Science publications that influenced my choice of career . . .

I’m sure, like me, many scientists have a few publications that they treasure. No, I’m not referring to any which they themselves authored; rather, publications that made them sit up and pay attention, so to speak. And, in doing so, particularly stimulated their interest and perhaps even guided their own scientific careers subsequently.

I’ve now been retired for ten years, but I still look back to how I got started in the world of plant genetic resources fifty years ago, and some of the scientific publications that pointed me in that direction. Let me backup a little and explain how this came about.

In 1967, I was accepted on to a BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (on England’s south coast) to study environmental botany and geography. I’ve written elsewhere about the three very happy years I spent in Southampton until graduation in July 1970.

The core of my degree course, particularly in my third or senior year, was a two semester ecology module taught in the Botany department, and different aspects of physical geography (such as geomorphology, biogeography, and climatology) in the Geography department. But I also took several shorter elective modules in Botany, including plant speciation, plant breeding, and population genetics. This latter course was taught by one of the pioneers in this field, Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Kenneth Mather who came to Southampton from the University of Birmingham (where he had been head of the Department of Genetics). He claimed (probably with some justification) that he was the only teaching Vice Chancellor at that time in the UK.

Joyce Lambert

We were a small group of only six or so ecology students, and this module was taught by quantitative ecologist Dr Joyce Lambert (who was also my personal tutor). All of us were required to submit an extended essay of 4-5000 words on an ‘ecological topic’ of our choice. It goes without saying that Joyce hinted she would prefer essays about her interest, namely the application of numerical methods to study vegetation landscapes.

I did not heed Joyce’s ‘advice’; I guess she was not best pleased. Instead, and with encouragement from genetics lecturer Dr Joe Smartt, I chose to explore the relationship between ecology, genetics, and taxonomy (the related fields of ecological genetics and experimental taxonomy) in an essay about the concept of ‘ecotypes’. Simply put, an ecotype is a distinct form or race of a plant occupying a particular habitat.

So that was my aim. What would be my entry point? And which literature would be most useful for my purpose?

From the 1920s onwards, several botanists (Göte Turesson in Sweden, JW Gregor in Scotland, and three staff at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Stanford: geneticist Jens Clausen, physiologist William Hiesey, and taxonomist David Keck) had studied the variation of species (genetically, physiologically, and taxonomically) in relation to their environments, and the role of natural selection on plant adaptation. There was a wealth of literature to delve into. But where to begin?

Jack Heslop-Harrison

I was fortunate that, just a few years earlier, Professor Jack Heslop-Harrison (then Mason Professor of Botany at the University of Birmingham) published an important review paper about what became for me a fascinating branch of botanical science, the study of variation within species in relation to environment.

Forty years of genecology, published in Advances in Ecological Research in 1964 (Vol. 2: 159-247) was, for me, one of those formative publications. Not only was the review thoroughly comprehensive in its coverage, but had the added quality of being extremely well written. It has stood the test of time. Yet, it would be interesting to bring it up to date, introducing all the latest evidence based on molecular biology and genomics.

When I contacted Heslop-Harrison’s son ‘Pat’ (who is Professor of Plant Cell Biology and Molecular Cytogenetics at the University of Leicester) to request a copy of his father’s paper (I’d ‘lost’ the copy I once had) he told me that he began writing a review 100 years of genecology, but had never completed it.

He did make this interesting comment: When I started on a ‘100 years’ update, I was taken that some parts [of ‘Forty years of genecology’] sounded remarkably old-fashioned, while other parts could fit unchanged in a strong grant application made today. But how the combination of molecular/marker studies and modelling has really allowed genecology to take its rightful place in biology.

Immersing myself in the various concepts of ‘ecotype’, ‘clines’, and ‘infraspecific variation’ among many others, Heslop-Harrison’s review not only provided me with the impetus to fulfil a pressing course assignment, but subconsciously perhaps helped me make some decisions about a future career. I guess this was the first time I became really enthusiastic about any botanical sub-discipline. Later on, when I began working in the area of conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the study of variation patterns and adaptation in crop species and their wild relatives became an important focus of what I set out to achieve. In fact, understanding the nature of crop plant variation—and how to use it—is one of the fundamental concepts underpinning the value of plant genetic resources.

