‘Selfie’ has just taken on a new meaning . . .

Self isolation—the new ‘selfie’! Social distancing. New words to add to our vocabularies. How our lives have changed in just two weeks.

These are indeed extraordinary times, unlike most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. And all due to the emergence in central China and subsequent pandemic spread of a previously unknown zoonotic coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2, that is causing an acute (and deadly for vulnerable individuals) respiratory infection, Covid-19. And while I am a biologist, this blog post is NOT about the virus and its biology. Rather, I’m focusing on some of the issues around and consequences of this pandemic.

I was born in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. I never personally experienced the horrors of that man-made conflict nor indeed any conflict. I find it offensive that politicians, some journalists, and others on social media make comparisons to a conflict that most were born after. I’m not the only one to feel this way. I just came across this opinion piece in yesterday’s The Guardian by Simon Tisdall.

I remember (just) the exigencies of rationing that continued for many years after the end of the war. Also, the difficulties endured during the petrol rationing of the 1956 Suez Crisis. Since then we have not experienced any serious rationing in the UK that I can recall.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic is on a different scale. It’s not that the total number of patients infected with the virus has yet come anywhere near the 1918 flu pandemic, for example. But this virus is new, it’s very infectious, and lethality apparently high. The worry is that without appropriate control, the pandemic will outrun the capacity of health services to provide care for those who suffer from an acute infection. Whole countries are closing down. And while some ‘draconian’ measures (including curfews) have been introduced in some countries, these have yet to be imposed in the UK. ‘Yet’ being the appropriate word.

Having seen the shortages of some products in the supermarkets such as rice and pasta, hand sanitizers, cleaning products, and, inexplicably, toilet paper, I do wonder when rationing across the board will become the norm. How this pandemic pans out, everyone will have to become accustomed to a changed world. I’ll return to that theme later on.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man . . .

Or woman for that matter.

[Disclaimer: My politics are center left. If I’d had the chance (I didn’t as I was working overseas), I would have voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour. So any criticism of politicians below is not aimed at them because of their right wing political stance (which is anathema to me), but simply because I do not believe they are the right people in this time of crisis.]

As President Franklin D Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address on 4 March 1933, ‘. . . the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself‘. It’s apt to remember this under the present circumstances. We fear the unknown. In times of crisis, everyone needs reassurance. And, as Simon Tisdall commented in his opinion piece that I referred to above, the war and wartime analogies only stoke fear.

Step up to the plate our political leaders. Or not, as the case may be.

It’s really unfortunate that in these trying times that the governments of both the UK and USA are led by insincere populists, men who are more concerned about their own image.

Sound-bite Boris Johnson (Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done) is resorting to the same sort of rhetoric in his daily Covid-19 briefings (with the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientist often standing either side) as he did during the Brexit campaign. Making claims he cannot substantiate, such as we’d defeat the disease in the next 12 weeks. Evidence? That doesn’t seem to matter to this charlatan, whose attention span and lack of interest are legendary. It doesn’t help that at critical points in any press conference and the like his body language betrays his insecurity. Such as rubbing his hand through his shaggy hair. Not the most reassuring action.

As a question from ITV correspondent Robert Peston unfolded just the other day at a No. 10 briefing, Johnson’s habitual smirk evaporated to be replaced by various degrees of alarm, bewilderment, fear even, and not the look of a Prime Minister at the top of his game. This is not what he expected after his December electoral victory giving him an insurmountable 80 seat majority, and the opportunity, he must have believed, to do just whatever his fancy lighted on.

Here is a damning opinion piece from The Guardian by Marina Hyde on 20 March, who writes ‘We are being asked to put our trust – our lives – in the hands of a man whose entire career, journalistic and political, has been built on a series of lies.’

It seems to me that the UK government has not developed a coherent Covid-19 communications strategy. Have a read of this 21 March piece from BuzzFeed about the behind-the-scenes debates, arguments even, between politicians and experts. At the beginning of the outbreak in the UK, Johnson used his press briefing to suggest, albeit perhaps by accident rather than design, that the old and vulnerable were ‘collateral damage’ during the epidemic. “It is going to spread further“, he said, “and I must level with you, I must level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Yes, that’s indeed a strong possibility. But emanating from the mouth of a politician who is widely mistrusted, and who comes across as callous and self-centered, whatever issue he addresses, it was a communications disaster.

What a message to send out to an already fearful population. Read about that press conference here.

And this appeared in the Sunday Times today.

Dominic Cummings

If true, this is an appalling perspective from the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings (whose credibility among a large swathe of the population has already taken a dive).

And, I’m afraid, Johnson’s often blustering delivery, and lack of clarity on issues that should be unambiguous (his classical references, his use of language that most never use or at the very least understand) have probably exacerbated a situation that was rapidly spiralling out of control.

Communications strategies should deliver straightforward messages in plain language. No ifs or buts. Johnson has catastrophically failed in this respect.

Take the issue of social distancing and whether pubs, clubs and other venues should remain open (until last Friday night when the government finally enforced closure). Clearly millennials (and men in particular) had heard the message that they would be less impacted by Covid-19. They ignored the social distancing advice. And it hasn’t helped that Tim Martin, CEO of pub chain Wetherspoons (arch-Brexiteer and now self-proclaimed ‘epidemiologist’ apparently) could see no reason for pubs to close and went public with his criticism of the decision.

But if I think that the situation is grave here in the UK, just take a look at what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, a country without a public healthcare system that takes care of the sick, elderly and vulnerable, come what may. Given the behavior and responses of POTUS #45, Donald J Trump, it’s surely time to seriously consider invoking Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Why he is still in power is the question asked in this article on the Slate website.

