I was asked recently what was the best job I’d had.
Well, I guess the best job was the one I was occupying at the time. Until it wasn’t.
As a teenager in the 1960s, I had a Saturday job at a local garage, Peppers of Leek, pumping gasoline and helping in the car parts store, for which I earned 15/- (fifteen shillings or 75p in new money), equivalent today of less than £18 for an eight hour shift. What exploitation!
However, discounting that Saturday job, then I’ve held five different positions at three organizations over a fulfilling career lasting 37 years and 4 months. I took early retirement at the end of April 2010, aged 61.
My first job was at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. I first met Richard Sawyer (left), CIP’s Director General when he visited the University of Birmingham after I’d completed my MSc degree in genetic resources conservation and use in September 1971. He confirmed my appointment at CIP from January 1973. It was my first encounter with an American.
As an Associate Taxonomist at CIP I had two responsibilities: collecting potato varietiesin the Andes of Peru, which were added to CIP’s large germplasm collection; and completing the field research for my PhD at the University of Birmingham.
In May 1973, just a few months after I arrived in Peru, I travelled to the north of Peru, specifically to the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad, with my Peruvian colleague Zosimo Huaman (seen in the photo below with two farmers). We explored remote valleys in this region (that has the highest mountains in the country) for almost a month, arriving back in Lima with a handsome collection of potato varieties.
Looking north towards Peru’s highest mountain, Huascaran (6768 m) in the Callejon de Huaylas in Ancash.
Some of the places we visited were so remote we could only access them on foot or on horseback.
In February 1974 I traveled to the south of Peru to carry out a field study of mixed variety potato cultivation as part of my thesis research in the remote valley of Cuyo Cuyo (below) with its fabulous terraces or andenes, northeast of Lake Titicaca.
And then, in May, I explored the Department of Cajamarca in the north of Peru with a driver, Octavio, seen in the photo below marking potato tubers with a collection number while I discussed these samples with the farmer.
Three years passed by in a flash. It had been a fantastic opportunity for a young person like myself. I was just 24 when I headed to Peru in 1973.
Working in CIP’s potato field genebank at Huancayo, 3100 m (>10,000 feet) in the central Andes.
Not many folks enjoy the same level of freedom to pursue a project as I did, or to travel throughout such an awe-inspiring country. I continue to count my blessings.
I also had a fantastic supervisor/head of department in geneticist Dr Roger Rowe (left).
Heading to Central America
I stayed with CIP for another five years, until March 1981. But not in Lima. It would have been fun to remain in the germplasm program, but there wasn’t a position available. The only one was filled by Zosimo. In any case, I was keen to expand my potato horizonsand learn more about potato production in the round. So, after completing my PhD in December 1975, I joined CIP’s Outreach Program (that, in the course of time, became the Regional Research Program), not entirely sure what the future held. Costa Rica was mooted as a possible regional location.
In January 1976, Roger Rowe, Ed French (head of plant pathology at CIP), and I made a recce visit to Costa Rica, where we met officials at CATIE in Turrialba and it was agreed that CATIE would host a CIP scientist to work on adaptation of potatoes to warm environments. My wife Steph and I finally made it to Turrialba in April, and I set about setting up my research.
CATIE plant pathologist Raul Moreno (left) explains the center’s research in Turrialba on multiple cropping systems to (L-R) University of Wisconsin professor Luis Sequeira, Ed French, and Roger Rowe.
Quite quickly the focus changed to identify resistance to a disease known as bacterial wilt.
Evaluating potatoes in the field at Turrialba in 1977 (top). Potatoes showing typical asymmetrical wilt symptoms (bottom left) and bacterial exudate in infected tubers (bottom right).
Not only did we test different potatoes varieties for resistance to the bacterium, but we developed different agronomic solutions to control the amount of disease that was surviving from one season to the next.
I also worked closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture and the University of Costa Rica, and with potato farmers to reduce the high use of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as setting up a potato seed production project.
We developed a major regional project, PRECODEPA, during this time, involving six countries in the region and Caribbean, and funded by the Swiss government.
I was just 27 when we moved to Costa Rica. This was my first taste of program management; I was on my own (although I did receive administrative backup from CATIE, where we lived). My boss in Lima, Dr Ken Brown (left, head of the Regional Research Program) managed all his staff outside Lima on ‘a light rein’: encouraging, supporting, correcting program alignment when necessary. And always with great humor.
We spent five, happy years in Costa Rica. The work was enjoyable. I had a great couple of technical staff, Jorge and Moises, and secretary Leda.
I worked with the CIP team in Toluca, Mexico, and after the regional team leader left for the USA to pursue his PhD, Richard Sawyer asked me to take on the leadership of the program, which I did for over three years.
I learnt to grow a potato crop, and work alongside farmers and various government officials from the region. I learnt a lot about people management, and was all set to continue my career with CIP.
However, by November 1980, I decided that I needed a change. I’d achieved as much as I could in Central America. So we returned to Lima, with the expectation of moving with CIP to Brazil or the Philippines.
But fate stepped in. I was asked to apply for a lectureship at Birmingham, in my old department, now renamed ‘Plant Biology’. In January 1981 I flew back to the UK for interview (at my own expense!) and was offered the position to start in April that year. So, with some regret—but full of anticipation—I resigned from CIP and we returned to the UK in mid-March.
With the forthcoming retirement in September 1982 of Professor Jack Hawkes(right), Mason Professor of Botany and genetic resources MSc course leader (who had supervised my PhD), the university created this new lectureship to ‘fill the teaching gap’ following Jack’s departure, particularly on the MSc course.
I spent the next ten years teaching and carrying out research on potatoes and legume species at Birmingham. I had quite a heavy teaching load, mostly with graduate MSc students studying the theory and practice of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (the same course that I had attended a decade earlier).
I co-taught a BSc third (final) year module on genetic resources with my close friend and colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd (left), and contributed half the lectures in a second-year module on flowering plant taxonomy with another colleague, Richard Lester. Fortunately I had no first year teaching.
Over a decade I supervised or co-supervised ten PhD students, and perhaps 30 MSc students. I really enjoyed working with these graduates, mostly from overseas.
Around 1988, the four departments (Plant Biology, Zoology and Comparative Physiology, Microbiology, and Genetics) making up the School of Biological Sciences merged, and formed five research groups. I moved to the Plant Genetics Group, and was quite contented working with my new head of group, Professor Mike Kearsey (left above). Much better than the head of Plant Biology, Professor Jim Callow (right above, who was appointed in 1983 to succeed Hawkes as Mason Professor of Botany) who had little understanding of and empathy with my research interests.
