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

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

However, back to 1995.

Dr Bao-Rong Lu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Williams

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

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

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

Inside the genebank with Professor Ying.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


 

Look out, he’s behind you! . . . Oh no, he’s not!

The pantomime season ended a week or so ago here in the UK. Pantomime?

Pantomime is a marvellous and wonderful (if a little eccentric!) British institution.

Pantomimes take place around the Christmas period and are nearly always based on well known children’s stories such as Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty etc. Pantomimes are performed not only in the best theatres in the land but also in village halls throughout Britain. Whether a lavish professional performance or a hammy local amateur dramatic production, all pantomimes are well attended.

Ellen Castelow wrote this for the Historic UK website. And if you want to know a little more about pantomimes, just take a quick look at this YouTube video.

In the mid-1990s at IRRI (the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines where I worked from 1991-2010), a group of us staged our own pantomimes in the IRRI Auditorium in the period leading up to Christmas, although not conforming entirely to the format described in the video.

With Kate Kirk (wife of soil chemist Guy) as Director, there were three pantomimes from 1994 to 1996. I took part in two of these: Snow White (or was it Sleeping Beauty?) and Robin Hood and his Merry Men, but had to drop out of the third, Aladdin, during rehearsals due to unforeseen travel commitments.

These good memories have resurfaced because I referred to the Robin Hood pantomime in my recent tribute to my friend Martin Mortimer who passed away just before Christmas last year. And also because in the process of working my way through boxes of old photographs in preparation for our house move later this year, I came across a small album of photos from Robin Hood and his Merry Men that was the pre-Christmas highlight at IRRI in mid-December 1995.

I joined IRRI in July 1991 as Head of the Genetic Resources Center, and when Kate asked me to be part of one of her productions, I jumped at the chance. Since my undergraduate days at Southampton I’d enjoyed taking part in reviews and the like, but only on an occasional basis.

It was Christmas 1992 that we staged our first panto, Snow White/Sleeping Beauty, in which I played a dipsomaniac King, father of the leading lady.

We had great fun with Robin Hood, inspired by Mel Brooks’ 1993 film Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

I guess there must have been five performances, Wednesday to Saturday (with an afternoon matinee on the Saturday).

So who was involved? As I mentioned, Kate Kirk was the Director, and Crissan Zeigler (wife of IRRI Program Leader and plant pathologist, Bob Zeigler) was the Producer.

L-R: Crissan Zeigler, Rebecca Nelson (as Maid Marian), and Kate Kirk, with Nick Zeigler (as Will Scarlet photobombing in the background).

Most of us had little stage experience, so we were fortunate to depend upon Jay Herrera (a semi-professional actor from Manila) and Pam Denning (wife of Glenn Denning, then head of IRRI’s International Programs Management Office and now Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University) as the ‘anchors’ around whom we attempted to appear better than we were.

Jay Herrera and Pam Denning at the Sheriff of Nottingham and his wife.


Where are they now?
Robin Hood was played by Michael Price, husband of visiting scientist and anthropologist Lisa M Price (now Professor of Anthropology at Oregon State University).

Rebecca Nelson, a plant pathologist) played Maid Marian. After leaving IRRI (around 1996 or so) she moved to the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru to head research on late blight disease. She is now Professor at Cornell University.

Rice agronomist Len Wade was Little John. After leaving IRRI in 2002, Len held Chairs in Agronomy at the University of Western Australia and Charles Sturt University in his native Australia. Following retirement he is now Honorary Professor at the University of Queensland.

Friar Tuck was played by Rainfed Lowland Rice Program Leader and plant pathologist Bob Zeigler, who left IRRI in 1998 to become Chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University. He returned to IRRI in 2005 as Director General.

Guy Kirk was a soil chemist at IRRI for thirteen years. After leaving the institute, he returned to the UK, took a sabbatical at the University of Cambridge to write a book on The Biogeochemistry of Submerged Soils, and in 2003 was appointed Professor of Soil Systems at Cranfield University.

John Bennett was Senior Molecular Biologist at IRRI, and retired about fifteen years ago.

Jane Guy from South Africa (but domiciled in Canada) played the nanny or Yaya (in Filipino) whose husband Peter was an Environment Project Manager for a Canadian-funded project in Los Baños during 1994 and 1995. Their daughter Katherine was one of the Forest Fairies (kneeling in the middle in the photo above) who, in 2018, married Chris, the elder son of my close colleague and head of IRRI Communication and Publications Services, Gene Hettel.