Here is a leader (a term I use very lightly indeed) who has ‘hunches’ or ‘feels good’ about the situation, ignoring facts, scientific advice and stating things that are palpably false, claiming originally that coronavirus was a hoax dreamed up by the Democrats, and then later stating, once the situation had deteriorated, that he knew all along that it was a pandemic. No change in behavior there. Every press briefing becomes a campaign opportunity. And when challenged, even by the simplest and most straightforward of questions, Trump’s reaction is unbelievable. Just watch him throw a tantrum and verbally attack a journalist a couple of days ago when asked how he would reassure the American people, following a comment from Trump recommending the use of chloroquine against the virus. Extraordinary!

And so, here is another piece from Rolling Stone (from 20 March) that Trump’s live briefings are a danger to public health.

And now, Trump is being hailed as a ‘wartime President’, hoping that it will boost his electability in November’s election — assuming that goes ahead as expected. For heaven’s sake! Just read this article from today’s The Guardian.

But if you want to see how any leader should behave, just take a look at this address to the people of Scotland by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on 20 March. What a contrast from Johnson and Trump. I’m no particular fan of Nicola Sturgeon, but she got this just right.

It’s interesting—but also concerning—to think what a changed world will look like. Already, a group of 34 ‘big thinkers’ have waxed lyrical on this very topic just a couple of days ago in the Politico Magazine online.

Just click this link to read their predictions.

At the beginning of this post I suggested that ‘selfie’ had taken on a new meaning: self isolation. Here’s me, taking a selfie while taking a selfie.

Steph and I are self isolating since we are in that elderly, over 70 demographic. But if the weather is fine (like earlier today) we have gone out for a walk. We need the fresh air. So we went along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal a few miles from home, and encountered only one or two other walkers while maintaining the necessary social distance.

I came across this the other day. Maybe our antipodean friends will soon be evolving some pandemic language variants.

Stay safe everyone. WASH YOUR HANDS – repeatedly, and thoroughly. Here’s the best demo I’ve yet seen on how to wash your hands properly, using black ink in place of soap to illustrate just how it should be done. Never mind that the commentary is in Spanish. That’s not needed.


Remembering an old friend: Bent Skovmand (1945-2007)

In preparation for a house move this year (that is increasingly likely to be delayed indefinitely until the Covid-19 crisis has passed), I’ve been working through dozens of envelopes of old photos, getting rid of those out of focus or we can’t determine when or where they were taken. I have come across quite a number from the years I spent working abroad, but before I went digital in the mid-noughties.

During the decade (1991-2001) that I had responsibility for the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, as Head of the institute’s Genetic Resources Center, I met and collaborated with some remarkable colleagues among the genetic resources community of the international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

These specialists met annually as the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR). But unlike other CGIAR inter-center working groups, all of the CGIAR centers were represented on the ICWG-GR, covering crops and their wild relatives, animals, forestry and agroforestry, aquatic resources, irrigation management, and food policy.

I attended my first meeting in January 1973, held at ILCA, the International Livestock Centre for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (that merged with the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases, ILRAD, in Nairobi in January 1995 to form the International Livestock Research Institute, ILRI).

The ICWG-GR at its meeting in Addis Ababa in January 1993. L-R: Brigitte L. Maass (CIAT), Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI), Ed Rege (ILCA/ILRI), Ali Golmirzaie (CIP), Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), ??, ??, Masa Iwanaga (IPGRI), Roger Rowe (CIMMYT), ?? (World Agroforestry), Melak Mengesha (ICRISAT), Mike Jackson (IRRI), Murthy Anishetty (FAO), Quat Ng (IITA), Jean Hanson (ILCA/ILRI), and Jan Engels (IPGRI).

I was elected Chair of the ICWG-GR at that Addis meeting, and remained in that role for the next three years, overseeing a major review of genetic resources roles of the centers that led to the launch of the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) in 1994. The SGRP was active for around a couple of decades, but has now been replaced by the CGIAR Genebank Platform that . . . led by the Crop Trust, enables CGIAR genebanks to fulfill their legal obligation to conserve and make available accessions of crops and trees on behalf of the global community under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Enjoying a break in discussions in Kenya when World Agroforestry hosted the ICWG-GR in 1998. Bent Skovmand is on the far left.

I don’t remember the details of all the ICWG-GR meetings and their dates, but after 1993 we met at ICARDA in Aleppo, Syria; CIP in Lima, Peru; IITA in Ibadan, Nigeria; IFPRI in Washington, DC; CIFOR in Bogor, Indonesia; World Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya; and at IPGRI in Rome on at least a couple of occasions. But not necessarily in that order.

These meetings were a great opportunity to catch up with old friends, besides discussing and setting in train some important policy decisions for the centers regarding the management of and access to the important germplasm collections conserved in their genebanks.

Among the many members of the ICWG-GR, there was one with whom I struck up a particular friendship. This was Dr Bent Skovmand (above), a Danish plant pathologist in charge of the wheat genebank at CIMMYT (the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement) in Mexico.

Bent and me during the 1998 meeting of the ICWG-GR meeting held in Kenya.

I’m not sure why Bent and I hit it off so well. I think it was because we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Perhaps it was our mutual love of beer!

Besides the ICWG-GR meetings, Bent and I would often meet at the annual conferences (usually in November) of the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) held in different cities in the USA. Bent was a very active member in what was then the C8 Section of the Society, and what I think is now the Plant Preservation section or group.

