecundity!


Have you ever looked closely at a ‘typical’ flower? Well, for the most part you can see the female pistil(s) comprising the style, stigma, and ovary, and the male stamens that carry the pollen.

However, there are many variations on this basic theme, different arrangements of the sex organs, even separate male and female flowers on the same plant (known as monoecy; maize is a good example) or separate plants (dioecy; holly). Differences in plant reproductive morphology promote self fertilization or cross fertilization. In addition, there is a host of physical and genetic mechanisms to promote or prevent self fertilization, as well as limiting sex between different species. All of this is aimed at ensuring a next generation of plants, and the one after that, and so on.

Plants attract a host of pollinators: visiting insects such as bees and moths, even some nectar-feeding marsupials and bats. I watched a remarkable sequence on David Attenborough’s latest blockbuster series, A Perfect Planet a few nights ago, about the fascinating pollination role of fig wasps.

Then I came across this tweet. Cockroaches of all creatures!

Wind pollination is a common feature of many grasses. However, several wheat and rice species, for example, promiscuously dangle their stamens apparently seeking cross fertilization. But they have often self fertilized before their flowers open. That’s not to deny that some cross pollination does occur in these species, but it’s generally the exception.

Some plants appear to reproduce sexually, but they have got around actual sex through a mechanism known as apomixis. These plants produce seeds but not following the normal fertilization process, so each seedling is a genetic copy of the ‘mother’ plant.

Berries on a diploid potato species, Solanum berthaultii

Other species have given up sex (almost) altogether, instead reproducing vegetatively with the ‘offspring’ being genetically identical (or essentially identical) to the mother plant. In others, like the potato, propagation is primarily through tubers. Yet, in the Andes especially where potatoes were first domesticated, many varieties are extremely sexually fertile, and produce berries rather like small tomatoes, although they are inedible. They contain lots of small seeds that we often refer to as true potato seed or TPS. In fact, in one experiment I observed at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru where I worked during the 1970s, a colleague of mine recorded a particular variety known as Renacimiento producing more than 20 t/ha of berries, in addition to about 20 t of tubers.


Anyway, I digress somewhat. During the years I was active scientifically (before I joined the ranks of senior management at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, IRRI in the Philippines), I looked into various aspects of reproductive biology of several species.

In my doctoral research, carried out in the Andes of Peru, I investigated the breeding relationships between potato varieties with different numbers of chromosomes. The potato we consume almost on a daily basis (at least in my home) is known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, and has four sets (48 in total) of chromosomes. It is what we call a tetraploid. Many other potato species have only two sets or 24 chromosomes, and are known as diploids. The tetraploid forms are mostly self fertile; diploids, on the other hand, have a genetic system of self incompatibility, and will only produce seeds if pollinated with pollen from a different genetic type.

This or similar system of self incompatibility is known from other species, like poppies for example. Anyway, the outcome is that ‘self’ pollen will not germinate on the stigma. The two images below (of various pollinations among wild potatoes), show a typical compatible pollination and fertilization event. Lots of pollen grains have stuck to the stigma, have germinated and grown the length of the style to reach the numerous ovules in the ovary.

In these next images, showing incompatible pollinations, few pollen grains remain on the stigma, not all germinated, and those that did, grew erratically. A few pollen tubes may reach the ovules but compared to the compatible pollinations, they are many fewer.


In the 1970s, one of my colleagues at CIP, Chilean breeder/agronomist Primo Accatino, championed the use of TPS as an alternative to propagation from seed tubers. One of the weak links, as it were, in any potato production cycle is the availability and cost of disease-free seed tubers. So TPS was seen as potentially fulfilling a gap in many developing countries that had neither the infrastructure nor staff to support seed potato production.

As I mentioned earlier, the common potato is a tetraploid with four sets of chromosomes, and this complicates the genetics and breeding. Breeding at the diploid level could be more straightforward. At least that was the hope and the challenge when I embarked on a project to produce TPS lines through inbreeding diploid potatoes and single seed descent. Funded by the British government, it involved scientists at the University of Birmingham (where I had joined the staff in 1981), the former Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and CIP in Peru.