By 1990 I still hadn’t hadn’t made Senior Lecturer, but I was on that particular pay scale and hoping for promotion imminently. I was working my way up the academic ladder, or at least I thought so. I took on wider responsibilities in the School of Biological Sciences, where I became Second Year Course Chair, and also as vice-chair of a university-wide initiative known as ‘Environmental Research Management’, set up to ‘market’ the university’s expertise in environmental research.
Nevertheless, I could see the writing on the wall. It was highly unlikely that I’d ever get my research on wild species funded (although I had received a large government grant to continue my potato collaboration with CIP). And with other work pressures, academia was beginning to lose its appeal.
Returning to international agricultural research
In September 1990, I received—quite out of the blue (and anonymously)—information about a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, as Head of a newly-created Genetic Resources Center (GRC).
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I threw my proverbial hat in the ring, and was called for interview at the beginning of January 1991. My flight from London-Gatwick to Manila via Hong Kong was delayed more than 12 hours. Instead of arriving in Los Baños a day ahead of the interviews, I arrived in the early hours of the morning and managed about two hours sleep before I had a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Klaus Lampe (right) and his three deputies! The interview sessions lasted more than three days. There were two other candidates, friends of mine who had studied at Birmingham under Jack Hawkes!
To cut a long story short, I was offered the position at the end of January which I accepted once a starting salary had been agreed. However I wasn’t able to join IRRI until 1 July because I still had teaching and examination commitments at the university.
Quite a few of my university colleagues were surprised, concerned even, that I was giving up a tenured position. I’ll admit to some qualms as well. But the die was cast. I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. Steph and our daughters Hannah (13) and Philippa (9) joined me at the end of December.
Not long after he joined IRRI in 1988, Klaus Lampe launched a major reorganization of departments and programs. The Genetic Resources Center combined two of the seed conservation and distribution activities of the institute: the International Rice Genebank (the largest and most genetically-diverse of its kind in the world), and the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). Besides overall responsibility for GRC, I had day-to-day management of the genebank. INGER was led by an Indian geneticist and rice breeder Dr Seshu Durvasula who made it quite clear from the outset that he didn’t take kindly to these new arrangements nor having to report to someone who had never worked on rice. Such inflexible attitudes were not part of Lampe’s plan, and Seshu lasted only about 18 more months more before resigning. That’s yet another story.
I quickly realised that many improvements were needed to enhance the management of the genebank and its important rice germplasm collection. I took six months to familiarize myself fully with the genebank operations, consulting frequently with my staff, before making changes and assigning new responsibilities. Working with the genebank staff was a delight.
I convinced KLaus Lampe and senior management to invest appropriately in improving the genebank’s facilities, and to upgrade the positions of more than 70 staff. Since they constantly claimed that ‘the genebank was the jewel in IRRI’s crown‘, all I asked them was to put the money where their mouths were.
Our efforts paid off. We made the genebank ‘a model for others to emulate’. Not my words but those of external reviewers.
During my time in GRC, I had the privilege of meeting VIPs from around the world: presidents, prime ministers and other government officials, members of the diplomatic corps, and Nobel Prize winners.
In 1995 we initiated a major research and exploration project funded by the Swiss Government, which lasted for five years. We expanded the genebank collection by more than 25% to over 100,000 seed samples or accessions (since when it has grown further), many of them having been collected from farmers’ fields for the first time. This was a great opportunity to collect in more than 20 countries in Asia, Africa, and South and Central America where there were gaps in collections or, as in the case of Laos for example, war and other unrest had prevented any collections being made throughout the country until peace was established. In the photo below, taken in the Lao genebank at Vientiane in 1999, I’m with one of my staff Dr Seepana Appa Rao (center) and two genebank staff. On the left is Dr Chay Bounphanousay, head of the genebank, and now Director of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI).
I had international commitments as well, chairing the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) and establishing the System-wide Genetic Resources Program, the only program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) involving all fifteen centers. In 1994, the ICWG-GR met in Kenya, and stayed at a hotel in the shadow of Mt Kenya (below). The ICWG-GR was a great group of colleagues to work with, and we worked together with great enthusiasm and collegiality.
The early 1990s were an important time for genebanks since the Convention on Biological Diversity had come into effect in December 1992, and this began to have an impact on access to and use of genetic resources. However, one consequence was the increased politicization of genetic resources conservation and use. As the decade wore on, these aspects began to take up more and more of my time. Not so much fun for someone who was more interested in the technical and research aspects of genetic conservation.
A directorship beckons
Then, quite out of the blue at the beginning of January 2001, Director General Ron Cantrell (right) asked me to stop by his office. He proposed I should leave GRC and join the senior management team as a Director to reorganize and manage the institute’s research portfolio and relationships with the donor community. I said I’d think it over, talk with Steph, and give him my answer in a couple of days.
I turned him down! The reasons are too complicated to explain here. I was contented in GRC. There were many things I still wanted to achieve there.
After about six weeks, Cantrell sent word he’d like to discuss his proposal once again. This time we came to an understanding, and my last day as head of GRC was 30 April 2001. I became IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications) or DPPC, with line management for Communication and Publications Services (CPS), Library and Documentation Services (LDS), IT Services (ITS), the Development Office (DO), as well as the Program Planning and Communications unit (PPC).
Here I am with (left to right): Gene Hettel (CPS), Mila Ramos (LDS), Marco van den Berg (ITS), Duncan Macintosh (DO), and Corinta Guerta (PPC).
When I set up DPPC I inherited a small number of staff who had managed (not very effectively I’m sad to say) IRRI’s relationships with the donor community. IRRI’s reputation had hit rock bottom with its donors. I had to dig deep to understand just why the institute could not meet its reporting and financial obligations to the donors. After recruiting five new staff, we implemented new procedures to keep things on an even keel, and within six months we had salvaged what had been quite a dire situation. Data management and integration of information across different research and finance functions was the basis of the changes we made. And we never looked back. By the time I retired from IRRI, we had supported raising the institute’s annual budget to around USD 60 million, and IRRI’s was shining bright among the donors.
Here I am with PCC staff on my last day at IRRI, 30 April 2010. Left to right: Eric Clutario, Corinta Guerta, Zeny Federico, me, Vel Ilao, and Yeyet Enriquez. After I left IRRI, Corinta became head of PPC and was made a Director, the first national staff to rise through the ranks from Research Assistant in 1975 (she was originally a soil chemist) to a seat on the senior management committee.