Bent studied at the University of Minnesota in St Paul on the Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee international exchange program, gaining a masters degree in 1973 and his PhD in 1976 (in plant pathology). He then joined CIMMYT and remained there for much of his career until 2003. Before heading the wheat genebank, he had also spent time with CIMMYT in Turkey.

In 2003 he was honored twice. First he received the Frank N Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources from the CSSA. Then, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark awarded him the Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog.

But, in some ways, these awards were bittersweet. CIMMYT restructured in 2003, and Bent was made redundant. Having spent so many years at a center that he loved, and based in Mexico (the home of his second wife Eugenia) it was a huge blow to have to leave. Not yet 60, he looked for other employment opportunities, and was soon appointed Director of the Nordic Gene Bank (NGB, now NordGen) in Alnarp, Sweden. In that position, he took a lead role in the establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which opened its doors in February 2008.

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. (Courtesy of the Crop Trust).

Bent never got to see this event. Having been diagnosed with a brain tumor some months earlier and his health deteriorating rapidly, he passed away in February 2007.

There’s one particular memory I have of Bent. When in Rome together, he and I would try and eat, at least once, in the Taverna Cestia at the southern end of the Viale Aventino, near the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. Just inside the entrance, on a side-table, was a large meat slicer for carving prosciutto ham. It looked like it had been there for decades.

Every time we ate there, Bent would tell me: ‘I’m going to make them an offer for that slicer, one day.‘ He never did.

Sadly missed by his friends and colleagues in the genetic resources community, not just among the CGIAR centers, but more widely around the world, Bent left a strong and deservable legacy.

I found this obituary for Bent that was published on the website of The American Phytopathological Society (APS). But I have also downloaded it as a PDF file, accessible here.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 26: A sojourn in Sri Lanka

I visited Sri Lanka just the once. However, I don’t even remember which year or month. Only that it was the early 1990s, probably around 1993 or 1994. That was when I was planning a major rice conservation project at IRRI, and I wanted to determine if or how any Sri Lankan organizations would participate. As it turned out, for reasons that I’ll explain in due course, Sri Lanka did not join the project.

The Sri Lankan genebank, The Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) is based in Kandy in the island nation’s Central Province, of which it is the capital. It lies amongst the hills of the central plateau. The hills surrounding Kandy are covered in tea plantations. And, in many ways, Kandy is a magical place to visit. The scenery is outstanding.

Although I don’t remember in which hotel I stayed, I do remember it was perched on the summit of one of the hills, with views in every direction, as you can see in the gallery above. In the stillness of the dawn, I woke each morning to the sounds of birds calling to each other across the valleys. What a wonderful start to the day.

Kandy is home to a magnificent botanical garden (the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya just west of the city) and one of Buddhism’s most sacred places of worship, the Temple of the Tooth or Sri Dalada Maligawa, is located in the city center.

The Plant Genetic Resources Centre was opened in 1990. Its construction was a donation from the Government of Japan in 1989. So when I visited it had been open for just a few years—and looked like it. But, unlike one or two other genebanks whose construction Japan had supported in other Asian countries, the staff at PGRC were certainly making the most of their expanded facilities to store seeds and tissue culture or in vitro conservation.

Once again I am unable to name most of the people I met at PGRC, with one exception: Mr CN Sandanayake, who was one of my MSc students at the University of Birmingham in 1986.

CN Sandanayake talks with one of his colleagues at PGRC.

And as you can see from one of the photos in the gallery above, everything stops for tea!

When I discussed participation in the IRRI-led rice biodiversity project, it was clear that Sri Lanka had already made significant progress to collect and conserve indigenous rice varieties and wild species. My former colleague at IRRI, Dr Duncan Vaughan had visited Sri Lanka in the 1980s to help with the collection of wild rices.

Furthermore, PGRC had a cadre of excellent technical staff, and as you can see from the photos, excellent facilities for germplasm conservation. And, given the ongoing civil war there were many no-go areas in the country, especially in the north and east. However, in Kandy, there was no tangible signs of the conflict.

I made a side trip, with Sandanayake, to the Rice Research & Development Institute at Batalagoda, some 50km north of Kandy. Here are a couple of photos I took on that journey.

There I met with MS Dhanapala, a rice breeder who had also come to Birmingham in the 1980s to attend short courses on plant genetic resources, and also spend some time in the Department of Genetics.

Sitting, L-R: Dhanapala, me, Sandanayake. I don’t remember the names of those standing.

Sri Lanka has had a very successful rice breeding program, and many of its varieties have been adopted throughout Asia, after being shared and trialled through INGER, the IRRI-led International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, that I wrote about in 2015.

Now to return to Kandy tourism.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya cover almost 150 acres. There are wide open spaces to wander around, but also exquisite orchid houses to enjoy, with a multiplicity of species and varieties to take in.

As I mentioned, the Temple of the Tooth is a sacred shrine to Buddhists, and although not overrun with pilgrims during my visit was, nevertheless, quite busy.

One of the most impressive exhibits, in a side room, is a huge, stuffed elephant that died in 1988. This was Raja, a tusker who led ceremonial processions from the Temple for over 50 years.

All too soon my stay in Kandy was over, and I headed down to Colombo on the west coast to take my flight back to Singapore, and from there to the Philippines. It’s certainly a country I would like to return to.


Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 25: Walking the Great Wall of China

During the nineteen years I spent in the Far East, I visited China just twice. The first time was in March 1995, and this post is all about that visit. It must have been in 2009 that I was in China again, for the annual meeting of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) held in Beijing, just across the street from the famous Beijing National Stadium (aka Bird’s Nest) built for the 2008 Olympic Games.

However, back to 1995.

