In perpetuity . . . or longer

The airwaves yesterday were full of the news* about the secure, in perpetuity funding that the Crop Trust has awarded (annually USD1.4 million) to support the operations of the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines. The genebank conserves the largest and most genetically diverse collection of rice genetic resources that is the genetic base of rice improvement programs worldwide. It’s the first genebank to receive this sort of funding commitment.

In perpetuity! Forever! That’s a long time. In some ways, of course, it’s not a completely open-ended commitment. The agreement (to be signed on World Food Day, 16 October, during the 5th International Rice Congress in Singapore) will, I understand, be subject to five-year reviews, and the development of a business plan that will guide how, where and what will get done. That plan must inevitably evolve over time, as new technologies not only enhance how rice seeds can be better preserved but also how they can be used in rice improvement. Not that I can see IRRI screwing up and losing the funding. That behavior is not in the institutional DNA!

The collection holds more than 130,000 seed samples or accessions of landrace varieties, wild species, and other research materials, among others. You can check the status of the IRRI collection (and many more genebanks in the Genesys database).

My congratulations to Genebank Head and compatriot, Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton and his key genebank lieutenants, Genebank Manager Flora ‘Pola’ de Guzman and Sr Associate Scientist Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño, for guiding the genebank to this happy state.

It has been a long journey, almost 60 years, from 1960 when IRRI was founded and Dr TT Chang (the first head of the genebank) began to assemble a collection of rice varieties that soon became the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC).

L-R: Dr TT Chang was head of the International Rice Germplasm Center from 1962-1990; Mike Jackson served as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (here with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug) from 1991-2001; and Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton joined IRRI in 2002.

There was a significant change of direction, so to speak, to the genebank and its operations in 1991 after my appointment as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (the IRGC acronym was subsequently changed to International Rice Genebank Collection) with a mandate to rationalize and upgrade the genebank’s operations. I held that position for the next decade before moving on to the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications in 2001. Ruaraidh joined IRRI in 2002 and has been at the helm ever since.

In other stories posted on this blog I have described what it entails to run a genebank for rice, and some of the important changes we made to modernize genebank management and operations, especially how they were impacted with respect to the institute’s international obligations to FAO and subsequently under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

In 2015 I made my own video to illustrate many of the different operations of the genebank, some of which have been modified in the light of new research concerning the handling of rice seeds post-harvest. Nevertheless, the video reflects the changes I introduced during my tenure as head of the International Rice Genebank, many of which still prevail.

Ruaraidh built upon the changes I introduced, bar-coding all samples for example, and linking the collection with others in the CGIAR through the Genebank Platform. There have been further improvements to how data about the collection are managed, and seed management was enhanced through the research of former employee and seed physiologist Dr Fiona Hay and her PhD student Kath (now Dr) Whitehouse.

Ruaraidh has also successfully steered IRRI and its genetic resources through the turbulent currents of international germplasm politics that culminated in the entering into force of the International Treaty in June 2004, and the subsequent negotiations over access and benefit sharing. I can’t deny I was quite happy to leave these ‘political’ aspects behind when I left GRC in 2001. Management and use of genetic resources in the 1990s were increasingly affected by the various negotiations that affected access to and sharing of biodiversity after the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in December 1993. To some extent they were a distraction (but an important one) from the technical aspects of rice genetic resources that I tackling.

It’s quite humbling that for generations to come, I will have been a part of securing the genetic heritage of rice. Besides making the necessary technical changes to genebank structure and operations in the 1990s, I’m particularly proud of the personnel structures I introduced. These permitted staff to really fulfill their potential.

I quickly recognized that Pola should be placed in the role of Genebank Manger, and Ato given responsibility for all field operations. We built a team that believed in a culture of mutual support.

Ken McNally

Another aspect was the recognition, way back in 1998, of the power of genomics and molecular genetics to unravel the secrets of rice diversity. To that end I had organized an international workshop in The Hague in September 1999, which is described about two-thirds through this blog post. I was fortunate to hire Dr Ken McNally as a molecular geneticist in this respect, and he has taken the study of rice genetic diversity to another level, supported by someone who I believed in from my early days at IRRI, Dr Elizabeth Naredo.

But the genebank is also facing some changes. Ruaraidh is expected to retire in the near future, and Pola and Ato can’t be far off retirement. No-one is irreplaceable, but they will be a hard act to follow. Finding individuals with the same breadth of experience, commitment to genetic resources conservation, and work ethic will certainly be a challenge. Other staff from my era have already retired; the genebank did not fall apart. With this secure funding from the Crop Trust the genebank can, for the first time in its 60 year history, set itself on a trajectory into the future in a way that was always uncertain in the past (because of year-to-year funding), but always the Holy Grail of genetic resources conservation.