As for myself, I played a very camp Prince John, dyeing my whiskers yellow to match the luxuriant wig I had acquired. In May 2001, I moved into a senior management position at IRRI, as Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) until my retirement in April 2010.

Happy days!


You can view a more extensive album of photos taken during make-up and rehearsals here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Richard Ellis

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

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

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

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

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

Kameswara Rao

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


 

Never have genebanks been so relevant . . . or needed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year, new job . . .

Job-wise, January has been an important month during my career, on several occasions.

Forty-seven years ago, I was getting ready to fly to Peru, to join the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. I actually flew out from London on 4 January 1973.

In January 1981, I was invited to interview for a Lectureship at the University of Birmingham, and flew back from Peru towards the end of the month. Offered the position there and then, I took up my post on 1 April.

A decade later—and increasingly disillusioned with the UK’s higher education sector—I had applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Philippines, and at the end of the first week of January, flew to the Philippines for an interview. I was offered the position towards the end of the month, and I joined IRRI on 1 July.

Ron Cantrell

In mid-January 2001, IRRI’s Director General, Dr. Ron Cantrell, asked me to stop by his office. Planning to revamp IRRI’s donor relations and fund-raising as well as management of research projects, he invited me to lead a new initiative with appointment at Director level and membership of the institute’s senior management team. It took me a few weeks to decide. I had to give up my life’s work until then, working with crop diversity and gene banking. However, on 1 May, I became IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (DPPC, later Communications).

Then, on 1 January 2010 (and just four months before I retired), I relinquished that role (but not my Directorship) to my close colleague, Ms. Corinta Guerta.

Let me tell you about Corinta. She is one of the most remarkable persons it has been my privilege to work with.

When I set up the Office for Program Planning and Coordination in 2001, I inherited several staff from an existing project management office. Very quickly I realised I would be unable to make any significant changes with those staff in place. They had little imagination of what might be achieved if we organized ourselves differently.

One thing I did know, however: I wanted my secretary from GRC, Zeny Federico, to join me in DPPC, and she readily accepted my invitation.

When discussing the move to DPPC with Ron Cantrell (and the two Deputy Directors General, Ren Wang and Willy Padolina), I explained the need for a highly qualified and motivated person to be my 2IC, and I suggested that Corinta would be an ideal candidate. In fact, I remember explicitly stating that I could make a success of DPPC with ‘someone like Corinta’ assisting me. That raised some eyebrows.

Why? Well, for one thing I had never worked with Corinta. As a member of the national support staff she worked in a different research division altogether. As a soil chemist! Then she had no (or very limited) administrative/management experience. As a BS chemistry graduate (one of the topnotchers, as they say in the Philippines, in the nationwide professional licence exam for chemists in her year), she joined IRRI as a Research Assistant in July 1975.

During my early years at IRRI, our paths crossed only occasionally. But she caught my eye. I had seen her in action, so to speak, during a couple of institute-wide initiatives/meetings contributing very effectively to the discussions.

Then, around 1998 or 1999, the institute created the new position of Senior Associate Scientist and invited qualified members of the national (Filipino) staff to apply, supported by references.

There were strict criteria. Candidates had to have a Masters degree and a minimum number of years service. Corinta had an MS degree in soil science from the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). Candidates had to present a seminar, open to all staff to attend, and then they were interviewed for about an hour by the promotions committee, of which I was a member.

We received eighteen applications, if memory serves me correctly. As the only member of the committee who attended all the seminars and interviews, I was uniquely placed to objectively compare all candidates. Some of my committee colleagues were unable to reschedule their travel or other commitments so missed some seminars or interviews.

After we had met with all candidates, it was abundantly clear to everyone on the committee who was the top candidate: Corinta. Not only No. 1 on the list, but significantly ahead of all the others. Indeed, I argued (with some passion) that really only one candidate was worthy of promotion. Obviously that was not going to happen and after some further consideration, about eleven staff were promoted.

But Corinta had clearly made an impression on me. I forget if we asked all candidates to address the same topic for their seminar or they could choose one in their own field of expertise. But they were asked to address strategic issues facing the institute. Corinta was the only one (in my opinion) who had such a vision and could express that vision coherently as well explain how IRRI’s research would benefit rice farmers. We explored some of these ideas in her interview, and she stood her ground under some pretty intense questioning.