Dr Bao-Rong Lu

A year earlier I had recruited Dr Bao-Rong Lu (a Chinese national from the southwest Sichuan Province) to work in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) on the diversity of wild rice species. Bao-Rong had just completed his PhD in Sweden at the Swedish University of Agriculture under the supervision Professor Roland von Bothmer, studying the cytogenetics of wheat species, if memory serves me correctly. He had also spent some months working at the Institute of Botany, The Chinese Academy of Sciences (IB-CAS), in Beijing prior to joining IRRI.

With a major rice biodiversity project getting underway at IRRI in 1995, I decided that a visit to China with Bao-Rong was the appropriate moment to initiate some further contacts and possible collaboration. Our visit took in three cities: Beijing, Hangzhou (in Zhejiang Province west of Shanghai), and Guangzhou (Canton) in the south.

First stop was the IB-CAS where I met with the Director (whose name I cannot recall, unfortunately) and many of the staff.

With the Director of the Institute of Botany and staff. Bao-Rong is standing on my left, and the Director on my right.

I was invited to present a seminar about the International Rice Genebank at IRRI and its role in the global conservation of rice genetic resources.

There was also some time for sightseeing around Beijing, and this was my opportunity to tick off another item on my bucket list: walking on the Great Wall of China (at Mutianyu, about 45 miles north of Beijing).

As you can see from these photos, there were few visitors, unlike scenes I have seen in the media in recent years.

We also took a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and a walk around Tiananmen Square. Again not crowded! In one of the photos you can see the Great Hall of the People behind Bao-Rong. During the CGIAR meeting in Beijing that I mentioned earlier, the official dinner (and entertainment) was hosted by the Chinese in the Great Hall. It’s massive!

The photos appear hazy, because it was. It was quite cold in Beijing in March, with a stiff northwesterly breeze blowing over the city, laden with dust from the far west of China. It felt like being sand-blasted.

We also visited some Ming era tombs near Beijing, but I’m unable to find any photos of that particular visit.

On one night the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences hosted a small dinner in my honor. On another, Bao-Rong introduced me to the delights of spicy Sichuan cuisine. There was a Sichuan restaurant in our hotel where all the staff were from the province.

Trevor Williams

Later that same evening, as Bao-Rong and I were enjoying a beer in the bar overlooking the hotel reception, I saw someone who I recognised enter the dining room. I had to investigate. And, lo and behold, it was Trevor Williams who had supervised my MSc dissertation at the University of Birmingham in 1971. Around 1977, Trevor left Birmingham to become the first Director of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR – now Bioversity International) in Rome. In 1995 I hadn’t seen Trevor for about six years, and so we spent the rest of the evening catching up over rather too many beers. Having left IBPGR by then, he was in Beijing setting up an organization that would become INBAR, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan with its headquarters in Beijing.

After a few days in Beijing, we headed south to the city of Hangzhou (inland from Shanghai on the Qiantang River) in Zhejiang province. We were there to visit the China National Rice Research Institute (CNRRI) and meet with its director Professor Ying Cunshan. Professor Ying participated in the rice biodiversity project as a member of the project Steering Committee. CNRRI is the home of China’s largest rice genebank, which was modelled (inadvisedly in my opinion) on the genebank at IRRI.

With Bao-Rong and Professor Ying outside the entrance to CNRRI.

Inside the genebank with Professor Ying.

After a couple of days in Hangzhou, we headed southwest to the city of Guangzhou (Canton) and I experienced one of the most nerve-wracking flights ever.

Much as I am fascinated by aviation in general, I’m somewhat of a nervous flyer. And in the mid-1990s Chinese airlines were only just beginning to modernise their fleets with Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Many were still flying Soviet-era Russian aircraft, like the Tupolev (probably a ‘154’) that was assigned to our flight. On that morning, flights out of Hangzhou were delayed due to fog, and at the same time Guangzhou was also fogged in. Over a period of a couple hours, other flights (of mainly new aircraft) did depart, leaving just the Tupolev on the apron for our flight. Eventually the flight was called and we made our way out to the aircraft. Looking around the cabin as I made my way to my seat, it crossed my mind that this aircraft had seen better days.

Anyway, we took off and headed for Guangzhou. Approaching that city after a flight of about 90 minutes, the captain informed us that fog was still hanging over the airport but he would continue the landing. Only to abort that just before touching down, and returning to Hangzhou! My nerves were on edge. After refuelling, and a further delay, we departed again. This time we did find a gap in the fog and landed. As we were on our final approach and seconds from touch-down, a female passenger immediately in front of me decided to get out of her seat to retrieve her hand luggage from the overhead bin. That was the final straw for me, and I shouted at her, in no uncertain terms, to sit the f*** down. Not my best moment, I admit.

In Guangzhou, our destination was the Guangzhou wild rice nursery and meet with the staff (again I don’t remember who precisely). I believe the nursery was managed through the Guangzhou Academy of Agricultural Sciences. As in Beijing, I gave another seminar here.

In a 2005 paper, Bao-Rong and others has written about wild rice conservation in China.

Completing our visit to Guangzhou, I took a flight into Hong Kong (maybe under 40 minutes) to connect with another back to Manila.

Although China did not participate directly in the rice biodiversity project since the country had already invested heavily in rice collection and conservation, Professor Ying Cunshan served on the Steering Committee for the 5-year life of the project. We felt that his experience, and recognition among other rice scientists, would be an invaluable addition to the team.

I have two particular reflections on this first trip to China. First, in crowded areas the Chinese had little ‘respect’ for personal space, and I often found myself checking my pace of walking as others crossed in front of me, seemingly oblivious of the fact that I was there. And it wasn’t just me, being a foreigner. It just seemed the normal thing to do.