I also hope that IRRI will step up to the plate and secure other funds to build a completely new genebank appropriate for the 21st century. After all, the facilities I ‘inherited’ from TT Chang are approaching 40-50 years, and even those I improved are 25 years old. Relieving the institute of the genebank annual operating budget should open up other opportunities.

Congratulations to IRRI, and on behalf of the genetic resources community (especially those depending on rice) a big thank you to the Crop Trust!


* BBC, Nature, and New Food Magazine, among others.

 

Laos – jewel in the rice biodiversity crown

From 1995 to late 2000, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) through its Genetic Resources Center (GRC, now the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center) coordinated a project to collect and conserve the genetic diversity of rice varieties that smallholder farmers have nourished for generations in Asia and Africa. The collecting program also targeted many of the wild species relatives of cultivated rice found in those continents as well as Latin America.

With a grant of more than USD3 million from the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) the project made significant collections of rice varieties and wild species at a time when, in general, there was a moratorium on germplasm exploration worldwide. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force at the end of December 1993, and many countries were developing and putting in place policies concerning access to germplasm. Many were reluctant to allow access to non-nationals, or even exchange germplasm internationally. It’s not insignificant then that IRRI was able to mount such a project with the full cooperation of almost 30 countries, and many collecting expeditions were made, many of them including IRRI staff.

As Head of GRC from 1991 to 2001, I developed the project concept and was responsible for its implementation, recruiting several staff to fill a number of important positions for germplasm collection, project management, and the research and training components. I have written about the project in more detail elsewhere in this blog.

One of the most important strategic decisions we took was to locate one staff member, Dr Seepana Appa Rao, in Laos (also known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) where IRRI already managed the Lao-IRRI project for the enhancement of the rice sector. This project was also funded by the SDC, so it was a natural fit to align the rice germplasm activities alongside, and to some extent within, the ongoing Lao-IRRI Project.

The leader of the Lao-IRRI Project was Australian agronomist, Dr John Schiller, who had spent about 30 years working in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and whose untimely death was announced just yesterday¹.

Until Appa Rao moved to Laos, very little germplasm exploration had taken place anywhere in the country. It was a total germplasm unknown, but with excellent collaboration with national counterparts, particularly Dr Chay Bounphanousay (now a senior figure in Lao agriculture), the whole of the country was explored and more than 13,000 samples of cultivated rice collected from the different farming systems, such as upland rice and rainfed lowland rice. A local genebank was constructed by the project, and duplicate samples were sent to IRRI for long-term storage as part of the International Rice Genebank Collection in GRC. Duplicate samples of these rice varieties were also sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault when IRRI made its various deposits in that permafrost facility inside the Arctic Circle.

Appa Rao and John Schiller (in the center) discussing Lao rice varieties. Im not sure who the person in the blue shirt is. In the background, IRRI scientist Eves Loresto describes rice diversity to her colleague, Mauricio Bellon.

Of particular interest is that Lao breeders immediately took an interest in the collected germplasm as it was brought back to the experiment station near the capital Vientiane, and multiplied in field plots prior to storage in the genebanks. There are few good examples where breeders have taken such an immediate interest in germplasm in this way. In so many countries, germplasm conservation and use activities are often quite separate, often in different institutions. In some Asian countries, rice genebanks are quite divorced from crop improvement, and breeders have no ready access to germplasm samples.

Appa Rao was an assiduous rice collector, and spent weeks at a time in the field, visiting the most remote localities. He has left us with a wonderful photographic record of rice in Laos, and I have included a fine selection below. We also published three peer-reviewed papers (search for Appa Rao’s name here) and seven of the 25 chapters in the seminal Rice in Laos edited by John and others. 

The rices from Laos now represent one of the largest components (maybe the largest) of the International Rice Genebank Collection. Many are unique to Laos, particularly the glutinous varieties.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

¹ Yesterday, I received an email from one of my former IRRI colleagues, Professor Melissa Fitzgerald who is now at the University of Queensland, with the very sad news that John Schiller had been found in his apartment just that morning. It’s believed he had passed away due to heart failure over the course of the weekend.

I first met John in November 1991, a few months after I’d joined IRRI. He and I were part of a group of IRRI scientists attending a management training course, held at a beach resort bear Nasugbu on the west coast of Luzon, south of Manila. The accommodation was in two bedroom apartments, and John and I shared one of those, so I got to know him quite well.