As a Director, I was a member of IRRI’s senior management team taking responsibility for the institute’s strategy development and medium term plans, performance management, and several cross-cutting initiatives that enhanced IRRI’s welfare and that of the staff.
It wasn’t a bowl of cherries all the time at IRRI. There certainly were some impressive downs. The institute had a bit of a bleak patch for just under a decade from the time Lampe retired in 1995 until Bob Zeigler’s appointment in 2005. The institute had lost its way, and I guess that was one of the reasons I was asked to create the PPC office, to coordinate different functions of institute management.
But all good things come to an end, and by 2009 I’d already decided that I wanted to retire (and smell the roses, as they say), even though Zeigler encouraged me to stay on. By then I was already planning the celebrations for IRRI’s 50th anniversary, and agreed to see those through to April 2010. What fun we had, at the Big Show on Sunday 13 December 2009 and earlier.
With the Big Show production crew on stage afterwards.
Having thought long and hard about this, I believe that the DPPC role was the one I enjoyed most. That’s not to say that everything else I accomplished has not been cherished. But DPPC was different. I’d moved into a position where I could really influence events, I was managing areas of the institute’s portfolio and making a difference.
IRRI gave me the honour of hosting my despedida during the institute’s 50th gala anniversary dinner on 14 April 2010.
Do I have any regrets about the career choices I made? Not for one second.
I made some useful contributions to science (some of which is still being cited 40 years after publication). I traveled the world. I became fluent (for a while at least) in Spanish. And I have worked alongside many great scientists, fought with a few. Made many great friends, some sadly no longer with us.
So many more mouths to feed, so many challenges to overcome. And population growth fastest in many of the world’s poorest countries.
The UN’s latest prediction is that another billion will be added by 2037, and that . . . half of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in just nine countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda and Indonesia (ordered by their expected contribution to total growth).
In 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN or FAO reported that 193 million people in 53 countries or territories were facing acute food insecurity. And while conflict and the effects of the Covid pandemic are contributors to this state of affairs, there is no doubt that weather extremes are also a major contributing factor, affecting many more people worldwide. More frequent storms. Too much water—or too little. Rising temperatures reducing the agricultural productivity in many regions.
So, whether you are a believer in climate change or a denier (I’ve never been a climate change denier—quite the opposite, in fact), surely you have to accept that something strange is happening to our climate.
More than 30 years ago, two University of Birmingham colleagues—Brian Ford-Lloyd and Martin Parry—and I organized a workshop to discuss the impact of climate change on agriculture and the conservation of plant genetic resources (and how they could, and should, be used to mitigate the effects of a warming climate). The proceedings were published in 1990. Twenty-five years later, in 2014, we followed up with a second volume reflecting how the science of climate change itself had progressed, and how better we were equipped to use genetic resources to enhance crop productivity.
So while agriculture has been—and continues to be—one of the contributors to climate change (livestock, methane from rice paddies, use of fertilizers and the like) it can and has to be part of the solution.
Since more than half of the world’s population are now urban dwellers, they do not produce their own food. Or at least not enough (even if they grow their own vegetables and such on small holdings or allotments) to support many others.
Subsistence farming is not a solution either, even though these farmers can increase productivity by adopting new agricultural practices and higher-yielding crop varieties, if appropriate and affordable. And those campaigners who advocate the abolition of livestock farming (and I have seen one young person state that all farming should be stopped!) have little notion of how that would affect the lives of farmers globally, or where the rest of us would source our food.
There has been much talk recently about diversification of farming systems and adoption of so-called ‘orphan crops’ as part of the solution. Of course these approaches can make a difference, but should not diminish the role and importance of staple crops like wheat, maize, rice, potatoes, sorghum, and many others.
So what are the options? Investment in plant breeding, among others, has to be central to achieving food security. We will need a pipeline of crop varieties that are better adapted to changing environmental conditions, that are one step ahead of novel pest and disease variants. Crop productivity will have to increase significantly over the next few decades.
My first encounter with plant breeding—or plant breeders for that matter—was during a visit, in July 1969, to the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge during a field course at the end of my second year undergraduate degree course at the University of Southampton. We heard all about wheat breeding and cytogenetics from Dr Ralph Riley FRS (right) no less (later knighted and Director of the PBI from 1972 to 1978). Our paths crossed again several times during the 1990s when he was associated with the CGIAR.
During my third and final year at Southampton, 1969-1970, I enjoyed a plant breeding module taught by genetics lecturer Dr Joe Smartt whose original research background was in peanut cytogenetics. He had spent some years in Africa as a peanut breeder in Zambia (then known as Northern Rhodesia).
It was in that course that I was introduced to one of the classic texts on the topic, Principles of Plant Breeding by University of California-Davis geneticist, RW Allard (first published in 1960). Sadly I no longer have my copy that I purchased in 1969. It was devoured by termites before I left the Philippines in 2010.
I’ve never been actively involved in plant breeding per se. However, the focus of my research was the conservation of genetic resources (of potatoes and rice, and some other species) and pre-breeding studies to facilitate the use of wild species in plant breeding.
It’s been my privilege to know and work with some outstanding plant breeders. Not only did they need a knowledge of genetics, reproductive behavior, physiology and agronomy of a plant species, but this was coupled with creativity, intuition and the famous ‘breeder’s eye’ to develop new varieties.
Perhaps the most famous plant breeder I met in the early 1990s was 1970 Nobel Peace Laureate (and ‘Father of the Green Revolution’) Norman Borlaug, who spent a lifetime breeding wheat varieties, first with the Rockefeller Foundation and then with the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) in Mexico. I wrote about that encounter here.
Explaining how rice seeds are stored in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI to Nobel Peace Laureate Norman Borlaug
When I joined IRRI in the Philippines in 1991 as head of the Genetic Resources Center, one of my close colleagues was 1996 World Food Prize Laureate Gurdev Khush (below left) who led the institute’s breeding program. He and his team bred more than 300 varieties of rice, some of which—like IR36 and IR72—have been grown over millions of hectares and saved countless millions from starvation.
And another rice breeder (and 2004 World Food Prize Laureate) famous for NERICA rice was Monty Jones (above right) at the Africa Rice Center in West Africa. Monty was a graduate at Birmingham and I was the internal examiner for his PhD thesis in 1983.