No study of variation in plant species would be complete, even today I believe, without reference to the pioneering work of Clausen, Keck, and Hiesey in California over several decades from the 1930s. Their work had been highlighted, of course, in Heslop-Harrison’s review. I went back to their original papers*.

L-R: Jens Clausen (cytology and genetics), William Hiesey (physiology), and David Keck (taxonomy/botany)

And what an eye-opener they were: a classic set of papers, published between 1934 and 1958, describing experimental studies on the nature of species that really caught my attention, and to which I still return from time to time.

While others, like Turesson and Gregor, had also studied plant variation experimentally, their work was not on the same scale that Clausen and his colleagues achieved across central California, from the coast to the high Sierra Nevada.

Working with a range of species, they collected samples from different populations of each across this Californian transect and, using a reciprocal transplant approach, grew samples at experimental gardens on the coast at Stanford and at different altitudes in the mountains, at Mather and Timberline. So, for example, samples collected from coastal sites were grown at the high altitude garden, and vice versa and all combinations in between. Even the same species looked different under different environments, in terms of plant stature or days to flowering, for example, being just two of the many traits they studied. They were interested if these traits would persist when grown in another environment. Here is an example from yarrow or Achillea.

Clausen, J, DD Keck and WM Hiesey, 1948. Experimental studies on the nature of species. III: Environmental responses of climatic races of Achillea. Publication 581. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

They studied how well plants from one environment thrived in another, identifying the adaptations that enabled them to survive, and understanding both the genetic and physiological basis for adaptation, while recognising some of the variants taxonomically, if warranted. Many were simply locally-adapted populations, or ecotypes. Just a beautiful and competent piece of science.

Anyway, come the summer of 1970 and having just graduated, I still wasn’t sure what I’d be doing or where. I’d been accepted on to the MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham to begin in September. But while I had a guaranteed place, there was no funding. And without a studentship there was no way I could support myself and pay tuition fees.

That all changed at the beginning of August or thereabouts. I had a phone call from Professor Jack Hawkes, who was Mason Professor of Botany (succeeding Heslop-Harrison) and the MSc course director, letting me know he’d found some funds to support my studies. It was wonderful news, and I immediately began to make plans to move to Birmingham in mid-September.

There was one important thing Jack asked me to do: purchase a copy of a book that had just been published, and try and work my way through it before I landed up in Birmingham.

This book, Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation, was more than an eye opener as far as I was concerned. It was as if the scales fell from my eyes. What a revelation!

The book was dedicated to Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. Until then I’d never heard of this eminent Russian geneticist, the ‘Father of Plant Genetic Resources’, who subsequently became something of a scientific hero of mine.

Edited by wheat breeder Sir Otto Frankel and FAO scientist Dr Erna Bennett, both pioneers of the 1960s genetic resources movement, this book was essential reading for anyone entering the new field of conservation and use of plant genetic resources.

Sir Otto Frankel and Erna Bennett

It emerged from a technical conference held at FAO headquarters in Rome on 18-26 September 1967, and comprised 44 chapters penned by many if not most of the leading lights then in genetic conservation and crop and forestry specialists from around the world. As Sir Otto wrote in the preface, the book attempts to define and develop the principles underlying the various stages of exploration, conservation and utilization. Its usefulness will depend on the degree to which it succeeds in illuminating practical problems, rather than offering prescriptions or instructions.

In the course of my own entry into the world of plant genetic resources, I came to meet and become friends with several of the contributors.

The six sections covered topics in: (1) Biological background (the nature of crop diversity, centers of origin, taxonomy); (2) Tactics of exploration and collection; (3) Examples of exploration (crops and forestry); (4) Evaluation and utilization; (5) Documentation, records and retrieval; and (6) Conservation.