Our friendship blossomed from 1995 onwards when we implemented the rice biodiversity project, Appa Rao was based in Vientiane, and I would travel there two or three times a year. In February 1997, I had the opportunity of taking Steph with me on one trip, and that coincided with the arrival of another IRRI agronomist, Bruce Linquist (with his wife and small son) to join the Lao-IRRI Project. We were invited to the Lao traditional welcoming or Baci ceremony at John’s house, for the Linquists and Steph. I’d already received this ceremony on my first visit to Laos in 1995 or 1996.

John also arranged for Appa and Chay to show Steph and me something of the countryside around Vientiane. Here were are at the lookout over the Ang Nam Ngum Lake, just north of the capital, where we took a boat trip.

L to R: Mrs Appa Rao, Appa, Kongphanh Kanyavong, Chay Bounphanousay, Steph, and me.

After he retired from IRRI, John moved back to Brisbane, and was given an honorary fellowship at the University of Queensland. He continued to support training initiatives in Laos. As he himself said, his heart was with those people. But let John speak for himself.

My other close colleague and former head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, Gene Hettel, overnight wrote this eloquent and touching obituary about John and his work, that was published today on the IRRI News website. Just click on the image to read this in more detail.

 

Rice Today . . . and tomorrow

Rice. Oryza sativa. A crop that feeds more people worldwide on a daily basis than any other.

20100409007

It’s the staple food of at least half the world’s population. In many countries, it is eaten several times a day. A meal without rice is no meal at all in many Asian countries. Rice is life!

41-copy

For almost 20 years from 1991-2010 it was also my life.

While you might know that rice is grown in flooded fields (in so-called rice paddies) in Asia, this crop can be found almost everywhere. It’s an important crop in California and Louisiana in the USA, grown widely in many Latin American countries, and in Europe it is found in the Camargue delta in the south of France, and in the Po Valley south of Milan in northern Italy, in sight of the snow-capped Alps!

Rice is a particularly important crop in West Africa where it evolved from an indigenous species, Oryza glaberrima. In the Riverina of New South Wales, Australia, rice is an irrigated crop, under threat due to water shortages, but where some of the highest global yields have been achieved. In the temperate regions of Japan and northern China rice agriculture is widely grown.

But it is South and Southeast Asia that has the largest areas of cultivation. Farmers throughout the region, particularly in the highlands of Indonesia and the Philippines, have adapted the environment to rice agriculture, terracing whole hillsides to provide pockets of land that can be flooded to grow rice.

The rice we eat in Europe has probably come from Thailand, one of the world’s major rice exporting nations. In Asia, many families subsist by growing their crops on small parcels of land – in flooded conditions, on steep slopes, wherever rice can be grown. Many farmers still grow the same varieties that have been nurtured for generations; yields are often low. Modern rice varieties, in contrast, can yield up to several tons per hectare, vital for feeding ever-burgeoning populations throughout Asia.

Here is a selection of rice agriculture photographs taken by my former colleague Dr Seepana Appa Rao (center in the photo below) who was based in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) for five years from 1995. They illustrate different types of rice agriculture, and farmers proudly displaying their varieties.

Appar Rao collecting upland rice in the Lao PDR

Together with Lao colleagues Appa (as we called him) collected, for the first time, more than 13,000 samples of indigenous rice varieties, many with interesting names that often describe their appearance or use in cooking.

rice-today-logoRice is such a fascinating crop you might want to understand a little more. And there’s no better source than Rice Today, a magazine launched by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2002, and published quarterly ever since. It’s a solid mix of rice news and research, stories about rice agriculture from around the world, rice recipes even, and the odd children’s story about rice.

It was the brainchild of Gene Hettel, former head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services (CPS) and Duncan Macintosh, who was initially IRRI’s spokesperson and head of the Visitors’ Office; he became Director for Development. Duncan moved back to Australia a few years back. Recently he was back in the Philippines on a visit, and caught up with Gene.

17077864_10211719434403144_1059056041_n

Gene Hettel and Duncan Macintosh

The cover story on the very first Rice Today issue was all about the development of rice agriculture in Cambodia after the downfall of the brutal Pol Pot regime. It celebrated the role of Australian agronomist Dr Harry Nesbitt who was team leader for IRRI in Cambodia.

Now in it’s 16th volume, with a change of logo even, the cover of latest issue shows a painting of a traditional method of rice planting by Filipino artist Erick Dator. Throughout each issue, the graphics and images are stunning. Take for example the aerial photographs accompanying an article published in  the Jan-Mar 2008 issue, written by Gene about the of the Ifugao rice terraces in the Philippines.

