I was asked recently what was the best job I’d had.
Well, I guess the best job was the one I was occupying at the time. Until it wasn’t.
As a teenager in the 1960s, I had a Saturday job at a local garage, Peppers of Leek, pumping gasoline and helping in the car parts store, for which I earned 15/- (fifteen shillings or 75p in new money), equivalent today of less than £18 for an eight hour shift. What exploitation!
However, discounting that Saturday job, then I’ve held five different positions at three organizations over a fulfilling career lasting 37 years and 4 months. I took early retirement at the end of April 2010, aged 61.
My first job was at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. I first met Richard Sawyer (left), CIP’s Director General when he visited the University of Birmingham after I’d completed my MSc degree in genetic resources conservation and use in September 1971. He confirmed my appointment at CIP from January 1973. It was my first encounter with an American.
As an Associate Taxonomist at CIP I had two responsibilities: collecting potato varietiesin the Andes of Peru, which were added to CIP’s large germplasm collection; and completing the field research for my PhD at the University of Birmingham.
In May 1973, just a few months after I arrived in Peru, I travelled to the north of Peru, specifically to the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad, with my Peruvian colleague Zosimo Huaman (seen in the photo below with two farmers). We explored remote valleys in this region (that has the highest mountains in the country) for almost a month, arriving back in Lima with a handsome collection of potato varieties.
Looking north towards Peru’s highest mountain, Huascaran (6768 m) in the Callejon de Huaylas in Ancash.
Some of the places we visited were so remote we could only access them on foot or on horseback.
In February 1974 I traveled to the south of Peru to carry out a field study of mixed variety potato cultivation as part of my thesis research in the remote valley of Cuyo Cuyo (below) with its fabulous terraces or andenes, northeast of Lake Titicaca.
And then, in May, I explored the Department of Cajamarca in the north of Peru with a driver, Octavio, seen in the photo below marking potato tubers with a collection number while I discussed these samples with the farmer.
Three years passed by in a flash. It had been a fantastic opportunity for a young person like myself. I was just 24 when I headed to Peru in 1973.
Working in CIP’s potato field genebank at Huancayo, 3100 m (>10,000 feet) in the central Andes.
Not many folks enjoy the same level of freedom to pursue a project as I did, or to travel throughout such an awe-inspiring country. I continue to count my blessings.
I also had a fantastic supervisor/head of department in geneticist Dr Roger Rowe (left).
Heading to Central America
I stayed with CIP for another five years, until March 1981. But not in Lima. It would have been fun to remain in the germplasm program, but there wasn’t a position available. The only one was filled by Zosimo. In any case, I was keen to expand my potato horizonsand learn more about potato production in the round. So, after completing my PhD in December 1975, I joined CIP’s Outreach Program (that, in the course of time, became the Regional Research Program), not entirely sure what the future held. Costa Rica was mooted as a possible regional location.
In January 1976, Roger Rowe, Ed French (head of plant pathology at CIP), and I made a recce visit to Costa Rica, where we met officials at CATIE in Turrialba and it was agreed that CATIE would host a CIP scientist to work on adaptation of potatoes to warm environments. My wife Steph and I finally made it to Turrialba in April, and I set about setting up my research.
CATIE plant pathologist Raul Moreno (left) explains the center’s research in Turrialba on multiple cropping systems to (L-R) University of Wisconsin professor Luis Sequeira, Ed French, and Roger Rowe.
Quite quickly the focus changed to identify resistance to a disease known as bacterial wilt.
Evaluating potatoes in the field at Turrialba in 1977 (top). Potatoes showing typical asymmetrical wilt symptoms (bottom left) and bacterial exudate in infected tubers (bottom right).
Not only did we test different potatoes varieties for resistance to the bacterium, but we developed different agronomic solutions to control the amount of disease that was surviving from one season to the next.
I also worked closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture and the University of Costa Rica, and with potato farmers to reduce the high use of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as setting up a potato seed production project.
We developed a major regional project, PRECODEPA, during this time, involving six countries in the region and Caribbean, and funded by the Swiss government.
I was just 27 when we moved to Costa Rica. This was my first taste of program management; I was on my own (although I did receive administrative backup from CATIE, where we lived). My boss in Lima, Dr Ken Brown (left, head of the Regional Research Program) managed all his staff outside Lima on ‘a light rein’: encouraging, supporting, correcting program alignment when necessary. And always with great humor.
We spent five, happy years in Costa Rica. The work was enjoyable. I had a great couple of technical staff, Jorge and Moises, and secretary Leda.
I worked with the CIP team in Toluca, Mexico, and after the regional team leader left for the USA to pursue his PhD, Richard Sawyer asked me to take on the leadership of the program, which I did for over three years.
I learnt to grow a potato crop, and work alongside farmers and various government officials from the region. I learnt a lot about people management, and was all set to continue my career with CIP.
However, by November 1980, I decided that I needed a change. I’d achieved as much as I could in Central America. So we returned to Lima, with the expectation of moving with CIP to Brazil or the Philippines.
But fate stepped in. I was asked to apply for a lectureship at Birmingham, in my old department, now renamed ‘Plant Biology’. In January 1981 I flew back to the UK for interview (at my own expense!) and was offered the position to start in April that year. So, with some regret—but full of anticipation—I resigned from CIP and we returned to the UK in mid-March.
With the forthcoming retirement in September 1982 of Professor Jack Hawkes(right), Mason Professor of Botany and genetic resources MSc course leader (who had supervised my PhD), the university created this new lectureship to ‘fill the teaching gap’ following Jack’s departure, particularly on the MSc course.
I spent the next ten years teaching and carrying out research on potatoes and legume species at Birmingham. I had quite a heavy teaching load, mostly with graduate MSc students studying the theory and practice of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (the same course that I had attended a decade earlier).
I co-taught a BSc third (final) year module on genetic resources with my close friend and colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd (left), and contributed half the lectures in a second-year module on flowering plant taxonomy with another colleague, Richard Lester. Fortunately I had no first year teaching.
Over a decade I supervised or co-supervised ten PhD students, and perhaps 30 MSc students. I really enjoyed working with these graduates, mostly from overseas.
Around 1988, the four departments (Plant Biology, Zoology and Comparative Physiology, Microbiology, and Genetics) making up the School of Biological Sciences merged, and formed five research groups. I moved to the Plant Genetics Group, and was quite contented working with my new head of group, Professor Mike Kearsey (left above). Much better than the head of Plant Biology, Professor Jim Callow (right above, who was appointed in 1983 to succeed Hawkes as Mason Professor of Botany) who had little understanding of and empathy with my research interests.
By 1990 I still hadn’t hadn’t made Senior Lecturer, but I was on that particular pay scale and hoping for promotion imminently. I was working my way up the academic ladder, or at least I thought so. I took on wider responsibilities in the School of Biological Sciences, where I became Second Year Course Chair, and also as vice-chair of a university-wide initiative known as ‘Environmental Research Management’, set up to ‘market’ the university’s expertise in environmental research.
Nevertheless, I could see the writing on the wall. It was highly unlikely that I’d ever get my research on wild species funded (although I had received a large government grant to continue my potato collaboration with CIP). And with other work pressures, academia was beginning to lose its appeal.
Returning to international agricultural research
In September 1990, I received—quite out of the blue (and anonymously)—information about a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, as Head of a newly-created Genetic Resources Center (GRC).
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I threw my proverbial hat in the ring, and was called for interview at the beginning of January 1991. My flight from London-Gatwick to Manila via Hong Kong was delayed more than 12 hours. Instead of arriving in Los Baños a day ahead of the interviews, I arrived in the early hours of the morning and managed about two hours sleep before I had a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Klaus Lampe (right) and his three deputies! The interview sessions lasted more than three days. There were two other candidates, friends of mine who had studied at Birmingham under Jack Hawkes!
To cut a long story short, I was offered the position at the end of January which I accepted once a starting salary had been agreed. However I wasn’t able to join IRRI until 1 July because I still had teaching and examination commitments at the university.
Quite a few of my university colleagues were surprised, concerned even, that I was giving up a tenured position. I’ll admit to some qualms as well. But the die was cast. I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. Steph and our daughters Hannah (13) and Philippa (9) joined me at the end of December.
Not long after he joined IRRI in 1988, Klaus Lampe launched a major reorganization of departments and programs. The Genetic Resources Center combined two of the seed conservation and distribution activities of the institute: the International Rice Genebank (the largest and most genetically-diverse of its kind in the world), and the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). Besides overall responsibility for GRC, I had day-to-day management of the genebank. INGER was led by an Indian geneticist and rice breeder Dr Seshu Durvasula who made it quite clear from the outset that he didn’t take kindly to these new arrangements nor having to report to someone who had never worked on rice. Such inflexible attitudes were not part of Lampe’s plan, and Seshu lasted only about 18 more months more before resigning. That’s yet another story.
I quickly realised that many improvements were needed to enhance the management of the genebank and its important rice germplasm collection. I took six months to familiarize myself fully with the genebank operations, consulting frequently with my staff, before making changes and assigning new responsibilities. Working with the genebank staff was a delight.
I convinced KLaus Lampe and senior management to invest appropriately in improving the genebank’s facilities, and to upgrade the positions of more than 70 staff. Since they constantly claimed that ‘the genebank was the jewel in IRRI’s crown‘, all I asked them was to put the money where their mouths were.
Our efforts paid off. We made the genebank ‘a model for others to emulate’. Not my words but those of external reviewers.
During my time in GRC, I had the privilege of meeting VIPs from around the world: presidents, prime ministers and other government officials, members of the diplomatic corps, and Nobel Prize winners.
In 1995 we initiated a major research and exploration project funded by the Swiss Government, which lasted for five years. We expanded the genebank collection by more than 25% to over 100,000 seed samples or accessions (since when it has grown further), many of them having been collected from farmers’ fields for the first time. This was a great opportunity to collect in more than 20 countries in Asia, Africa, and South and Central America where there were gaps in collections or, as in the case of Laos for example, war and other unrest had prevented any collections being made throughout the country until peace was established. In the photo below, taken in the Lao genebank at Vientiane in 1999, I’m with one of my staff Dr Seepana Appa Rao (center) and two genebank staff. On the left is Dr Chay Bounphanousay, head of the genebank, and now Director of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI).
I had international commitments as well, chairing the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) and establishing the System-wide Genetic Resources Program, the only program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) involving all fifteen centers. In 1994, the ICWG-GR met in Kenya, and stayed at a hotel in the shadow of Mt Kenya (below). The ICWG-GR was a great group of colleagues to work with, and we worked together with great enthusiasm and collegiality.
The early 1990s were an important time for genebanks since the Convention on Biological Diversity had come into effect in December 1992, and this began to have an impact on access to and use of genetic resources. However, one consequence was the increased politicization of genetic resources conservation and use. As the decade wore on, these aspects began to take up more and more of my time. Not so much fun for someone who was more interested in the technical and research aspects of genetic conservation.
A directorship beckons
Then, quite out of the blue at the beginning of January 2001, Director General Ron Cantrell (right) asked me to stop by his office. He proposed I should leave GRC and join the senior management team as a Director to reorganize and manage the institute’s research portfolio and relationships with the donor community. I said I’d think it over, talk with Steph, and give him my answer in a couple of days.
I turned him down! The reasons are too complicated to explain here. I was contented in GRC. There were many things I still wanted to achieve there.
After about six weeks, Cantrell sent word he’d like to discuss his proposal once again. This time we came to an understanding, and my last day as head of GRC was 30 April 2001. I became IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications) or DPPC, with line management for Communication and Publications Services (CPS), Library and Documentation Services (LDS), IT Services (ITS), the Development Office (DO), as well as the Program Planning and Communications unit (PPC).
Here I am with (left to right): Gene Hettel (CPS), Mila Ramos (LDS), Marco van den Berg (ITS), Duncan Macintosh (DO), and Corinta Guerta (PPC).
When I set up DPPC I inherited a small number of staff who had managed (not very effectively I’m sad to say) IRRI’s relationships with the donor community. IRRI’s reputation had hit rock bottom with its donors. I had to dig deep to understand just why the institute could not meet its reporting and financial obligations to the donors. After recruiting five new staff, we implemented new procedures to keep things on an even keel, and within six months we had salvaged what had been quite a dire situation. Data management and integration of information across different research and finance functions was the basis of the changes we made. And we never looked back. By the time I retired from IRRI, we had supported raising the institute’s annual budget to around USD 60 million, and IRRI’s was shining bright among the donors.
Here I am with PCC staff on my last day at IRRI, 30 April 2010. Left to right: Eric Clutario, Corinta Guerta, Zeny Federico, me, Vel Ilao, and Yeyet Enriquez. After I left IRRI, Corinta became head of PPC and was made a Director, the first national staff to rise through the ranks from Research Assistant in 1975 (she was originally a soil chemist) to a seat on the senior management committee.
As a Director, I was a member of IRRI’s senior management team taking responsibility for the institute’s strategy development and medium term plans, performance management, and several cross-cutting initiatives that enhanced IRRI’s welfare and that of the staff.
It wasn’t a bowl of cherries all the time at IRRI. There certainly were some impressive downs. The institute had a bit of a bleak patch for just under a decade from the time Lampe retired in 1995 until Bob Zeigler’s appointment in 2005. The institute had lost its way, and I guess that was one of the reasons I was asked to create the PPC office, to coordinate different functions of institute management.
But all good things come to an end, and by 2009 I’d already decided that I wanted to retire (and smell the roses, as they say), even though Zeigler encouraged me to stay on. By then I was already planning the celebrations for IRRI’s 50th anniversary, and agreed to see those through to April 2010. What fun we had, at the Big Show on Sunday 13 December 2009 and earlier.
With the Big Show production crew on stage afterwards.
Having thought long and hard about this, I believe that the DPPC role was the one I enjoyed most. That’s not to say that everything else I accomplished has not been cherished. But DPPC was different. I’d moved into a position where I could really influence events, I was managing areas of the institute’s portfolio and making a difference.
IRRI gave me the honour of hosting my despedida during the institute’s 50th gala anniversary dinner on 14 April 2010.
Do I have any regrets about the career choices I made? Not for one second.
I made some useful contributions to science (some of which is still being cited 40 years after publication). I traveled the world. I became fluent (for a while at least) in Spanish. And I have worked alongside many great scientists, fought with a few. Made many great friends, some sadly no longer with us.
So many more mouths to feed, so many challenges to overcome. And population growth fastest in many of the world’s poorest countries.
The UN’s latest prediction is that another billion will be added by 2037, and that . . . half of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in just nine countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda and Indonesia (ordered by their expected contribution to total growth).
In 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN or FAO reported that 193 million people in 53 countries or territories were facing acute food insecurity. And while conflict and the effects of the Covid pandemic are contributors to this state of affairs, there is no doubt that weather extremes are also a major contributing factor, affecting many more people worldwide. More frequent storms. Too much water—or too little. Rising temperatures reducing the agricultural productivity in many regions.
So, whether you are a believer in climate change or a denier (I’ve never been a climate change denier—quite the opposite, in fact), surely you have to accept that something strange is happening to our climate.
More than 30 years ago, two University of Birmingham colleagues—Brian Ford-Lloyd and Martin Parry—and I organized a workshop to discuss the impact of climate change on agriculture and the conservation of plant genetic resources (and how they could, and should, be used to mitigate the effects of a warming climate). The proceedings were published in 1990. Twenty-five years later, in 2014, we followed up with a second volume reflecting how the science of climate change itself had progressed, and how better we were equipped to use genetic resources to enhance crop productivity.
So while agriculture has been—and continues to be—one of the contributors to climate change (livestock, methane from rice paddies, use of fertilizers and the like) it can and has to be part of the solution.
Since more than half of the world’s population are now urban dwellers, they do not produce their own food. Or at least not enough (even if they grow their own vegetables and such on small holdings or allotments) to support many others.
Subsistence farming is not a solution either, even though these farmers can increase productivity by adopting new agricultural practices and higher-yielding crop varieties, if appropriate and affordable. And those campaigners who advocate the abolition of livestock farming (and I have seen one young person state that all farming should be stopped!) have little notion of how that would affect the lives of farmers globally, or where the rest of us would source our food.
There has been much talk recently about diversification of farming systems and adoption of so-called ‘orphan crops’ as part of the solution. Of course these approaches can make a difference, but should not diminish the role and importance of staple crops like wheat, maize, rice, potatoes, sorghum, and many others.
So what are the options? Investment in plant breeding, among others, has to be central to achieving food security. We will need a pipeline of crop varieties that are better adapted to changing environmental conditions, that are one step ahead of novel pest and disease variants. Crop productivity will have to increase significantly over the next few decades.
My first encounter with plant breeding—or plant breeders for that matter—was during a visit, in July 1969, to the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge during a field course at the end of my second year undergraduate degree course at the University of Southampton. We heard all about wheat breeding and cytogenetics from Dr Ralph Riley FRS (right) no less (later knighted and Director of the PBI from 1972 to 1978). Our paths crossed again several times during the 1990s when he was associated with the CGIAR.
During my third and final year at Southampton, 1969-1970, I enjoyed a plant breeding module taught by genetics lecturer Dr Joe Smartt whose original research background was in peanut cytogenetics. He had spent some years in Africa as a peanut breeder in Zambia (then known as Northern Rhodesia).
It was in that course that I was introduced to one of the classic texts on the topic, Principles of Plant Breeding by University of California-Davis geneticist, RW Allard (first published in 1960). Sadly I no longer have my copy that I purchased in 1969. It was devoured by termites before I left the Philippines in 2010.
I’ve never been actively involved in plant breeding per se. However, the focus of my research was the conservation of genetic resources (of potatoes and rice, and some other species) and pre-breeding studies to facilitate the use of wild species in plant breeding.
It’s been my privilege to know and work with some outstanding plant breeders. Not only did they need a knowledge of genetics, reproductive behavior, physiology and agronomy of a plant species, but this was coupled with creativity, intuition and the famous ‘breeder’s eye’ to develop new varieties.
Perhaps the most famous plant breeder I met in the early 1990s was 1970 Nobel Peace Laureate (and ‘Father of the Green Revolution’) Norman Borlaug, who spent a lifetime breeding wheat varieties, first with the Rockefeller Foundation and then with the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) in Mexico. I wrote about that encounter here.
Explaining how rice seeds are stored in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI to Nobel Peace Laureate Norman Borlaug
When I joined IRRI in the Philippines in 1991 as head of the Genetic Resources Center, one of my close colleagues was 1996 World Food Prize Laureate Gurdev Khush (below left) who led the institute’s breeding program. He and his team bred more than 300 varieties of rice, some of which—like IR36 and IR72—have been grown over millions of hectares and saved countless millions from starvation.
And another rice breeder (and 2004 World Food Prize Laureate) famous for NERICA rice was Monty Jones (above right) at the Africa Rice Center in West Africa. Monty was a graduate at Birmingham and I was the internal examiner for his PhD thesis in 1983.