Was this just a pipe dream? Perhaps. Before developing the project concept, I’d had extensive discussions with my colleague at Birmingham, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence who worked on self incompatibility in poppies (that has a similar genetic system to that in potatoes). His experience with poppies showed that if one tried long and hard enough, it was possible to break the self incompatibility.

Flowers of Solanum chacoense

We tried—and ultimately failed—closing the project after five years. We decided it would take just too much investment to make progress. If only we’d had available then what are now helping to transform potato breeding: self compatible diploid lines. At the end of the 1990s, scientists working at the USDA potato collection in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin identified self compatible lines in the widespread wild species Solanum chacoense. The Sli gene that confers self compatibility is apparently more widespread than previously thought, and has now been bred into diploid lines. Had we had those self compatible lines back in the 1980s, our work would have perhaps have reached a better conclusion.


When I moved to the Philippines in 1991 to head IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), I had a collection of around 100,000 different lines of rice, cultivated and wild, to conserve in the institute’s International Rice Genebank.

With my colleagues in GRC, Dr Lu Bao-Rong, Amita ‘Amy’ Juliano and Dr Ma Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, I spent several years investigating the breeding relationships between the cultivated forms of rice, Oryza sativa from Asia, and O. glaberrima from West Africa, and the closest wild Oryza species with a similar AA genome. We made thousands of crosses with the aim of understanding not only the breeding relationships, which is important to be able to better use wild species in rice breeding, but also to understand the taxonomy of wild and cultivated rices.

Pollinations (L) in the genebank screenhouse among AA genome species from Asia, Australia, and the New World, and (R) a crossing polygon from those pollinations expressed in terms of spikelet fertility.

This work led to several scientific publications, which you can access here: just look for publications with our names.


Another aspect of plant sex, important for genebank managers, is how the environment can affect plant fertility. While the seeds of many species (including rice and potatoes) can be stored at a low temperature (typically -18ºC) and for decades if not longer, it is essential that only the best seeds are placed in a genebank for long term conservation. That means ensuring that the growing conditions are the best possible to produce seeds of high quality—and in abundance—during an initial multiplication or later on for rejuvenation after some years of storage, if seed stocks are running low, or there are signs that seed viability may be declining.

At IRRI, in Los Baños south of Manila, we were faced with managing a large germplasm collection of rice lines from all over Asia, from Africa, and South America as well. And these had been collected over a very broad latitudinal range, while Los Baños sits at around 14ºN. We were attempting to grow in a single location many different rice lines, some of which had evolved under more temperate conditions, under different temperature regimes and daylengths.

Kameswara Rao

With my colleague Dr Kameswara Rao (and Professor Richard Ellis from the University of Reading, UK) we spent three years carefully analyzing the effects of different growing environments on seed quality for conservation. Just look for publications here under our names to check out what we achieved. The important changes we made to how we grew rice lines for optimum seed quality have endured until today, although (as I have reported elsewhere) changes to post-harvest handling of seeds have been improved through the work of former IRRI seed physiologist, Dr Fiona Hay.


So, as you can see, there are many different, and interesting, facets to plant sex. And as plant breeders and gene conservationists, we aim to exploit the idiosyncrasies of each species to produce more productive crop varieties or ensure the long term survival of varieties that no longer find favor with farmers, or wild species whose habitats are threatened through agricultural expansion, increasing urbanization, or climate change.


 

I was doctored . . . but the benefits were long-lasting

Philosophiae Doctor. Doctor of Philosophy. PhD. Or DPhil in some universities like Oxford. Doctorate. Hard work. Long-term benefits.

Forty-five years ago today I was awarded a PhD by the University of Birmingham. As a freshman undergraduate at the University of Southampton in October 1967, I was naïvely ignorant of what a PhD was [1]. And I certainly never had any ambition then or inkling that one day I would go on to complete a doctorate in botany. Let alone a study on potatoes!

Although registered for my PhD at the University of Birmingham, I actually carried out much of the research while working as an Associate Taxonomist at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. My thesis was supervised by eminent potato experts Professor Jack Hawkes, head of the Department of Botany (later Plant Biology) in the School of Biological Sciences at Birmingham, and Dr Roger Rowe, head of CIP’s Department of Breeding & Genetics.