For its 10th anniversary (Vol 11) in January 2012, former Director General Bob Zeigler talked about the value of Rice Today. Just click on the image below to read it.

pages-from-10th-anniversary_rice-today-vol-11-no-1

reyes_aboutRice Today is published by IRRI on behalf of Rice (GRiSP), the CGIAR research program on rice; it is also available online. Lanie Reyes (right) joined IRRI in 2008 as a science writer and editor. She is now editor-in-chief. She is supported by Savitri Mohapatra and Neil Palmer from sister centers Africa Rice Center in Côte d’Ivoire and CIAT in Colombia, respectively.

Gene was a close colleague of mine; we even won the odd communications award together as well! He came to IRRI in 1995 (having been a visiting editor in 1982-83) from a sister center, CIMMYT, based north of Mexico City that works on maize and wheat improvement, just like IRRI works on rice. He had been a communications expert at CIMMYT. Here is a younger Gene in a wheat field in Mexico with Nobel Peace Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug, who spent much of his career at CIMMYT.

hettel-borlaug

Plant Genetic Resources: Our challenges, our food, our future

phillips-jade

Jade Phillips

That was the title of a one day meeting on plant genetic resources organized by doctoral students, led by Jade Phillips, in the School of Biosciences at The University of Birmingham last Thursday, 2 June. And I was honoured to be invited to present a short talk at the meeting.

Now, as regular readers of my blog will know, I began my career in plant genetic resources conservation and use at Birmingham in September 1970, when I joined the one year MSc course on genetic conservation, under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes. The course had been launched in 1969, and 47 years later there is still a significant genetic resources presence in the School, even though the taught course is no longer offered (and hasn’t accepted students for a few years). Staff have come and gone – me included, but that was 25 years ago less one month, and the only staff member offering research places in genetic resources conservation is Dr Nigel Maxted. He was appointed to a lectureship at Birmingham (from Southampton, where I had been an undergraduate) when I upped sticks and moved to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1991.

image

Click on this image for the full program and a short bio of each speaker.

Click on each title below; there is a link to each presentation.

Nigel Maxted (University of Birmingham)
Introduction to PGR conservation and use

Ruth Eastwood (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – Wakehurst Place)
‘Adapting agriculture to climate change’ project

Holly Vincent (PhD student, University of Birmingham)
Global in situ conservation analysis of CWR

Joana Magos Brehm (University of Birmingham)
Southern African CWR conservation

Mike Jackson
Valuing genebank collections

Åsmund Asdal (NordGen)
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Neil Munro (Garden Organic)
Heritage seed library

Maria Scholten
Natura 2000 and in situ conservation of landraces in Scotland: Machair Life (15 minute film)

Aremi Contreras Toledo, Maria João Almeida, and Sami Lama (PhD students, University of Birmingham)
Short presentations on their research on maize in Mexico, landraces in Portugal, and CWR in North Africa

Julian Hosking (Natural England)
Potential for genetic diversity conservation – the ‘Fifth Dimension’ – within wider biodiversity protection

I guess there were about 25-30 participants in the meeting, mainly young scientists just starting their careers in plant genetic resources, but with a few external visitors (apart from speakers) from the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew-Wakehurst Place, the James Hutton Institute near Dundee, and IBERS at Aberystwyth.

The meeting grew out of an invitation to Åsmund Asdal from the Nordic Genetic Resources Center (NordGen) to present a School of Biosciences Thursday seminar. So the audience for his talk was much bigger.

asmund

Åsmund is Coordinator of Operation and Management for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and he gave a fascinating talk about the origins and development of this important global conservation facility, way above the Arctic Circle. Today the Vault is home to duplicate samples of germplasm from more than 60 depositor genebanks or institutes (including the international collections held in the CGIAR genebank collections, like that at IRRI.

Nigel Maxted’s research group has focused on the in situ conservation and use of crop wild relatives (CWR), although they are also looking at landrace varieties as well. Several of the papers described research linked to the CWR Project, funded by the Government of Norway through the Crop Trust and Kew. Postdocs and doctoral students are looking at the distributions of crop wild relatives, and using GIS and other sophisticated approaches that were beyond my comprehension, to determine not only where there are gaps in distributions, lack of germplasm in genebank collections, but also where possible priority conservation sites could be established. And all this under the threat of climate change. The various PowerPoint presentations demonstrate these approaches—which all rely on vast data sets—much better than I can describe them. So I encourage you to dip into the slide shows and see what this talented group of scientists has been up to.