Plant breeding has come a long way since I first became interested 50 years ago. Breeders now have access to a whole new toolbox to accelerate the development of new varieties, some of which were not available just a few years ago.
A decade ago I asked my friend and former colleague at IRRI, Ken McNally to contribute a review of genomics and other ‘omics’ technologies to discover and analyse useful traits in germplasm collections to the 2014 genetic resources book that I referred to earlier . I’m sure there have been many useful developments in the intervening years.
One of these is gene editing, and Nicholas Karavolias (a graduate student at Berkeley University) has written an interesting review (from which the diagram above was sourced) of how the CRISPR gene editing tool is being used to improve crops and animals.
Among the climate change challenges that I mentioned earlier is the likelihood of increased flooding in many parts of the world. Just last year there were devastating floods along the Indus River in Pakistan where rice is an important crop, as it is in many Asian countries. Although grown in standing water in paddy fields, rice varieties will die if totally submerged for more than a few days when floods hit.
Rice paddies near Vientiane, Laos.
There are rice varieties that can grow rapidly as flood waters rise. Known as deepwater rice varieties, they can grow several centimeters a day. But they are never submerged as such for long.
The harvest of deepwater rice varieties in Thailand.
Over several decades, submergence tolerant rice varieties were developed in a collaborative project between US-based scientists and those at IRRI using marker-assisted selection (not genetic engineering) to identify a gene, named Sub1 (derived from an Indian rice variety) and incorporate it into breeding lines. My former IRRI colleagues, plant physiologist Abdelbagi Ismail and breeder David Mackill have written about response to flooding. In the video below you can see the impact of the Sub1 gene . And the impact of that gene is readily seen in the video below which shows two forms of the rice variety IR64 with and without the Sub1 gene.
To date, the impact of genetic engineering in crop improvement has not been as significant as the technology promised, primarily because of opposition (environmental, social, and political) to the deployment of genetically-modified varieties. I wrote about that issue some years back, and focused on the situation of beta-carotene rich rice known as ‘Golden Rice’. After many years of development, it’s gratifying to see that Golden Rice (as the variety Malusog) has now been grown commercially in the Philippines for the first time, and can now deliver real health and nutritional benefits to Vitamin A impoverished communities in the Philippines and hopefully elsewhere before too long.
In recent weeks there have been interesting news releases about the development of perennial rice and its potential to mitigate some climate change effects, and reduce labor usage. Researchers at the John Innes Centre in the UK have identified a gene that they hope will make wheat varieties more heat-resistant. The need for trait identification has never been greater or the importance of the hundreds of thousands of crop varieties and wild species that are safely conserved in genebanks around the world. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, there are now better and more efficient tools available to screen germplasm for disease and pest resistance, or for genes like the wheat gene just discussed.
In terms of adaptation to a changing climate through plant breeding, I guess much of the focus has been on developing varieties that are better adapted to changing environment, be that the physical or biotic environment.
But here’s another challenge that was first raised some years back by one of my former colleagues at IRRI, Melissa Fitzgerald (right) who was head of the Grain Quality, Nutrition, and Postharvest Center, and is now Professor and Interim Head of the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland, Australia.
And it’s to do with the potential global savings of carbon. Melissa and her colleagues were looking at the cooking time of different rice varieties. This is what she (and her co-authors wrote in an interesting 2009 paper):
The cooking time of rice is determined by the temperature at which the crystalline structures of the starch begin to melt. This is called gelatinization temperature (GT). Lowering the GT of the rice grain could decrease average cooking times by up to 4 min. Although this might initially seem entirely insignificant, by computing the number of times rice is cooked in any one day by millions of households around the world, a decrease of just 4 min for each cooking event could save >10,000 years of cooking timeeach day. This represents massive potential for global savings of carbon and is of particular relevance to poor, rural households that depend on scarce local supplies of fuel.
Now there’s a huge breeding challenge.
Anyway, in this post I’ve really only scratched the surface of the topic, but hopefully for those readers not familiar with plant breeding, what it entails, and what it can promise, I hope that I’ve explored a few interesting aspects.
 McNally, KL. 2014. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds), Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, UK. pp. 166-189
 Ismail, AM & Mackill, DJ. 2014. Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds), Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, UK. pp. 251-269.
Over a career spanning almost four decades, I spent more than 27 years in international agricultural research in South and Central America, and Asia. And a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham.
The head of department, potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes had just returned from a six week expedition to Bolivia (to collect wild species of potato) that was supported, in part, by the USAID-North Carolina State University-sponsored potato program in Peru.
The American joint leader of that program, Dr Richard Sawyer (left), mentioned to Jack that he wanted to send a young Peruvian scientist, Zosimo Huamán, to Birmingham for the MSc course in September 1971, and could he suggest anyone to fill a one-year vacancy.
On the night of his return to Birmingham, Jack phoned me about this exciting opportunity. And would I be interested. Interested? I’d long had an ambition to travel to South America, and Peru in particular.
However, my appointment at CIP was delayed until January 1973. Why? Let me explain.
In 1971, Sawyer was in the final stages of setting up the International Potato Center. However, a guaranteed funding stream for this proposed research center had not been fully identified.
At that time, there were four international agricultural research centers:
the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, the Philippines (founded in 1960);
the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) near Mexico City (1966);
the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria (1967); and
the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia (also 1967).
In May 1971 there was a significant development in terms of long-term funding for agricultural research with the setting up of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR (an umbrella organization of donors, run from the World Bank in Washington, DC) to coordinate and support the four centers I already mentioned, and potentially others (like CIP) that were being established.
Since its inception, CGIAR-supported research was dedicated to reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition, and ensuring more sustainable management of natural resources.
For more than 50 years, CGIAR and partners have delivered critical science and innovation to feed the world and end inequality. Its original mission—to solve hunger—is now expanding to address wider 21st century challenges, with the aim of transforming the world’s food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis. More on that below.
Back in 1971 the question was which funding agencies would become CGIAR members, and whether CIP would join the CGIAR (which it did in 1973).
Throughout 1971, Sawyer negotiated with the UK’s ODA to support CIP. But with the pending establishment of the CGIAR, ODA officials were uncertain whether to join that multilateral funding initiative or continue with the current bilateral funding model.
Decisions were, in the main, delayed. But one important decision did affect me directly. The ODA gave me a personal grant in September 1971 to remain in Birmingham until funding to CIP could be resolved. I therefore registered for a PhD on potatoes under Jack Hawkes’ supervision, and spent the next 15 months working on ideas I hoped to pursue further once I could get my hands on potatoes in the Andes, so to speak.
With Jack Hawkes in the potato field genebank at Huancayo, central Peru (3100 m above sea level) in early 1974.
In the event, the ODA provided £130,000 directly to CIP between 1973 and 1975 (= £1.858 million today), which funded, among other things, development of the center’s potato genebank, germplasm collecting missions around Peru, and associated research, as well as my position at the center.
Arriving in Peru was an ambition fulfilled, and working at a young center like CIP was a dream come true, even though, at just 24, I was somewhat wet behind the ears.
However, there were some great colleagues who taught me the ropes, and were important mentors then and throughout my career. I learnt a lot about working in a team, and about people management, very useful in later years as I moved up the management ladder.
For the first three years, my work was supervised and generously supported by an American geneticist, Dr Roger Rowe (right, with his wife Norma) who joined CIP on 1 May 1973 as head of the Breeding and Genetics Department. I owe a great deal to Roger who has remained a good friend all these years.
Always leading from the front, and never shy of making the tough decisions, Roger went on to fill senior management positions at several CGIAR centers. As a former colleague once commented to me, “Roger was the best Director General the CGIAR never had.” I couldn’t agree more.
When I joined CIP’s Regional Research group in 1976 and moved to Costa Rica, my new boss was Ken Brown (left). Ken had been working as a cotton physiologist in Pakistan for the Cotton Research Corporation, although he had previously worked in several African countries.
Ken never micromanaged his staff, was always there to help set priorities and give guidance. In those aspects of people management, I learned a lot from Ken, and he certainly earned my gratitude.
Aside from my work on potato genetic resources (and completing my PhD in 1975), I enjoyed the work on bacterial wilt and setting up a regional program, PRECODEPA as part of my Regional Research activities.
Jim Bryan (right, with Costarrican assistant Jorge Aguilar) was my closest friend at CIP. A native of Idaho, Jim was CIP’s seed production specialist. Down to earth and pragmatic, Jim taught me the importance of clean potato seed and seed production systems. He came to work with me in Costa Rica during 1979/80 and together we worked on a successful project (with the Costarrican Ministry of Agriculture) for the rapid multiplication of seed potatoes.
But by the end of 1980, I was looking for a new challenge when one came to my attention back home in the UK.
In April 1981, I joined the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology (as the Department of Botany had been renamed since I graduated).
With members of the project review team, with team leader Carlos Valverde on the right. Cesar Vittorelli, our CIP liaison is in the middle. I don’t remember the names of the two other team members, a Peruvian agronomist, on my right, and a Swiss economist between Vittorelli and Valverde.
But universities were under pressure from the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. It was becoming a numbers, performance-driven game. And even though the prospects of promotion to Senior Lecturer were promising (I was already on the SL pay scale), by 1991 I was ready for a change.
And so I successfully applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI, and once again working under the CGIAR umbrella. I moved to the Philippines in July, and stayed there for the next 19 years until retiring at the end of April 2010.
I was much happier at IRRI than Birmingham, although there were a number of challenges to face: both professional and personal such as raising two daughters in the Philippines (they were 13 and 9 when we moved to IRRI) and schooling at the International School Manila.
Whereas I’d joined CIP at the beginning of its institutional journey in 1973, IRRI already had a 30 year history in 1991. It was beginning to show its age, and much of the infrastructure built in the early 1960s had not fared well in the tropical climate of Los Baños and was in dire need of refurbishment.
A new Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe (right) from Germany was appointed in 1988 with a mandate to rejuvenate the institute before it slipped into terminal decline. That meant ‘asking’ many long-term staff to move on and make way for a cohort of new and younger staff. I was part of that recruitment drive. But turning around an institute with entrenched perspectives was no mean feat.
With responsibility for the world’s largest and most important rice genebank, and interacting with genebank colleagues at all the other centers, I took on the chair of the Inter-Center Working Group when we met in Ethiopia in January 1993, and in subsequent years took a major role in setting up the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP). This was a forerunner—and a successful one at that—of the programmatic approach adopted by the CGIAR centers.
The Swiss-funded projectto collect and conserve rice varieties from >20 countries, and the innovative and pioneer research about on-farm conservation were highlights of the 1990s. As was the research, in collaboration with my old colleagues at Birmingham, on the use of molecular markers to study and conserve germplasm. A first for the CGIAR centers. Indeed a first for any crop.
Helping my genebank staff grow in their positions, and seeing them promoted gave me great satisfaction. I’d inherited a staff that essentially did what they were told to do. With encouragement from me they took on greater responsibility—and accountability—for various genebank operations, and their enthusiastic involvement allowed me to make the necessary changes to how the genebank was managed, and putting it at the forefront of CGIAR genebanks, a position it retains today.
My closest friend and colleague at IRRI was fellow Brit and crop modeller, Dr John Sheehy (right). John joined the institute in 1995, and I was chair of his appointment committee. Within a short time of meeting John for the first time, I recognized someone with a keen intellect, who was not constrained by a long-term rice perspective, and who would, I believed, bring some exceptional scientific skills and thinking to the institute.
Among his achievements were a concept for C4 rice, and persuading the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to back a worldwide consortium (now administered from the University of Oxford) of some of the best scientists working on photosynthesis to make this concept a reality.
By May 2001, however, change was in the air. I was asked to leave the Genetic Resources Center (and research) and join IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications, to reconnect the institute with its funding donors, and develop a strategy to increase financial support. I also took IT Services, the Library and Documentation Services, Communication and Publication Services, and the Development Office under my wing.
IRRI’s reputation with its donors was at rock bottom. Even the Director General, Ron Cantrell, wasn’t sure what IRRI’s financial and reporting commitments were.
We turned this around within six months, and quickly re-established IRRI as a reliable partner under the CGIAR. By the time I left IRRI in 2010, my office had helped the institute increase its budget to US$60 million p.a.
This increased emphasis on funding was important as, by the end of the 1990s, several donors were raising concerns about the focus of the centers and how they should be supported. Furthermore, a number of external factors like the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, agreed by 150 countries in 1992), the growing consensus on the threat of climate change, the adoption of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, and subsequent Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs) meant that the 15 CGIAR centers as they had become could not continue with ‘business as usual’.
Until the end of the 1990s, each center had followed its own research agenda. But it became increasingly clear that they would have to cooperate better with each other and with the national programs. And funding was being directed at specific donor-led interests.
There is no doubt that investment in the CGIAR over 50 years has brought about great benefits, economically and in humanitarian ways. Investment in crop genetic improvement has been the mainstay of the CGIAR, and although research on natural resources management (NRM, such as soils and water) has been beneficial at local levels, it has not had the widespread impact that genetic improvement has.
The impact of the CGIAR is well-documented. Take this 2010 paper for example. Click on the image for more information.
My good friend from the University of Minnesota, Professor Phil Pardey and two colleagues have calculated the economic benefits of CGIAR to be worth about 10 times the cost. Impressive. Click on the image below for more information.
I have watched a couple of decades of CGIAR navel gazing as the system has tried to ‘discover’ the best modus operandi to support national programs and the billions of farmers and consumers who depend on its research outputs.
There’s no doubt these changes have increased bureaucracy across the CGIAR. One early development was the introduction of 3-year rolling Medium Term Plans with performance targets (always difficult in agricultural and biological research), which led to perverse incentives as many centers set unambitious targets that would attract high scores and therefore guarantee continued donor support.
I did not favor that approach (supported by my DG), encouraging my colleagues to be more ambitious and realistic in their planning. But it did result in conflict with an accountant in the World Bank – a ‘bean counter’ – who had been assigned to review how the centers met their targets each year. I don’t remember his name. We had endless arguments because, it seemed to me, he simply didn’t understand the nature of research and was only interested if a particular target had been met 100%. Much as I tried to explain that reaching 75% or perhaps lower could also mean significant impact at the user level, with positive outcomes, he would not accept this point of view. 100% or nothing! What a narrow perspective.
A former colleague in the CGIAR Independent Evaluation Arrangement office in Rome and a colleague have written an excellent evaluation of this performance management exercise, warts and all. Click on the image below to access a PDF copy.
Now we have OneCGIAR that is attempting to make the system function as a whole. Very laudable, and focusing on these five highly relevant research initiatives. Click on the image below for more information.
What I’m not sure about are the levels of management that the new structure entails: global directors, regional directors, program or initiative leaders, center directors (some taking on more than one role). Who reports to whom? It seems overly complicated to my simple mind. And there is certainly less emphasis on the centers themselves – despite these being the beating heart of the system. It’s not bureaucrats (for all their fancy slogans and the like) who bring about impacts. It’s the hard-working scientists and support staff in the centers.
Nevertheless, looking back on 50 years, I feel privileged to have worked in the CGIAR. I didn’t breed a variety of rice, wheat, or potatoes that were grown over millions of hectares. I didn’t help solve a water crisis in agriculture. But I did make sure that the genetic resources of potato and rice that underpin future developments in those crops were safe, and ready to be used by breeders whenever. I also helped IRRI get back on its feet, so to speak, and to survive.
And along the way, I did make some interesting contributions to science, some of which are still being cited more than four decades later.
I’m more than grateful for the many opportunities I’ve been afforded.
It’s visually stunning, with so many awe-inspiring wildlife stories that film crews have taken months, years even, to capture sometimes for the very first time on camera. The cinematography itself is incredible — photographic technology has certainly come a long way since the first Frozen Planet series was broadcast in 2011.
Of course, Frozen Plant II is only the latest of a series of wildlife blockbusters produced by the BBC, but as with most of the others it is zoocentric. Where are the plants? The series title is, after all, Frozen PlanetnotFrozen Animals. Like so many nature programs, Frozen Planet II is basically plant blind.
Of course I am biased. After all, I trained (ever so many years ago) as a botanist.
The BBC has produced series about plants (although I’m not counting the various gardening ones), the most recent being The Green Planet, broadcast over five episodes at the beginning of 2022 (which I found somewhat disappointing). And the 1995 The Private Life of Plants, of course. Both narrated and presented by Attenborough.
On the whole, however, most nature programs focus on animals. Why? Well, as my friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote in Chapter 1 of our 1986 book on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources:
To most people the word ‘conservation’ conjures up visions of lovable cuddly animals like giant pandas on the verge of extinction. Or it refers to the prevention of the mass slaughter of endangered whale species, under threat because of human’s greed or short-sightedness. Comparatively few people however, are moved to action or financial contribution by the idea of economically important plant species disappearing from the face of the earth. Precious orchids with undoubted aesthetic appeal, or the vegetation of the Amazonian rain forest, where sheer vastness cannot fail to impress, may attract deserved attention. But plant genetic resources [or plant biodiversity as a whole, I would hasten to add] make little impression on the heart even though their disappearance could herald famine on a greater scale than ever seen before, leading to ultimate world-wide disaster.
And there was a similar—and understandable— reaction (from a professor of molecular plant pathology at Imperial College) to a tweet I posted after seeing the latest Frozen Planet II episode last Sunday evening
Yes, gory indeed. Lots of predator-prey footage involving penguins, seals, and killer whales in various combinations. But nevertheless very interesting, showing learned and coordinated behavior by the whales to capture their prey.
It took skill (and courage) to film a puma stalking guanacos in Patagonia in the dark using high resolution night vision cameras. But there was no mention that pumas only survive in that hostile environment because of the guanacos. And the guanaco population is healthy only because there is sufficient vegetation to support their herds. What mechanisms to the plants employ to thrive in these harsh environments? I’m hopeful—but not holding my breath—that in next Sunday’s program, featuring the Northern Hemisphere boreal forests there will be more than lip-service paid to the botanical elements of this enormous ecosystem.
For many years, the British Antarctic Survey had a botanical section (that was actually based in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham where I studied) before it moved to BAS headquarters in Cambridge. Botanical research per se no longer features prominently on the BAS website. At least after a cursory search, I have to admit, nothing stood out. In the past BAS botanists combined lab work in Birmingham on the taxonomy, ecology, and physiology of grasses and mosses in particular with fieldwork in the south, especially on the sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia.
And thinking of that work reminds me of one segment of last Sunday’s program featuring the Antipodean Wandering Albatross that nests on Antipodes island (49°40′12″S178°46′48″E). I’m sure that outcrop in the southern ocean would be less inviting were it not for the various tussocky grasses that provide shelter.
Having proposed to a BBC producer, many decades ago, the idea of a series based around the topic of plants and man, I still believe it could/would make rather interesting TV. So many topics to choose from, but here’s a few off the top of my head:
Swedish naturalist, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus)
Making sense of plant diversity – taxonomy, famous taxonomists, plant collectors, Linnaeus, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain Cook, Darwin.