Plant breeding has come a long way since I first became interested 50 years ago. Breeders now have access to a whole new toolbox to accelerate the development of new varieties, some of which were not available just a few years ago.
A decade ago I asked my friend and former colleague at IRRI, Ken McNally to contribute a review of genomics and other ‘omics’ technologies to discover and analyse useful traits in germplasm collections to the 2014 genetic resources book that I referred to earlier . I’m sure there have been many useful developments in the intervening years.
One of these is gene editing, and Nicholas Karavolias (a graduate student at Berkeley University) has written an interesting review (from which the diagram above was sourced) of how the CRISPR gene editing tool is being used to improve crops and animals.
Among the climate change challenges that I mentioned earlier is the likelihood of increased flooding in many parts of the world. Just last year there were devastating floods along the Indus River in Pakistan where rice is an important crop, as it is in many Asian countries. Although grown in standing water in paddy fields, rice varieties will die if totally submerged for more than a few days when floods hit.
Rice paddies near Vientiane, Laos.
There are rice varieties that can grow rapidly as flood waters rise. Known as deepwater rice varieties, they can grow several centimeters a day. But they are never submerged as such for long.
The harvest of deepwater rice varieties in Thailand.
Over several decades, submergence tolerant rice varieties were developed in a collaborative project between US-based scientists and those at IRRI using marker-assisted selection (not genetic engineering) to identify a gene, named Sub1 (derived from an Indian rice variety) and incorporate it into breeding lines. My former IRRI colleagues, plant physiologist Abdelbagi Ismail and breeder David Mackill have written about response to flooding. In the video below you can see the impact of the Sub1 gene . And the impact of that gene is readily seen in the video below which shows two forms of the rice variety IR64 with and without the Sub1 gene.
To date, the impact of genetic engineering in crop improvement has not been as significant as the technology promised, primarily because of opposition (environmental, social, and political) to the deployment of genetically-modified varieties. I wrote about that issue some years back, and focused on the situation of beta-carotene rich rice known as ‘Golden Rice’. After many years of development, it’s gratifying to see that Golden Rice (as the variety Malusog) has now been grown commercially in the Philippines for the first time, and can now deliver real health and nutritional benefits to Vitamin A impoverished communities in the Philippines and hopefully elsewhere before too long.
In recent weeks there have been interesting news releases about the development of perennial rice and its potential to mitigate some climate change effects, and reduce labor usage. Researchers at the John Innes Centre in the UK have identified a gene that they hope will make wheat varieties more heat-resistant. The need for trait identification has never been greater or the importance of the hundreds of thousands of crop varieties and wild species that are safely conserved in genebanks around the world. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, there are now better and more efficient tools available to screen germplasm for disease and pest resistance, or for genes like the wheat gene just discussed.
In terms of adaptation to a changing climate through plant breeding, I guess much of the focus has been on developing varieties that are better adapted to changing environment, be that the physical or biotic environment.
But here’s another challenge that was first raised some years back by one of my former colleagues at IRRI, Melissa Fitzgerald (right) who was head of the Grain Quality, Nutrition, and Postharvest Center, and is now Professor and Interim Head of the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland, Australia.
And it’s to do with the potential global savings of carbon. Melissa and her colleagues were looking at the cooking time of different rice varieties. This is what she (and her co-authors wrote in an interesting 2009 paper):
The cooking time of rice is determined by the temperature at which the crystalline structures of the starch begin to melt. This is called gelatinization temperature (GT). Lowering the GT of the rice grain could decrease average cooking times by up to 4 min. Although this might initially seem entirely insignificant, by computing the number of times rice is cooked in any one day by millions of households around the world, a decrease of just 4 min for each cooking event could save >10,000 years of cooking timeeach day. This represents massive potential for global savings of carbon and is of particular relevance to poor, rural households that depend on scarce local supplies of fuel.
Now there’s a huge breeding challenge.
Anyway, in this post I’ve really only scratched the surface of the topic, but hopefully for those readers not familiar with plant breeding, what it entails, and what it can promise, I hope that I’ve explored a few interesting aspects.
 McNally, KL. 2014. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds), Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, UK. pp. 166-189
 Ismail, AM & Mackill, DJ. 2014. Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds), Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, UK. pp. 251-269.
Over a career spanning almost four decades, I spent more than 27 years in international agricultural research in South and Central America, and Asia. And a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham.
The head of department, potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes had just returned from a six week expedition to Bolivia (to collect wild species of potato) that was supported, in part, by the USAID-North Carolina State University-sponsored potato program in Peru.
The American joint leader of that program, Dr Richard Sawyer (left), mentioned to Jack that he wanted to send a young Peruvian scientist, Zosimo Huamán, to Birmingham for the MSc course in September 1971, and could he suggest anyone to fill a one-year vacancy.
On the night of his return to Birmingham, Jack phoned me about this exciting opportunity. And would I be interested. Interested? I’d long had an ambition to travel to South America, and Peru in particular.
However, my appointment at CIP was delayed until January 1973. Why? Let me explain.
In 1971, Sawyer was in the final stages of setting up the International Potato Center. However, a guaranteed funding stream for this proposed research center had not been fully identified.
At that time, there were four international agricultural research centers:
the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, the Philippines (founded in 1960);
the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) near Mexico City (1966);
the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria (1967); and
the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia (also 1967).
In May 1971 there was a significant development in terms of long-term funding for agricultural research with the setting up of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR (an umbrella organization of donors, run from the World Bank in Washington, DC) to coordinate and support the four centers I already mentioned, and potentially others (like CIP) that were being established.
Since its inception, CGIAR-supported research was dedicated to reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition, and ensuring more sustainable management of natural resources.
For more than 50 years, CGIAR and partners have delivered critical science and innovation to feed the world and end inequality. Its original mission—to solve hunger—is now expanding to address wider 21st century challenges, with the aim of transforming the world’s food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis. More on that below.
Back in 1971 the question was which funding agencies would become CGIAR members, and whether CIP would join the CGIAR (which it did in 1973).
Throughout 1971, Sawyer negotiated with the UK’s ODA to support CIP. But with the pending establishment of the CGIAR, ODA officials were uncertain whether to join that multilateral funding initiative or continue with the current bilateral funding model.