Secondly, I realised that I am not a very adventurous eater. Some of the dishes I was presented with did not encourage my appetite. There was certainly a lack of synchronization between my stomach, eyes and brain. I did find Sichuanese cooking delicious, however. In Guangzhou, where many ‘exotic’ dishes were prepared, I got round any difficulties by explaining to my hosts, through Bao-Rong, that I was vegetarian. And those dishes were equally delicious.

Bao-Rong remained at IRRI for two contracts, a total of six years. After he left IRRI in 2000, he returned to China and it wasn’t long before he joined Fudan University in Shanghai. He is now Professor and Chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Biodiversity Science. He currently serves as a Member of the Chinese National Biosafety Committee.


Where does our food come from?

James Wong

There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the Twittersphere in recent weeks that caught my attention, about the sources and origins of our food, in which botanist, science writer, and broadcaster James Wong (@Botanygeek) has been a lively participant (expertly educating, and oftentimes correcting misinformation that surfaces all too frequently on Twitter).

So where does our food come from? No, I’m not referring to the local supermarket! Nor the countries where it’s grown and exported to the UK, to land on our supermarket shelves, such as avocados from Peru or French beans (Phaseolus spp.) from Kenya, to mention just a couple of examples.

Rather, I’m talking about the regions of the world where our food crops were first domesticated from wild species [1]. In many farmers’ fields, there is still an enormous diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as response to different growing conditions or reaction to pests and diseases. Just take the example below of potatoes from Peru, varieties that have been carefully cultivated by generations of farmers in the high Andes.

(L): Farmer varieties of potatoes from Peru; and (R): a potato farmer and her husband from the Province of Cajamarca in the north of Peru proudly holding a prized variety.

These diverse crop varieties and related wild species are the genetic resources or agrobiodiversity (perhaps a term more familiar to most through its regular use in the media) that plant breeders need to enhance agricultural productivity, transferring genes between different varieties or species to keep one step or more ahead of changing climates or increased threat of new strains of plant diseases. Without access to this valuable genetic variation, plant breeders would be challenged indeed to respond appropriately to the many threats in the agricultural environment.

There is an ongoing interdependence among countries for access to genetic resources. Take the potato, for example, with which I am quite familiar. The UK potato crop ultimately depends for its survival on plant breeders being able to access different genes and breed them into new varieties. Where do these genes come from? From from cultivated and wild potatoes in Peru and neighbouring countries. Plant breeders at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, Scotland, regularly dip into the species conserved in the Commonwealth Potato Collection. This potato example is repeated worldwide for most other crops.

Colin Khoury

In a significant open access article (published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2016) Colin Khoury (a Birmingham MSc genetic resources graduate) and his co-authors state: Research into the origins of food plants has led to the recognition that specific geographical regions around the world have been of particular importance to the development of agricultural crops . . . We estimate the degree to which countries use crops from regions of diversity other than their own (‘foreign crops’), and quantify changes in this usage over the past 50 years. Countries are highly interconnected with regard to primary regions of diversity of the
crops they cultivate and/or consume.

Colin followed up with a piece on the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2017, discussing the interdependence of nations: The evidence on countries’ predominant use of foreign crops bolsters the rationale for strengthening international collaboration on conservation of crop diversity and for making the exchange of all agricultural seeds as easy and affordable as possible. Our interdependence also boosts the argument for considering the genetic diversity of globally important food crops as public goods which should be openly available to all, and for respecting the rights of farmers to practice their traditional methods of conservation and exchange, not only in recognition of their historical contributions to the diversity in our food, but also in active support of its further evolution.

Just take a look at this interesting graphic (click to enlarge) that was published in the 2016 paper, and republished in the 2017 blog post. I think many readers of my blog will be surprised when they discover the origins of most of the food plants they take for granted.

Origins and primary regions of diversity of major agricultural crops. Source: Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.

However, the concept of centers of origins and crop diversity is not a new one. It was first formulated by the great Russian geneticist (and ‘father of plant genetic resources’), Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (born in 1887). See how his centers coincide with the map above. Vavilov’s ideas have been reworked since his death, but still provide a fundamental foundation for the study and understanding of crop diversity. He was starved to death in one of Stalin’s prisons in 1943.

I. The Tropical Center; II. The East Asiatic Center; III. The Southwest Asiatic Center (c0ntaining [a] the Caucasian Center, [b] the Near East Centre, [c] the Northwestern Indian Center; IV. The Mediterranean Center; V. Abyssinia; VI. The Central American Center (containing [a] the mountains of southern Mexico, [b] the Central American Center, [c] the West Indian islands; and VI. The Andean Center.

One of his great works, Five Continents (a memoir of his many plant collecting expeditions) was republished in 1997 on the occasion of his 110th birthday. It had never appeared during his lifetime.

Vavilov, NI, 1997. Five Continents. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy. ISBN: 92-9043-302-7

Then, as I was thinking through these ideas about food origins, I came across the two photos below. At first I couldn’t recall where they had been taken. Then I realized they must have been taken during the drinks reception after the half-day N.I. Vavilov Centenary Symposium, jointly organized by the Linnean Society of London and the Institute of Archaeology of University College London on 26 November 1987 to commemorate Vavilov’s birth. I was one of the speakers.

Top: with Joe Smartt (University of Southampton). Bottom: Chatting with Joe Smartt, with Prof. Jacks Hawkes (University of Birmingham, to my left) with another symposium attendee.

The papers were published in a special edition of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society in January 1990.

Sadly, all my fellow presenters have since passed away [2].