Once I moved to DPPC, I asked Corinta to come and see me. She had no idea what I was about to surprise her with. Indeed, I think she was quite taken aback and, initially, rather reluctant to even consider a move out of research. But my persistence was greater than hers, and on 1 August she joined DPPC and found herself in the deep end of project management. And the first couple of years were doubly difficult (and tragic) as she supported her husband in his fight against cancer.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I could not have made a success of DPPC (streamlining IRRI’s project management systems, budgeting, donor relations, and the like) without Corinta’s wholesale support and growing expertise. She played a critical role in identifying the staff who joined DPPC: Monina, Sol, Yeyet, Vel, and Eric (our database administrator and developer). One of the original staff, another Sol, stayed on for a few months as an office assistant but was replaced by Vel. When Monina left in 2002, Sol No. 2 joined us. She departed IRRI in 2008 and was replaced by Yeyet.

Christmas 2001 at Ugu Bigyan Pottery in Tiaong, Quezon Province. L-R: Monina, Corinta, Zeny, Sol, and Eric.

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

March 2009 during the DPPC trip to Mountain Province with L-R, and enjoying a welcome beer: Corinta, Zeny, driver, Vel, Yeyet, Eric, and me.

So, in January 2010, Corinta tooks the reins of DPPC, and grew even more in her role. Over the years she had established great rapport with the internationally-recruited research staff, and quickly gained their respect. They would often consult her for advice before bothering me.

Bob Zeigler

I felt immensely proud when, after my retirement from IRRI at the end of April 2010, the Director General, Bob Zeigler in his wisdom made Corinta the institute’s Director for External Relations. And she remained in that role until her retirement a couple of years ago. Since then, she has been a consultant to the new Director of SEARCA (the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture, a non-profit organization based in Los Baños) and former IRRI plant breeder Glenn Gregorio, helping to frame a new strategic plan.

For someone who had joined IRRI more than 40 years earlier, the progression from Research Assistant to Director has been remarkable, unprecedented even. But thoroughly deserved.

In February 2012, when I was invested as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London, I had the honour of Corinta joining my wife Steph and younger daughter Philippa as one of my three guests.

That for me was also a recognition of the part Corinta contributed to my success and nomination. Thank you!

Yes, we’ll meet on the other side . . .

Last night I heard the sad news—not totally unexpected—that my good friend and former colleague at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Professor Martin Mortimer had passed away, aged 71 [1], on 22 December after a short illness. Diagnosed with a brain tumour only in November, he knew he only had a short time left to him. From a note he sent round to friends and colleagues at the beginning of December, he faced his fate with equanimity but without pain, calmly reflecting on life and the joys that his family had brought him, ending his ‘ramblings’ that he would see us on the other side [2].

Yes, Martin, we will. Rest in Peace [3].

After studying at Bangor University (formerly University College of North Wales [4]), he joined the faculty of the University of Liverpool in 1975, remaining there for 44 years, although only part-time more recently.

After numerous organizational changes at the university, he became Head of the Department of Plant Science, and latterly Professor of Agricultural Ecology in the Institute of Integrative Biology. In this video, Martin describes the important role of the institute in understanding and developing sustainable food systems.

Martin was a plant population biologist, studying the application of agro-ecology in tropical and temperate agro-ecosystems, particularly as it related to weed management in rice and wheat systems.

It was as a weed biologist/ecologist that Martin joined IRRI (seconded from Liverpool) in 1996, and spent seven years at the institute, returning to his university post in 2002. But he remained connected with IRRI for many years afterwards, often spending a few weeks each year participating in weed research and helping to develop collaborations with institutes in South Asia. He published widely in his chosen field, and Dynamics of Weed Populations (with Roger Cousens of the Western Australia Department of Agriculture, and published by Cambridge University Press in 1995) was a significant contribution.

In this photo, Martin is describing aspects of his research on weed dynamics to members of IRRI’s Board of Trustees (BoT). Behind Martin’s right shoulder stands Ron Cantrell, Director General, and behind his left shoulder, Dr Rudy Rabbinge, Chair of the BoT.

Martin was particularly proud of his role in fostering collaboration between the University of Liverpool and two universities in the Philippines, to promote graduate studies leading to Masters and PhD degrees. In 2018 he welcomed a delegation from the Philippines to Liverpool.