Neil Munro from Garden Organic described his organization’s approach to rescue and multiply old varieties of vegetables that can be shared among enthusiasts.

n_munro

Seeds cannot be sold because they are not on any official list of seed varieties. What is interesting is that one variety of scarlet runner bean has become so popular among gardeners that a commercial seed company (Thompson & Morgan if I remember what he said) has now taken  this variety and selling it commercially.

julian

Julian Hosking from Natural England gave some interesting insights into how his organization was looking to combine the conservation of genetic diversity—his ‘Fifth Dimension’—with conservation of natural habitats in the UK, and especially the conservation of crop wild relatives of which there is a surprisingly high number in the British flora (such as brassicas, carrot, and onions, for example).

So, what about myself? When I was asked to contribute a paper I had to think hard and long about a suitable topic. I’ve always been passionate about the use of plant genetic diversity to increase food security. I decided therefore to talk about the value of genebank collections, how that value might be measured, and I provided examples of how germplasm had been used to increase the productivity of both potatoes and rice.

m_jackson

Nicolay Vavilov is a hero of mine

Although all the speakers developed their own talks quite independently, a number of common themes emerged several times. At one point in my talk I had focused on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet to illustrate the biological value (easy to use versus difficult to use) of germplasm in crop breeding.

Jackson FINAL - Valuing Genebank Collections

In the CWR Project research several speakers showed how the genepool concept could be used to set priorities for conservation.

Finally, there was one interesting aspect to the meeting—from my perspective at least. I had seen the titles of all the other papers as I was preparing my talk, and I knew several speakers would be talking about future prospects, especially under a changing climate. I decided to spend a few minutes looking back to the beginning of the genetic conservation movement in which Jack Hawkes was one of the pioneers. What I correctly guessed was that most of my audience had not even been born when I started out on my genetic conservation career, and probably knew very little about how the genetic conservation movement had started, who was involved, and what an important role The University of Birmingham had played. From the feedback I received, it seems that quite a few of the participants were rather fascinated by this aspect of my talk.

On political campaigns . . .

ballotbox copyI’m a bit of a news junkie, so I’ve been avidly following presidential election campaigns in three countries in online newspapers and on social media.

News from the US presidential election is never absent from the daily headlines, mainly because the two principal contenders on the Republican side, billionaire Donald Trump (or is that Donald Drumpf)¹ and evangelical Senator Ted Cruz, battling it out to win the nomination, increasingly descend to ever lower levels of political debate. Political debate? Their exchanges are not worthy of that epithet. Trump is hardly running an election campaign. I think it would be better to describe it as an election ego-trip.

You would hardly know there’s also an interesting contest on the Democrat side between former First Lady, New York Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. At least they seem to be having a sensible debate.

The other campaigns that interest me are taking place in Peru in April, and in the Philippines in May. Why? Because I have lived and worked in both those countries.

Reading about the three campaigns, two quotations come to mind:

  • Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite (Every nation gets the government it deserves) — attributed to Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821)
  • Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least — Robert Byrne

Goodness knows what sort of campaign there will be in the US after the party conventions if Trump really does become the Republican candidate. He’s both scary and a worry. What will happen if he is ‘denied’ the nomination, and how will his supporters react. The violence we have seen so far directed by these folks against anti-Trump protesters does not bode well for the future.

But there are scary things going on in the Cruz camp as well. He is a right-wing evangelical Christian. And I’ve recently seen footage of him sharing the stage with a fundamentalist Christian preacher who, through his language was inciting Christians to violence, death even, against homosexuals. Because it says so in the Bible.

On the Democrat side, I’m actually surprised how well Bernie Sanders is doing, although I can’t believe he can win the nomination. Nor can I see a 74 year old candidate moving on to be a successful president.

In Peru and the Philippines, some of the candidates are as old as Sanders, but the political situation there is very different from the USA.

The polls in Peru seem to be dominated by Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the disgraced and gaoled former President Alberto Fujimori (who I met in the Philippines during his visit to IRRI). But Fujimori – daughter is also a controversial politician, believed to have benefited personally from her father’s corrupt government. Nevertheless, she is predicted to win the first round of voting. Another discredited candidate is the APRA former president Alan García who served two terms already (1985-1990, 2006-2011).

In the Philippines, which has a party system even weaker than that in Peru, the lists of candidates for both president and vice-president are filled with controversial characters. The posts of President and Vice-President are voted for separately (not as a single ticket in the USA), and it’s often the case that elected candidates come from different political persuasions and diametrically-opposed political platforms.

