Potatoes or rice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Sawyer

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


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

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

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

And the scuba diving, of course.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Luis Carlos González

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Brian Ford-Lloyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Juned

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

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

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

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


Klaus Lampe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Ron Cantrell

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

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

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

Bob Zeigler

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


 

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.