The origins of agriculture – cradles of agriculture, archaeology, crop wild relatives, domestication, Vavilov.
The legacy of empire, colonization – slavery, cotton, tobacco, oil palm, bananas, sugarcane, and many more.
Farming on the edge – the Andes of South America (potatoes), hills of Southeast Asia (rice), among many.
Food security – genetic resources, genebanks, climate change, modern plant breeding, molecular biology, genetic modification, turbocharging photosynthesis, plants and pathogens.
It’s no wonder that applications to study plant sciences have declined. Plants (and the exciting times of plant science) just don’t receive the same airtime (apart from the multiplicity of gardening programs which I am discounting). I’m not suggesting for one moment that they should, but a little less plant blindness would be welcome.
I don’t believe there’s a single department of botany left in the UK universities (although some do still offer botany/plant sciences degree courses); they have all merged with other disciplines to form departments of schools of biological sciences. It’s also good to know that my alma mater, Birmingham, has increased the staff teaching and researching plants. In the USA many universities still retain healthy departments of botany or plant sciences.
Am I being overly pessimistic? Perhaps. I enjoyed a varied and successful career over almost 40 years after studying botany as an undergraduate, and gaining graduate degrees in genetic conservation and crop evolution. A career in agricultural research that took me to so many countries and interesting environments, natural and agricultural.
Let’s encourage a younger generation to take up the plant sciences because there are so many exciting developments to explore, and many central to our survival. Without interesting botanical air time, fewer perhaps are likely to be attracted in the first place.
Let’s remove the botanical blinkers. How about it, BBC?
That’s right. Eat ’em to conserve ’em. Sounds counter-intuitive? Well, the answer is not what you might expect.
On a recent BBC Two program , Lisa, a pig breeder from North Yorkshire of rare—and very hairy—Hungarian Mangalica pigs, told one of the presenters (who’d wondered if he might turn vegetarian after seeing the cuteness of Mangalica piglets): “We need you to eat the meat, because if you don’t eat the meat, then farmers won’t breed them, and that’s how you lose them“.
Joe Henson also set up the Cotswold Farm Park in 1971 on his farm near Guiting Power that Adam and his business partner continue to run, where the public can see different breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and poultry, most of which no longer play any significant role in commercial agriculture. They only survive because of the interest and efforts of farmers like Adam and the RBST. While preservation of rare breeds is one of Adam’s passions, he frequently acknowledges that they have to pay their way. So, for many farmers like pig breeder Lisa, keeping rare breed livestock is a commercial enterprise. And there is a growing interest in and demand for rare breed meat.
What are the parallels in crops?
For decades now crops (and their wild relatives) have been conserved in genebanks around the world. Scientists in the 1960s acknowledged that unless these crop varieties were collected they might be lost forever. So the good news is that important genebank collections were established, crop varieties and diversity preserved, and used to create more productive varieties for farmers to grow.
Conservation in genebanks or seed banks (often referred to as ex situ conservation, and the plant equivalent of semen and egg or embryo storage) ensures that genetic diversity is protected over the long term, subject of course to the best genebank management practices. However, there are crops, like potatoes that reproduce vegetatively by tubers (important for maintaining specific varietal identity), and others that either don’t produce seeds, or which are short-lived and cannot be stored in a seed bank.
And the centers of the CGIAR around the world manage some of the largest and genetically most diverse genebank collections anywhere. I have been involved with two of these: for rice at the International Rice Research Institute, in Los Baños, in the Philippines, and for potatoes at the International Potato Center, in Lima, Peru. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides an extremely important safety backup to these and many national genebank collections.
However, what is the situation on farms? Do farmers continue to grow the varieties that have sustained their communities for generations? Is it feasible to conserve varieties on farm? And how many would opt to grow new varieties if these were available?
Just like livestock, crop varieties can only survive if farmers continue to care for them, and they are consumed. Eat ’em to conserve ’em.
Now many of these farmer varieties (often referred to as landrace or ‘heirloom’ varieties) are found in subsistence farm systems where the full impact of modern bred varieties has yet to be felt.
Take the situation of rice in the northern part of Laos in southeast Asia, for example. Many of the rice varieties grown there are upland rices, and modern rice breeding has produced fewer improved varieties for these agricultural systems. Farmers (many of them women) continue to grow hundreds of rice varieties. While I was head of genetic resources at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines during the 1990s, I spear-headed an international project to collect and conserve these varieties in Laos and many other countries, and one of my colleagues, Dr Seepana Appa Rao spent five years in Laos assisting local scientists there.
‘Heirloom’ rice varieties are an important cultural foundation of many societies throughout Asia (and Africa). But farmers need to make a living, aspire to a better life, producing food for their families, and generate income if possible to pay for their children’s education. Many farmers want something better than the drudgery of agriculture for their children.
Is it possible to make a profitable living from these varieties? What are the opportunities to make the old varieties more commercially appealing? To commodify them. Certainly if these traditional varieties could generate an income, then farmers would be more willing to grow them. And, in the process, fulfill an important objective of on-farm or in situ conservation in a sustainable manner, rather than having to rely on farmer-conservators or subsidies (which can always be taken away).
Nollie Vera Cruz
The Heirloom Rice Project (HRP) was a collaboration between the Philippines Department of Agriculture and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, coordinated by my former colleague, Dr Casiana ‘Nollie’ Vera Cruz) to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of ‘heirloom’ or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems. It focused on traditional rice varieties found only in the Cordillera Region provinces of Ifugao, Mountain Province, Benguet, and Kalinga or northern Luzon island.
As explained in one website story, ‘heirloom’ rice varieties come in grains of astonishing colors: brown, black, pink, purple, and pearly white; fragrant, nutty in taste, high in fiber; healthy to eat; a gourmet’s delight. Yet for all their captivating look and taste, they thrive in the most fragile places, on mountain tops, where dew, rain, and air are their only means of sustenance.
Rice terraces at Banaue, Ifugao Province, Philippines.
Furthermore . . . ‘heirloom’ rice varieties have been grown on the terraces of the Cordillera Mountains of Luzon, Philippines [for centuries], terroirs known for their significant historical, cultural, and aesthetic values. However, heritage ‘heirloom’ rice farming is gradually being abandoned, mainly because of its lower productivity and the struggle of the sector to create a sustainable niche market for heirloom rice by branding its cultural, social, and nutritional values.
One of the important outcomes was to link farmers with markets so that these special rice varieties could find a particular niche in the market, even exported during the course of the project to the USA. And it’s those linkages that were so important.
Let’s now to cross to South America where there is a wealth of potato varieties grown throughout the Andes of Peru and Bolivia in particular, mainly (until now) for home consumption.
As I have seen for myself, as long ago as 1974 near Cuzco in southern Peru, farmers successfully combined the cultivation of commercial varieties for the market while cultivating the ‘old’ varieties in small plots close to the farmstead, the basis of household food security.
In this photo, northwest of Cuzco, large commercial plantings of improved varieties can be seen in the distance, while inside the wall surrounding the farmstead only native varieties were grown.
Have farmers found a way to make these ‘heirloom’ varieties more commercial? Well, there’s a very interesting initiative in Peru that has spread across quite a large part of the country.
Potato farmers have formed AGUAPAN(Asociación de Guardianes de la Papa Nativa del Centro del Perú) that is supported by Grupo Yanapai, an NGO that has considerable experience in participatory research.
Farmers commercialize their varieties directly to households in Lima, even delivered directly to the door, as mixtures (chaqru) under the trade name Miski Papa.
What is particularly interesting about the project is that individual farmers are identified, and the commercialization strategy is geared towards understanding their roles and the varieties they grow. See how Sra. Guerrero grows 180 different varieties!
Now look at these other photos (on AGUAPAN’s Facebook page) showing different farmers and their varieties.
AGUAPAN has taken the opportunity to increase farmer incomes through this project and at the same time ensuring farmers continue to grow ‘heirloom’ varieties. There is an interesting paper published in 2021 by a former colleague of mine at CIP, Andre Devaux (and others) that describes how these potato varieties have become a culinary sensation and a market innovation.
These two projects on rice and potatoes (there must be more around the world on the same and other crops) show how two objectives can be met:
Enhancement of farmer livelihoods through market innovations with native ‘heirloom’ varieties;
On-farm (in situ) conservation that permits the dynamics of farmer management to prosper, and exposing genetic diversity to environmental challenges, so important under a changing climate.
Personally, until now, I have had some doubts about the wisdom of prioritizing on-farm conservation for crop genetic resources. Certainly in the 1990s there was quite a push to promote in situ conservation, and in the rice biodiversity project that I referred to at the beginning of the post, we learned a great deal about the choices farmers make on a daily basis. And that is what on-farm conservation should be all about: allowing farmers to make informed choices, to change their varieties, to discard some, adopt others. Even though some farmers take on a role of conservators, I’ve never believed that subsidies paid to farmers to ‘conserve’ their varieties was a viable, long-term option. With the commercialization initiatives I’ve described here, there are now excellent opportunities to ensure the long-term survival of ‘heirloom’ varieties in the systems where they originated.
Eat ’em to conserve ’em!
 The Hairy Bikers Go North, Episode 4 North Yorkshire (not available everywhere), just before three minutes, first broadcast on 14 October 2021.
A year after returning from collecting in Ancash and La Libertad (as described in Part 1) I was heading north once again, this time to the Department of Cajamarca. In a long wheelbase Land Rover, a donation from the British government to CIP. But alone this time, almost. By May 1974 I was already quite fluent in Spanish, and had done more travelling around the country. It was assumed therefore I could look after myself, so we decided I should travel with just one of the CIP drivers, Octavio. I regret I cannot recall his surname.
Just about to head out (May 1974)
Parked on the side of the Panamericana Norte highway north of Lima
Cajamarca is also the capital city of the department, and is one of my favorite places in Peru. At 2700 m elevation, the city lies in a broad valley among rolling hills. The landscape of Cajamarca has a much gentler feel to it than the high peaks of Ancash or further south around Cuzco, or the altiplano surrounding Puno.
We must have split the journey to Cajamarca city. It’s almost 900 km and even today, on better roads, the journey is estimated to take more than 14 hours. North of the coastal city of Trujillo, the road to Cajamarca diverges east from the Panamericana Norte, winding through a lush river valley in the desert, and climbing into the mountains. Dropping down the other side, you eventually are treated to views of the city unfolding in the distance. The climate is spring-like, the food is good (the leche asada or caramel custard is a local treat), and the architecture of the (unfinished) cathedral on the main square of Plaza de Armas is a wonder.
We spent around three weeks travelling to remote areas, but were able to return from time to time to Cajamarca to enjoy the comforts of the Turista Hotel, and the Inca baths and their hot springs.
As with our collecting the previous year, we stopped to chat with farmers, ask about the varieties they and their neighbors cultivated, and requesting a sample of healthy tubers of each variety.
The market town of Bambamarca, 100 km or so north of Cajamarca was particularly interesting. It was a colorful, vibrant scene with many wearing their typical tall sombreros and russet-red ponchos, typical of Cajamarca.
On one day we stopped to chat with one farmer and his wife who became very interested why we were collecting potato varieties, and what we would do with them once back in Lima. They were so pleased to show me this particular variety with its large tubers. It’s one of my favorite images from my time in Peru.
There was even a little time for some sightseeing. Just 10 km northeast from the Plaza de Armas in Cajamarca stands an unusual archaeological site, the Ventanillas de Otuzco, a pre-Inca necropolis with more than 300 niches carved in the rock face. We even found wild tomatoes growing there.
If I have one abiding image of Cajamarca—city and landscape—it would be this one. Having eaten an early breakfast, Octavio and I headed north from the city, climbing above the valley. We stopped almost at the summit so I could take this photo of the Cajamarca valley. If you look carefully you can see the steam rising from the Inca baths in the distance.
Octavio and I got along quite well. He’d never traveled to that part of Peru before and, as a driver from the big city, had very little knowledge of potatoes. We had just the one falling-out, if you can call it that. He would insist in driving downhill along quite treacherous roads in high gear, or even in neutral, relying solely on the brakes alone to control our speed. I had to insist he use low gear to slow the vehicle or he wouldn’t be driving any more until we reached the coast and the Panamerican highway. Anyway, we arrived back in Lima after an incident-free trip.
Later on that year, I returned to Cajamarca with my wife Steph and two English friends from CIP. Again in 1988, as a member of a CIP project review team, I spent a few days in the city and surrounding countryside looking at seed production and storage systems.
When I visited CIP in 2016 as part of a review of the genebank, the staff showed me some herbarium sheets from some of the varieties I had collected on that trip to Cajamarca.
Earlier in 1974, in February, I traveled to Puno and Cuzco in the south of the country with Dr Peter Gibbs from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He was studying the floral biology of another Andean tuber crop known as oca (Oxalis tuberosa). He had contacted CIP’s Director General to see if anyone might be headed south for fieldwork with whom he could travel.
I’d already decided to carry out some field studies of potato varietal mixtures and was looking for suitable locations. Peter suggested that we might head to Cuyo Cuyo, a municipality just under 250 km northeast of Puno and Lake Titicaca. Famous for its agricultural terraces or andenes, there had been one study in 1951 describing the cultivation of oca in the valley. Peter convinced me that it was worth heading in that direction. Which is precisely what we did.
On this trip we drove a short wheelbase Land Rover, another donation to CIP from the British government. It had a separate cab; the rear was covered with a canvas hood, not the most secure vehicle for venturing into remote parts.
Heading south down the Panamericana Sur, we had a road trip of almost 1300 km ahead of us. I know we stopped in Nazca on the first night, after driving 447 km. From there to Arequipa was another 568 km, and the final leg into Puno was 295 km. I think we must have made it to Arequipa on the second day, resting up before the climb to the altiplano on the third day.
In Puno, we rested for a couple of days, checking our gear, and meeting with some officials from the Ministry of Agriculture for further advice before setting off for Cuyo Cuyo. Peter had developed a taste for algarrobina, a popular Peruvian cocktail, a bit like egg-nog, but with a kick, especially after one too many. We weren’t in the best shape to head off across the altiplano the next day.
Each time I crossed the altiplano it was hard to understand just how people managed to survive in such a harsh environment: flat, cold, and often over 4000 m. Yet we passed farms, growing the bitter and frost-resistant potatoes that are processed to make chuño as well as herding llamas and alpacas. Crossing several rivers, we finally reached the head of the Cuyo Cuyo valley and, descending into the cloud, encountered workmen struggling to clear a landslide. However that gave an opportunity for some impromptu botany, finding a beautiful begonia with flowers as large as saucers.
Once clear of the landslide, and out of the cloud, the most amazing vista opened up before us. The whole valley was terraced and, as we learned over the next few days, supported a rotation system involving potatoes, oca, barley and faba beans (both imported by the Spanish in the 16th century), and a fallow.
Arriving in the village it was important to find somewhere to stay. We hadn’t thought to make any enquiries before setting out for Cuyo Cuyo. There was no hotel, but the postmaster offered us space to set up our camp beds and herbarium drying equipment, and there we stayed for about five days. We were certainly a curiosity with the village children.
Peter set about collecting samples of oca with different floral structures for his study, and to make herbarium specimens to take back to St Andrews. At the time of our visit many of the oca fields were planted in the lower levels of the valley often close to the river. I set off on my own, guided by a local farmer, to potato terraces higher up the valley to study the varietal mixtures and to learn more about the agricultural system. That study was finally published in the journal Euphytica in 1980 and can be read here.
Peter’s oca samples were the devil to dry because of their fleshy stems. When he finally made it back to St Andrews a couple of months later, he found that his ‘dry’ specimens were still alive. So he planted them in a university glasshouse, and had the best of both worlds being able to continue his study with living plants.
Leaving Cuyo Cuyo, we headed back to Puno staying one night there before setting off for Cuzco some 385 km to the northwest.
I was interested in locating another site for study, and we settled on a community near Chinchero outside Cuzco. We hired horses to reach remote fields, and there I collected flower buds (for chromosome counts) from several fields.
It was interesting to find large commercial cultivation of potatoes (for sale in markets like Cuzco) alongside smaller plots of native varieties that farmers grew for home consumption. As I was collecting samples from one field, two women stopped close-by and one of them crouched down to feed her baby. Both were dressed in the typical costume of that region.
Soon we had all the information we thought we needed (in hindsight I would have done things very differently, and at Cuyo Cuyo), and headed back to Cuzco where we left the vehicle to be collected by Zósimo Huamán who was heading south for his own field studies, and who would drive it back to Lima.
While we in Cuzco, we visited the home of Professor César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist, who I had first met in January 1973 when Jack Hawkes introduced me to him. Jack first met Vargas when he was working in Colombia between 1948 and 1951. Also, Vargas’ daughter Martha was an MSc student at St Andrews so it was a good opportunity for Peter also to meet him.
I only made one field trip with Jack Hawkes, in March 1981 just a few weeks before I left CIP to return to the UK and take up a lectureship at The University of Birmingham.
Jack was in Lima on his way back to the UK having led yet another expedition to collect potatoes in Bolivia. He suggested that we take a long weekend to head up into the mountains and see what wild species of potato could be found. A CIP colleague, potato breeder Juan Landeo, came along for the trip.
On the first day, we set off east up the Carretera Central, over Ticlio at 4800 m and on to the smelting town of La Oroya, before heading north to the important mining center of Cerro de Pasco (4330 m), one of the highest (and bleakest) cities in the world.
The next morning we continued north, finally descending to the warmth of Huánuco, a lovely city at just 1880 m. We spent the night there.
I don’t recall if we split the journey back to Lima (or the exact route) or traveled from Huánuco in one day, stopping every now and then to collect potatoes.
Early in the day we came across some farmers using the traditional foot plough or chaqui tacclla. This is an iconic image.
We passed through some awesome landscapes. Even encountering a significant landslide that blocked our path. Closer to the coast the mountains were lost in the clouds as we made our way down the side of the valley.
I learned one very important lesson from Jack Hawkes: that a sound knowledge of the ecology of the species was very important (a point emphasized by Israeli geneticist Gideon Ladizinsky when I took a party of Birmingham students to a genetic resources course near Tel Aviv in 1982).
We’d be driving along, when Jack would suddenly ask us to pull over, saying that we’d find potatoes in the vicinity. Even naming which species we’d be likely to find. And I don’t remember him ever being wrong. It was fascinating to see how his deep knowledge guided his approach to collecting wild potatoes.
This is the only photo of me in the field with Jack, as we collected Solanum multiinterruptum (or was it S. multidissectum?).
It was a great experience, learning more about wild species in the field, from the master. These are memories that will stay with me for years to come.