It became something of a ‘bible’ for me, and even today, I dip into its many chapters to refresh some of my ideas. Yes, the world of conservation and use of plant genetic resources has moved on significantly since its publication 50 years ago. Just think of the remarkable advances in molecular biology and genomics that nowadays open up a whole new dimension to our understanding of variation among important crop species and their wild relatives. And the impressive progress in computing for both data analysis as well as data management for crop germplasm collections. Fifty years ago, many things that we consider routine today were then but a pipe dream, if they were even on someone’s intellectual horizon.

I really do believe that anyone contemplating a career in plant genetic conservation as I was, 50 years ago, would benefit from delving into Frankel and Bennett, not only to appreciate how the genetic resources movement started in the 1960s, but also just how we have come in the five decades since.


*These are the papers from the California group of Clausen, Keck and Hiesey:

  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1934. Experimental taxonomy. Yearb. Carneg. Inst. 33, 173-177.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1939. The concept of species based on experiment. Amer. J. Bot. 26, 103-106.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1940. Experimental studies on the nature of species. I. Effect of varied environments on western North American plants. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 520.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1945. Experimental studies on the nature of species. II. Plant evolution through amphiploidy and autoploidy, with examples from the Madiinae. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 564.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck, & WM Hiesey, 1948. Experimental studies on the nature of species. III. Environmental responses of climatic races of Achillea. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 581.
  • Clausen J & WM Hiesey, 1958. Experimental studies on the nature of species. IV. Genetic structure of ecological races. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 615.

 

Potatoes or rice?

I graduated in July 1970 from the University of Southampton (a university on England’s south coast) with a BSc Hons degree in botany and geography. ‘Environmental botany’ actually, whatever that meant. The powers that be changed the degree title half way through my final (i.e. senior) year.

Anyway, there I was with my degree, and not sure what the future held in store. It was however the beginning of a fruitful 40 year career in international agricultural research and academia at three institutions over three continents, in a number of roles: research scientist, principal investigator (PI), program leader, teacher, and senior research manager, working primarily on potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and rice (Oryza sativa), with diversions into some legume species such as the grasspea, an edible form of Lathyrus.

Potatoes on the lower slopes of the Irazu volcano in Costa Rica, and rice in Bhutan

I spent the 1970s in South and Central America with the International Potato Center (CIP), the 1980s at the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences (Plant Biology), and almost 19 years from July 1991 (until my retirement on 30 April 2010) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines¹.

I divided my research time during those 40 years more or less equally between potatoes and rice (not counting the legume ‘diversions’), and over a range of disciplines: biosystematics and pre-breeding, genetic conservation, crop agronomy and production, plant pathology, plant breeding, and biotechnology. I was a bit of a ‘jack-of-all-trades’, getting involved when and where needs must.

However, I haven’t been a ‘hands-on’ researcher since the late 1970s. At both Birmingham and IRRI, I had active research teams, with some working towards their MSc or PhD, others as full time researchers. You can see our research output over many years in this list of publications.

Richard Sawyer

Very early on in my career I became involved in research management at one level or another. Having completed my PhD at Birmingham in December 1975 (and just turned 27), CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program in Costa Rica. I moved there in April 1976 and stayed there until November 1980.


In these Covid-19 lockdown days, I’m having ample time to reflect on times past. And today, 30 April, it’s exactly 10 years since I retired.

Just recently there was a Twitter exchange between some of my friends about the focus of their research, and the species they had most enjoyed working on.

And that got me thinking. If I had to choose between potatoes and rice, which one would it be? A hard decision. Even harder, perhaps, is the role I most enjoyed (or gave me the most satisfaction) or, from another perspective, in which I felt I’d accomplished most. I’m not even going to hazard a comparison between living and working in Peru (and Costa Rica) versus the Philippines. However, Peru has the majesty of its mountain landscapes and its incredible cultural history and archaeological record (notwithstanding I’d had an ambition from a small boy to visit Peru one day). Costa Rica has its incredible natural world, a real biodiversity hotspot, especially for the brilliant bird life. And the Philippines I’ll always remember for all wonderful, smiling faces of hard-working Filipinos.