Decisions were, in the main, delayed. But one important decision did affect me directly. The ODA gave me a personal grant in September 1971 to remain in Birmingham until funding to CIP could be resolved. I therefore registered for a PhD on potatoes under Jack Hawkes’ supervision, and spent the next 15 months working on ideas I hoped to pursue further once I could get my hands on potatoes in the Andes, so to speak.
With Jack Hawkes in the potato field genebank at Huancayo, central Peru (3100 m above sea level) in early 1974.
In the event, the ODA provided £130,000 directly to CIP between 1973 and 1975 (= £1.858 million today), which funded, among other things, development of the center’s potato genebank, germplasm collecting missions around Peru, and associated research, as well as my position at the center.
Arriving in Peru was an ambition fulfilled, and working at a young center like CIP was a dream come true, even though, at just 24, I was somewhat wet behind the ears.
However, there were some great colleagues who taught me the ropes, and were important mentors then and throughout my career. I learnt a lot about working in a team, and about people management, very useful in later years as I moved up the management ladder.
For the first three years, my work was supervised and generously supported by an American geneticist, Dr Roger Rowe (right, with his wife Norma) who joined CIP on 1 May 1973 as head of the Breeding and Genetics Department. I owe a great deal to Roger who has remained a good friend all these years.
Always leading from the front, and never shy of making the tough decisions, Roger went on to fill senior management positions at several CGIAR centers. As a former colleague once commented to me, “Roger was the best Director General the CGIAR never had.” I couldn’t agree more.
When I joined CIP’s Regional Research group in 1976 and moved to Costa Rica, my new boss was Ken Brown (left). Ken had been working as a cotton physiologist in Pakistan for the Cotton Research Corporation, although he had previously worked in several African countries.
Ken never micromanaged his staff, was always there to help set priorities and give guidance. In those aspects of people management, I learned a lot from Ken, and he certainly earned my gratitude.
Aside from my work on potato genetic resources (and completing my PhD in 1975), I enjoyed the work on bacterial wilt and setting up a regional program, PRECODEPA as part of my Regional Research activities.
Jim Bryan (right, with Costarrican assistant Jorge Aguilar) was my closest friend at CIP. A native of Idaho, Jim was CIP’s seed production specialist. Down to earth and pragmatic, Jim taught me the importance of clean potato seed and seed production systems. He came to work with me in Costa Rica during 1979/80 and together we worked on a successful project (with the Costarrican Ministry of Agriculture) for the rapid multiplication of seed potatoes.
But by the end of 1980, I was looking for a new challenge when one came to my attention back home in the UK.
In April 1981, I joined the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology (as the Department of Botany had been renamed since I graduated).
With members of the project review team, with team leader Carlos Valverde on the right. Cesar Vittorelli, our CIP liaison is in the middle. I don’t remember the names of the two other team members, a Peruvian agronomist, on my right, and a Swiss economist between Vittorelli and Valverde.
But universities were under pressure from the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. It was becoming a numbers, performance-driven game. And even though the prospects of promotion to Senior Lecturer were promising (I was already on the SL pay scale), by 1991 I was ready for a change.
And so I successfully applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI, and once again working under the CGIAR umbrella. I moved to the Philippines in July, and stayed there for the next 19 years until retiring at the end of April 2010.
I was much happier at IRRI than Birmingham, although there were a number of challenges to face: both professional and personal such as raising two daughters in the Philippines (they were 13 and 9 when we moved to IRRI) and schooling at the International School Manila.
Whereas I’d joined CIP at the beginning of its institutional journey in 1973, IRRI already had a 30 year history in 1991. It was beginning to show its age, and much of the infrastructure built in the early 1960s had not fared well in the tropical climate of Los Baños and was in dire need of refurbishment.
A new Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe (right) from Germany was appointed in 1988 with a mandate to rejuvenate the institute before it slipped into terminal decline. That meant ‘asking’ many long-term staff to move on and make way for a cohort of new and younger staff. I was part of that recruitment drive. But turning around an institute with entrenched perspectives was no mean feat.
With responsibility for the world’s largest and most important rice genebank, and interacting with genebank colleagues at all the other centers, I took on the chair of the Inter-Center Working Group when we met in Ethiopia in January 1993, and in subsequent years took a major role in setting up the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP). This was a forerunner—and a successful one at that—of the programmatic approach adopted by the CGIAR centers.
The Swiss-funded projectto collect and conserve rice varieties from >20 countries, and the innovative and pioneer research about on-farm conservation were highlights of the 1990s. As was the research, in collaboration with my old colleagues at Birmingham, on the use of molecular markers to study and conserve germplasm. A first for the CGIAR centers. Indeed a first for any crop.
Helping my genebank staff grow in their positions, and seeing them promoted gave me great satisfaction. I’d inherited a staff that essentially did what they were told to do. With encouragement from me they took on greater responsibility—and accountability—for various genebank operations, and their enthusiastic involvement allowed me to make the necessary changes to how the genebank was managed, and putting it at the forefront of CGIAR genebanks, a position it retains today.
My closest friend and colleague at IRRI was fellow Brit and crop modeller, Dr John Sheehy (right). John joined the institute in 1995, and I was chair of his appointment committee. Within a short time of meeting John for the first time, I recognized someone with a keen intellect, who was not constrained by a long-term rice perspective, and who would, I believed, bring some exceptional scientific skills and thinking to the institute.
Among his achievements were a concept for C4 rice, and persuading the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to back a worldwide consortium (now administered from the University of Oxford) of some of the best scientists working on photosynthesis to make this concept a reality.
By May 2001, however, change was in the air. I was asked to leave the Genetic Resources Center (and research) and join IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications, to reconnect the institute with its funding donors, and develop a strategy to increase financial support. I also took IT Services, the Library and Documentation Services, Communication and Publication Services, and the Development Office under my wing.
IRRI’s reputation with its donors was at rock bottom. Even the Director General, Ron Cantrell, wasn’t sure what IRRI’s financial and reporting commitments were.
We turned this around within six months, and quickly re-established IRRI as a reliable partner under the CGIAR. By the time I left IRRI in 2010, my office had helped the institute increase its budget to US$60 million p.a.
This increased emphasis on funding was important as, by the end of the 1990s, several donors were raising concerns about the focus of the centers and how they should be supported. Furthermore, a number of external factors like the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, agreed by 150 countries in 1992), the growing consensus on the threat of climate change, the adoption of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, and subsequent Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs) meant that the 15 CGIAR centers as they had become could not continue with ‘business as usual’.