Professor Jack Hawkes examines a specimen of the wild potato species Solanum raphanifolium in the ruins of Sacsayhuaman outside Cuzco, January 1973
Potatoes are native to the Americas; the wild Solanum species are found from Colorado in the United States, south through Mexico and Central America, and throughout the Andes as far south as northern Argentina. They even grow on the plains of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Different forms of potato were domesticated thousands of years ago in the Andean region and southern Chile. Even today, farmers in the Andes grow (and conserve) a wonderful range of potato varieties.
Over many decades potato scientists made expeditions to the Americas to collect wild and cultivated potatoes, to learn about their biology and ecology, and how they might be used to enhance potato productivity through plant breeding. Among the potato pioneers was my friend, colleague, and mentor, the late Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on potato diversity and taxonomy and a leading light in the genetic resources conservation movement that emerged in the 1960s.
The wonder of potato diversity
I began my own studies on potato under Jack’s tutelage in September 1971 at The University of Birmingham, after graduating with an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation. Jack took me under his wing, so to speak, to teach me about potatoes and prepare me for a posting at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru where (from January 1973) I worked as an Associate Taxonomist for three years. I had just turned 24 the previous November.
Jack made his first trip to South America in 1939 at the age of 23, turning 24 during the course of the expedition in June that year, as a member of the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America and spending nine months collecting wild and cultivated potatoes along the Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.
Jack Hawkes (second from right) with expedition leader Edward Balls (on Jack’s right) and two others outside a church in La Paz, Bolivia in March 1939.
Returning to Cambridge in December 1939, just after the Second World War broke out, Jack continued to study the materials collected on the Empire expedition, completing his PhD in 1941. He remained at Cambridge until 1948 when he was seconded by the Government of Colombia to set up a research station for potatoes near Bogota.
In 1952, he returned to the UK, joining The University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Botany, but he returned to the Americas many times over the next four decades to collect potatoes. Awarded a personal chair in taxonomic botany in 1961, he became Mason Professor of Botany and head of department in 1967.
In 1969 he launched the one year MSc course I referred to earlier, and that’s when I first met him a year later. It would be no exaggeration to state that Jack Hawkes played an incredibly important role in shaping my subsequent career in international agricultural research and academia.
In December 1970, just three months after I arrived in Birmingham, Jack joined his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting on an expedition to collect wild potatoes in Bolivia, accompanied by Jack’s research assistant and PhD candidate Phil Cribb.
The expedition received support from the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima whose Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer kindly loaned a four-wheel drive vehicle. Joining the expedition was a young Peruvian scientist, Zósimo Huamán who had been hired by CIP to manage its large germplasm collection of native potato varieties.
While in Lima, Jack was asked to accept Zósimo on the Birmingham MSc course in September 1971. And then Sawyer asked Jack if he could recommend someone to join CIP on a one-year posting to cover for Zósimo while away in Birmingham. Apparently, so Jack later told me, my name immediately came to mind. Perhaps I’d mentioned that I had a burning ambition to visit South America and, in any case, I would graduate just when Zósimo was expected in the UK.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, immediately on his return to Birmingham at the end of February 1971, Jack told me about the opportunity at CIP. Was I interested? There was no question about it.
Zósimo and Jack in a potato field in Bolivia standing beside a variety of S. ajanhuiri
As it turned out, my departure to Peru was delayed by 15 months while different funding options for my posting were finalized. I began my PhD study, and after he graduated with his MSc in September 1972, Zósimo also registered for a PhD, studying the evolution of a frost-resistant form of cultivated potato known as Solanum ajanhuiri that he and Jack had collected at high altitude in Bolivia.
I departed for Lima on 4 January 1973, and by the beginning of April that year Zósimo had also returned to Peru having completed the first six month residency requirement for his PhD at Birmingham.
With hardly any time to get himself sorted after being outside Peru for 18 months, Zósimo and I organized a trip in May to collect potato varieties from two departments to the north of Lima: Ancash and La Libertad.
To say that I found the experiences beyond my expectations would be an understatement. Peru was everything I hoped it would be when I spent hours poring over a map of the country as a young boy. It is an extremely beautiful country, even if (at least in the 1970s) it was not the easiest country to travel around.
After 49 years, and without access to any notes we made, reports we wrote, or the books in which we recorded the germplasm samples collected, I am unable to detail the routes we took with any degree of confidence, except in the most broad terms. We were away from Lima for almost a month, and explored much of these two departments as best we could: by road, on foot, and on horseback.
At the end of the road, preparing to walk into a distant village; and below, riding back from a side-trip to a village
This was the first collecting trip that I had made. Time to put theory into practice. I bowed to Zósimo’s better knowledge, not only of potatoes and the terrain, but because he was a native Spanish speaker and after just a few months in Peru my Spanish was rudimentary to say the least. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Zósimo already had experience of collecting, having joined the Hawkes-led expedition to Bolivia in 1971.
We headed north on the Panamerican highway, destination Huaraz, the capital of Ancash located in the Callejón de Huaylas, a long north-south valley between the Cordillera Blanca to the east with the highest snow-covered peaks in the country and the Cordillera Negra to the west. Our aim was to explore regions right round these mountain ranges, and we certainly found ourselves in some remote locations.
We moved north into La Libertad, spending a little less time there than in Ancash before heading back to Trujillo on the coast for a well-deserved shower and rest at a good hotel, and better food before heading south to Lima, a journey of 575 km. I don’t recall if we attempted that last sector in one day or made an overnight stop about half way. In any case the journey would have taken about 10 hours or more, and given an incident on the way south that I’ll explain below, maybe we did split the journey.
In 1973, the Peruvian government was led by left-wing-leaning military junta headed by General Juan Velasco Alvarado who came to power in 1968 following a coup d’état. We encountered military checkpoints frequently on our travels in the mountains, often manned by young recruits or conscripts, teenagers even, armed with automatic weapons. Coming from a country where the police never carried firearms (at least then) nor were the armed forces deployed on the streets (that would change in Northern Ireland in the 1970s) I found it extremely disconcerting to be faced with soldiers pointing weapons at me and wondering if their discipline was as tight as I hoped. Needless to say we never encountered any specific threats or hostility.
What particularly struck me during this trip (and others that I made in 1974 and 1975, which I describe in Part 2) was the generosity of almost everyone we met. Farmers were generous with the potato varieties and knowledge they shared with us. Each potato variety collected was carefully labeled with a unique number inscribed on each tuber, and on the paper bags in which they were stored. All the details were recorded in a small booklet; I wonder if these are still archived in the CIP genebank in Lima.
Often we were invited to share a meal with a family, and only on one occasion did I baulk at what was put in front of me: fried cuy or guinea-pig (which are native to Peru and most households keep a small herd of them running around the house ready for the pot). I just couldn’t bring myself to tuck in. Guinea-pigs, to my mind, were furry pets. Needless to say that, as I grew older, such inhibitions diminished.
Despite being memory-deficient when it comes to the route or the places we stayed, there are several anecdotes that are still fresh today.
One experience was particularly emotional. Just 57 km north of Huaraz lies the town of Yungay, and a few kilometers closer to Huaraz, the town of Ranrahirca. On 31 May 1970 a powerful earthquake off the coast west of here, dislodged a massive landslide, a mixture of ice and rocks, that fell from Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.
Looking north along the Callejón de Huaylas towards the twin peaks of Huascarán
Travelling at speeds up to 335 kph the landslide quickly reached and obliterated both towns, killing tens of thousands. In Yungay, when we visited almost three years later, the only remains of the town still standing were the cemetery mound with a statue of Christ with outstretched arms, and four palm trees. They had survived, yet everywhere else the landscape was dotted with crosses marking where houses used to stand and presumably families perished. What a sobering sight indeed.
The statue of Christ in the site of Yungay, May 1973
This was the site of Ranrahirca where the town had been obliterated by boulders the size of houses, May 1973
We followed the road south from Huaraz and round to the east of the Cordillera Blanca, to Chavín de Huántar.
A stone tenon head, one of the iconic features of the ruins at Chavín
The next day we headed north up a steep and extremely muddy road, slipping and sliding from side to side. Fortunately the road was wide and there were no drop-offs, until we reached the highest point. The road levelled off, snaking along the side of the valley, barely wide enough for our Toyota Landcruiser. It was also quite muddy there as well.
We could see there was a drop-off, but given that we were in cloud, couldn’t see more than about 50-100 m ahead. It was only on the return journey and checking our maps that we saw that the side of the road plunged about 1000 m to the valley below. Talk about a stressful situation.
Having enjoyed a good bistek in Chavín that evening, we both got very drunk on Ron Pomalca, regretting sincerely the following morning that we had imbibed so freely. Incidentally, Zósimo found that the rum was also a useful liniment after several hours on horseback, and kept a bottle for that purpose.
On one occasion, we drove as far as we could before walking to two villages some kilometers away. When we arrived at the first village, we found everyone celebrating the jubilee of its founding (and were informed that the next village was also in fiesta mode). We were made welcome, offered refreshments, and talked with village officials before explaining that we had to push on to the next village before it got dark. There we found almost everyone in an advanced state of inebriation, especially the schoolteacher, who spoke a little English.
As special guests on that auspicious day, the mayor invited us to a reception, where the whole village crammed into the town hall. Speeches were made, with Zósimo translating for me. It was clear we would have to respond, especially me as a representative of La Reina Isabel. I frantically whispered to Zósimo how to say such and such in Spanish, writing his translations on the palm of my hand. When it was my turn to make a short speech, I nervously complimented the village on its anniversary and how pleased we were to be there. On sitting down, everyone in that room, at least a hundred men and women, maybe more, came and shook my hand. What a memory.
Zósimo (on the right) beside the teacher, his wife and child in front of his house where we spent the night
Later in the trip in La Libertad, we arrived in one village looking for a hotel. There were two: one had been opened not many months before our arrival there; the other was quite run down. We chose the new hotel, ignoring ‘advice’ that it was flea-infested. Surely that couldn’t be the case? How wrong could we be, waking next morning covered in flea bites and itching madly. Those pesky fleas got everywhere, so we had to endure several days of purgatory until we reached the coast and could send all our gear for cleaning. And take a welcome shower.
Finally, on the return journey south on the Panamerican Highway south of Trujillo, there was a puncture in the rear nearside tyre. We quickly replaced it with the spare, and resumed our journey, hoping to find a grifo or garage soon where the tyre could be repaired. I was driving. Suddenly there was a bang, and the vehicle lurched wildly. I managed to bring it under control, even though the rear was touching the ground. You can imagine our surprise when the wheel passed beside us, travelling at speed ahead. Zósimo and I had each thought the other made a final check of the wheel nuts. They just worked their way loose until the wheel fell off. Our humble jack was not powerful enough to lift the vehicle, but we flagged down a truck driver who used his more robust jack. We retrieved the wheel several hundred meters down the road, and even located all four wheel nuts scattered across the highway. What luck! Fortunately there were no further incidents before we reached CIP’s headquarters in the La Molina district of the Lima.
What an experience, and despite some stressful incidents (and occasional differences of opinion with Zósimo) we returned to Lima after a successful collecting trip. Maybe there were a couple of hundred samples or more to add to CIP’s germplasm collection. That collection eventually grew to around 15,000 samples or accessions but was reduced to its current more manageable size of around 4000 accessions after possible duplicate samples were removed (although converted to botanical or true seed samples before discarding the tubers). On his trips to Peru after 1973 Jack would spend time in the collection at CIP’s high altitude station in Huancayo (3100 m), a six-hour drive east of Lima, working through the germplasm samples and giving his advice about their conservation status. In the photo below, taken in early 1974, I briefly left off my own research to join Jack as he studied different varieties.
In Part 2, I write about the trips I made to Cuyo Cuyo in the south of Peru in February 1974, then to Cajamarca in May the same year. Finally, I describe the trip over a long weekend I made in March 1981 with Jack and a CIP colleague to collect wild potatoes in the mountains northeast from Lima. This was the only time that I went collecting with Jack, but even in that short journey I learned so much.
years ago today (Friday 17 December 1971) I received my MSc degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources from the University of Birmingham. Half a century!
With my dissertation supervisor Dr (later Professor) Trevor Williams, who became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International).
I hadn’t planned to be at the graduation (known as a congregation in UK universities). Why? I had expected to be in Peru for almost three months already. I was set to join the International Potato Center (CIP) (which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary) as an Associate Taxonomist after graduation, but didn’t actually get fly out to Lima until January 1973. Funding for my position from the British government took longer to finalize than had been envisaged. In the meantime, I’d registered for a PhD on the evolution of Andean potato varieties under Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned potato and genetic resources expert.
So let’s see how everything started and progressed.
1970s – potatoes
Having graduated from the University of Southampton in July 1970 (with a BSc degree in Environmental Botany and Geography), I joined the Department of Botany at Birmingham (where Jack Hawkes was head of department) in September that year to begin the one year MSc course, the start of a 39 year career in the UK and three other countries: Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. I took early retirement in 2010 (aged 61) and returned to the UK.
Back in December 1971 I was just relieved to have completed the demanding MSc course. I reckon we studied as hard during that one year as during a three year undergraduate science degree. Looking back on the graduation day itself, I had no inkling that 10 years later I would be back in Birmingham contributing to that very same course as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Arriving in Lima on 4 January 1973, I lived by myself until July when my fiancée Steph flew out to Peru, and join CIP as an Associate Geneticist working with the center’s germplasm collection of Andean potato varieties. She had resigned from a similar position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station near Edinburgh where she helped conserve the Commonwealth Potato Collection.
Later that year, on 13 October, Steph and I were married in Miraflores, the coastal suburb of Lima where we rented an apartment.
My own work in Peru took me all over the Andes collecting potato varieties for the CIP genebank, and conducting field work towards my PhD.
Collecting potato tubers from a farmer in the northern Department of Cajamarca in May 1974.
In May 1975, we returned to Birmingham for just six months so that I could complete the university residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and successfully defend my dissertation. The degree was conferred on 12 December.
With Professor Jack Hawkes
Returning to Lima just in time for the New Year celebrations, we spent another three months there before being posted to Turrialba, Costa Rica in Central America at the beginning of April 1976, where we resided until November 1980. The original focus of my research was adaptation of potatoes to hot, humid conditions. But I soon spent much of my time studying the damage done by bacterial wilt, caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solancearum (formerly Pseudomonas solanacearum).
Checking the level of disease in a bacterial wilt trial of potatoes in Turrialba, July 1977.
Each year I made several trips throughout Central America, to Mexico, and various countries in the Caribbean, helping to set up a collaborative research project, PRECODEPA, which outlasted my stay in the region by more than 20 years. One important component of the project was rapid multiplication systems for potato seed production for which my Lima-based colleague, Jim Bryan, joined me in Costa Rica for one year in 1979.
My two research assistants (in blue lab-coats), Moises Pereira (L) and Jorge Aguilar (R) demonstrating leaf cuttings to a group of potato agronomists from Guatemala, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica, while my CIP colleague and senior seed production specialist, Jim Bryan, looks on.
There’s one very important thing I want to mention here. At the start of my career with CIP, as a young germplasm scientist, and moving to regional work in Costa Rica, I count myself extremely fortunate I was mentored through those formative years in international agricultural research by two remarkable individuals.
Roger Rowe and Ken Brown
Dr Roger Rowe joined CIP in July 1973 as head of the Breeding and Genetics Department. He was my boss (and Steph’s), and he also co-supervised my PhD research. I’ve kept in touch with Roger ever since. I’ve always appreciated the advice he gave me. And even after I moved to IRRI in 1991, our paths crossed professionally. When Roger expressed an opinion it was wise to listen.
Dr Ken Brown joined CIP in January 1976 and became Director of the Regional Research Program. He was my boss during the years I worked in Central America. He was very supportive of my work on bacterial wilt and the development of PRECODEPA. Never micro-managing his staff, I learned a lot from Ken about people and program management that stood me in good stead in the years to come.
1980s – academia By the middle of 1980 I was beginning to get itchy feet. I couldn’t see myself staying in Costa Rica much longer, even though Steph and I enjoyed our life there. It’s such a beautiful country. Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978.
To grow professionally I needed other challenges, so asked my Director General in Lima, Richard Sawyer, about the opportunity of moving to another region, with a similar program management and research role. Sawyer decided to send me to Southeast Asia, in the Philippines, to take over from my Australian colleague Lin Harmsworth after his retirement in 1982.
However, I never got to the Philippines. Well, not for another decade. In the meantime I had been encouraged to apply for a lectureship at the University of Birmingham. In early 1981 I successfully interviewed and took up the position there in April.
Thus my international potato decade came to an end, as did any thoughts of continuing in international agricultural research. Or so it seemed at the time.
For three months I lodged with one of my colleagues, John Dodds, who had an apartment close to the university’s Edgbaston campus while we hunted for a house to buy. Steph and Hannah stayed with her parents in Southend on Sea (east of London), and I would travel there each weekend.
It took only a couple of weeks to find a house that suited us, in the market town of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, about 13 miles south of the university. We moved in during the first week of July, and kept the house for almost 40 years until we moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England almost 15 months ago. However we didn’t live there continually throughout that period as will become apparent below.
Our younger daughter Philippa was born in Bromsgrove in May 1982. How does the saying go? New house, new baby!
With Brian when we attended a Mediterranean genetic resources conference in Izmir, Turkey in April 1972. Long hair was the style back in the day.
I threw myself into academic life with enthusiasm. Most of my teaching was for the MSc genetic conservation students, some to second year undergraduates, and a shared ten-week genetic conservation module for third year undergraduates with my close friend and colleague of more than 50 years, Brian Ford-Lloyd.
I also supervised several PhD students during my time at Birmingham, and I found that role particularly satisfying. As I did tutoring undergraduate students; I tutored five or six each year over the decade. Several tutees went on to complete a PhD, two of whom became professors and were recently elected Fellows of the Royal Society.
One milestone for Brian and me was the publication, in 1986, of our introductory text on plant genetic resources, one of the first books in this field, and which sold out within 18 months. It’s still available as a digital print on demand publication from Cambridge University Press.
This was followed in 1990 by a co-edited book (with geography professor Martin Parry) about genetic resources and climate change, a pioneering text at least a decade before climate change became widely accepted. We followed up with an updated publication in 2014.
The cover of our 1990 book (L), and at the launch of the 2014 book, with Brian Ford-Lloyd in December 2013
My research interests in potatoes continued with a major project on true potato seed collaboratively with the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge (until Margaret Thatcher’s government sold it to the private sector) and CIP. My graduate students worked on a number of species including potatoes and legumes such as Lathyrus.
However, I fully appreciated my research limitations, and enjoyed much more the teaching and administrative work I was asked to take on. All in all, the 1980s in academia were quite satisfying. Until they weren’t. By about 1989, when Margaret Thatcher had the higher education sector firmly in her sights, I became less enthusiastic about university life.
And, in September 1990, an announcement landed in my mailbox for a senior position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. I applied to become head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (GRC, incorporating the International Rice Genebank), and joined IRRI on 1 July 1991. The rest is history.