Jack Hawkes (L) and Roger Rowe (R)

On 12 December 1975 I was joined at the Birmingham graduation ceremony or congregation by Jack and Dr Trevor Williams (on my left below, who supervised my MSc dissertation on lentils). Trevor later became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International). I’d turned 27 just a few weeks earlier, quite old in those days when it wasn’t all that unusual for someone to be awarded a PhD at 24 or 25, just three years after completing a bachelor’s degree. My research took four years however, from 1971, when I was awarded the MSc degree in genetic resources conservation at Birmingham.

The moment of being ‘doctored’ in the university’s Great Hall.

Sir Peter Scott, CH, CBE, DSC & Bar, FRS, FZS (by Clifton Ernest Pugh, 1924–1990)

As a biologist, it was particularly special that my degree was conferred by one of the most eminent naturalists and conservationists of his age, Sir Peter Scott (son of ill-fated Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott), who was Chancellor of the University of Birmingham for a decade from 1973.


According to the Birmingham PhD degree regulations today, a candidate must enter on a programme, normally of three years’ duration, in which the key activity is undertaking research, combined with appropriate training. Registered students must produce a thesis which makes an original contribution to knowledge, worthy of publication in whole or in part in a learned journal.

It was much the same back in the 1970s, except that we had eight years from first registration to submit a thesis. By the end of the 1980s this had already been reduced to four years.

Like the majority of PhD theses I guess, mine (The evolutionary significance of the triploid cultivated potato, Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk.) was a competent piece of original research, but nothing to write home about. However, I did fulfil the other important criterion for award of the degree as three scientific papers from my thesis research were later accepted for publication in Euphytica, an international journal of plant breeding:

  1. Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes & PR Rowe, 1977. The nature of Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk., a triploid cultivated potato of the South American Andes. Euphytica 26, 775-783. PDF

  2. Jackson, MT, PR Rowe & JG Hawkes, 1978. Crossability relationships of Andean potato varieties of three ploidy levels. Euphytica 27, 541-551. PDF

  3. Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes & PR Rowe, 1980. An ethnobotanical field study of primitive potato varieties in Peru. Euphytica 29, 107-113. PDF


It took me just over six weeks to write my thesis of about 150 pages. I achieved that by sticking to a well-defined daily schedule. I was under a tight time constraint.

Having returned from Peru at the beginning of May 1975, I still had a couple of things to wrap up: checking the chromosome numbers of some progeny from experimental crosses, then preparing all the hand drawn diagrams and maps (fortunately my cartographic skills from my geography undergraduate days at the University of Southampton placed me in good stead in this respect) and photographs. My thesis was typed on a manual typewriter; none of that fancy word processing and formatting available today. Nevertheless, I did submit my thesis by the mid-September deadline to meet the December graduation. I could hardly return to CIP by the beginning of the New Year without a PhD in my back pocket.

Looking at my thesis 45 years on, it does seem rather ‘thin’ compared to what PhD students can achieve today. In the early 1970s we didn’t have any of the molecular biology techniques that have become routine (essential even) today, to open up a whole new perspective on plant diversity, crop evolution, and crop domestication that were the basic elements of my thesis research.

Back in the day, it was normal for a PhD thesis to be examined by just one external examiner and an internal university one, usually from a candidate’s department and often the person who had supervised the research. Today the supervisor cannot be the internal examiner at many if not all universities in the UK, and it has become more common for a PhD student to have a committee to oversee the research.

So, towards the end of October 1975 I met with my examiners for what turned out to be a viva voce of over three hours. It got off to a good start because the external examiner told me he had enjoyed reading my thesis. That allowed me to relax somewhat, and we then embarked on an interesting discussion about the work, and potatoes and their evolution in general. The examiner found just one typographical error, and I corrected that immediately after the viva. I then sent the thesis for binding and official submission to the university library (where it languishes on a shelf somewhere, or maybe reduced to just a microfilm copy).


On the evening of my examination I rang my parents to tell them the good news, only to discover that my dad had suffered a heart attack earlier in the day. That certainly but a damper on the exhilaration I felt at having just passed my final exam – ever! Dad was resting, but expected to make a full recovery. By December, when the congregation was held, he was back on his feet, and he and mum attended the congregation. Having been allocated only two guest tickets, Steph gave hers up so mum and dad could attend.