Until the end of the 1990s, each center had followed its own research agenda. But it became increasingly clear that they would have to cooperate better with each other and with the national programs. And funding was being directed at specific donor-led interests.
There is no doubt that investment in the CGIAR over 50 years has brought about great benefits, economically and in humanitarian ways. Investment in crop genetic improvement has been the mainstay of the CGIAR, and although research on natural resources management (NRM, such as soils and water) has been beneficial at local levels, it has not had the widespread impact that genetic improvement has.
The impact of the CGIAR is well-documented. Take this 2010 paper for example. Click on the image for more information.
My good friend from the University of Minnesota, Professor Phil Pardey and two colleagues have calculated the economic benefits of CGIAR to be worth about 10 times the cost. Impressive. Click on the image below for more information.
I have watched a couple of decades of CGIAR navel gazing as the system has tried to ‘discover’ the best modus operandi to support national programs and the billions of farmers and consumers who depend on its research outputs.
There’s no doubt these changes have increased bureaucracy across the CGIAR. One early development was the introduction of 3-year rolling Medium Term Plans with performance targets (always difficult in agricultural and biological research), which led to perverse incentives as many centers set unambitious targets that would attract high scores and therefore guarantee continued donor support.
I did not favor that approach (supported by my DG), encouraging my colleagues to be more ambitious and realistic in their planning. But it did result in conflict with an accountant in the World Bank – a ‘bean counter’ – who had been assigned to review how the centers met their targets each year. I don’t remember his name. We had endless arguments because, it seemed to me, he simply didn’t understand the nature of research and was only interested if a particular target had been met 100%. Much as I tried to explain that reaching 75% or perhaps lower could also mean significant impact at the user level, with positive outcomes, he would not accept this point of view. 100% or nothing! What a narrow perspective.
A former colleague in the CGIAR Independent Evaluation Arrangement office in Rome and a colleague have written an excellent evaluation of this performance management exercise, warts and all. Click on the image below to access a PDF copy.
Now we have OneCGIAR that is attempting to make the system function as a whole. Very laudable, and focusing on these five highly relevant research initiatives. Click on the image below for more information.
What I’m not sure about are the levels of management that the new structure entails: global directors, regional directors, program or initiative leaders, center directors (some taking on more than one role). Who reports to whom? It seems overly complicated to my simple mind. And there is certainly less emphasis on the centers themselves – despite these being the beating heart of the system. It’s not bureaucrats (for all their fancy slogans and the like) who bring about impacts. It’s the hard-working scientists and support staff in the centers.
Nevertheless, looking back on 50 years, I feel privileged to have worked in the CGIAR. I didn’t breed a variety of rice, wheat, or potatoes that were grown over millions of hectares. I didn’t help solve a water crisis in agriculture. But I did make sure that the genetic resources of potato and rice that underpin future developments in those crops were safe, and ready to be used by breeders whenever. I also helped IRRI get back on its feet, so to speak, and to survive.
And along the way, I did make some interesting contributions to science, some of which are still being cited more than four decades later.
I’m more than grateful for the many opportunities I’ve been afforded.
That’s right. Eat ’em to conserve ’em. Sounds counter-intuitive? Well, the answer is not what you might expect.
On a recent BBC Two program , Lisa, a pig breeder from North Yorkshire of rare—and very hairy—Hungarian Mangalica pigs, told one of the presenters (who’d wondered if he might turn vegetarian after seeing the cuteness of Mangalica piglets): “We need you to eat the meat, because if you don’t eat the meat, then farmers won’t breed them, and that’s how you lose them“.
Joe Henson also set up the Cotswold Farm Park in 1971 on his farm near Guiting Power that Adam and his business partner continue to run, where the public can see different breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and poultry, most of which no longer play any significant role in commercial agriculture. They only survive because of the interest and efforts of farmers like Adam and the RBST. While preservation of rare breeds is one of Adam’s passions, he frequently acknowledges that they have to pay their way. So, for many farmers like pig breeder Lisa, keeping rare breed livestock is a commercial enterprise. And there is a growing interest in and demand for rare breed meat.
What are the parallels in crops?
For decades now crops (and their wild relatives) have been conserved in genebanks around the world. Scientists in the 1960s acknowledged that unless these crop varieties were collected they might be lost forever. So the good news is that important genebank collections were established, crop varieties and diversity preserved, and used to create more productive varieties for farmers to grow.
Conservation in genebanks or seed banks (often referred to as ex situ conservation, and the plant equivalent of semen and egg or embryo storage) ensures that genetic diversity is protected over the long term, subject of course to the best genebank management practices. However, there are crops, like potatoes that reproduce vegetatively by tubers (important for maintaining specific varietal identity), and others that either don’t produce seeds, or which are short-lived and cannot be stored in a seed bank.
And the centers of the CGIAR around the world manage some of the largest and genetically most diverse genebank collections anywhere. I have been involved with two of these: for rice at the International Rice Research Institute, in Los Baños, in the Philippines, and for potatoes at the International Potato Center, in Lima, Peru. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides an extremely important safety backup to these and many national genebank collections.
However, what is the situation on farms? Do farmers continue to grow the varieties that have sustained their communities for generations? Is it feasible to conserve varieties on farm? And how many would opt to grow new varieties if these were available?
Just like livestock, crop varieties can only survive if farmers continue to care for them, and they are consumed. Eat ’em to conserve ’em.
Now many of these farmer varieties (often referred to as landrace or ‘heirloom’ varieties) are found in subsistence farm systems where the full impact of modern bred varieties has yet to be felt.
Take the situation of rice in the northern part of Laos in southeast Asia, for example. Many of the rice varieties grown there are upland rices, and modern rice breeding has produced fewer improved varieties for these agricultural systems. Farmers (many of them women) continue to grow hundreds of rice varieties. While I was head of genetic resources at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines during the 1990s, I spear-headed an international project to collect and conserve these varieties in Laos and many other countries, and one of my colleagues, Dr Seepana Appa Rao spent five years in Laos assisting local scientists there.
‘Heirloom’ rice varieties are an important cultural foundation of many societies throughout Asia (and Africa). But farmers need to make a living, aspire to a better life, producing food for their families, and generate income if possible to pay for their children’s education. Many farmers want something better than the drudgery of agriculture for their children.
Is it possible to make a profitable living from these varieties? What are the opportunities to make the old varieties more commercially appealing? To commodify them. Certainly if these traditional varieties could generate an income, then farmers would be more willing to grow them. And, in the process, fulfill an important objective of on-farm or in situ conservation in a sustainable manner, rather than having to rely on farmer-conservators or subsidies (which can always be taken away).