I’ve often been asked how hard it was to resign from a tenured position at the university. Not very hard at all. Even though I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer. But the lure of resuming my career in the CGIAR was too great to resist.
1990s – rice genetic resources I never expected to remain at IRRI much beyond 10 years, never mind the 19 that we actually spent there.
I spent the first six months of my assignment at IRRI on my own. Steph and the girls did not join me until just before the New Year. We’d agreed that it would be best if I spent those first months finding my feet at IRRI. I knew that IRRI’s Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, expected me to reorganize the genebank. And I also had the challenge of bringing together in GRC two independent units: the International Rice Germplasm Center (the genebank) and the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). No mean feat as the INGER staff were reluctant, to say the least, to ever consider themselves part of GRC. But that’s another story.
Elsewhere in this blog I’ve written about the challenges ofmanaging the genebank, of sorting out the data clutter I’d inherited, investigating how to improve the quality of seeds stored in the genebank, collaborating with my former colleagues at Birmingham to improve the management and use of the rice collection by using molecular markers to study genetic diversity, as well as running a five year project (funded by the Swiss government) to safeguard rice biodiversity.
I was also heavily involved with the CGIAR’s Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR), attending my first meeting in January 1993 in Addis Ababa, when I was elected Chair for the next three years.
The ICWG-GR at its meeting hosted by ILRI (then ILCA) in Addis Ababa, in 1993.
In that role I oversaw the development of the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP), and visited Rome several times a year to the headquarters of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) which hosted the SGRP Secretariat.
But in early 2001 I was offered an opportunity (which I initially turned down) to advance my career in a totally different direction. I was asked to join IRRI’s senior management team in the newly-created post of Director for Program Planning and Coordination.
The 2000s – management It must have been mid-January 2001. Sylvia, the Director General’s secretary, asked me to attend a meeting in the DG’s office just after lunch. I had no idea what to expect, and was quite surprised to find not only the DG, Dr Ron Cantrell, there but also his two deputies, Dr Willy Padolina (DDG-International Programs) and Dr Ren Wang, DDG-Research.
To cut a long story short, Cantrell asked me to leave GRC and move into a new position, as one of the institute’s directors, and take over the management of resource mobilization and donor relations, among other responsibilities (after about one year I was given line management responsibility for the Development Office [DO], the Library and Documentation Services [LDS], Communication and Publications Services [CPS], and the Information Technology Services [ITS]).
With my unit heads, L-R: me, Gene Hettel (CPS), Mila Ramos (LDS), Marco van den Berg (ITS), Duncan Macintosh (DO), and Corinta Guerta (DPPC).
In DPPC, as it became known, we established all the protocols and tracking systems for the many research projects and donor communications essential for the efficient running of the institute. I recruited a small team of five individuals, with Corinta Guerta becoming my second in command, who herself took over the running of the unit after my retirement in 2010 and became a director. Not bad for someone who’d joined IRRI three decades earlier as a research assistant in soil chemistry. We reversed the institute’s rather dire reputation for research management and reporting (at least in the donors’ eyes), helping to increase IRRI’s budget significantly over the nine years I was in charge.
With, L-R, Yeyet, Corinta, Zeny, Vel, (me), and Eric.
I’m not going to elaborate further as the details can be found in that earlier blog post. What I can say is that the time I spent as Director for Program Planning and Communications (the Coordination was dropped once I’d taken on the broader management responsibilities) were among the most satisfying professionally, and a high note on which to retire. 30 April 2010 was my last day in the office.
Since then, and once settled into happy retirement, I’ve kept myself busy by organizing two international rice research conferences (in Vietnam in 2010 and Thailand in 2014), co-edited the climate change book I referred to earlier, and been the lead on a major review of the CGIAR’s Genebank Program (in 2017). Once that review was completed, I decided I wouldn’t take on any more consultancy commitments, and I also stepped down from the editorial board of the Springer scientific journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.
As I said from the outset of this post, it’s hard to imagine that this all kicked off half a century ago. I can say, without hesitation and unequivocally, that I couldn’t have hoped for a more rewarding career. Not only in the things we did and the many achievements, but the friendships forged with many people I met and worked with in more than 60 countries. It was a blast!
Glenn leads the Potato Genetics and Breeding Group there, and also has overall responsibility for the CPC, ably assisted by collection curator Gaynor McKenzie.
Glenn Bryan and Gaynor McKenzie at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, where wild potato species in the Commonwealth Potato Collection are conserved.
Glenn and I go back almost 30 years when, as a young scientist at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, he was a member of a rice research project, funded by the British government, that brought together staff at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I was Head of the Genetic Resources Center, the University of Birmingham (where I had been a faculty member for a decade from 1981), and the JIC to use molecular markers to study IRRI’s large and globally-important germplasm collection conserved in its International Rice Genebank.
L-R: me, Glenn, and John Newbury (who later became professor at the University of Worcester) during a spot of sight-seeing near IRRI in 1993
The Commonwealth Potato Collection has a long and distinguished history, going back more than 80 years, much longer than the rice collection at IRRI. It is one of a handful of potato germplasm collections around the world in which breeders have identified disease and pest resistance genes to enhance the productivity of cultivated varieties. The CPC is particularly important from a plant quarantine perspective because the collection has been routinely tested and cleaned for various pathogens, particularly seed-borne pathogens.
It is a collection with which Steph and I have both a personal and professional connection, from the 1970s and 80s. It’s also the legacy of one man, Professor Jack Hawkes (1915-2007) with whom I had the privilege of studying for both my MSc and PhD degrees.
Let me tell that story.
In December 1938, a young botanist—just 23 years old the previous June—set off from Liverpool, headed to Lima, Peru to join the British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, the adventure of a lifetime.
Jack in Bolivia in 1939
John ‘Jack’ Gregory Hawkes, a Christ’s College, Cambridge graduate, was destined to become one of the world’s leading potato experts and a champion of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.
He was the taxonomic botanist on the 1939 expedition, which was led by experienced plant collector Edwards Kent Balls (1892-1984). Medical doctor and amateur botanist William ‘Bill’ Balfour Gourlay (1879-1966) was the third member of the expedition. Balls and Gourlay had been collecting plants in Mexico (including some potatoes) in 1938 before moving on to Peru for the ‘Empire’ expedition.
The expedition had originally been scheduled to start in 1937, but had to be delayed because of ill health of the original expedition leader, Dr PS Hudson, Director of the Empire Bureau of Plant Breeding and Genetics in Cambridge. Jack had been hired as his assistant. Whilst waiting for the expedition to get underway, Jack took the opportunity—in August 1938—to visit Leningrad to pick the brains of Russian botanists, Drs SM Bukasov, VS Juzepczuk, and VS Lechnovicz who had already collected potatoes in South America. Jack openly acknowledged that ‘as a raw recently graduated student, [he] knew very little about potatoes’.
Not only did Jack receive useful advice from these knowledgeable botanists, but he also met with the great geneticist and ‘Father of Plant Genetic Resources’ Nikolai Vavilov on several occasions during his visit to Leningrad and Moscow, ‘an experience that changed [his] life in many ways’. Vavilov had a profound effect on Jack’s subsequent career as an academic botanist and genetic resources pioneer. Alas there do not appear to be any surviving photos of Jack with Vavilov.
‘Solanum vavilovii’ growing at an experiment station near Leningrad in 1938
In Leningrad, Jack took this photo (right) of a wild potato species that had been described as Solanum vavilovii by Juzepczuk and Bukasov in 1937. Sadly that name is no longer taxonomically valid, and vavilovii is now considered simply as a variant of the species Solanum wittmackii that had been described by the German botanist Friedrich August Georg Bitter in 1913.
The Empire expedition lasted eight months from January 1939, covering northern Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and ending in Colombia (a country where Jack was to reside for three years from 1948 when he was seconded to establish a national potato research station near Bogota).
Route taken by the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition
More than 1150 samples of cultivated and wild potatoes were collected in these five countries as well as a further 46 samples collected by Balls and Gourlay in Mexico in 1938.
Here is a small selection of photographs taken during the expedition, reproduced here by courtesy of the Hawkes family.
By the time the expedition ended in early September 1939, war with Germany had already been declared, and Jack’s return to the UK by ship convoy from Halifax, Newfoundland was not as comfortable as the outbound voyage nine months earlier, docking in Liverpool early in November.
Potato tubers (and presumably seeds) were shipped back to the UK, and after a quarantine inspection, were planted out in a glasshouse at the Potato Virus Research Station, Cambridge whose director was the renowned botanist (and originally a medical doctor) Redcliffe Nathan Salaman, author of the seminal work on potatoes, TheHistory and Social Influence of the Potato, first published in 1949 and reprinted with a new introduction by Hawkes in 1985. I jealously guard the signed copy that Jack gave me.
On his return to the UK in 1939 Jack began to study the collected germplasm, describing several new species, and completing his PhD thesis (supervised by Salaman) at the University of Cambridge in 1941.
South American potato species in the Cambridge glasshouse in the summer of 1940
Among the species identified in the course of Jack’s dissertation research was Solanum ballsii from northern Argentina, which he dedicated to EK Balls in a formal description in 1944. However, in his 1963 revised taxonomy of the tuber-bearing Solanums (potatoes), Jack (with his Danish colleague Jens Peter Hjerting, 1917-2012) recognized Solanum ballsii simply as a subspecies of Solanum vernei, a species which has since provided many important sources of resistance to the potato cyst nematode.
Jack Hawkes in the glasshouse of the Empire Potato Collection at Cambridge in July 1947.
The 1939 germplasm was the foundation of the Empire Potato Collection. When the collection curator Dr Kenneth S Dodds was appointed Director of the John Innes Institute in Bayfordbury in 1954, the collection moved with him, and was renamed the Commonwealth Potato Collection.
By the end of the decade (or early 1960s) the CPC was on the move again. This time to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh when Dr Norman W Simmonds moved there in 1959. He rose through the ranks to become the station’s Director.
But that was not the end of the CPC’s peripatetic existence. It remained at the SPBS until the early 1980s, when the SPBS amalgamated with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute (which became the Scottish Crop Research Institute or SCRI, and now known as the James Hutton Institute), and the collection moved to its present site near Dundee.
I am not sure how much the CPC grew in the intervening years, but there was a significant boost to the size and importance of the collection around 1987. Let me explain.
As I already mentioned, Jack spent three years in Colombia from 1948, returning to the UK in 1951 when he was appointed Lecturer in Taxonomy in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham. He was given a personal chair as Professor of Taxonomic Botany in April 1961, and became Head of Department and Mason Professor of Botany in July 1967. He remained at Birmingham until retirement in September 1982.
It was during his Birmingham years that Jack’s work on the tuber-bearing Solanums expanded significantly with several important monographs and taxonomic revisions published, based on his own field work over the years and experimental studies back at Birmingham on the potato samples he brought back to the UK and which formed an important collection in its own right. Because of the quarantine threat from these seeds (particularly of sexually-transmitted pathogens or new variants of potato viruses already present in the UK), Jack had a special licence from the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to maintain his collection at Birmingham. I’ve written about that special quarantine situation here.
In 1958, with Peter Hjerting and young research assistant Richard Lester (who later joined the Department of Botany as a Lecturer), Jack made a six month expedition to the USA , Mexico, and Central America. Here is an account of that trip. Besides potatoes, many other species were made for other institutions and botanic gardens.
Collecting a sample of Solanum agrimonifolium (No. 1854) in Guatemala. L: Jack Hawkes, Peter Hjerting, and Morse (driver?); R: Richard Lester
Just three months after I arrived at Birmingham in September 1970 to enrol on the MSc course on plant genetic resources, Jack was off on his travels once again, this time to Bolivia (report) accompanied by Peter Hjerting once again, his research assistant Phil Cribb and, in South America by Zósimo Huamán from the International Potato Center (CIP) and Moisés Zavaleta and others from Bolivia. Jack and Peter made another trip to Bolivia in 1974 (with research assistant Dave Astley), and another in 1980. They published their monograph of The Potatoes of Bolivia in 1989.
Here are some images from the 1971 expedition, courtesy of Phil Cribb.
In September 1971, Zósimo Huamán and Moisés Zavaleta came to Birmingham to study on the genetic resources MSc course. In that same cohort was a young botanist, Stephanie Tribble, recently graduated from the University of Wales – Swansea (now Swansea University). During the summer of 1972, Steph and I became ‘an item’, so-to-speak. However, by then I was already making plans to leave the UK and join CIP in Lima by January 1973, and on graduation, Steph was keen to find a position to use the experiences and skills she had gained on the course.
Just at that time, a Scientific Officer position opened at the SPBS, as assistant to Dalton Glendinning who was the curator of the CPC. Steph duly applied and was appointed from about October that year. Jack must have supported her application. Coincidentally, the MSc course external examiner was no other that Norman Simmonds who met Steph during his course assessment.
I moved to Peru in January 1973, and within a few days discovered that Jack had mentioned Steph to CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer. Well, to cut a long story short, Steph was offered a position as Assistant Geneticist at CIP, to support management of CIP’s large potato collection, similar to the role she’d had at Pentlandfield. She resigned from the SPBS and joined me in Lima in July that year. We married there in October. We remained with CIP in Peru and Central America for another eight years
Steph working in one of CIP’s screen-houses at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of Lima in 1974.
In April 1981 I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at Birmingham, 18 months before Jack’s retirement, the aim being that I would assume Jack’s teaching commitments on the MSc course. When I also took over the Hawkes potato collection in 1982, I had high hopes of identifying funding for biosystematics and pre-breeding research. That was not the case, and as the collection needed a dedicated glasshouse and technician I could not justify (nor financially support) holding on to such valuable research space. And, in any case, continuing with the Hawkes collection was actually blocking the opportunities for other potato research because of the MAFF-imposed restrictions.
Dave Downing was the glasshouse technician who carefully managed the Hawkes collection at Birmingham for many years.
So, with some regret but also acknowledging that Jack’s collection would be better placed elsewhere, I contacted my colleagues at the CPC to see if they would be interested to receive it—lock, stock, and barrel. And that indeed was what happened. I’m sure many new potato lines were added to the CPC. The germplasm was placed in quarantine in the first instance, and has passed through various stages of testing before being added officially to the CPC. Throughout the 80s and 90s Jack would visit the CPC from time-to-time, and look through the materials, helping with the correct identification of species and the like.
His interest in and contributions to potato science remained with him almost up to his death in 2007. By then he had become increasingly frail, and had moved into a care home, his wife of more than 50 years, Barbara, having passed away some years previously. By then, Jack’s reputation and legacy was sealed. Not only has his scientific output contributed to the conservation and use of potato genetic resources worldwide, embodied in the CPC that he helped establish all those decades earlier, but through the MSc course that he founded in 1969, hundreds of professionals worldwide have continued to carry the genetic conservation torch. A fine legacy, indeed!
28 June 1991. It was a Friday. Ten years and three months since I joined the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in Plant Biology. And it was my last day in that post. A brief farewell party in the School of Biological Sciences at the end of the day, and that was it. I was no longer an academic.
I’d left Peru in March 1981 with such enthusiasm for the next stage of my career at Birmingham. Having spent the previous eight years and three months in South and Central America with the International Potato Center (CIP), Steph and I were looking forward to setting up home with our daughter Hannah (then almost three) back in the UK. I joined the university on 1 April. Was I the fool?
By the end of the 1980s, however, my enthusiasm for academia had waned considerably. Not that I wasn’t getting on. Far from it. I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, I had an active research group (looking at the relationships between crop plants and their wild species relatives), and I enjoyed teaching.
But I began to get itchy feet, and when the opportunity arose (in September 1990) for a move to the Philippines, to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) as Head of the newly-established Genetic Resources Center (with its mandate to manage the world’s largest and genetically most important genebank for rice), I didn’t hesitate. Although, I have to admit, Steph and our daughters (Philippa was born in 1982) were less keen on the idea.
In early January 1991, I was interviewed for the position at IRRI (at its research center in Los Baños, about 70 km south of Manila, the capital city of the Philippines)
This was only my second trip to Asia. I’m not sure how or why at this distance of 30 years, but I flew to Manila (MNL) with British Airways out of London-Gatwick (LGW). Having checked in, I was informed that the flight to Manila was delayed because of a fault with the assigned aircraft (a 747), and that it would be replaced by an incoming aircraft – from Miami, which wasn’t expected for at least five hours. In the end, the delay was almost 15 hours, and I arrived in Los Baños just after 1 am on the Monday morning, having set out from the UK early on Saturday, with the expectation of arriving in the Philippines with just under 24 hours to recover from my trip before the interview schedule began. In the end, I had less than four hours sleep, and was up for a 7 am breakfast meeting with Director General Klaus Lampe (right) and his three Deputy Directors General!
By the end of the month I’d agreed a three year contract. Lampe wanted me to start on 1 April. But, as I explained—and he reluctantly accepted—I still had teaching and examination commitments at the university that would take me up to the end of June. So the earliest I would be able to join the institute was 1 July.
Even so, Lampe asked me to represent IRRI at a genetic resources meeting held in April at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. That would be the first of many meetings at FAO and even more visits to Rome where the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) also had its office.
I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. With just one day between leaving Birmingham and heading east, I still had some final packing. And, in any case, I had to make sure that everything was ship shape and Bristol fashion for Steph and the girls, as we’d agreed I would head off to the Philippines on my own, in the first instance, get settled into my new job, and they would join me just after Christmas.
That last couple of days were quite stressful. My friend and close colleague at Birmingham, Brian Ford-Lloyd and his wife Pat dropped by on the Saturday to wish me Bon Voyage! Brian has often told me subsequently that I looked rather drained. After all it was quite a step to up sticks and move the family to the Philippines. But it was a move we have never regretted.
Steph and I also agreed that we wouldn’t rent out our home in Bromsgrove (in northeast Worcestershire, and about thirteen miles south of Birmingham), but keep it locked up and safe in case we ever needed a bolt hole, as it were, should things not work out well at IRRI, or civil unrest required us to leave the country at short notice. Politics in the Philippines has always been volatile, to say the least.
So, come Sunday morning, it was a teary goodbye for all of us when the taxi arrived to take me to Birmingham airport (BHX) for the flight to MNL via London Heathrow (LHR) and Hong Kong (HKG). In subsequent years, and for a decade until Emirates had daily flights from BHX to Dubai (DXB) and on to MNL, we always flew with KLM via Amsterdam (AMS), much more convenient than transiting through LHR. Apart from our first home leave in the summer of 1992.
British Midland (now defunct) operated the connecting flight from BHX to LHR. Placing my two or three bags on the scales, the check-in agent told me that I was way over my allowance, and if I chose to check them through to MNL, then she would have to charge me £500. On the other hand, she could send them to LHR free of charge, and I could argue with my next carrier, British Airways, for the onward flight. She checked my schedule and we agreed there was more than sufficient time between landing in LHR and the departure of my HKG flight to pick up my bags in Terminal 1 and get to Terminal 4 to check-in for the HKG/MNL flight. Wrong!