The current Vice-President Jejomar Binay heads yet another political dynasty, and has been accused of overwhelming corruption. The Mayor of Davao City (in Mindanao) Rodrigo Duterte has served his city for more than two decades, successfully apparently, and regarded as a political ‘hard man’. How a Duterte Administration would pan out nationally is anyone’s guess. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is an outspoken – and (formerly) popular – international lawyer who, once she had declared her candidacy (despite being near death’s door from Stage 4 lung cancer only a short time before), was thought to be well placed to win the presidency. Until, that is, she chose Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (aka ‘Bongbong’) as her running mate for vice-president. Son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos (ousted in a popular uprising in 1986), Bongbong is widely regarded as corrupt and implicated in many of the worst human rights excesses of his father’s regime. Another, Senator Grace Poe, has had her candidacy questioned because of her nationality, having taken US citizenship at one time, which she has now renounced. Which leaves us with the ‘administration’ candidate and Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, Mar Roxas (a scion of yet another political dynasty). Is his wife Korina Sanchez a political liability??

So, in all three countries, the electorates are faced with choosing Presidents or Vice-Presidents from lists of some unsavory candidates, several of whom do not qualify (in my opinion) on ethical or moral grounds to ask for anyone’s vote, never mind political acumen or leadership potential, not even for the most humble elected post.

There will be bumpy political times and roads ahead in all three countries, whatever the election outcomes. Although not a General Election, we face an uncertain political (and economic) future here in the UK with the referendum on continuing membership of the European Union being held on 23 June. Political campaigning and false arguments have not brought out the best on either side of the referendum debate.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
¹ See the full 22 minute video here.

Nature abhors a vacuum . . .

PACIFIC_Royal.inddI’m thoroughly enjoying Simon Winchester’s Pacific – the Ocean of the Future (published in 2015 by William Collins, ISBN 978-0-00-755075-3), which I received for Christmas 2015. I already mentioned it in a recent post.

With a Prologue (The lonely sea and the sky), an author’s note (On carbon), and an epilogue (The call of the running tide), the chapters are ten essays on a range of topics about the Pacific Ocean, its geography, politics, and history since 1 January 1950 (Before Present):

  • Chapter 1: The great thermonuclear sea (all about the series of atomic bomb test at many locations in the Pacific in the 1950s)
  • Chapter 2: Mr Ibuka’s radio revolution (Sony and the transistor revolution)
  • Chapter 3: The ecstasies of wave riding (the rise of surfing culture, from Hawaii to California)
  • Chapter 4: A dire and dangerous irritation (North Korea)
  • Chapter 5: Farewell, all my friends and foes (the end of colonialism)
  • Chapter 6: Echoes of distant thunder (the Pacific and world weather)
  • Chapter 7: How goes the lucky country? (Australia)
  • Chapter 8: The fires in the deep (deep ocean exploration)
  • Chapter 9: A fragile and uncertain sea (climate change and other environmental challenges)
  • Chapter 10: Of masters and commanders (the emergence/resurgence of China)

It was Chapter 5 on the end of colonialism that fired the neurons in my brain, resurrecting several memories from the deep recesses of my mind. It began with an account of the Cunard ocean liner, RMS Queen Elizabeth and her demise after catching fire (in what appears to have been a deliberate act of sabotage) in Hong Kong harbor. The head of the company that had bought the QE, Tung Chee Hwa, became the first Chinese-appointed chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region after the Union Jack was lowered on 30 June 1997 and British rule came to an end.

The essay in Chapter 6 described how the Pacific Ocean influences weather systems right across the globe. Pacific Ocean weather is something in both its glory and at its most ferocious I came to appreciate and experience during my 19 years in the Philippines.

But it was the tenth essay, about the geopolitics of the South China Sea, that made me sit up and really take notice. Hardly a week goes by without some report in the media about the territorial claims to the islands of and expansion into the South China Sea by the People’s Republic of China. Absurdly (but not obviously from a Chinese perspective) China has laid claim to almost all the South China Sea, riding roughshod over the legitimate (and, it has to be said, the conflicting claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia). But even a cursory glance at a map of the South China Sea shows just how outrageous China’s claims and actions are.

south-china-sea

China has even taken to building outposts on a number of islands, reefs and atolls, obviously destined to become military bases with sophisticated defences and airfields to take the biggest planes.

0,,18270383_303,00

Chinese claims
While China’s claims to the South China Sea stretch back to the end of the Second World War, it’s only in the past 25 years that this regional expansion has increased, and both the civil and military mobilized to achieve its aims. For the first time in 2006, evidence of China’s blue water navy aspirations and expanding naval capabilities was seen when a Chinese submarine sailed unnoticed within a few miles of a US carrier fleet. Over the years there have been a number of close encounters of the military kind. So far, both countries have managed to keep a lid on these confrontations escalating into a ‘shooting war’. But for how long?