Nollie Vera Cruz
The Heirloom Rice Project (HRP) was a collaboration between the Philippines Department of Agriculture and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, coordinated by my former colleague, Dr Casiana ‘Nollie’ Vera Cruz) to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of ‘heirloom’ or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems. It focused on traditional rice varieties found only in the Cordillera Region provinces of Ifugao, Mountain Province, Benguet, and Kalinga or northern Luzon island.
As explained in one website story, ‘heirloom’ rice varieties come in grains of astonishing colors: brown, black, pink, purple, and pearly white; fragrant, nutty in taste, high in fiber; healthy to eat; a gourmet’s delight. Yet for all their captivating look and taste, they thrive in the most fragile places, on mountain tops, where dew, rain, and air are their only means of sustenance.
Rice terraces at Banaue, Ifugao Province, Philippines.
Furthermore . . . ‘heirloom’ rice varieties have been grown on the terraces of the Cordillera Mountains of Luzon, Philippines [for centuries], terroirs known for their significant historical, cultural, and aesthetic values. However, heritage ‘heirloom’ rice farming is gradually being abandoned, mainly because of its lower productivity and the struggle of the sector to create a sustainable niche market for heirloom rice by branding its cultural, social, and nutritional values.
One of the important outcomes was to link farmers with markets so that these special rice varieties could find a particular niche in the market, even exported during the course of the project to the USA. And it’s those linkages that were so important.
Let’s now to cross to South America where there is a wealth of potato varieties grown throughout the Andes of Peru and Bolivia in particular, mainly (until now) for home consumption.
As I have seen for myself, as long ago as 1974 near Cuzco in southern Peru, farmers successfully combined the cultivation of commercial varieties for the market while cultivating the ‘old’ varieties in small plots close to the farmstead, the basis of household food security.
In this photo, northwest of Cuzco, large commercial plantings of improved varieties can be seen in the distance, while inside the wall surrounding the farmstead only native varieties were grown.
Have farmers found a way to make these ‘heirloom’ varieties more commercial? Well, there’s a very interesting initiative in Peru that has spread across quite a large part of the country.
Potato farmers have formed AGUAPAN(Asociación de Guardianes de la Papa Nativa del Centro del Perú) that is supported by Grupo Yanapai, an NGO that has considerable experience in participatory research.
Farmers commercialize their varieties directly to households in Lima, even delivered directly to the door, as mixtures (chaqru) under the trade name Miski Papa.
What is particularly interesting about the project is that individual farmers are identified, and the commercialization strategy is geared towards understanding their roles and the varieties they grow. See how Sra. Guerrero grows 180 different varieties!
Now look at these other photos (on AGUAPAN’s Facebook page) showing different farmers and their varieties.
AGUAPAN has taken the opportunity to increase farmer incomes through this project and at the same time ensuring farmers continue to grow ‘heirloom’ varieties. There is an interesting paper published in 2021 by a former colleague of mine at CIP, Andre Devaux (and others) that describes how these potato varieties have become a culinary sensation and a market innovation.
These two projects on rice and potatoes (there must be more around the world on the same and other crops) show how two objectives can be met:
Enhancement of farmer livelihoods through market innovations with native ‘heirloom’ varieties;
On-farm (in situ) conservation that permits the dynamics of farmer management to prosper, and exposing genetic diversity to environmental challenges, so important under a changing climate.
Personally, until now, I have had some doubts about the wisdom of prioritizing on-farm conservation for crop genetic resources. Certainly in the 1990s there was quite a push to promote in situ conservation, and in the rice biodiversity project that I referred to at the beginning of the post, we learned a great deal about the choices farmers make on a daily basis. And that is what on-farm conservation should be all about: allowing farmers to make informed choices, to change their varieties, to discard some, adopt others. Even though some farmers take on a role of conservators, I’ve never believed that subsidies paid to farmers to ‘conserve’ their varieties was a viable, long-term option. With the commercialization initiatives I’ve described here, there are now excellent opportunities to ensure the long-term survival of ‘heirloom’ varieties in the systems where they originated.
Eat ’em to conserve ’em!
 The Hairy Bikers Go North, Episode 4 North Yorkshire (not available everywhere), just before three minutes, first broadcast on 14 October 2021.
28 June 1991. It was a Friday. Ten years and three months since I joined the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in Plant Biology. And it was my last day in that post. A brief farewell party in the School of Biological Sciences at the end of the day, and that was it. I was no longer an academic.
I’d left Peru in March 1981 with such enthusiasm for the next stage of my career at Birmingham. Having spent the previous eight years and three months in South and Central America with the International Potato Center (CIP), Steph and I were looking forward to setting up home with our daughter Hannah (then almost three) back in the UK. I joined the university on 1 April. Was I the fool?
By the end of the 1980s, however, my enthusiasm for academia had waned considerably. Not that I wasn’t getting on. Far from it. I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, I had an active research group (looking at the relationships between crop plants and their wild species relatives), and I enjoyed teaching.
But I began to get itchy feet, and when the opportunity arose (in September 1990) for a move to the Philippines, to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) as Head of the newly-established Genetic Resources Center (with its mandate to manage the world’s largest and genetically most important genebank for rice), I didn’t hesitate. Although, I have to admit, Steph and our daughters (Philippa was born in 1982) were less keen on the idea.
In early January 1991, I was interviewed for the position at IRRI (at its research center in Los Baños, about 70 km south of Manila, the capital city of the Philippines)
This was only my second trip to Asia. I’m not sure how or why at this distance of 30 years, but I flew to Manila (MNL) with British Airways out of London-Gatwick (LGW). Having checked in, I was informed that the flight to Manila was delayed because of a fault with the assigned aircraft (a 747), and that it would be replaced by an incoming aircraft – from Miami, which wasn’t expected for at least five hours. In the end, the delay was almost 15 hours, and I arrived in Los Baños just after 1 am on the Monday morning, having set out from the UK early on Saturday, with the expectation of arriving in the Philippines with just under 24 hours to recover from my trip before the interview schedule began. In the end, I had less than four hours sleep, and was up for a 7 am breakfast meeting with Director General Klaus Lampe (right) and his three Deputy Directors General!
By the end of the month I’d agreed a three year contract. Lampe wanted me to start on 1 April. But, as I explained—and he reluctantly accepted—I still had teaching and examination commitments at the university that would take me up to the end of June. So the earliest I would be able to join the institute was 1 July.