My first contact with Martin actually came during his visit to IRRI at the end of 1995 when he was interviewed for the weed scientist position. Over three Christmases, a small group of us staged ‘traditional’ English pantomimes. In the 1995 production, based (very) loosely on the story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, I played a camp Prince John, presiding, in one act, over an archery contest. We had already decided to ‘invite’ a member of the audience on stage either to fire an arrow, or be the target. I don’t remember which. Knowing Martin was in the audience, we chose him and he entered into the spirit of the evening.

Martin and I became firm friends, and he would often dine with Steph and me. It was a particular delight if our other good friend John Sheehy joined us as well, or we dined at John’s and Martin was there also.

A splendid evening Chez Sheehy, with (L-R): Steph, Graham McLaren, Martin, Sue McLaren, and John.

Martin and John sharing a tall tale.

Martin learned to scuba dive while in the Philippines, and he and I were often dive buddies on the weekends we were at Arthur’s Place together. On another memorable occasion, Martin and his wife Sue joined a group of friends to scale Mt. Makiling, the 3500 ft dormant (extinct?) volcano that dominates the skyline over IRRI and Los Baños, on May Day 2000.

L: Sue and Martin Mortimer, and Graham McLaren. R: me, Steph, Sue, Graham and Sue McLaren.

I haven’t seen Martin for a number of years, although we kept in touch by email. I always referred to him as ‘Lord Fazakerley’ (because of his Liverpool connections, Fazakerley being a district in Liverpool), and him referring to me as ‘Lord Brum’ (because of my University of Birmingham connections). Only earlier this year we had been corresponding frequently as we drafted obituaries for our dear friend John Sheehy for publication in national newspapers. Little did we suspect that Martin’s life would be cruelly shortened so soon afterwards.

I thought I had already finished blogging for 2019. But I couldn’t let Martin’s sad passing go unrecognised. My thoughts are with his family: wife Sue and son Hugh, and step-daughter and -son, Andrea and Fergus and their families.


30 December
After I had published this tribute to Martin yesterday, my friend and former IRRI colleague Gene Hettel (who was Head of the Communication and Publications Services) posted this short video on YouTube which brilliantly shows Martin’s sense of humour. In the video, Gene’s wife Aurora (who is from the Philippines) comments on Martin’s English accent. Enjoy!

8 January 2020
My friend and former colleague Gene Hettel posted this tribute to Martin on the IRRI website.


[1] Born on 7 January 1948, son of Dorothy Margaret and John Knowles Mortimer of Maidstone, Kent. Martin never knew his father, who died (of cancer) three months before Martin was born. Martin was brought up by his mother on a farm in Kent.

[2] Martin’s message to friends and colleagues was inspirational. The family have kindly given me permission to reproduce this excerpt, which illustrates Martin’s concern, as an evolutionary biologist, about the environment and humanity’s need to tackle head-on the challenge of climate change:

You will all know my attitude to climate change and the fact that I have been encouraging you all to address that major issue. As I die I see the rise of populism and selfishness as a major problem and it depresses me enormously, I genuinely think that the individual can do something about it. Lifestyles will have to change. And indeed the Mortimer lifestyle started to change (we moved house! ). My family bought into this and I would encourage yours to. 

[3] Martin’s funeral was held in Wrexham on 9 January 2020. Click on this link to view a copy of the Order of Service of Thanksgiving.

[4] BSc 1969 in Agricultural Botany; PhD 1972 in Plant Ecology (Studies of germination and establishment of selected species). After his PhD, Martin completed (1972-1975) a Lord Leverhulme post-doctoral fellowship at Bangor and the University of Wisconsin, studying the genetics of the Phytophtora group of plant pathogens.

In 1971, Martin joined the University College of Bangor Nepal Expedition under the leadership of John Witcombe, now a Professorial Research Fellow at Bangor. Photos reproduced courtesy of John Witcombe (the last four panoramic photos were taken by Martin). They made important collections of wheat and barley during this expedition, and these samples may well have been the material studied by Altaf Rao who was a student with me in genetic resources at the University of Birmingham, 1970-71.


This obituary, by his son Hugh, was published in The Guardian on 11 February 2020. A Celebration of Martin’s life was held on the Wirral (where Martin and Sue had lived for any years before moving near Llangollen a few years back) on 29 February.


 

Have [botany] degree . . . will travel (#iamabotanist)

One thing I had known from a young boy was that I wanted to see the world; and work overseas if possible. Following somewhat in the footsteps of my parents, Fred and Lilian Jackson.

Who would have thought that a degree in botany would open up so many opportunities?