They gave me a Parker fountain pen, engraved with my name and date, as a graduation present. I still have it.


So, I completed a PhD. Was it worth it? I actually waxed lyrical on that topic in a blog post published in October 2015. When the idea of working in Peru was first mooted in February 1971, it was intended to be just a one year assignment from September. Registering for a PhD was not part of the equation. But circumstances changed, my departure to Peru was delayed until January 1973, so Jack registered me for a PhD, setting me on a path that I have never regretted.

In any case, once I was established at CIP in Lima, I quickly came to the viewpoint that a career in international agricultural research was something I wanted to pursue. And without a PhD under my belt that would have been almost impossible. The PhD degree became a sort of ‘union card’, which permitted me to work subsequently in Central America, as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham for a decade, and almost 19 years up to my retirement in 2010 at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in roles managing the world’s largest genebank for rice, and then as one of the institute’s senior management team.


[1] Unlike our two daughters Hannah and Philippa. They grew up in a home with parents having graduate degrees (Steph has an MSc degree in genetic resources from Birmingham). And when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, almost every neighbor of ours at IRRI Staff Housing had a PhD degree. So although it was never inevitable, both went on to complete a PhD in psychology (although different branches of the discipline) in 2006 and 2010 respectively, at the University of Minnesota and Northumbria University.

L (top and bottom): Phil, Hannah, and Steph after the graduation ceremony; Hannah with her cohort of graduands, Emily and Michael in Industrial & Organizational Psychology on 12 May 2006. R (top and bottom): Phil’s graduation at Northumbria University on 11 December 2010.

Growing potatoes – growing professionally

November 1980. After almost five years (from April 1976) Steph and I were preparing to leave Costa Rica, the small Central American country sandwiched between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978. But our time in that beautiful country was coming to an end, and we were headed back to Lima.

So how come I ended up in Costa Rica working on potatoes, since agriculture there is dominated by rice and beans? And coffee and bananas, of course. Potatoes are small beer [1].

Let me explain.

It all started in January 1973, when I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima and, in the process, fulfilled an ambition I’d had since I was a small boy: to visit Peru.

During the three years I was based in Lima, working as an Associate Taxonomist and helping to conserve CIP’s large collection of native Andean potato varieties, I completed research for my PhD degree, awarded by the University of Birmingham in December 1975.

Earlier that year, in April, I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my degree, and to submit my thesis (which was examined in October). However, before leaving for the UK, I had discussions with CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, about rejoining CIP after I had completed my PhD. I wanted to broaden my horizons and learn more about and contribute to potato production around the world, rather than continue working with the potato collection or taxonomy research. He offered me a post-doctoral position in CIP’s Outreach Program, being posted to one of the regional offices.

Exploring options
In 1975, CIP’s Region II program, encompassing Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, had its regional office in Toluca, Mexico (about 64 km west of Mexico City). Potatoes are not a major crop in this region—maize and beans being the staples—although they are locally and economically important in each country.

It was a year of transition. CIP’s regional representative at that time, Ing. Agr. MS Manuel J. Villareal González, had just been named leader of Mexico’s national potato program (in Toluca). My Lima colleague, Ing. Agr. MS Oscar Hidalgo, a plant pathologist, took over as Region II leader and moved to Mexico.

Manuel Villareal and Oscar Hidalgo

The other members of the CIP team in Toluca were local support staff: José Gómez and secretary Guillermina Guadarrama, formerly employees of the Rockefeller Foundation potato program, and some field and glasshouse technicians.

Jose and Guillermina

CIP management proposed setting up a sub-regional office in Costa Rica, without yet deciding what its programmatic responsibility and research focus might be.

To explore various possibilities, Steph and I were asked to visit Costa Rica and Mexico in April on our way back to the UK. And that’s what we did. I should add that I was nervous the whole trip. Why? I was carrying a briefcase full of my thesis research data. I was paranoid that some light-fingered individual might relieve me of the briefcase. There was no computer cloud storage in those days, let alone floppy disks or flash drives.