And the scuba diving, of course.

Anyway, back to potatoes and rice. Both are vitally important for world food security. The potato is, by far, the world’s most important ‘root’ crop (it’s actually a tuber, a modified underground stem), by tonnage at least, and grown worldwide. Rice is the world’s most important crop. Period! Most rice is grown and consumed in Asia. It feeds more people on a daily basis, half the world’s population, than any other staple. Nothing comes close, except wheat or maize perhaps, but much of those grains is processed into other products (bread and pasta) or fed to animals. Rice is consumed directly as the grain.


Just 24 when I joined CIP as a taxonomist in January 1973, one of my main responsibilities was to collect potato varieties in various parts of the Peruvian Andes to add to the growing germplasm collection of native varieties and wild species. I made three trips during my three years in Peru: in May 1973 to the departments of Ancash and La Libertad (with my colleague, Zósimo Huamán); in May 1974 to Cajamarca (accompanied by my driver Octavio); and in January/February 1974 to Cuyo-Cuyo in Puno and near Cuzco, with University of St Andrews lecturer, Dr Peter Gibbs.

Top: with Octavio in Cajamarca, checking potato varieties with a farmer. Bottom: ready for the field, near Cuzco.

My own biosystematics/pre-breeding PhD research on potatoes looked at the breeding relationships between cultivated forms with different chromosome numbers (multiples of 12) that don’t naturally intercross freely, as well as diversity within one form with 36 chromosomes, Solanum x chaucha. In the image below, some of that diversity is shown, as well as examples of how we made crosses (pollinations) between different varieties, using the so-called ‘cut stem method’ in bottles.

Several PhD students of mine at Birmingham studied resistance to pests and diseases in the myriad of more than 100 wild species of potato that are found from the southern USA to southern Chile. We even looked at the possibility of protoplast fusion (essentially fusion of ‘naked’ cells) between different species, but not successfully.

I developed a range of biosystematics projects when taking over leadership of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, publishing extensively about the relationships among the handful (about 20 or so) wild rice species and cultivated rice. One of the genebank staff, Elizabeth Ma. ‘Yvette’ Naredo (pointing in the image below) completed her MS degree under my supervision.

Although this research had a ‘taxonomic’ focus in one sense (figuring out the limits of species to one another), it also had the practical focus of demonstrating how easily species might be used in plant breeding, according to their breeding relationships, based on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet, 1971 [1], illustrated diagrammatically below.


When I transferred to Costa Rica in 1976, I was asked to look into the possibility of growing potatoes under hot, humid conditions. At that time CIP was looking to expand potato production into areas and regions not normally associated with potato cultivation. One of the things I did learn was how to grow a crop of potatoes.

I was based in Turrialba (at the regional institute CATIE), at around 650 masl, with an average temperature of around 23°C (as high as 30°C and never much lower than about 15°C; annual rainfall averages more than 2800 mm). Although we did identify several varieties that could thrive under these conditions, particularly during the cooler months of the year, we actually faced a more insidious problem, and one that kept me busy throughout my time in Costa Rica.

Shortly after we planted the first field trials on CATIE’s experiment station, we noticed that some plants were showing signs of wilting but we didn’t know the cause.

With my research assistant Jorge Aguilar checking on wilted plants in one of the field trials.

Luis Carlos González

Fortunately, I established a very good relationship with Dr Luis Carlos González Umaña, a plant pathologist in the University of Costa Rica, who quickly identified the culprit: a bacterium then known as Pseudomonas solanacearum (now Ralstonia solanacearum) that causes the disease known as bacterial wilt.

I spent over three years looking into several ways of controlling bacterial wilt that affects potato production in many parts of the world. An account of that work was one of the first posts I published in this blog way back in 2012.