In the first paper, 1. Preface, Jack Hawkes and David Harris state the following: Vavilov laid the foundations of modern plant breeding, stressing the importance of the wide range of genetic diversity in our ancient crops and in related wild species—a diversity that before his time had barely been used or understood by breeders . . . Not only this—the whole movement of crop genetic resources conservation as a necessary prerequisite for the new more resistant and productive varieties needed now and in the future can be clearly traced back to Vavilov’s seminal ideas . . . Vavilov’s theoretical studies on crop plant origins and evolution under domestication, the areas in which crops evolved and the parallelism in their diversity in particular regions also possess clear practical implications, as well as linking into prehistory and the beginnings of agriculture.

In the second paper, Jack Hawkes discussed the impact of Vavilov’s work. He had met the great man on his visit to the Soviet Union in 1938.

Geographer David Harris discussed the origins of agriculture and how Vavilov’s studies on the centers of origin influenced the work of many other scholars. Yet he concluded that with the discovery of new evidence about the origins of agriculture, Vavilov’s concept as such had outlived its usefulness.

I was privileged to be asked to contribute to this symposium, standing alongside three colleagues: Joe Smartt, Jack Hawkes, and Trevor Williams who had encouraged me to enter the world of genetic resources and supervised my research, and mentored me at various stages of my career.

Professor Hugh Bunting had been the external examiner to the Birmingham MSc Course on genetic resources when I presented my dissertation on lentils in September 1971. There was a link to Vavilov there, because his second wife, Elena Barulina, wrote the first monograph on lentils.

My own paper discussed how homologous variation among potato species was evident when looking for resistance to pests and diseases.

I only met Gordon Hillman on one occasion at this symposium. He made very significant contributions to our understanding of early farming systems and the domestication of cereals in the Near East.

In his paper, Hugh Bunting discussed how Vavilov promoted the inclusion of physiological and biochemical features alongside descriptions of morphology to understand how plants were adapted to their environments. The examples used were groundnuts and sorghum, crops which Bunting had studied in Africa over many years.

In the final paper, Trevor Williams (who was Director of the International Board of Plant Genetic Resources, IBPGR, the forerunner of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, IPGRI, and Bioversity International) discussed how IBPGR’s program of collecting and conserving crop varieties and wild species worldwide had been guided by Vavilov’s ideas on centers of diversity.

As you can see, there’s more to this story of our food and its origins than perhaps meets the eye initially. It’s a story that I have followed for the past 50 years since I first set out on my career conserving and using plant genetic resources.

[1] Avocados originated in Central America, and French beans come from South America.

[2] I’ve not been able to find any further information about Stuart Davies, co-author with Gordon Hillman, since his retirement from Cardiff University.

This book (ISBN: 90-220-0785-5), by Anton Zeven and Jan de Wet, published by the Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation in Wageningen in 1982 is an excellent source of information about the crop and wild species found in the centers of diversity.

It was a revised second edition of: Zeven AC and PM Zhukovsky, 1975. Dictionary of cultivated plants and their centres of diversity.

Zhukovsky was a follower of Vavilov and further developed the idea of centers of origin and diversity.

Genebanks are the future . . . but there is a big challenge ahead

Our ability to adapt to changing climates will be determined, to a considerable extent, upon our ability to feed ourselves, to provide shelter and clothing, and for many peoples in many developing countries there will be problems in obtaining fuelwood for cooking or heating.

My close friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote that 30 years ago in the first chapter [1] of the book on climate change and genetic resources that we edited with Martin Parry.

We also wrote that to avert famine it would be necessary to raise crop yields and identify and use the sorts of genetic resources to contribute to this effort. Fortunately, these genetic resources are, to a large extent, already conserved in genebanks around the world.

In a recent post, I argued that, in the face of climate change, genebanks are the future. And while I hold to that assertion, I must also highlight a challenge that must be addressed—with greater urgency—and one that I already raised 30 years ago!

And that challenge is all about the potential impacts of climate change on genebank operations. I’m concerned about how rising temperatures and changing seasons might affect the ability of a genebank to produce good quality seeds during initial multiplication or thereafter to regenerate seed stocks.

We also have limited information how the environmental pest and plant pathogen load will change under a changing climate. That’s a particular concern for plant species that cannot be stored as seeds but are conserved in field genebanks. In this, the International Year of Plant Health, it is a particular genebank issue worthy of more attention.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t discount possible increases in genebank costs as cooling equipment works harder to maintain cold rooms at the desired temperatures of -18°C for long-term conservation (in so-called Base Collections), or just above 0°C for germplasm that is available for distribution and exchange (in Active Collections), the situation found in many genebanks.

Many (but not all) genebanks were set up in parts of the world where the crops they conserve are important, and where many originated, in so-called ‘centers of diversity’. That holds particularly for the international genebanks managed in eleven of the CGIAR centers, such as for potatoes at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, beans and cassava at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, or rice at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, to give just three examples.

But there are exceptions. CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (located just outside Mexico City) certainly lies in the center of diversity for maize, but not wheat, which is a crop that was domesticated and evolved under domestication in the Near East and fringes of the Mediterranean. Another exception is Bioversity International, based in Rome that maintains an important collection of bananas (Musa spp.) as tissue culture samples (known as in vitro conservation) as well as samples stored frozen (or cryopreserved) at the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196°C) in Belgium at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven).

You can find out more about the CGIAR genebanks on the Genebank Platform website.

As the network of genebanks expanded worldwide, with almost every country setting up at least one national genebank, many genebanks now hold samples of varieties and wild species from distance regions. And it does have some important implications for long-term conservation and regeneration, and exchange of germplasm.