The flight left BHX on time, but on landing at LHR we taxied to the perimeter of the apron because gates were either occupied or undergoing refurbishment. And there we sat for about 30 minutes until buses came along to take us to the terminal. All the while, my connection time was being eroded by the minute. Then I had to wait for my bags to offload, and for the bus to Terminal 4. On previous transits through LHR between terminals, the bus had always crossed to the other side of the airport where Terminal 4 is located through a tunnel, a journey of a matter of minutes. Not that day, however. Our bus headed out on to the public roads, hit the M25 then exited close to Terminal 4. By the time I reached the back of a check-in queue for my flight, it was due to depart in just five minutes. Panic stations!
Leaving my bags where they were, I politely walked to the front of the queue explaining to other waiting passengers my dilemma, and they kindly let me move to the front. I was in luck. The flight had been delayed by at least 30 minutes, and the agent reckoned I could still make it. What to do about the excess baggage charges? He agreed not to charge me the full amount, and after several attempts to charge my credit card, he waived the fees, told me to put the bags on an express shute, and RUN!
The aircraft door was closed immediately after I boarded and found the only empty seat in Business Class (my reserved seat having been reallocated), and we were off. I sat there, thanking my lucky stars that I’d made the flight after all, feeling rather sweaty, and hoping it wouldn’t be too long after take-off before the cabin crew brought round the drinks trolley and I could get stuck into my first G&T.
I don’t remember too much about the trip from that point. Not because of over-imbibing, I hasten to add. It was just uneventful. On arrival in Manila, I was greeted by Director of Administration Tim Bertotti (right) and his Vietnamese wife who would be my ‘welcomers’ for the next few weeks, show me the IRRI ropes, so to speak, and be a couple I could turn to for advice. Having collected my heavy bags, and found the IRRI driver we headed south to Los Baños, where I stayed in the IRRI Guesthouse for the next month or so until the house allocated to me had been redecorated.
I can’t deny that the first night in Los Baños was quite miserable. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of regret, whether I had made the right choice to give up a tenured position at the university (a number of colleagues there thought I was crazy to leave a tenured position for the ‘insecurity’ of short-term contracts overseas). And how would the family fare during the intervening six months until they headed east? So many questions, so many uncertainties. And hard to sleep because of jet-lag.
But the next morning there was no time for self pity. I had a job to do, and just get stuck in. A driver collected me from the Guesthouse after breakfast and took me down to the research center, less than a ten minute drive across the campus of the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). I got my ID, was assigned a car, and made an appointment to meet with Klaus Lampe.
Then it was off to GRC in the Brady Laboratory, a building named after IRRI’s second Director General, Nyle Brady. I was already aware that there was only measured enthusiasm among the GRC staff for my appointment. Three of us had been interviewed in January, all with MSc and PhD degrees from the University of Birmingham, and Professor Jack Hawkes had supervised our PhD research. The other two candidates already managed genebanks; I had no hands-on experience of genebank management. One of the candidates, a Chinese Malay national, had carried out his thesis research at IRRI (on rice of course) with my predecessor in the IRRI gene bank, Dr TT Chang, co-supervising his research. He was a known quantity for the GRC staff and, I think, their preferred candidate. Instead they got this straight-talking Brit.
First things first. I needed to understand in detail how the genebank was currently being managed, who the key personnel were, and what were their thoughts about how things might change. I also had to manage the merger of the genebank (known in 1991 as the International Rice Germplasm Center) with another group, the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER) that was coordinated by a senior Indian scientist, Dr Seshu Durvasula who, I’m sorry to say, had no intention of going along easily with the intended merger into GRC. He resented, I believe, that he had been overlooked for the leadership of GRC. And, in any case, who was this British scientist with no rice experience?
Anyway, back to the genebank. I think the staff were quite surprised to be asked their opinions. That was not Dr Chang’s style. Thanks to Eves, Pola (who I quickly identified as someone to lead the genebank operations on a daily basis, as genebank manager), Ato, Tom, Soccie, the data management group (Adel, Myrna, and Vangie), and Yvette and Amy (who I assigned to wild species research) for being very patient, answering all my questions, and letting me know when one of my ideas was perhaps a step too far. But one thing was clear: the operations of the genebank had to be upgraded and made more efficient. After about six months I was ready to put a plan into operation. By then, Steph and the girls were ready to fly out to the Philippines to join me.
But I have to make special mention to two very special ladies, who made my first months at GRC (and IRRI in general) so much easier: the GRC secretaries Sylvia Arellano (L below) and Tessie Santos (R). Jewels in the IRRI crown.
Sylvia was my personal secretary, and had worked for TT Chang for a number of years before he retired. Tessie supported the other internationally-recruited scientist in the genebank, British geneticist Dr Duncan Vaughan, and the rest of the genebank staff as and when needed.
Sylvia (known as Syl to everyone) was a mine of information, knew exactly who to contact should I need to follow up on any issue, and was quick to advise me how to deal with colleagues (especially the old timers) with whom I had to work across the institute. She knew just how to get things done, call in favors, and the like. I reckon that without her day-to-day support my first few months at IRRI (before I knew the ropes or understood the institutional politics) would have been far less productive. I cannot thank her too much for all the support she gave me, and we remain in contact and good friends to this day, even though it’s eleven years since I retired from IRRI, and almost 25 years since she last worked with me.
When I was on home leave in the UK during the summer of 1997, I had a phone call from the then Director General, Dr George Rothschild, who asked ‘permission’ for Sylvia to move from my office to become Executive Secretary to the Director General. It was hardly an offer I could refuse, and in any case, it was a huge promotion for Syl. She remained as Executive Secretary to the DG until her retirement a few years back, serving under three DGs (possibly four) and an Acting DG.
Tessie was quite shy, and seemed rather in awe of me. But she was a valued member of the GRC staff, and on those occasions when Syl was away from the institute, Tessie would admirably step into her shoes as my personal secretary. After a few months and once she got used to me, Tessie began to relax in my presence. Tessie was just the sort of staff member that IRRI should be proud of: hard-working, loyal, knowledgeable. And it was my good fortune that Syl had someone like Tessie to back her up.
By the end of 1991, I was very much at home at IRRI. I had a good relationship with Klaus Lampe (well, for the next couple of years or so), I had the measure of my immediate boss, Deputy Director General for International Programs, Dr Fernando ‘Nanding’ Bernardo for whom, I’m sad to relate, I didn’t have much time, and I was moving ahead with plans for the upgrade of the genebank, and reorganization of the staff. It felt like the world was my oyster, and I looked forward to the coming year with the family in Los Baños as well.
Originally thinking that I’d remain at IRRI for perhaps a couple of three-year contracts, but certainly no longer than ten years, when I retired at the end of April 2010 I’d been at IRRI for almost 19 years. Joining IRRI was the best career move I made.
For much of my career, I have taken a keen interest in science communication. Such that, a couple of years after I’d become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning & Coordination in 2001, I was asked to take on line management responsibility for several of IRRI’s administrative units, including the Communication and Publications Services (CPS) headed by my good friend Gene Hettel. My job changed to some degree, as did my title: Director for Program Planning & Communications.
I’ve always felt that scientists have a responsibility to explain their work to the general public in plain language. We’re fortunate here in the UK; there are several leading lights in this respect who have made their mark in the media and now represent, to a considerable extent, ‘the face of science’ nationally. None of them is shy about speaking out on matters of concern to society at large.
Sir David Attenborough (far left, above) is one of the world’s leading advocates for biodiversity conservation who also eloquently explains the threat and challenges of climate change. Professors Alice Roberts (second left, of The University of Birmingham) and Brian Cox (second right, The University of Manchester) have both made their mark in TV broadcasts in recent years, bringing fascinating programs covering a range of topics to the small screen. And then again, there’s Sir Paul Nurse (far right), Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and former President of the Royal Society. I was particularly impressed with his Richard Dimbleby Lecture, The New Enlightenment, on the BBC in 2012 about his passion for science. It’s well worth a watch.
I would never claim to be in the same league as these illustrious scientists. However, over the years I have tried—in my small way—to raise awareness of the science area with which I am most familiar: plant genetic resources and their conservation. And in this blog, I have written extensively about some of my work on potatoes at the International Potato Center in Peru and on rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, as well as training genetic resources scientists at the University of Birmingham.
So, when I was approached a few weeks ago to be interviewed and contribute to a podcast series, Plant Breeding Stories, I jumped at the chance.
The podcasts are hosted by Hannah Senior, Managing Director of PBS International, a world leading company in pollination control. So far, there have been eleven podcasts in two series, with mine broadcast for the first time just a couple of days ago. In this clip, Hannah explains the rationale for the series.
Just click on the image below to listen to our 35 minute conversation about genetic resources, genebanks, and their importance for plant breeding and food security. Oh, and a little about me and how I got into genetic resources work in the first place.
I hope you find the podcast interesting, and even a little bit enlightening. A transcript of the broadcast can be downloaded here. Thanks for listening.
If, in the summer of 1970, someone had told me that one day I would be teaching botany at university, I would have told them they were delusional. But that’s what happened in April 1981 when I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. Hard to believe that’s already 40 years ago today. I stayed at Birmingham for a decade.
Birmingham is a campus university, one of the first, and also the first of the so-called ‘redbrick‘ universities. The campus has changed radically in the 30 years since I left, but many of the same landmarks are still there. The beauty of the campus can be appreciated in this promotional video.
I never, ever had any pretensions to a life in academia. As an undergraduate studying for a combined degree in Environmental Botany and Geography at University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970, I was a run-of-the-mill student. It wasn’t that I had little enthusiasm for my degree. Quite the contrary, for the most part. I enjoyed my three years at university, but I did burn the candle more at one end than the other. Also, I didn’t really know (or understand) how to study effectively, and no-one mentored me to become better. And it showed in my exam results. So while I graduated with a BSc (Hons.) degree, it was only a Lower Second; I just missed out, by a couple of percentage points, on an Upper or 2(i) degree. Perhaps with a little more effort I could have achieved that goal of a ‘better degree’. Que será . . .
I was interviewed in February 1970 and offered a place, but with no guarantee of funding. It wasn’t until late in the summer—about a couple of weeks before classes commenced—that the head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes phoned me to confirm my place (notwithstanding my ‘poor’ degree) and that he’d managed to squeeze a small grant from the university. It was just sufficient to pay my academic fees, and provide an allowance of around £5 per week (about £67 at today’s value) towards my living expenses.
So, in early September 1970 I found myself in Birmingham alongside four other MSc candidates, all older than me, from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Venezuela, excited to learn all about plant genetic resources. I discovered my study mojo, redeeming myself academically (rather well, in fact), sufficient for Jack Hawkes to take me on as one of his PhD students, even as I was expecting to move to Peru to join the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. And that’s what I did for the rest of the decade, working in South and Central America before returning to Birmingham as a member of staff.
The years before Birmingham
I spent over eight years with CIP, between January 1973 and April 1976, working as an Associate Taxonomist in Lima, and helping to manage the multitude of potato varieties in the center’s field genebank, participating in collecting trips to different parts of Peru to find new varieties not already conserved in the genebank, and continuing research towards my PhD.
Sampling potato flower buds for chromosome studies, near Cuzco, 1974
Near Cuzco in southern Peru, 1974
Looking east back over Cajamarca, with the mists rising up from the inca baths.
In the meantime, my girlfriend Stephanie (who I met at Birmingham) and I decided to get married, and she flew out to Peru in July 1973. We were married in Lima in October .
In May 1975, Steph and I returned to Birmingham for six months so I could complete the residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and defend my thesis. We returned to Lima by the end of December just after I received my degree.
From April 1976 and November 1980, Steph and I lived in Costa Rica in Central America on the campus of the regional agricultural research center, CATIE, in Turrialba, a small town 62 km due east of the capital, San José.
By November 1980 I felt it was time to move on, and requested CIP to assign me to another program. We moved back to Lima. However, with one eye on life beyond CIP, and with a growing daughter, Hannah (born in April 1978, and who would, in the next couple of years, be starting school) I also began to look for employment opportunities in the UK.
Looking for new opportunities
Towards the end of 1980 (but before we had returned to Lima) I became aware that a new lectureship was about to be advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany, my alma mater) at Birmingham. With the retirement of Jack Hawkes scheduled for September 1982, the lectureship would be recruited to fill an anticipated gap in teaching on the CUPGR Course.
I sent in an application and waited ‘patiently’ (patience is not one of my virtues) for a reply to come through. By the end of December (when we were already back in Lima, and in limbo so to speak) I was told I was on a long short list, but would only proceed to the final short list if I would confirm attending an interview in Birmingham (at my own expense) towards the end of January 1981. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and with the encouragement of the Dr Sawyer (who promised to keep a position open for me if the Birmingham application was unsuccessful) I headed to the UK.
Since completing my PhD in 1975, I had published three papers from my thesis, and a few others on potato diseases and agronomy. Not an extensive publication list by any stretch of the imagination, compared to what might be expected of faculty candidates nowadays. In reality my work at CIP hadn’t led to many scientific publication opportunities. Publications were not the be-all and end-all metric of success with the international centers back in the day. It’s what one achieved programmatically, and its impact on the lives of potato farmers that was the most important performance criterion. So, while I didn’t have a string of papers to my name, I did have lots of field and managerial experience, I’d worked with genetic resources for a number of years, and my research interests, in taxonomy and biosystematics, aligned well with the new position at Birmingham.
I interviewed successfully (eminent geneticist Professor John Jinks chairing the selection panel), and was offered the lectureship on the spot, from 1 April. The university even coughed up more than half the costs of my travel from Peru for interview. Subject to successfully passing a three-year probation period, I would then be offered tenure (tenure track as they say in North America), the holy grail of all who aspire to life in academia.
Heading to Birmingham
Saying farewell to CIP in mid-March 1981, and after more than eight happy years in South and Central America, Steph, Hannah, and I headed back to the UK via New York, where I had to close our account with Citibank on 5th Avenue.
Steph and Hannah at the top of the Empire State Building
This was just a couple of weeks or so before I was due to begin at Birmingham. We headed first to Steph’s parents in Southend-on-Sea. Since we had nowhere to live in Birmingham, we decided that I should move there on my own in the first instance, and start to look for a house that would suit us.
A few months before I joined Plant Biology, the department had recruited a lecturer in plant biochemistry, Dr John Dodds, a few years younger than me (I was 32 when I joined the university). John and I quickly became friends, and he offered me the second bedroom in his apartment, a short distance from the university.
The search for a house didn’t take long, and by mid-April we’d put in an offer on a house in Bromsgrove, some 13 miles south of the university, which was to remain our home for the next 39 years until we sold up last September. We moved in at the beginning of July, the day before I had to go away for the following two weeks as one of the staff supervising a second year undergraduate ecology field trip in Scotland. Not the most convenient of commitments under the circumstances. But that’s another story.
I start teaching
So, 40 years on, what are my reflections on the decade I spent at Birmingham?
It was midway through the 1980-81 academic year when I joined the department. I spent much of April settling in. My first office (I eventually moved office three times over the next decade) was located in the GRACE Lab (i.e., Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution Lab) where the CUPGR MSc students were based, in the grounds of Winterbourne House, on the edge of the main university campus, and about ten minutes walk from the department.
Pauline Mumford (standing, center) with the MSc Class of ’82 (my first full year at Birmingham) from (L-R) Malaysia, Uruguay, Germany, Turkey, Bangladesh (x2), Portugal, and Indonesia.
By September, an office had been found for me in the main building. This was necessary since, unlike Pauline, I had teaching commitments to undergraduate students on the honours Biological Sciences degree course, as well as having undergraduate tutees to mentor and meet with on a regular basis.
As I said, I’d been recruited to take over, in the first instance, Jack Hawkes’ teaching commitments, which comprised a contribution to the second year module in plant taxonomy, and evolution of crop plants, one of the main components of the CUPGR course. There were also opportunities to develop other courses, and in due time, this is what I did.
At the end of April 1981, Jack called me into his office, handed me his taxonomy lecture notes and said ‘You’re up tomorrow morning’. Talk about being thrown in the deep end. Jack lectured about ‘experimental taxonomy’, patterns of variations, breeding systems and the like, and how taxonomic classification drew on these data. Come the next day, I strode into the lecture theater with as much confidence as I could muster, and began to wax lyrical about breeding systems. About half way through, I noticed Jack quietly walk into the room, and seat himself at the back, to check on how well I was doing (or not). That was one of his mentor roles. He was gone before I’d finished, and later on he gave me some useful feedback—he’d liked what he had seen and heard.
But the lecture hadn’t nearly taken place. One of my colleagues, Dr Richard Lester, who was the lead on the taxonomy module, blithely informed me that he would be sitting in on my lecture the next day. ‘Oh no, you’re not‘ I emphatically retorted. I continued, ‘Walk in and I stop the lecture’. I had never really seen eye-to-eye with Richard ever since the day he had taught me on the MSc Course. I won’t go into detail, but let me say that we just had a prickly relationship. What particularly irked me is that Richard reported our conversation to Jack, and that’s why Jack appeared the next day.
I had quite a heavy teaching load, compared to many of my colleagues, even among those in the other three departments  that made up the School of Biological Sciences. Fortunately, I had no first year teaching. Besides my second year plant taxonomy lectures, I developed a small module on agroecosystems in the Second Year Common Course (of which I became chair over the course of the decade).
In their final year, students took four modules each of five weeks (plus a common evolution course). My long-time friend Brian Ford-Lloyd and I developed a module on plant genetic resources. Besides daily lectures, each student had to complete a short research project. I can’t deny that it was always a challenge to come up with appropriate projects that would yield results in such a short period. But I found working alongside these (mostly enthusiastic) students a lot of fun.
Each year I’d take the group a few miles down the road to the National Vegetable Gene Bank (now the UK Vegetable Genebank) at Wellesbourne, where we’d meet its Director, Dr Dave Astley (who had completed his MSc and PhD, on potatoes with Jack Hawkes at Birmingham). It was a great opportunity for my students to understand the realities of genetic conservation.
I taught a 25 lecture course to the MSc students on crop diversity and evolution, with two practical classes each week during which students would look at as wide a range of diversity as we could grow at Winterbourne (mostly under glass). In this way, they learned about the taxonomy of the different crops, how diversity had developed, their breeding systems, and the like. The practical classes were always the most challenging element to this course. We never knew until each class just what materials would be available.
In 1982, I took a group of students to Israel for a two week course on genetic resources of the eastern Mediterranean. Not all of that year’s intake, unfortunately, as some came from countries that banned travel to Israel.
I developed a module on germplasm collecting, and in the summer months set some field exercises on a synthetic barley population comprising up to ten varieties that differed morphologically, and also matured at different times, among other traits. We would sample this population in several ways to see how each method ‘captured’ the various barleys at the known frequency of each (obviously I knew the proportions of each variety in the population).