Come 1 January, it will be 47 years since I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and the start of a 37 year career in the plant sciences: as a researcher, teacher, and manager. Where has the time flown?

After eight years in South and Central America, I spent a decade on the faculty of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Then, in 1991, I headed to Southeast Asia, spending almost 19 years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, before retiring in 2010.

However, I have to admit that Lady Luck has often been on my side, because my academic career didn’t get off to an auspicious start and almost thwarted my ambitions.

While I enjoyed my BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (in environmental botany and geography) I was frankly not a very talented nor particularly industrious student. I just didn’t know how to study, and always came up short in exams. And, on reflection, I guess I burnt the candle more at one end than the other.

It would hard to underestimate just how disappointed I was, in June 1970, to learn I’d been awarded a Lower Second Class (2ii) degree, not the Upper Second (2i) that I aspired to. I could have kicked myself. Why had I not applied myself better?

But redemption was on the horizon.

Prof. Jack Hawkes

In February 1970, Professor Jack Hawkes (head of the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham) interviewed me for a place on the MSc Course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, that had opened its doors to the first cohort some months earlier. I must have made a favorable impression, because he offered me a place for September.

But how was I to support myself for the one year course, and pay the tuition  fees? I didn’t have any private means and, in 1970, the Course had not yet been recognized for designated studentships by any of the UK’s research councils.

Through the summer months I was on tenterhooks, and with the end of August approaching, started seriously to think about finding a job instead.

Then salvation arrived in the form of a phone call from Professor Hawkes, that the university had awarded me a modest studentship to cover living expenses and accommodation (about £5 a week, or equivalent to about £66 in today’s money) as well as paying the tuition fees. I could hardly believe the good news.

Prof. Trevor Williams

By the middle of September I joined four other students (from Venezuela, Pakistan, Turkey, and Nigeria) to learn all about the importance of crop plant diversity. Over the next year, discovered my academic mojo. I completed my MSc dissertation on lentils under Course Tutor (and future Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, now Bioversity International), Professor Trevor Williams.

Starting a career in international agricultural research
Just before Christmas 1970, Hawkes traveled to Peru and Bolivia to collect wild potatoes. On his return in February 1971, he dangled the possibility of a one year position in Peru (somewhere I had always wanted to visit) to manage the potato germplasm collection at CIP while a Peruvian researcher came to Birmingham for training on the MSc Course. Then, in mid-summer, CIP’s Director General, Dr. Richard Sawyer, visited Birmingham and confirmed the position at CIP beginning in September 1971.

But things didn’t exactly go to plan. Funding from the British government’s overseas development aid budget to support my position at CIP didn’t materialise until January 1973. So, during the intervening 15 months, I began a PhD research project on potatoes (under the supervision of Professor Hawkes), continuing with that particular project as part of my overall duties once I’d joined CIP in Lima, under the co-supervision of Dr. Roger Rowe. That work took me all over the Andes—by road, on horseback, and on foot—collecting native varieties of potatoes for the CIP genebank.

Screening potatoes in Turrialba, Costa Rica for resistance to bacterial wilt.

After successfully completing my PhD in December 1975, I transferred to CIP’s Outreach Program in Central America, moved to Costa Rica for the next 4½ years, and began research on potato diseases, adaptation of potatoes to warm climates, and seed production. This was quite a change from my thesis research, but I acquired valuable experience about many different aspects of potato production. I learnt to grow a crop of potatoes!

But this posting was not just about research. After a year, my regional leader (based in Mexico) moved to the USA to pursue his PhD, and CIP asked me to take over as regional research leader. Thus I began to develop an interest in and (if I might be permitted to say) a flair for research management. In this role I traveled extensively throughout Central America and Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands, and helped to found and establish one of the most enduring and successful research partnerships between national research programs and any international agricultural research institute: PRECODEPA.

Then, just as I was thinking about a move to CIP’s regional office in the Philippines (for Southeast Asia), an entirely different opportunity opened up, and we moved back to the UK.

Back to Birmingham
In January 1981 I successfully applied for a Lectureship in my old department (now named the Department of Plant Biology) at Birmingham. I said goodbye to CIP in March 1981, and embarked on the next stage of my career: teaching botany.

The lectureship had been created to ensure continuity of teaching in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (and other topics) after Professor Hawkes’ retirement in September 1982. I assumed his particular teaching load, in crop plant evolution and germplasm collecting on the MSc Course, and flowering plant taxonomy to second year undergraduates, as well as developing other courses at both undergraduate and graduate level.