The other aspect of potato production which gave me great satisfaction is the work that my colleague and dear friend Jim Bryan and I did on rapid multiplication systems for seed potatoes.

Being a vegetatively-propagated crop, potatoes are affected by many diseases. Beginning with healthy stock is essential. The multiplication rate with potatoes is low compared to crops that reproduce through seeds, like rice and wheat. In order to bulk up varieties quickly, we developed a set of multiplication techniques that have revolutionised potato seed production systems ever since around the world.

AS CIP’s Regional Representative for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean (known as CIP’s Region II), I also contributed to various potato production training courses held each year in Mexico. But one of our signature achievements was the launch of a six nation research network or consortium in 1978, known as PRECODEPA (Programa REgional COoperativo DE PApa), one of the first among the CGIAR centers. It was funded by the Swiss Government.

Shortly after I left Costa Rica in November 1980, heading back to Lima (and unsure where my next posting would be) PRECODEPA was well-established, and leadership was assumed by the head of one of the national potato program members of the network. PRECODEPA expanded to include more countries in the region (in Spanish, French, and English), and was supported continually by the Swiss for more than 25 years. I have written here about how PRECODEPA was founded and what it achieved in the early years.

I resigned from CIP in March 1981 and returned to the UK, spending a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham.


Did I enjoy my time at Birmingham? I have mixed feelings.

I had quite a heavy teaching load, and took on several administrative roles, becoming Chair of the Biological Sciences Second Year Common Course (to which I contributed a module of about six lectures on agricultural ecosystems). I had no first teaching commitments whatsoever, thank goodness. I taught a second year module with my colleague Richard Lester on flowering plant taxonomy, contributing lectures about understanding species relationships through experimentation.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

With my close friend and colleague Dr Brian Ford-Lloyd (later Professor), I taught a final year module on plant genetic resources, the most enjoyable component of my undergraduate teaching.

One aspect of my undergraduate responsibilities that I really did enjoy (and took seriously, I believe—and recently confirmed by a former tutee!) was the role of personal tutor to 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students. I would meet with them about once a week to discuss their work, give advice, set assignments, and generally be a sounding board for any issues they wanted to raise with me. My door was always open.

Most of my teaching—on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm collecting, agricultural systems, among others—was a contribution to the one year (and international) MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources on which I had studied a decade earlier. In my travels around the world after I joined IRRI in 1991, I would often bump into my former students, and several also contributed to a major rice biodiversity project that I managed for five years from 1995. I’m still in contact with some of those students, some of whom have found me through this blog. And I’m still in contact with two of my classmates from 1970-71.

Research on potatoes during the 1980s at Birmingham was not straightforward. On the one hand I would have liked to continue the work on wild species that had been the focus of Professor Jack Hawkes’ research over many decades.

With Jack Hawkes, collecting Solanum multidissectum in the central Andes north of Lima in early 1981 just before I left CIP to return to the UK. This was the only time I collected with Hawkes. What knowledge he had!

He had built up an important collection of wild species that he collected throughout the Americas. I was unable to attract much funding to support any research projects. It wasn’t a research council priority. Furthermore, there were restrictions on how we could grow these species, because of strict quarantine regulations. In the end I decided that the Hawkes Collection would be better housed in Scotland at the Commonwealth Potato Collection (or CPC, that had been set up after the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition in 1938-39 in which Jack participated). In 1987, the Hawkes Collection was acquired by the CPC and remains there to this day.

Dave Downing was the department technician who looked after the potato collection at Birmingham. He did a great job coaxing many different species to flower.

Having said that, one MSc student, Susan Juned, investigated morphological and enzyme diversity in the wild species Solanum chacoense. After graduating Susan joined another project on potato somaclones that was managed by myself and Brian Ford-Lloyd (see below). Another student, Ian Gubb, continued our work on the lack of enzymic blackening in Solanum hjertingii, a species from Mexico, in collaboration with the Food Research Institute in Norwich, where he grew his research materials under special quarantine licence. A couple of Peruvian students completed their degrees while working at CIP, so I had the opportunity of visiting CIP a couple of times while each was doing field work, and renew my contacts with former colleagues. In 1988, I was asked by CIP to join a panel for a three week review of a major seed production project at several locations around Peru.