Now, until I read Winchester’s account in Chapter 10, I had not put two and two together, even though I lived in the Philippines for almost two decades. Two events—one natural, one political—occurred in 1991, and subsequent analysis allows me to ask one of the important ‘What ifs’ of Southeast Asia history. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruption I’m just beginning to understand the inter-connectivity of the events of that year. Part of this will not make particularly comfortable reading for many Filipinos, I fear. Nevertheless it’s an interesting perspective on what events encouraged the Chinese to assert themselves as they have done, much to the chagrin of her neighbours. Not that China is concerned it seems, about their counter claims, or that much of the area they claim as sovereign territory is viewed as international waters or airspace. A UN international tribunal in The Hague, to which the Philippines had taken its case, ruled against China. But that will make no difference. China does not recognize the tribunal. Economic prowess and military might are what count.

The events of 1991
In 1991, Mt Pinatubo awoke from its slumber of many centuries, and erupted on 15 June in a climactic explosion, depositing ash over a huge area. This dire situation was further exacerbated because Typhoon Yunya (Diding in the Philippines) hit Luzon on precisely the same day. Within spitting distance of Pinatubo were located two of the US’s most important overseas military bases: Clark Field, nestling at the foot of the volcano near Angeles City, and Subic Bay, home to the US Seventh Fleet, and one of the most important naval facilities that the US had access to anywhere. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruption I’m just beginning to understand the inter-connectivity of different events of that year.

Mt Pinatubo (from Clark Air Base) erupting on 12 June 1991, three days before the climactic eruption that led to the abandonment of the airbase in November that year.

At Clark it became clear within a day or two of the eruption, and covered in feet of volcanic ash, that the airbase would have to be abandoned. Aircraft had been flown out beforehand and personnel successfully evacuated to Subic. In November 1991 the US Air Force closed Clark¹.

At the end of 1991 there was perhaps an even more event, political this time, that has perhaps contributed more to the present South China Sea situation than the Pinatubo eruption ever did. In an increasingly nationalistic Senate, the future of an American presence in the Philippines was being debated. The Senate rejected a treaty that would have extended use of Subic Bay because of concerns over the presence of nuclear weapons (which the US would not reveal). Finally at the end of December 1991, the then president Cory Aquino informed the US government that US forces would have to leave the Philippines by the end of 1992. The US Navy pulled out in November 1992.

And into the vacuum left by the US departure cleverly stepped the Chinese, sensing the opportunity to fulfill their long-standing regional geopolitical ambitions. The rest is history; the Chinese are now well and truly entrenched in the South China Sea, and will not be easily budged. There is, however, another interesting twist to the story. In January 2016, the Philippines Supreme Court approved the return of US troops to bases in the Philippines, as a counter to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. What goes around comes around?

What if?
What if Pinatubo had never blown her top on that fateful June day in 1991? What if the US had been more forthcoming about the status of nuclear weapons during the finely balanced base renewal negotiations in 1991? What if the Philippines Senate had not openly expressed its rejection of the treaty in a display of anti-colonialism? What if the US navy had never left?

Would the Chinese have been off the mark with such alacrity, developing its own blue water navy, and (with contempt, many would say) revealing its true regional hegemonic ambitions? Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. The Chinese have been only too happy to fill the military vacuum.

Let us hope that the war of words being fought over the South China Sea never evolves into a ‘hot war’. Notwithstanding Chinese intransigence and, it has to be said, overt hostility at times, it may depend in some degree on who occupies the White House after next November’s presidential election in the US. The jingoistic foreign policy rhetoric of a couple of the Republican candidates does not give me much cause for optimism.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
¹ In the intervening years, it should be noted, Clark has been refurbished and reopened as Clark International Airport. Were it closer to Manila, and connected with better transport links, Clark could well have become Manila’s principal airport, relieving congestion at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, close-by Manila’s business district of Makati.

How many crop varieties can you name?

Do you ever look at the variety name on a bag of potatoes in the supermarket? I do. Must get a life.

How many potato varieties can you name? Reds? Whites? Or something more specific, like Maris Piper, King Edward, or Desiree to name just three? Or do you look for the label that suggests this variety or that is better for baking, roasting, mashing? Let’s face it, we generally buy what a supermarket puts on the shelf, and the choice is pretty limited. What about varieties of rice? Would it just be long-grain, Japanese or Thai, arboreo, basmati, maybe jasmine? 

When I lived in the Philippines, we used to buy rice in 10 kg bags (although you could buy 25 kg or larger if you so desired). On each, the variety name was printed. This was important because they all had different cooking qualities or taste (or fragrance in the case of the Thai jasmine rice). In Filipino or Thai markets, it’s not unusual to see rice sold loose, with each pile individually labelled and priced, as the two images below show¹:

Today, our rather limited choice of varieties on the shelf does change over time as new ones are adopted by farmers, or promoted by the breeding companies because they have a better flavor, cooking quality, or can be grown more efficiently (often because they have been bred to resist diseases better).