For many years it was not possible to fly direct between Lima and San José, the capital of Costa Rica. The journey inevitably required a stop-over in Panama City, usually overnight. On our trip north we stayed at the airport hotel but had time enough to explore parts of the city center (not the Canal Zone, unfortunately). And that’s when we had our first McDonald’s hamburgers. I have this distinct memory of my immediate boss, head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Breeding & Genetics, Dr. Roger Rowe, coming back to Lima from one of his home leaves in the USA and telling us all about these ‘new’ hamburger joints that we should try when we had the opportunity. I had thought that, in 1975, McDonald’s was new to Panama, but from what I have found on the internet, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant there in 1971. Notwithstanding, it was a first for us.

Drs. Luis Carlos Gonzalez (L) and Rodrigo Gamez (R)

My Lima colleague, bacteriologist and head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Pathology & Nematology, Dr. Ed French made arrangements for us to visit with fellow bacteriologist Dr. Luis Carlos Gonzalez Umaña and plant virologist Dr. Rodrigo Gámez Lobo (who, in later years went on to found and become President of the renowned INBio, the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad) at the University of Costa Rica.

Luis Carlos and Rodrigo made us very welcome and, with the leader of the Costarrican potato program, Ing. Agr. Luis Fernando Cartín, took us to see potatoes growing on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano east of San Jose, to labs in the university, and, as a side ‘tourist’ visit, to the Instituto Clodomiro Picado nearby where anti-snake venom serum is produced on a large scale (often in horses). Costa Rica has more than 20 highly venomous snake species.

I think we spent about four days in Costa Rica before travelling on to Mexico. We certainly came away from Costa Rica with a favorable impression. San José is dominated by a stunning landscape of volcanoes (Poás, Irazú, Turrialba), some active or recently active, covered in lush, tropical forest and, on the lower slopes, coffee plantations for which the country is famous. Back in the day, San José was a small city of about 456,000 inhabitants.

In Mexico, we stayed with our friends from Lima, John and Marian Vessey who had moved there in 1974 to work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City. Apart from a visit to the potato program in Toluca, we had the opportunity for some sightseeing, with a memorable visit to the pre-Columbian pyramids at Teotihuacán about 32 km north from CIMMYT.

Steph and me on the top of the Sun Pyramid looking towards the Moon Pyramid at Teotihuacan (April 1975).

Ken Brown

Settling on Costa Rica
Steph and I returned to Lima just after Christmas, all set to move on later in 1976. But where? A decision had not yet been made about Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, a new Director of CIP’s Outreach Program, Dr. Ken Brown, had been appointed while I was back in the UK, and joined CIP in January. In due course, Outreach became the Regional Research Program. As both Ken and his family (wife Geraldine, and five boys) and Steph and I were staying in the center’s guest house for several weeks, we got to know the Browns quite well.

Prof. Luis Sequeira

In order to hasten our move to Region II, we needed to identify an appropriate international institute to host my posting in Costa Rica. So, Roger Rowe, Ed French, and I flew to Costa Rica for a week in early January [2]. There we met with Luis Carlos and Professor Luis Sequeira from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a world renowned plant bacteriologist (and Costarrican by birth) with whom Luis Carlos had completed his PhD, who happened to be visiting family at the time.

We visited sites on the Irazú Volcano and near Alajuela (a regional town northwest of San José) where Luis Carlos was testing potato breeding lines for resistance to bacterial wilt.

We also visited the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), a regional center in Turrialba dedicated to research and graduate education in agriculture, and the management, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, established originally in 1942 as the headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Sciences (IICA).

The CATIE ‘Henry Wallace’ administration building

CATIE plant pathologist Dr. Raul Moreno from Chile explains the focus of the center’s farming systems research to (L-R) Luis Sequeira, Ed French, and Roger Rowe.

Turrialba is a small town just over 70 km due east of San José, although at a much lower elevation—around 650m compared with almost 1200m in the city.

The drive to Turrialba from San José via Cartago was not straightforward. Until around 1978 (or maybe later) the section between Cartago and Turrialba was a dirt road, and quite dangerous. It was also the main route from the Caribbean port of Limón to San José so there was a continual stream of heavy (and noisy) trucks travelling between the two cities. The road passed through a zone of frequent low cloud (neblina) with reduced visibility, sometimes quite severely. And, passing through several sugarcane plantations, there would be tractors towing ‘trains’ of carts carrying harvested cane snaking along the road to local sugar mills, and often without displaying any hazard lights. With the state of the road, the frequency of the heavy traffic, and limited visibility, one could get stuck behind one of these slow-moving ‘trains’ for many kilometers. Very frustrating!