Long-term conservation of many plant species in genebanks is possible because their seeds can be dried to a low moisture content and stored at low temperature. We refer to these seeds as orthodox, and we have a pretty good idea of how to dry them to an optimum moisture content (although research at IRRI has thrown new light on some of the critical drying processes). Provided they can be kept dry and cool, we can predict—with some confidence—how long they will survive in storage before they need to be grown again, or ‘regenerated’, to produce healthy seeds stocks.

On the other hand, the seeds of some species, many from the tropics, do not tolerate desiccation or low temperature storage. We refer to the seeds of these species as recalcitrant. There again, there is also a group of crops that cannot be stored as seeds but must be maintained, like the banana example referred to above, as tissue cultures or cryopreserved, if technically feasible; or in field genebanks because they reproduce vegetatively. The potato for example is grown from tubers, and for any variety, each tuber is genetically identical (a clone) to all the others of that variety. Although potatoes do produce seeds (often in abundance), they do not breed true. That’s why conservation of the original varieties is so important.

However, seeds do not live forever, and periodically regenerated if there are signs of declining viability. Or when seed stocks have become depleted because they have been sent to breeders and researchers around the world.

Climate change is already affecting crop productivity in some parts of the world. Increases in temperature (notably higher nighttime temperatures) are linked with a reduction of fertility in rice [2] for example. Stressed plants produce seeds of lower quality and, in wheat, have an effect on seedling vigour and potentially on yield [3].

Many (perhaps most) genebanks aim to grow their germplasm close to the genebank location, although this may not always be possible. Will the environments of genebank locations remain constant under climate change? Most certainly not. Temperatures have already risen, and are predicted to increase even further unless governments really do take concerted action to reduce our carbon footprint. While temperatures will increase, daylength will remain constant. Under climate change we will see new combinations of temperature and daylength. Response to daylength (or photoperiodism) is a key adaptive trait in many plant species. It is already a challenge to grow some genebank samples at a single location because of their wide latitudinal provenance.

Richard Ellis

Incidentally, 30 years on, it’s worthwhile to take a second look at Chapter 6 in our genetic resources and climate change book [4] by Professor Richard Ellis and colleagues at the University of Reading on the relationship between temperature and crop development and growth.

Seed quality is all important for genebank managers. Unlike farmers, however, they are less concerned about yield per se. They do need to understand the impacts of higher temperatures, drought, or submergence—and when they occur in a plant’s life cycle—on seed quality, because seed quality is a key determinant of long-term survival of seeds.

In a recent article, Richard wrote this: . . . when scientists breed new crop varieties using genebank samples as “parents”, they should include the ability to produce high-quality seed in stressful environments in the variety’s selected traits. In this way, we should be able to produce new varieties of seeds that can withstand the increasingly extreme pressures of climate change.

While a genebank might be able to regenerate its conserved germplasm closeby today, to what extent will these ‘regeneration environments’ become ‘stressful environments’ under a changing climate? What measures must a genebank take to ensure the production of the highest quality seeds? Furthermore, how will the pest and disease load change, and what impact will that have during regeneration and, perhaps more importantly, on germplasm conserved in field genebanks?

We were faced by a similar situation almost 30 years ago after I had joined IRRI. There’s no question that IRRI conserves, in its International Rice Genebank, the world’s largest and genetically most diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species.

Kameswara Rao

One important group of rice varieties, the so-called japonica rices originated in temperate zones, and it was tricky to produce high quality seeds in Los Baños (14°N). With my colleague Kameswara Rao (who received his PhD in Richard’s lab at Reading), we carefully analysed the factors affecting seed quality in the japonica varieties grown in Los Baños [5], and adapted the regeneration cycle to the most appropriate time of year. Given that water was not a limiting factor (there were irrigation ponds on the IRRI Experiment Station) we were not constrained by the changing seasons as such. This would not be possible for all genebanks where growing seasons are more differentiated, in terms of temperature and water availability.

I did look into the possibility of growing the japonica (and other ‘difficult’ varieties) at other sites, even outside the Philippines. What seemed, at the outset, as a logical solution to a challenging problem, became a logistical nightmare.

I was concerned that the International Rice Genebank could ‘lose’ control of the management of germplasm samples in the field unless genebank staff were assigned to oversee that work, even in another country. Afterall, the reputation of the genebank lies in its ability to safely conserve germplasm over the long-term and safely distribute seeds, conditions I was not prepared to compromise.

There were also various plant quarantine issues, seemingly insurmountable. Plant quarantine personnel are, by outlook, a conservative bunch of people. And with good reason. IRRI successfully operates its germplasm exchange (both receipt and distribution) under the auspices of the Philippines Department of Agriculture’s National Plant Quarantine Services Division (of the Bureau of Plant Industry). The institute’s Seed Health Unit carries out all the tests necessary to certify all imports and exports of rice seeds meet exacting quarantine standards. All samples received by IRRI must be tested and, if they are destined for future distribution, must be grown in the field at IRRI for further observation and certification. That would negate the advantages of producing seeds in a ‘better’ environment. Countries like the USA or Russia that cover a huge range of latitude and longitude have a network of experiment stations where germplasm could be grown, and under the same plant quarantine jurisdiction. For many countries and their genebanks, that will just not be an option.

So the challenge for genebank managers is to make sure the impact of climate change on germplasm management and exchange is part of risk management. And begin discussions (if they have not already started) to determine how inter-genebank collaboration could overcome some of the potential constraints I have raised.

[1] Jackson, M.T. & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 1990. Plant genetic resources – a perspective. In: M. Jackson, B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, pp. 1-17. PDF

[2] Shaobing Peng et al., 2004) Rice yields decline with higher night temperature from global warming.