The functioning of agroecosystems was something I’d been drawn to during my time in Costa Rica, so I passed some of that interest on to the MSc group, and helped out on some other modules like data management. And I became the Short Course Tutor for students who came to Birmingham for one or other of the two taught semesters, or both in some instances. Looking after a cohort of students from all over the world, who often had limited language skills, was both a challenge and a worthwhile endeavour. To help all of our MSc and Short Course students we worked with colleagues in the English Department who ran courses for students with English as a second language. Each member of staff would record a lecture or more, and these would be worked up into an interactive tutorial between students, ourselves, and the English staff. Once one’s lectures have been pulled apart, it’s remarkable to discover just how many idiomatic phrases one uses quite casually but which mean almost nothing to a non-native speaker.
Each MSc student had to write a dissertation, examined in September at the end of the year (just as I had on lentils in 1971), based on research completed during the summer months after sitting the written exams. Over my decade with the course, I must have supervised the dissertations of 25 students or more, working mainly on potatoes and legumes, and leading in some cases to worthwhile scientific publications. Several of these students went on to complete their PhD under my supervision often in partnership with another research institute like CIP, Rothamsted Experiment Station (now Rothamsted Research), MAFF plant pathology lab in Harpenden, and the Food Research Institute in Norwich.
With PhD students Ghani Yunus (from Malaysia) and Javier Francisco-Ortega (from Spain-Canary Islands).
Left of the tree: Professor Smallman, Jim Callow, Trevor Williams, Jack Hawkes. Right of the tree: Mike Jackson, Richard Lester, Mike Lawrence. And many students, of course.
Earlier, I mentioned that at the beginning of each academic year every staff member was assigned a group of students (the annual intake then was more than 100 students, and is considerably larger today) as tutees, with whom we would meet on a regular basis. These tutorial sessions, one-on-one or in a small group, were an informal opportunity of assessing each student’s progress, to set some work, and overall to help with their well-being since for many, attending university would be the first time they were away from home, and fending for themselves. The tutorial system was not like those at the Oxbridge colleges.
Most students flourished, some struggled. Having someone with whom to share their concerns was a lifeline for some students. I always thought that my tutor responsibilities were among the most important I had as a member of staff, and ensuring my door was always open (or as open as it could be) whenever a tutee needed to contact me. Not all my colleagues viewed their tutorial responsibilities the same. And I do appreciate that, today, with so many more students arriving at university, staff have to structure their availability much more rigidly, sometimes to excess.
In October 1981, my first final year tutee was Vernonica ‘Noni’ Tong* who went on to complete a PhD with my close colleague, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence on incompatibility systems in poppies. Noni joined the Genetics Department and rose to become Professor of Plant Cell Biology (now Emeritus). Several others also went on to graduate work. Another, Julian Parkhill, graduated around 1987 or 1988, went on to Bristol for his PhD, and is now Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2014.
I like to think that, in some way, I helped these students and others make wise career choices, and instilled in them a sense of their own worth. At least one former tutee (who completed her PhD at the University of Durham) has told me so, and that made it all worthwhile.
The School of Biological Sciences
In September 1982, Jack Hawkes retired from the Mason Chair of Botany, and a young lecturer, Jim Callow from the University of Leeds, was elected to the position. Jim took on the role of MSc Course leader, but the day-to-day administration fell to Brian Ford-Lloyd (as Tutor) and myself (for the Short Course students). Jim was a physiologist/ biochemist with an interest in biotechnology, but nothing about genetic resources. He also had little understanding (or sympathy, so I felt) for my areas of research and teaching interests. He frankly did not understand, so I never developed a good relationship with him.
My closest colleague in the department was Brian who had been appointed to a lectureship around 1977 or 1978. He had completed his PhD in the department in 1973, and he and I were graduate students together until I moved to Peru. We became good friends, and this friendship has lasted until today. He also lived in Bromsgrove, and after I returned to the UK on retirement in 2010, Brian (now Professor Ford-Lloyd) and I would meet up every few weeks for a few beers at the Red Lion on Bromsgrove’s High Street, and to put the world to rights.
On reflection, I can say that relationships among the staff of Plant Biology were pretty harmonious, notwithstanding the comment I made earlier. But several staff were approaching retirement as well, so there was quite a change in the department when a couple of young lecturers were also appointed within a year of me, Drs John Newbury and Jon Green, both of whom also rose to professorships late in their careers.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the School of Biological Sciences underwent a fundamental reorganization, abandoning the federal system, and transforming into a single department with a unitary Head of School. Much to the chagrin of my friends and colleagues in Genetics, Jim Callow was selected as the first Head of School under this new arrangement. To replace the old four department structure, we organized ourselves into five research themes. I joined the Plant Genetics Group, moving my office once again closer to other group members. As a member of this group, I probably had two or three of the best years I spent at Birmingham, with Dr (later Professor) Mike Kearsey as my head of group.
Research and publications
My research interests focused on potatoes and legumes, often sustained by a healthy cohort of MSc and PhD students.
One project, funded by the British government from overseas aid budget in partnership with CIP, investigated the options for breeding potatoes grown from true potato seed. A project that we had to pull the plug on after five years.
In another, Brian and I worked with a commercial crisping (potato chips, in US parlance) company to produce improved potato varieties using induced somaclonal variation, leading to some interesting and unexpected implications for in vitro genetic conservation. There was also an interesting PR outcome from the project.
All in all, my group research led to 29 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, several book chapters, and a range of contributions to the so-called grey literature (not peer-reviewed, but nonetheless important scientifically). You can open a list of those Birmingham publications here.
I’m also proud of the introductory textbook on genetic resources that Brian and I wrote together, published in 1986. It quickly sold its print run of more than 3000 copies.
Then, in 1989, we organized a weekend conference (with Professor Martin Parry of the Department of Geography) on climate change, leading to the pioneer publication of the conference proceedings in 1990  in this newly-emerged field of climate change science. Brian, Martin and I collaborated almost a quarter of a century later to edit another book on the same topic.
I was fortunate to undertake one or two consultancies during my years at Birmingham. The most significant was a three week assignment towards the end of the decade to review a seed production project funded by the Swiss government, that took us Huancayo in the Central Andes, to Cajamarca in the north, and Cuzco in the south, as well as on the coast. This was an excellent project, which we recommended for second phase funding, that ultimately collapsed due to the conflict with the terrorist group Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso that affected all parts of Peruvian society.
The seed project review team (L-R): Peruvian agronomist, me (University of Birmingham), Cesar Vittorelli (CIP Liaison), Swiss economist (SDC), Carlos Valverde (ISNAR, team leader)
With funding from the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega was able to collect an indigenous legume species from his native Canary Islands in 1989, for his dissertation research. I joined Javier for three weeks on that trip.
Collecting escobon (Chamaecytisus proliferus) in Tenerife in 1989
All work and no play . . . Each December, the Plant Biology Christmas party was usually held at Winterbourne House. For several years, we organized a pantomime, written and produced by one of the graduate students, Wendy (I don’t remember her surname). These were great fun, and everyone could let their hair down, taking the opportunity for some friendly digs at one staff member or another. In the photos below, I played the Fairy Godmother in a 1987 version of Cinderella, and on the right, I was the Grand Vizier in Aladdin, seen here with graduate student Hilary Denny as Aladdin. In the top left photo, kneeling on the right, and wearing what looks like a blue saucepan on his head, is Ian Godwin, a postdoc from Australia for one year. Ian is now Professor of Crop Science at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation. To Ian’s left is Liz Aitken, also a postdoc at that time who came from the University of Aberdeen, and now also a Professor at the University of Queensland.
Then, in the summer months, I organized a departmental barbecue that we held in Winterbourne Gardens, that were part of the department in those days, and now open to the public. In this photo, I’m being assisted by one of my PhD students, Denise Burman.
So why did I leave in July 1991?
Professor Martin Parry
Towards the end of the 1980s I also became heavily involved in a university-wide initiative, known as Environmental Research Management or ERM, to promote the university’s expertise in environmental research, chaired by Martin Parry (I became the Deputy Chair). So, coupled with my own teaching, research, and administrative duties in Biological Sciences, I was quite busy, and on my way to promotion. I was doing all the ‘right things’, and working my way up the promotions ladder (competing with all other eligible staff in the Science Faculty). It was quite helpful that the Dean of the Science Faculty, Professor George Morrison (a nuclear physicist), and someone with his finger on the promotions pulse, also took a close interest in ERM, and I got to know him quite well.
When I handed in my resignation in March 1991, I knew that my application for promotion to Senior Lecturer was about to be approved (I was already on the Senior Lecturer pay scale). By then, however, life in academia had lost some of its allure. And Margaret Thatcher was to blame.
Around 1998 or 1989, the Thatcher government forced a number of ‘reforms’ on the universities, bringing in performance initiatives and the like, without which the government would not consider either increased funding to the system or pay increases for staff.
So we all underwent performance management training (something I became very familiar with during the next phases of my career). It was made clear that staff who were struggling (as teachers, researchers, or even with administration) would be offered help and remedial training to up their game. Those of us performing well (which included myself) were offered the opportunity to take on even more. It was a breaking point moment. With the increased emphasis on research performance and research income, I felt that my time in academia had almost run its course. My research interests did not easily attract research council funding. I was beginning to feel like a square peg in a round hole.
So, when in September 1990, a job advert for the position of head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI landed on my desk, I successfully threw my hat in the ring, and joined IRRI in July 1991, remaining there for the next 19 years, before retiring back to the UK in May 2010.
With few regrets I resigned and prepared for the move to the Philippines. I had to see my students (both undergraduate and MSc) through their exams in June before I could, with good conscience, leave the university. My last day was Friday 30 June, and Brian often reminds me that when he came round to our house in Bromsgrove to say goodbye and wish me well the following day, he was shocked at how white-faced and stressed I appeared. Well, it was a big move and I was leaving the family behind for the next six months, and heading off into the unknown to some extent. Early on Sunday morning I headed to Birmingham International Airport to begin the long journey east via London Heathrow.
But that’s not quite the end of my academic life. Not long after I joined IRRI, I was appointed Affiliate Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). Then, with Brian, John Newbury, and colleagues at the John Innes Centre, we developed a collaborative research project looking at the application of molecular markers to study and manage the large rice germplasm collection at IRRI. I was appointed Honorary Senior Lecturer at Birmingham, and for several years when I was back on home leave I would visit the university and lecture to the MSc students on the realities and challenges of managing a large genebank, as well as following up on our research collaboration.
As Director for Program Planning and Communications, I had line management responsibility for (L-R) Communications and Publications Services (Gene Hettel), IRRI’s library (Mila Ramos), IT Services (Marco van den Berg), the Development Office (Duncan Macintosh), and Program Planning (Corinta Guerta).
Was I cut out for a life in academia? Yes and no. I think I fulfilled my duties conscientiously, and with some success in some aspects. I admit that my research contributions were not the strongest perhaps. But I did mostly enjoy the teaching and the interaction with students. I always felt that not enough weight was given to one’s teaching contributions. Back in the day research was the main performance metric, and increasingly the amount of research funding that one could generate. That was a bit of a treadmill. So while I mostly enjoyed my decade at Birmingham, I found the next nineteen years at IRRI far more satisfying. I had the opportunity to put my stamp on an important component of the institute’s program, bringing the genebank and its operations into the 21st century, and ensuring the safety and availability of one of the world’s most important germplasm collections. Having left genebanking behind in 2001, I then enjoyed another nine years as a member of the institute’s senior management team. And, on reflection, I think those management years gave me the most satisfaction of my career.
 Steph also worked at CIP as an Associate Geneticist assisting the head of department, Dr Roger Rowe (who co-supervised my PhD research), to manage the germplasm collection. Prior to joining CIP, Steph had been a research assistant with the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that, in those days, was housed at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh. The CPC is now maintained at the James Hutton Institute west of Dundee.
 These were: Zoology & Comparative Physiology; Genetics; and Microbiology. With Plant Biology, the four departments were administratively semi-independent in a federal School of Biological Sciences, coming together to teach a degree in Biological Sciences, with specialisms in the component disciplines. All first year biologists took the same common course, as well as a multidisciplinary common course in their second year and an evolution course in the third and final year.
In 2000, the School of Biological Sciences merged with the School of Biochemistry to form the School of Biosciences. Then, in 2008, there was a much larger university-wide reorganization, and Biosciences became part of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, one of five Colleges that replaced Faculties across the university.
 Jackson, M., B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), 1990. Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, p. 190.
* On 6 May 2021, it was announced that Noni had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society!
I’ve been fascinated with sex (especially controlled sex) since my undergraduate days at the University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970. We were the socially permissive flower power generation.
But before you get too excited about this post’s content, I need to point out that, as a former botany student, I’m referring to sex among plants! And plant breeding. The real flower power!
Joe Smartt and Edgar Anderson
I guess it all started with two final year honours course on plant speciation (how different species evolve) and plant breeding, taught by geneticist Dr Joe Smartt. It was through the first that I discovered the beauty of introgressive hybridization (a mechanism that blends the gene pools of separate species; see a diagrammatic explanation in this post), a concept first expounded by another of my botanical heroes, Dr Edgar Anderson. And, there was this transformative book to dip into: Variation and Evolution in Plants (published 1950) by another great American botanist, G Ledyard Stebbins. In Joe’s introduction to plant breeding, we followed yet another classic text: Principles of Plant Breeding by American plant breeder and geneticist, Robert W Allard.
And when I moved to the University of Birmingham as a graduate student in September 1970, to study for a Master’s degree in plant genetic resources, Trevor Williams taught a fascinating course on plant variation, emphasising their breeding systems, and how understanding of these was important for the conservation and use of genetic resources. Much of my career subsequently was then spent studying variation and breeding systems in two important crop species, potatoes and rice, and a minor legume species, the grasspea.
Plants reproduce in the most weird and wonderful ways. If they didn’t, humanity’s days would be numbered. Where would we be if wheat and rice plants failed to produce their grains, the potato its underground treasure of tubers, or the banana those abundant hands of green fruits? No wonder in times past folks celebrated a Harvest Festival each autumn to give thanks for a successful harvest.
Beautiful acorns on the pedunculate oak, Quercus robur
You only have to look about you in late summer, as I did each day on my walks last year, to see Nature’s bounty all around—the consequence of plant sex. The trees and bushes were dripping with fruit—2020 was a mast year (as I have written about before). I don’t think I’ve seen such a year for acorns on the oak trees. And the chestnuts, hazels, and so many others. Such exuberant fecundity!
Have you ever looked closely at a ‘typical’ flower? Well, for the most part you can see the female pistil(s) comprising the style, stigma, and ovary, and the male stamens that carry the pollen.
However, there are many variations on this basic theme, different arrangements of the sex organs, even separate male and female flowers on the same plant (known as monoecy; maize is a good example) or separate plants (dioecy; holly). Differences in plant reproductive morphology promote self fertilization or cross fertilization. In addition, there is a host of physical and genetic mechanisms to promote or prevent self fertilization, as well as limiting sex between different species. All of this is aimed at ensuring a next generation of plants, and the one after that, and so on.
Plants attract a host of pollinators: visiting insects such as bees and moths, even some nectar-feeding marsupials and bats. I watched a remarkable sequence on David Attenborough’s latest blockbuster series, A Perfect Planet a few nights ago, about the fascinating pollination role of fig wasps.
Did you see the incredible footage of fig wasps on last night's #PerfectPlanet episode? Take a look at this specimen from our #DigitalCollections – a fig containing fig wasps. The females burrow into unripe figs, depositing their eggs and fertilising the fig's internal flowers🌼 pic.twitter.com/B8qp4SNyds
Wind pollination is a common feature of many grasses. However, several wheat and rice species, for example, promiscuously dangle their stamens apparently seeking cross fertilization. But they have often self fertilized before their flowers open. That’s not to deny that some cross pollination does occur in these species, but it’s generally the exception.
Some plants appear to reproduce sexually, but they have got around actual sex through a mechanism known as apomixis. These plants produce seeds but not following the normal fertilization process, so each seedling is a genetic copy of the ‘mother’ plant.
Berries on a diploid potato species, Solanum berthaultii
Other species have given up sex (almost) altogether, instead reproducing vegetatively with the‘offspring’ being genetically identical (or essentially identical) to the mother plant. In others, like the potato, propagation is primarily through tubers. Yet, in the Andes especially where potatoes were first domesticated, many varieties are extremely sexually fertile, and produce berries rather like small tomatoes, although they are inedible. They contain lots of small seeds that we often refer to as true potato seed or TPS. In fact, in one experiment I observed at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru where I worked during the 1970s, a colleague of mine recorded a particular variety known as Renacimiento producing more than 20 t/ha of berries, in addition to about 20 t of tubers.
Anyway, I digress somewhat. During the years I was active scientifically (before I joined the ranks of senior management at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, IRRI in the Philippines), I looked into various aspects of reproductive biology of several species.
In my doctoral research, carried out in the Andes of Peru, I investigated the breeding relationships between potato varieties with different numbers of chromosomes. The potato we consume almost on a daily basis (at least in my home) is known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, and has four sets (48 in total) of chromosomes. It is what we call a tetraploid. Many other potato species have only two sets or 24 chromosomes, and are known as diploids. The tetraploid forms are mostly self fertile; diploids, on the other hand, have a genetic system of self incompatibility, and will only produce seeds if pollinated with pollen from a different genetic type.
This or similar system of self incompatibility is known from other species, like poppies for example. Anyway, the outcome is that ‘self’ pollen will not germinate on the stigma. The two images below (of various pollinations among wild potatoes), show a typical compatible pollination and fertilization event. Lots of pollen grains have stuck to the stigma, have germinated and grown the length of the style to reach the numerous ovules in the ovary.
In these next images, showing incompatible pollinations, few pollen grains remain on the stigma, not all germinated, and those that did, grew erratically. A few pollen tubes may reach the ovules but compared to the compatible pollinations, they are many fewer.
In the 1970s, one of my colleagues at CIP, Chilean breeder/agronomist Primo Accatino, championed the use of TPS as an alternative to propagation from seed tubers. One of the weak links, as it were, in any potato production cycle is the availability and cost of disease-free seed tubers. So TPS was seen as potentially fulfilling a gap in many developing countries that had neither the infrastructure nor staff to support seed potato production.
As I mentioned earlier, the common potato is a tetraploid with four sets of chromosomes, and this complicates the genetics and breeding. Breeding at the diploid level could be more straightforward. At least that was the hope and the challenge when I embarked on a project to produce TPS lines through inbreeding diploid potatoes and single seed descent. Funded by the British government, it involved scientists at the University of Birmingham (where I had joined the staff in 1981), the former Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and CIP in Peru.
Was this just a pipe dream? Perhaps. Before developing the project concept, I’d had extensive discussions with my colleague at Birmingham, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence who worked on self incompatibility in poppies (that has a similar genetic system to that in potatoes). His experience with poppies showed that if one tried long and hard enough, it was possible to break the self incompatibility.