In addition to my continuing research interest on potatoes I assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species and one PhD student from Malaysia made an excellent study of species relationships of the one cultivated species, the grasspea, L. sativus. I successfully supervised (or co-supervised) the theses of nine other PhD students (and at least a couple of dozen MSc students) during the decade I spent at Birmingham.

I generally enjoyed the teaching and interaction with students more than research. Having struggled as an undergraduate myself, I think I could empathise with students who found themselves in the same boat, so-to-speak. I took my tutor/tutee responsibilities very seriously. In fact, I did and still believe that providing appropriate and timely tutorial advice to undergraduates was one of the more important roles I had. My door was always open for tutees to drop by, to discuss any issues in addition to the more formal meetings we had on a fortnightly basis when we’d discuss some work they had prepared for me, and I gave feedback.

While I appreciate that university staff are under increasing pressures to perform nowadays (more research, more grants, more papers) I just cannot accept that many consider their tutor responsibilities so relatively unimportant, assigning just an hour or so a week (or less) when they make themselves accessible by their tutees.

The 1980s were a turbulent time in the UK. Politics were dominated by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. And government policies came to significantly affect the higher education sector. By the end of the decade I was feeling rather disillusioned by university life, and although I was pretty confident of promotion to Senior Lecturer, I also knew that if any other opportunity came along, I would look at it seriously.

And in September 1990 just such an opportunity did come along, in the form of an announcement that IRRI was recruiting a head for the newly-created Genetic Resources Center.

Dr. Klaus Lampe

A return to international agriculture
It was early January 1991, and I was on a delayed flight to Hong Kong on my way to the Philippines for an interview. Arriving in Los Baños around 1 am (rather than 3 pm the previous afternoon), I had just a few hours sleep before a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr. Klaus Lampe and his two deputies. Severely jet-lagged, I guess I more or less sleep-walked through the next three days of interviews, as well as delivering a seminar. And the outcome? IRRI offered me the position at the end of January, and I moved to the Philippines on 1 July remaining there for almost 19 years.

For the first ten years, management of the International Rice Genebank (the world’s largest collection of rice varieties and wild species) was my main priority. I have written about many aspects of running a genebank in this blog, as well as discussing the dual roles of genebank management and scientific research. So I won’t repeat that here. Making sure the rice germplasm was safe and conserved in the genebank to the highest standards were the focus of my early efforts. We looked at better ways of growing diverse varieties in the single environment of IRRI’s Experiment Station, and overhauled the genebank data management system. We also spent time studying the diversity of rice varieties and wild species, eventually using a whole array of molecular markers and, in the process, establishing excellent collaboration with former colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK.

Dr. Ron Cantrell

Then, one day in early 2001, IRRI’s Director General, Dr. Ron Cantrell, called me to his office, asking me to give up genebanking and join the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications. As I said earlier, I really enjoyed management, but wasn’t sure I wanted to leave research (and genetic resources) behind altogether. But after some serious soul-searching, I did move across in May 2001 and remained in that position until my retirement in April 2010.

Even in that position, my background and experience in the plant sciences was invaluable. All research project proposals for example passed through my office for review and submission to various donors for funding. I was able not only look at the feasibility of any given project in terms of its objectives and proposed outcomes within the project timeframe, I could comment on many of the specific scientific aspects and highlight any inconsistencies. Because we had a well-structured project proposal development and submission process, the quality of IRRI projects increased, as well as the number that were successfully supported. IRRI’s budget increased to new levels, and confidence in the institute’s research strategy and agenda gained increased confidence among its donors.

What a good decision I made all those years ago to study botany. I achieved that early ambition to travel all over the world (>60 countries in connection with my work) in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. But the study (and use) of plants gave me so much more. I used the knowledge and experience gained to help transform lives of some of the poorest farmers and their families, by contributing to efforts to grow better yielding crops, more resilient to climate change, and resistant to diseases.

I’m sure that a degree in botany would be the last in many people’s minds as leading to so many opportunities such as I enjoyed. Knowing that opportunities are out there is one thing. Seizing those opportunities is quite another. And I seized them with both hands. I never looked back.

I should also mention that I also ascribe some of my success to having had excellent mentors—many mentioned in this piece—throughout my career to whom I could turn for advice. Thank you!

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If you are interested, a list of my scientific output (papers, book, book chapters, conference presentations and the like) can be seen here.

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