[3] Khah, EM et al., 1989. Effects of seed ageing on growth and yield of spring wheat at different plant-population densities. Field Crops Research 20: 175-190.

[4] Ellis, RH et al., 1990. Quantitative relations between temperature and crop development and growth. In: M. Jackson, B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, pp. 85-115.

[5] Kameswara Rao, N. & Jackson, MT, 1996. Seed production environment and storage longevity of japonica rices (Oryza sativa L.). Seed Science Research 6, 17-21. PDF


Never have genebanks been so relevant . . . or needed

There has perhaps never been a better justification for conservation of seeds in genebanks, or ex situ conservation as it’s commonly known.

The devastating bush fires that have ravaged huge swathes of eastern Australia have highlighted the fragility of environments that are being affected adversely by the consequences of climate change. It’s a wake-up call, even though some of us were commenting on this a generation ago (and more recently in 2014).

While many news stories have emotionally focused on the impact of the fires on wildlife—the injury to and death of millions of animals—very little has appeared in the media about the impacts on plant species. One story stood out, however: the extraordinary measures that firefighters took to protect the only natural stand of ancient Wollemi pines at a secret location in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

In another story I came across, there are concerns that a wild species of sorghum native to East Gippsland in southeast Australia may now be headed towards extinction as fires swept across its habitats. Only time will tell whether this particular species has survived.

Bush fires are not uncommon in Australia and many other parts of the world. Vegetation is, however, quite resilient and, given time, often recovers to a semblance of what was there before fires ravaged the landscape, although the balance of species may be disrupted for a few years.

Clearly nature is under threat. Indeed, in an article in The Guardian on 20 January 2020 the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, is quoted as imploring ‘governments to ensure 2020 is not just another “year of conferences” on the ongoing ecological destruction of the planet, urging countries to take definitive action on deforestation, pollution and the climate crisis.’

Catastrophic fires, and other effects of environmental degradation and climate change, vividly illustrate the necessity of having a dual conservation strategy, backing up conservation in nature, or in situ conservation, with conservation of seeds in genebanks, where appropriate. It’s clear that relying in situ conservation alone is too high a risk to take.

About 25 years ago, while I was leading the genetic conservation program at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, and conserving the world’s largest and most diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species in the International Rice Genebank, vocal lobby groups were pressing hard in several international forums and the media to redirect conservation away from genebanks (they were often referred to as ‘gene morgues’) towards in situ conservation, in nature for wild species or on-farm for cultivated varieties.

The criticism of many genebanks, including some of those managed at centers of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research or CGIAR, was not unwarranted. Insufficient attention was given to applying internationally-agreed genebank standards. This was not entirely the fault of genebank managers, both inside and outside the CGIAR. They were often starved of funds, living hand to mouth, year to year as it were, and expected to manage a long-term conservation commitment on inadequate annual budgets.

Standards in the eleven CGIAR genebanks have been raised through the Genebank Platform, supported by the Crop Trust. Between them, not only do the CGIAR genebanks conserve some of the most world’s important collections of genetic resources of cereals, legumes, and roots and tubers, but these collections have been studied in depth to find useful traits, and the volume of germplasm shared annually for research and production is impressive. Just take a look at the data for the years 2012-2018.

Other international efforts like the Crop Wild Relatives Project (supported by the Government of Norway), and managed by the Crop Trust with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have focused attention on the importance of conserving the wild relatives of crop plants as they are often genetically endowed with traits not found in their domesticated derivatives. My own experience studying nematode resistance in wild potatoes from Bolivia for example illustrated the importance of wild species for crop improvement.

Today, we have a whole new suite of tools to study the crop varieties and wild species conserved in genebanks around the world. As the genome of each new species is sequenced, another door is opened on the genetic diversity of nature, how it’s organized, and how genes control different traits. Indeed an argument has recently been made to genotype all samples (or accessions in the ‘official’ parlance) in a genebank. Certainly this is an approach that was merely a dream only two decades ago.

I still argue, however, that in tandem with the molecular analysis of crop diversity, there must be an in-depth evaluation of how different varieties behave in real environments. In joint research between former colleagues of mine at The University of Birmingham (Professors Brian Ford-Lloyd and John Newbury and Dr Parminder Virk) and myself at IRRI in the 1990s, we demonstrated the predictive value of molecular markers for several quantitative characters associated with crop productivity. Somewhat derided at the time, association genetics has become an important approach to study crop diversity.

I’ve been publishing about climate change and the value of plant genetic resources for over 30 years, beginning when there was far more skepticism about this phenomenon than today. At a conference on Crop Networks, held in Wageningen in the Netherlands in December 1990, I presented a paper outlining the need for collaborative research to study germplasm collections in the face of climate change.

And in that paper I argued that widespread testing in replicated field trials would be necessary to identify useful germplasm. With the addition nowadays of molecular markers and genome-wide detailed information for many species, there is now a much better opportunity to evaluate germplasm to identify gene sources that can help protect crops against the worst ravages of climate change and maintain agricultural productivity. Even though political leaders like Donald Trump and Scott Morrison continue to deny climate change (or merely pay lip service), society as a whole cannot ignore the issue. Afterall, for a predicted global population of 9.8 billion by 2050, most of whom will not produce their own food, continued agricultural productivity is an absolute necessity. The conservation, evaluation, and use of plant genetic resources stored in the world’s genebanks is a key component of achieving that goal.

Genebanks are the future! However, in a follow-up story, I write that genebanks still face a major challenge under a changing climate. Read more here.