With funding of the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA, or whatever it was then), and now the Department for International Development (DFID), and in collaboration with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge and CIP, in 1983/84 we began an ambitious (and ultimately unsuccessful) project on true potato seed (TPS) using single seed descent (SSD) in diploid potatoes (having 24 chromosomes). Because of the potato quarantine situation at Birmingham, we established this TPS project at PBI, and over the first three years made sufficient progress for ODA to renew our grant for a second three year period.

We hit two snags, one biological, the other administrative/financial that led to us closing the project after five years. On reflection I also regret hiring the researcher we did. I’ve not had the same recruitment problem since.

Working with diploid potatoes was always going to be a challenge. They are self incompatible, meaning that the pollen from a flower ‘cannot’ fertilize the same flower. Nowadays mutant forms have been developed that overcome this incompatibility and it would be possible to undertake SSD as we envisaged. Eventually we hit a biological brick wall, and we decided the effort to pursue our goal would take more resources than we could muster. In addition, the PBI was privatized in 1987 and we had to relocate the project to Birmingham (another reason for handing over the Hawkes Collection to the CPC). We lost valuable research impetus in that move, building new facilities and the like. I think it was the right decision to pull the plug when we did, admit our lack of success, and move on.

We wrote about the philosophy and aims of this TPS project in 1984 [2], but I don’t have a copy of that publication. Later, in 1987, I wrote this review of TPS breeding [3].

Susan Juned

As I mentioned above, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I received a commercial grant to look into producing tissue-culture induced variants, or somaclones, of the crisping potato variety Record with reduced low temperature sweetening that leads to ‘blackened’ crisps (or chips in the USA) on frying. We hired Susan Juned as the researcher, and she eventually received her PhD in 1994 for this work. Since we kept the identity of each separate Record tuber from the outset of the project, over 150 tubers, and all the somaclone lines derived from each, we also showed that there were consequences for potato seed production and maintenance of healthy stocks as tissue cultures. We published that work in 1991. We also produced a few promising lines of Record for our commercial sponsor.

One funny aspect to this project is that we made it on to Page 3 of the tabloid newspaper The Sun, notorious in those days for a daily image of a well-endowed and naked young lady. Some journalist or other picked up a short research note in a university bulletin, and published an extremely short paragraph at the bottom of Page 3 (Crunch time for boffins) as if our project did not have a serious objective. In fact, I was even invited to go on the BBC breakfast show before I explained that the project had a serious objective. We weren’t just investigating ‘black bits in crisp packets’.

Brian and I (with a colleague, Martin Parry, in the Department of Geography) organized a workshop on climate change in 1989, when there was still a great deal of skepticism. We published a book in 1990 from that meeting (and followed up in 2013 with another).

Despite some successes while at Birmingham, and about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, I had started to become disillusioned with academic life by the end of the 1980s, and began to look for new opportunities. That’s when I heard about a new position at IRRI in the Philippines: Head of the newly-established Genetic Resources Center, with responsibility for the world renowned and largest international rice genebank. I applied. The rest is history,


Klaus Lampe

I was appointed by Director General Klaus Lampe even though I’d never actually run a genebank before. Taking on a genebank as prestigious as the International Rice Genebank was rather daunting. But help was on the way.

I knew I had a good team of staff. All they needed was better direction to run a genebank efficiently, and bring the genebank’s operations up to a higher standard.

Staff of the International Rice Genebank on a visit to PhilRice in 1996.

There was hardly an aspect of the operations that we didn’t overhaul. Not that I had the genebank team on my side from the outset. It took a few months for them to appreciate that my vision for the genebank was viable. Once on board, they took ownership of and responsibility for the individual operations while I kept an overview of the genebank’s operation as a whole.