Flowers of Solanum chacoense
We tried—and ultimately failed—closing the project after five years. We decided it would take just too much investment to make progress. If only we’d had available then what are now helping to transform potato breeding: self compatible diploid lines. At the end of the 1990s, scientists working at the USDA potato collection in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin identified self compatible lines in the widespread wild species Solanum chacoense. The Sli gene that confers self compatibility is apparently more widespread than previously thought, and has now been bred into diploid lines. Had we had those self compatible lines back in the 1980s, our work would have perhaps have reached a better conclusion.
When I moved to the Philippines in 1991 to head IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), I had a collection of around 100,000 different lines of rice, cultivated and wild, to conserve in the institute’s International Rice Genebank.
With my colleagues in GRC, Dr Lu Bao-Rong, Amita ‘Amy’ Juliano and Dr Ma Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, I spent several years investigating the breeding relationships between the cultivated forms of rice, Oryza sativa from Asia, and O. glaberrima from West Africa, and the closest wild Oryza species with a similar AA genome. We made thousands of crosses with the aim of understanding not only the breeding relationships, which is important to be able to better use wild species in rice breeding, but also to understand the taxonomy of wild and cultivated rices.
Pollinations (L) in the genebank screenhouse among AA genome species from Asia, Australia, and the New World, and (R) a crossing polygon from those pollinations expressed in terms of spikelet fertility.
This work led to several scientific publications, which you can access here: just look for publications with our names.
Another aspect of plant sex, important for genebank managers, is how the environment can affect plant fertility. While the seeds of many species (including rice and potatoes) can be stored at a low temperature (typically -18ºC) and for decades if not longer, it is essential that only the best seeds are placed in a genebank for long term conservation. That means ensuring that the growing conditions are the best possible to produce seeds of high quality—and in abundance—during an initial multiplication or later on for rejuvenation after some years of storage, if seed stocks are running low, or there are signs that seed viability may be declining.
At IRRI, in Los Baños south of Manila, we were faced with managing a large germplasm collection of rice lines from all over Asia, from Africa, and South America as well. And these had been collected over a very broad latitudinal range, while Los Baños sits at around 14ºN. We were attempting to grow in a single location many different rice lines, some of which had evolved under more temperate conditions, under different temperature regimes and daylengths.
With my colleague Dr Kameswara Rao (and Professor Richard Ellis from the University of Reading, UK) we spent three years carefully analyzing the effects of different growing environments on seed quality for conservation. Just look for publications here under our names to check out what we achieved. The important changes we made to how we grew rice lines for optimum seed quality have endured until today, although (as I have reported elsewhere) changes to post-harvest handling of seeds have been improved through the work of former IRRI seed physiologist, Dr Fiona Hay.
So, as you can see, there are many different, and interesting, facets to plant sex. And as plant breeders and gene conservationists, we aim to exploit the idiosyncrasies of each species to produce more productive crop varieties or ensure the long term survival of varieties that no longer find favor with farmers, or wild species whose habitats are threatened through agricultural expansion, increasing urbanization, or climate change.
I started my first job on 1 January 1973. I retired (at 61) on 30 April 2010, after more than 37 years continuous employment. All but ten years were spent working abroad, in South and Central America, and in Asia. I also got to travel to more than 60 countries in the course of my work in international agricultural research and academia.
I’ve held five different positions in three organizations: the International Potato Center (CIP, in Lima, Peru); the University of Birmingham; and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, in the Philippines). However, I was interviewed for just two of those five positions, although during the course of my career I have flown all over the world for at least three other job interviews, none of which were successful as there always seemed to be an ‘internal candidate’ waiting in the wings. And in all cases, I had to combat jet lag to a greater or lesser extent all the while. You run on adrenaline and a certain degree of sang froid through the interviews .
My first job at CIP, as an Associate Taxonomist, came about almost by chance. In September 1970 I had enrolled on a one year MSc course on plant genetic resources conservation and use in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham. The head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes, was an internationally-renowned potato expert and one of the pioneers of the 1960s genetic conservation movement. Just before Christmas that year he set off for a two month wild potato collecting trip to Bolivia, calling at CIP in Lima to seek some logistical help with the expedition. It was during that visit to CIP that the Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer mentioned that he wanted to send one of his young staff to the Birmingham course in September 1971. And did Jack know anyone who could come to CIP, for just one year, to help look at after the center’s growing germplasm collection of native Andean potato varieties (of which there are thousands).
On returning to the UK at the end of February 1971, Jack phoned me within a day of his return, and mentioned the position at CIP, and asked if I would be interested. I had no hesitation in saying an emphatic Yes! I’d always wanted to visit Peru, and having a position, albeit short-term, in genetic resources conservation was almost too good to be true.
Things didn’t go exactly to plan. There was a delay, while CIP negotiated with the UK government through the Overseas Development Administration (or was it Ministry of Overseas Development back in the day). My travel to Peru was put on hold, but I did register for and begin studies on potatoes towards a PhD in botany.
Sometime during 1972 (I don’t remember exactly when) Richard Sawyer visited Birmingham, and I had an opportunity to sit down with him and Jack to discuss my posting in Lima. By then it had been agreed that it would be longer than just one year, and that I’d stay there long enough to complete the research for my PhD. I must have said all the right things, since Sawyer agreed to this arrangement. What I can say is that it wasn’t a formal interview as such. He had a habit of meeting prospective candidates around the world, often in airports, and deciding there and then if he wanted to hire them.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I flew to Lima on 4 January 1973 and remained there until April 1975, when I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my PhD and to submit my thesis. But before returning to the UK, I met with Sawyer concerning my future ambitions with CIP. And he made me an offer to move into CIP’s Outreach Program (later Regional Research) provided I successfully defended my thesis.
I was back in Lima just before the end of December, but not sure then to which regional office I would be posted although we had already initiated some plans for a move to Central America, about which I wrote recently. In April 1976, Steph and I left Lima headed for Turrialba in Costa Rica. And we remained there for almost five years, until the end of November 1980 in fact.
Returning to Lima, I had expected to move on to another of the CIP’s regional offices. Brazil was proposed, but when that fell through, we set about planning to move to the Philippines.
But fate intervened. Around September or October 1980 I heard about a new lectureship (in plant genetic resources) in my old department (by then renamed Plant Biology) at the University of Birmingham. I was torn. I was very happy at CIP and enjoyed the work I had been doing in various aspects of potato production. There again, a tenure-track university lectureship was too good an opportunity to ignore. So I sent in an application.
Around mid-December or so, I received feedback that my name would be put on the short list of candidates for interview, with one proviso. I had to commit to travel to Birmingham (at my own expense) for interview. After a long discussion with Steph, and looking at the most economical way of flying back to the UK (I eventually used Freddie Laker’s Skytrain airline into London-Gatwick from Miami), I confirmed my availability for interview during January.
I was in Birmingham for just over 36 hours (two nights) and afterwards I took the opportunity of visiting my mother who was staying with my eldest brother Martin and his family in Gloucestershire, south of Birmingham. I was in the UK for just under a week all told.
We were three candidates (one female, two male) and I guess that I was, to all intents and purposes, the ‘internal candidate’ (so I can’t rail too much about internal candidates) being the only one with an existing affiliation with the university. I was the last to be interviewed and arrived at the interview room a short while before my turn, to find the first candidate waiting in the corridor while the second was being grilled. We had been told to wait outside the interview room until all interviews had been concluded. One of us would be then invited back in to discuss a possible job offer.
With dry mouth and somewhat sweaty palms (and feeling rather jaded through jet lag) I entered the interview room with some trepidation. However, I was greeted by some friendly faces. The interview panel (certainly five persons) was chaired by Professor John Jinks, head of the Genetics Department and a formidable intellect. He was supported by Professor Derek Walker, head of the Biochemistry Department and Dean of the Science Faculty. There were three staff from Plant Biology: Jack Hawkes, Dr Dennis Wilkins (a fierce ecologist whose interviewing style seemed like a dog worrying a bone – I’d already come across him during my interview for a place on the MSc course, and as a graduate student), and Dr (later Professor) Brian Ford-Lloyd, who I’d known since my early graduate days and who has remained a lifelong friend and colleague with whom I have since published three books and many scientific papers. There may have been another person from the university administration, but I don’t recall.
I guess the interview must have lasted about 40 minutes, each member of the panel taking turns to probe my suitability for this lectureship. Unlike interviews for academic and research positions nowadays, I did not have to present a seminar to the department or be ‘interviewed’ by anyone outside the panel. (Incidentally, when the Mason Chair of Botany became vacant in 1982 on Jack Hawkes’ retirement, none of the staff met any of the professorial candidates nor were they expected to present a seminar).
Interview over, I joined the other two candidates outside, each of us deep in our own thoughts and very little conversation among us. After what seemed an age, but was probably no more than about 15 minutes, the door opened, and Brian came out to invite me back. John Jinks told me that the panel had agreed to offer me the lectureship and asked if I would accept it. I had already discussed with Steph what my answer would be under these circumstances. Unequivocally yes!
I don’t remember much after that. Except that Jack invited me for dinner at his house. I was staying in one of the guest rooms at Staff House in the center of the Birmingham campus. Early next morning, I made my way to the railway station and headed south for a few days before flying back to Peru and telling Steph (and our young daughter Hannah, almost three) the good news.
I joined the Plant Biology faculty on 1 April 1981 and spent ten years teaching undergraduate classes in flowering plant taxonomy, agricultural systems (as a component of a second year common course), and an honours course (with Brian) on plant genetic resources. But most of my teaching was at graduate level, to students from all over the world, who came to Birmingham for its world-renowned MSc course on genetic resources.
Then there was research on potatoes and legumes, and during this decade I supervised a number of graduate students to successfully submit their PhD theses. I had some administrative responsibilities that we were all expected to carry, some more than others. Towards the end of the 80s, however, things were changing at the university, and Margaret Thatcher’s government intervention in higher education was causing considerable disruption and disquiet. I found myself increasingly disillusioned with academic life.
Fate intervened, once again. I received notice of a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines to lead one of the world’s most important genebanks. I decided to throw my hat in the ring. It was not an easy decision. Since IRRI was a sister institute to CIP, funded the same way through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) I knew, more or less what I would be letting myself in for if I joined IRRI.
However, there were more pressing personal issues. When we returned to the UK in 1981, our elder daughter Hannah was almost three. Her sister Philippa was born in May 1982. In 1991 they were thirteen and nine, and about to make the transition from from middle to high school, and from first to middle school, respectively. How would they cope with a move halfway across the world, leaving everything familiar behind, all their friends, and moving into an entirely new education system (we’d already decided that boarding school in the UK would not be an option).
In early January 1991 I was invited for interview at IRRI, and flew with British Airways on a flight from London-Gatwick via Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong. The interviews were scheduled for Tuesday to Thursday, three rather intensive days of panel discussions, one-on-one meetings with senior staff, and a seminar. So I chose a flight that would get me into Manila on the Monday afternoon. Well, that was the plan. Arriving at Gatwick I discovered that my flight was delayed about 12 hours. Our designated 747 had a mechanical fault that could not be sorted easily, so we had to wait for a replacement plane to arrive from Florida before being turned around for the flight to the Far East. What a miserable experience. As a result I arrived to IRRI’s research campus in Los Baños (about 65 km south of Manila) around 01:30 on Tuesday morning and, checking over the interview schedule that had been left in my room at IRRI’s guesthouse, noted to my distinct discomfort that I had a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, and his three Deputies at 07:00. Having left a request to be woken at 06:15, I took a sleeping pill, not that it helped much .
My internal clock was eight hours awry, but somehow I made it through the breakfast, and the next three days, taking a flight back to the UK late on Thursday night. I think I must have slept for a week once I was back in the UK.
There were three candidates for the genebank position. And we all had MSc (genetic resources) and PhD degrees (two on potatoes, one on rice) from the University of Birmingham and with Jack Hawkes as our PhD supervisor. I knew the other two candidates very well. One managed the Vegetable Genebank at Wellesbourne near Birmingham and the other headed the genebank at another CGIAR center in Nigeria, IITA. Although we overlapped some days at IRRI, our schedule of interviews and meetings meant that we hardly saw anything of each other.
On reflection, the interview schedule was gruelling, with hardly any time to catch one’s breath. We were kept on the go all the time, often with just short breaks between one interview and the next. It was an IRRI tradition to involve as many of the staff in interviewing candidates as possible, with a multiplicity of interview panels representing the different disciplines or a mixture . And of course there was the more detailed interaction with staff in the genebank in my case.
Because the different panels did not interact with one another, candidates (as in my case) were faced with the same line of questions across different panels. Very repetitive and tiresome. And there were, in my opinion, the totally unacceptable and asinine questions from some IRRI staff, some of which received short shrift from me.
Let me give you two or three examples. I was asked if I was prepared to work hard. One line of questioning seemed to question my suitability for joining a center like IRRI and the CGIAR in general. I answered by a question: when did the person join the CGIAR? I was able to reply that I had joined and left the CGIAR years before this particular person had even first entered international agricultural research. 15: love to me! Another scientist, British, was obsessed with my undergraduate career and how successful I had been, notwithstanding that I had graduate degrees, and had been working already for almost 20 years.
A couple of weeks after arriving back in the UK I received a phone call from Lampe offering me the position, which I accepted after some negotiation over the salary and benefits package they originally put on the table. I joined IRRI on 1 July that year, and remained there until my retirement a decade ago.
 At one interview for the Crop Trust in Rome, I was interrupted by someone as I was delivering my seminar, a vision for the future of the organization. After the second interruption, in which this person had tried to ‘correct’ me, I had to tell her that this was my seminar, not hers, and went on to explain my thoughts on web presence. As it turned out I was not selected, but the organization did adopt my proposal for a more meaningful URL for its website.
On another occasion at Trinity College, Dublin, I delivered my seminar in the very lecture theater (in the Department of Botany) where Michael Caine had his wicked way with Julie Walters in the 1983 film Educating Rita.
When I interviewed for a position at ICARDA in Syria, much to my consternation and many members of staff the internal candidate accompanied me to one of the panel interviews, and even sat in on the interview. Needless to say a stop was soon put to that. Very unprofessional for senior management to even allow this to happen.
 When I joined IRRI and was involved in interviewing candidates (sometimes as chair of the selection committee) I tried to streamline the process somewhat, reducing the number of panel interviews per se, giving more time for informal interactions, while giving more responsibility to the selection panel.
GRC? It’s short for the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, which I had the privilege to lead between July 1991 and April 2001. I’m not sure if GRC is an organizational unit at IRRI anymore having just checked IRRI’s organizational structure dated April 2020.
However, GRC is/was the home of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, the largest of its kind globally for rice. It safely conserves more than 130,000 samples (known as accessions) of cultivated and wild rice species from around the world and, as the most genetically-diverse collection of rice anywhere, it is the foundation for food security in many countries, especially in Asia. Rice breeders have dipped into this valuable resource for almost six decades since IRRI was founded in 1960 and the first germplasm samples brought to Los Baños by my predecessor, Dr TT Chang.
Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño
Anyway, this post is not about me or Dr Chang, but about someone who surely was the quiet man of GRC. Who is this low-key individual?
Why, Renato Reaño of course, known to one and all as ‘Ato’.
Not long after I joined IRRI, it became clear to me that Ato should become my right-hand man for managing all the genebank field operations, from multiplication and rejuvenation of seed samples, as well as establishing and looking after field plots for germplasm characterization (although the actual scoring of the materials was the responsibility for a few years of another colleague, Tom Clemeno, who passed away in 2015).
So, once I’d made an analysis of how the genebank was being managed when I took the helm in 1991, and decided on changes I deemed necessary (not universally accepted by all genebank in the first instance after several decades of working under Dr Chang), I asked Ato to take on the role of Field Operations Manager (although at that time he was officially still only a Research Assistant).
Ato retired from IRRI in March this years after more than 36 years of loyal—and very productive—service to the institute. Over the years, and as his confidence grew, taking on more responsibilities, Ato was promoted to new levels in the IRRI hierarchy, and retired as a Senior Associate Scientist.
Along the way he was elected to lead the IRRI employees association (an excellent indication of the esteem in which his colleagues held him), and he was also elected President of the Crop Science Society of the Philippines (CSSP) for 2006-2007.
Ato helped develop and implement many necessary changes to field operations. What is often not fully appreciated that for the long-term conservation of seeds in a genebank, what happens in the field during the growing season and how seeds are handled through the drying process are as important—if not more so in some respects—than the actual storage conditions. Dr Fiona Hay, a seed physiologist who was hired after I’d passed the GRC baton to my successor Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton in 2002, studied how the drying of seeds could be improved further, and Ato’s role in managing the rice germplasm in the field and the drying after harvest was pivotal. I’ve written about those aspects of rice germplasm management in an August 2015 post.
Ato made the field operations look straightforward. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had to handle thousands of seed samples each planting season, nurturing each one, ensuring there were no mix-ups.
He had a great rapport with his staff. Here he is with some of them in 2017 after they had finished the harvest of more than 4000 samples, and dried them successfully using the new approach that I referred to in the August 2015 post above.
Ato (second from right) with his field staff in 2017. Photo courtesy of Fiona Hay.
Each season (there being two in Los Baños, wet and dry) Ato took responsibility for growing thousands of seed samples, some for the first time after they had been acquired by the genebank, others for routine regeneration if seed viability had declined or seed stocks were running low, or for characterization of the different rices for a whole series of traits, such as days to flowering, plant height, color of grains, and the like.
But to have a better appreciation of Ato’s work in the field and how that contributed to the work of the genebank, just watch this segment, 2:04 – 4:29 minutes in the video below to see for yourselves.
Ato remained the quiet man of GRC during the years I was at the helm, but he constantly grew in confidence, taking his first overseas trip on behalf of the genebank to present a paper at ICRISAT in Hyderabad, India in 1995, and eventually being recognised by his peers and elected to the roles I mentioned earlier.
I also relied on Ato to help me interact with GRC staff. If I became aware of a staff ‘situation’ developing (perhaps an unease I could detect as I made my daily visits to every part of the genebank), it would have been difficult for me as Head of GRC, and as a non-Filipino who didn’t speak Tagalog, to easily get to the bottom of things. Then I would ask Ato to help find out what was going on, deal with it if he could, and only elevate issues to me that needed my intervention. This relationship worked well, and I was very grateful to Ato for the management support he provided in this respect.
Thanks for everything that you did, Ato. Your contributions to the long-term conservation of rice genetic resources will long be remembered and appreciated.
With Ato’s retirement, there’s just one of ‘my’ staff left. Genebank Manager Pola de Guzman will also retire later this year. It will finally be the end of the Chang-Jackson-Sackville Hamilton era.
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.
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?
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, 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.
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 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.
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 , 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.
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 , but I don’t have a copy of that publication. Later, in 1987, I wrote this review of TPS breeding .
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,
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.
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.
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).