At CATIE, we met with the Acting Director, Dr. Jorge Soria (a cocoa breeder) to discuss signing an agreement between CIP and CATIE that would allow me to work from CATIE as a regional base, and set up a research program to breed potatoes for hot humid climates. Turrialba has an average annual temperature of 22.9°C (73.2°F), and more than 2854 mm (or 112.4 inch) of rainfall per year. The wettest months are May to December, with heaviest rainfall in June and July. This, we assumed, would be an ideal, if not challenging environment in which to attempt to grow potatoes.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, an agreement was signed between CIP and CATIE, under which I was to be attached to CATIE’s Crops Department. It was also agreed that CIP would contribute to CATIE’s cropping systems program (funded through USAID’s Regional Office for Central America and Panama, ROCAP) once suitable potato varieties had been identified.

Steph and I headed to Costa Rica in early April 1976, and we remained there until the end of November 1980. I’ve been back there just once, in 1997.

Getting started in Turrialba
Back in 1976, I can’t deny that I was rather daunted about setting out on my own. I’d turned 27 only the previous November. And communicating with colleagues back in Lima was not straightforward, as I have described in another post.

We didn’t plant our first potato experiments in Turrialba until May 1977 to check whether any varieties would yield under the warm and humid conditions there. Instead, we were faced with bacterial wilt, a devastating disease of potatoes and other related crops like tomato (as well as bananas!), about which I have blogged before.

Between arriving in Costa Rica the previous year and then, I’d had to renovate screenhouses for our research, acquire a vehicle (that took several months), hire a research assistant and a secretary, as well as attend to other regional duties that Oscar Hidalgo asked me to undertake. In fact within a few weeks of arriving in Costa Rica he whisked me off to Mexico for a month to participate in a potato production course, leaving Steph on her own in (to her) a very strange Turrialba.

Within a couple of months or so, I’d hired a young man, Jorge Aguilar Martinez, as my research assistant. Jorge lived in Santa Rosa, a small village just outside Turrialba, where his father grew coffee on a small farm (finca). Jorge was 20 in June that year, recently married to Carmen (a secretary in the animal husbandry department at CATIE), and with a small boy, Leonardo (who is now Head of Information and Communication Technology at CATIE).

Jorge Aguilar

Jorge had applied for a position in the Crops Department at CATIE before I arrived there, but there were no vacancies. He seemed an ideal candidate: keen, interested to get on in the world. He was studying at night at the local campus of the University of Costa Rica for a qualification in business management. Apart from his coffee background, he had no field experience in crop agronomy, let alone potatoes! But Jorge was a quick learner. In fact, we learned a lot together how to grow potatoes. What particularly impressed me about him was his willingness to innovate, look for solutions. And have a flexible attitude to how we worked. We got the job done, and that often meant leaving for our experimental field plots higher up one of the nearby volcanoes before daybreak, and not returning to Turrialba until late in the afternoon once everything had been completed.

One of our isolation plots for seed multiplication high on the slopes of the Turrialba volcano.

Then a young woman, Leda Avila, from Alajuela joined my project as a bilingual secretary. Her support was fantastic. She had a bubbly and confident character, and was always curious to understand exactly what we were doing in the field. One day she asked me if she could join us on one of our visits to experimental plots we had planted on the slopes of the two local volcanoes, Irazú and Turrialba. She told me that as she typed research reports for Lima she had no idea what the work involved, but wanted to find out. So, one day, and donning her field boots, Leda joined the CIP team in the field.

She was so enthusiastic about her first field experience that she would join us thereafter as and when circumstances permitted. Much to the consternation of our CATIE colleagues. They’d never heard of such a thing. But to me, it just made sense to include Leda as a key member of the team.

Moisés Alonso Pereira

In late 1977, Oscar Hidalgo registered for his PhD at North Carolina State University, and left for the USA. On Ken Brown’s recommendation, Richard Sawyer asked me to take over leadership of the Region II Program. As a consequence, my travel schedule increased significantly (especially as we were developing an important cooperative program on potatoes involving six countries,