With Pola de Guzman inside the Active Collection store room at +4C. Pola was my right hand in the genebank, and I asked her to take on the role of genebank manager, a position she holds to this day.

I’ve written extensively in this blog about the genebank and genetic resources of rice, and in this post I gave an overview of what we achieved.

You can find more detailed stories of the issues we faced with data management and germplasm characterization, or seed conservation and regeneration (in collaboration with my good friend Professor Richard Ellis of the University of Reading). We also set about making sure that germplasm from around Asia (and Africa and the Americas) was safe in genebanks and duplicated in the International Rice Genebank. We embarked on an ambitious five year project (funded by the Swiss government) to collect rice varieties mainly (and some wild samples as well), thereby increasing the size of the genebank collection by more than 25% to around 100,000 samples or accessions. The work in Laos was particularly productive.

My colleague, Dr Seepana Appa Rao (left) and Lao colleagues interviewing a farmer in Khammouane Province about the rice varieties she was growing.

We did a lot of training in data management and germplasm collecting, and successfully studied how farmers manage rice varieties (for in situ or on farm conservation) in the Philippines, Vietnam, and India.

One of IRRI’s main donors is the UK government through DFID. In the early 1990s, not long after I joined IRRI, DFID launched a new initiative known as ‘Holdback’ through which some of the funding that would, under normal circumstances, have gone directly to IRRI and its sister CGIAR centers was held back to encourage collaboration between dneters and scientists in the UK.

Whenever I returned on annual home leave, I would spend some time in the lab at Birmingham. John Newbury is on the far left, Parminder Virk is third from left, and Brian Ford-Lloyd on the right (next to me). One of my GRC staff, the late Amy Juliano spent a couple of months at Birmingham learning new molecular techniques. She is on the front row, fourth from right.

With my former colleagues at the University of Birmingham (Brian Ford-Lloyd, Dr John  Newbury, and Dr Parminder Virk) and a group at the John Innes Centre in Norwich (the late Professor Mike Gale and Dr Glenn Bryan) we set about investigating how molecular markers (somewhat in their infancy back in the day) could be used describe diversity in the rice collection or identify duplicate accessions.

Not only was this successful, but we published some of the first research in plants showing the predictive value of molecular markers for quantitative traits. Dismissed at the time by some in the scientific community, the study of  associations between molecular markers and traits is now mainstream.

In January 1993, I was elected Chair while attending my first meeting of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) in Ethiopia (my first foray into Africa), a forum bringing expertise in genetic conservation together among the CGIAR centers.

ICWG-GR meeting held at ILCA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in January 1993.

Over the next three years while I was Chair, the ICWG-GR managed a review of genetic resources in the CGIAR, and a review of center genebanks. We also set up the System-Wide Genetic Resources Program, that has now become the Genebank Platform.


I never expected to remain at IRRI as long as I did, almost nineteen years. I thought maybe ten years at most, and towards the end of the 1990s I began to look around for other opportunities.

Then, in early 2001, my career took another course, and I left genetic resources behind, so to speak, and moved into senior management at IRRI as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications, DPPC). And I stayed in that role until retiring from the institute ten years ago.

Top: after our Christmas lunch together at Antonio’s restaurant in Tagaytay, one of the best in the Philippines. To my left are: Sol, Eric, Corints, Vel, and Zeny. Below: this was my last day at IRRI, with Eric, Zeny, Corints, Vel, and Yeyet (who replaced Sol in 2008).

Ron Cantrell

The Director General, Ron Cantrell, asked me to beef up IRRI’s resource mobilization and project management. IRRI’s reputation with its donors had slipped. It wasn’t reporting adequately, or on time, on the various projects funded at the institute. Furthermore, management was not sure just what projects were being funded, by which donor, for what period, and what commitments had been set at the beginning of each. What an indictment!

I wrote about how DPPC came into being in this blog post. One of the first tasks was to align information about projects across the institute, particularly with the Finance Office. It wasn’t rocket science. We just gave every project (from concept paper to completion) a unique ID that had to be used by everyone. We also developed a corporate brand for our project reporting so that any donor could immediately recognise a report from IRRI.