Apples on the other hand are almost always promoted and sold by variety: Golden Delicious, Pink Lady, Granny Smith, Red McIntosh, and Bramley are some of the most popular. That’s because, whether you consciously think about it, you are associating the variety name with fruit color, flavor and flesh texture (and use). But there were so many more apple varieties grown in the past, which we often now describe as ‘heirloom varieties’. Most of these are just not commercial any more.

In many parts of the world, however, what we might consider as heirloom varieties are everyday agriculture for farmers. For example, a potato farmer in the Andes of South America, where the plant was first domesticated, might grow a dozen or more varieties in the same field. A rice farmer in the uplands of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in Southeast Asia grows a whole mixture of varieties. As would a wheat farmer in the Middle East. There’s nothing heirloom or heritage about these varieties. This is survival.

Heirloom potato varieties still grown by farmers in the Andes of Peru.

An upland rice farmer and her family in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic showing just some of the rice varieties they continue to cultivate. Many Lao rice varieties are glutinous (sticky) and particular to that country.

What’s even more impressive is that these farmers know each of the varieties they grow, what characteristics (or traits) distinguish each from the next, whether it is disease resistant, what it tastes like, how productive it will be. And just as we name our children, all these varieties have names that, to our unsophisticated ears, sound rather exotic.  Names can be a good proxy for the genetic diversity of varieties, but it’s not necessarily a perfect association. In the case of potatoes, for example, I have seen varieties that were clearly different (in terms of the shape and color of the tubers) but having the same name; while other varieties that we could show were genetically identical and looked the same had different names. The cultural aspects of naming crop varieties are extremely interesting and can point towards quite useful traits that a plant breeder might wish to introduce into a breeding program. Some years back, my colleague Appa Rao, I and others published a paper on how and why farmers name rice varieties in the Lao PDR.

In the genebank of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños in the Philippines, there are more than 120,000 samples of cultivated rice. And from memory there are at least 65,000 unique names. Are these genetically distinct? In many cases, yes they are. The genebank of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru conserves about 4000 different potato varieties.

What these potato and rice varieties represent (as do maize varieties from Mexico, wheats from the Middle East, soybeans from China, and beans from South and Central America, and many other crops) is an enormous wealth of genetic diversity or, if you prefer, agricultural biodiversity (agrobiodiversity): the genetic resources of the main staple crops and less widely planted crops that sustain human life. The efforts over the past six decades and more to collect and conserve these varieties (as seeds in genebanks wherever possible) provides a biological safety net for agriculture without depriving farmers of the genetic heritage of their indigenous crops. But as we have seen, time and time again, when offered choices—and that’s what it is all about—farmers may abandon their own crop varieties in favor of newly-bred ones that can offer the promise of higher productivity and better economic return. The choice is theirs (although agricultural policy in a number of countries has worked against the continued cultivation of so-called ‘farmer varieties’).

CGIARThank goodness for the genebanks of 11 centers of the global agricultural research partnership that is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These centers carefully conserve the largest, most important, and genetically-diverse collections of crop germplasm (and forages and trees) of the most important agricultural species. The flow of genetic materials to users around the world is sustained by the efforts of these genebanks under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. And, of course, these collections have added long-term security because they are duplicated, for the most part, in the long-term vaults of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault¹ deep within a mountain on an island high above the Arctic Circle.

Heritage is not just about conservation. Heritage is equally all about use. So it’s gratifying (and intriguing) to see how IRRI, for example, is partnering with the Philippines Department of Agriculture and farmers in an ‘heirloom rice project‘ that seeks ‘to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of heirloom or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems‘ by adding value to the traditional varieties that farmers continue to grow but which have not, until now, been widely-accepted commercially. I gather a project is being carried out by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) for maize in Mexico that aims to raise the cuisine profile of traditional varieties.

Genetic conservation is about ensuring the survival of heritage varieties (and their wild relatives) for posterity. We owe a debt of gratitude to farmers over the millennia who have been the custodians of this important genetic diversity. It’s a duty of care on which humanity must not renege.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
¹ Courtesy of IRRI
² The Seed Vault is owned and administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food on behalf of the Kingdom of Norway and is established as a service to the world community. The Global Crop Diversity Trust provides support for the ongoing operations of the Seed Vault, as well as funding for the preparation and shipment of seeds from developing countries to the facility. The Nordic Gene Bank (NordGen) operates the facility and maintains a public on-line database of samples stored in the seed vault. An International Advisory Council oversees the management and operations of the Seed Vault.