So we set about developing a comprehensive project management system, restoring IRRI’s reputation in less than a year, and helping to increase the annual budget to around US$60 million. We also took on a role in risk management, performance appraisal, and the development of IRRI’s Medium Term Plans and its Strategy.

Bob Zeigler

Then under Ron’s successor, Bob Zeigler, DPPC went from strength to strength. Looking back on it, I think those nine years in DPPC were the most productive and satisfying of my whole career. In that senior management role I’d finally found my niche. There’s no doubt that the success of DPPC was due to the great team I brought together, particularly Corinta who I plucked out of the research program where she was working as a soil chemist.

Around 2005, after Bob became the DG, I also took on line management responsibility for a number of support units: Communication and Publications Services (CPS), Library and Documentation Services (LDS), Information Technology Service (ITS), and the Development Office (DO). Corinta took over day-to-day management of IRRI’s project portfolio.

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


So, ten years on, what memories I have to keep my mind ticking over during these quiet days. When I began this post (which has turned out much longer than I ever anticipated) my aim was to decide between potatoes and rice. Having worked my way through forty years of wonderful experiences, I find I cannot choose one over the other. There’s no doubt however that I made a greater contribution to research and development during my rice days.

Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking about my South American potato days with great affection, and knowing that, given the chance, I’d be back up in the Andes at a moment’s notice. Potatoes are part of me, in a way that rice never became.

Farmer varieties of potatoes commonly found throughout the Andes of Peru.


Everyone needs good mentors. I hope I was a good mentor to the folks who worked with me. I was fortunate to have had great mentors. I’ve already mentioned a number of the people who had an influence on my career.

I can’t finish this overview of my forty years in international agriculture and academia without mentioning five others: Joe Smartt (University of Southampton); Trevor Williams (University of Birmingham); Roger Rowe (CIP); John Niederhauser (1990 World Food Prize Laureate); and Ken Brown (CIP)

L-R: Joe Smartt, Trevor Williams, Roger Rowe, and John Niederhauser.

  • Joe, a lecturer in genetics, encouraged me to apply for the MSc Course at Birmingham in early 1970. I guess without his encouragement (and Jack Hawkes accepting me on to the course) I never would have embarked on a career in genetic conservation and international agriculture. I kept in regular touch with Joe until he passed away in 2013.
  • At Birmingham, Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation on lentils. He was an inspirational teacher who went on to become the Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in Rome. The last time I spoke with Trevor was in 2012 when he phoned me one evening to congratulate me on being awarded an OBE. He passed away in 2015.
  • Roger joined CIP in July 1973 as Head of the Breeding and Genetics Department, from the USDA Potato Collection in Wisconsin. He was my first boss in the CGIAR, and I learnt a lot from him about research and project management. We are still in touch.
  • John was an eminent plant pathologist whose work on late blight of potatoes in Mexico led to important discoveries about the pathogen and the nature of resistance in wild potato species. John and I worked closely from 1978 to set up PRECODEPA. He had one of the sharpest (and wittiest) minds I’ve come across. John passed away in 2005.
  • Ken Brown

    Ken was a fantastic person to work with—he knew just how to manage people, was very supportive, and the last thing he ever tried to do was micromanage other people’s work. I learnt a great deal about program and people management from him.


[1] Harlan, JR and JMJ de Wet, 1971. Toward a rational classification of cultivated plants. Taxon 20, 509-517.

[2] Jackson, MT. L Taylor and AJ Thomson 1985. Inbreeding and true potato seed production. In: Report of a Planning Conference on Innovative Methods for Propagating Potatoes, held at Lima, Peru, December 10-14,1984, pp. 169-79.

[3] Jackson, MT, 1987. Breeding strategies for true potato seed. In: GJ Jellis & DE Richardson (eds), The Production of New Potato Varieties: Technological Advances. Cambridge University Press, pp. 248-261.


 

‘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.