Even so, Lampe asked me to represent IRRI at a genetic resources meeting held in April at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. That would be the first of many meetings at FAO and even more visits to Rome where the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) also had its office.
I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. With just one day between leaving Birmingham and heading east, I still had some final packing. And, in any case, I had to make sure that everything was ship shape and Bristol fashion for Steph and the girls, as we’d agreed I would head off to the Philippines on my own, in the first instance, get settled into my new job, and they would join me just after Christmas.
That last couple of days were quite stressful. My friend and close colleague at Birmingham, Brian Ford-Lloyd and his wife Pat dropped by on the Saturday to wish me Bon Voyage! Brian has often told me subsequently that I looked rather drained. After all it was quite a step to up sticks and move the family to the Philippines. But it was a move we have never regretted.
Steph and I also agreed that we wouldn’t rent out our home in Bromsgrove (in northeast Worcestershire, and about thirteen miles south of Birmingham), but keep it locked up and safe in case we ever needed a bolt hole, as it were, should things not work out well at IRRI, or civil unrest required us to leave the country at short notice. Politics in the Philippines has always been volatile, to say the least.
So, come Sunday morning, it was a teary goodbye for all of us when the taxi arrived to take me to Birmingham airport (BHX) for the flight to MNL via London Heathrow (LHR) and Hong Kong (HKG). In subsequent years, and for a decade until Emirates had daily flights from BHX to Dubai (DXB) and on to MNL, we always flew with KLM via Amsterdam (AMS), much more convenient than transiting through LHR. Apart from our first home leave in the summer of 1992.
British Midland (now defunct) operated the connecting flight from BHX to LHR. Placing my two or three bags on the scales, the check-in agent told me that I was way over my allowance, and if I chose to check them through to MNL, then she would have to charge me £500. On the other hand, she could send them to LHR free of charge, and I could argue with my next carrier, British Airways, for the onward flight. She checked my schedule and we agreed there was more than sufficient time between landing in LHR and the departure of my HKG flight to pick up my bags in Terminal 1 and get to Terminal 4 to check-in for the HKG/MNL flight. Wrong!
The flight left BHX on time, but on landing at LHR we taxied to the perimeter of the apron because gates were either occupied or undergoing refurbishment. And there we sat for about 30 minutes until buses came along to take us to the terminal. All the while, my connection time was being eroded by the minute. Then I had to wait for my bags to offload, and for the bus to Terminal 4. On previous transits through LHR between terminals, the bus had always crossed to the other side of the airport where Terminal 4 is located through a tunnel, a journey of a matter of minutes. Not that day, however. Our bus headed out on to the public roads, hit the M25 then exited close to Terminal 4. By the time I reached the back of a check-in queue for my flight, it was due to depart in just five minutes. Panic stations!
Leaving my bags where they were, I politely walked to the front of the queue explaining to other waiting passengers my dilemma, and they kindly let me move to the front. I was in luck. The flight had been delayed by at least 30 minutes, and the agent reckoned I could still make it. What to do about the excess baggage charges? He agreed not to charge me the full amount, and after several attempts to charge my credit card, he waived the fees, told me to put the bags on an express shute, and RUN!
The aircraft door was closed immediately after I boarded and found the only empty seat in Business Class (my reserved seat having been reallocated), and we were off. I sat there, thanking my lucky stars that I’d made the flight after all, feeling rather sweaty, and hoping it wouldn’t be too long after take-off before the cabin crew brought round the drinks trolley and I could get stuck into my first G&T.
I don’t remember too much about the trip from that point. Not because of over-imbibing, I hasten to add. It was just uneventful. On arrival in Manila, I was greeted by Director of Administration Tim Bertotti (right) and his Vietnamese wife who would be my ‘welcomers’ for the next few weeks, show me the IRRI ropes, so to speak, and be a couple I could turn to for advice. Having collected my heavy bags, and found the IRRI driver we headed south to Los Baños, where I stayed in the IRRI Guesthouse for the next month or so until the house allocated to me had been redecorated.
I can’t deny that the first night in Los Baños was quite miserable. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of regret, whether I had made the right choice to give up a tenured position at the university (a number of colleagues there thought I was crazy to leave a tenured position for the ‘insecurity’ of short-term contracts overseas). And how would the family fare during the intervening six months until they headed east? So many questions, so many uncertainties. And hard to sleep because of jet-lag.
But the next morning there was no time for self pity. I had a job to do, and just get stuck in. A driver collected me from the Guesthouse after breakfast and took me down to the research center, less than a ten minute drive across the campus of the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). I got my ID, was assigned a car, and made an appointment to meet with Klaus Lampe.
Then it was off to GRC in the Brady Laboratory, a building named after IRRI’s second Director General, Nyle Brady. I was already aware that there was only measured enthusiasm among the GRC staff for my appointment. Three of us had been interviewed in January, all with MSc and PhD degrees from the University of Birmingham, and Professor Jack Hawkes had supervised our PhD research. The other two candidates already managed genebanks; I had no hands-on experience of genebank management. One of the candidates, a Chinese Malay national, had carried out his thesis research at IRRI (on rice of course) with my predecessor in the IRRI gene bank, Dr TT Chang, co-supervising his research. He was a known quantity for the GRC staff and, I think, their preferred candidate. Instead they got this straight-talking Brit.
First things first. I needed to understand in detail how the genebank was currently being managed, who the key personnel were, and what were their thoughts about how things might change. I also had to manage the merger of the genebank (known in 1991 as the International Rice Germplasm Center) with another group, the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER) that was coordinated by a senior Indian scientist, Dr Seshu Durvasula who, I’m sorry to say, had no intention of going along easily with the intended merger into GRC. He resented, I believe, that he had been overlooked for the leadership of GRC. And, in any case, who was this British scientist with no rice experience?
Anyway, back to the genebank. I think the staff were quite surprised to be asked their opinions. That was not Dr Chang’s style. Thanks to Eves, Pola (who I quickly identified as someone to lead the genebank operations on a daily basis, as genebank manager), Ato, Tom, Soccie, the data management group (Adel, Myrna, and Vangie), and Yvette and Amy (who I assigned to wild species research) for being very patient, answering all my questions, and letting me know when one of my ideas was perhaps a step too far. But one thing was clear: the operations of the genebank had to be upgraded and made more efficient. After about six months I was ready to put a plan into operation. By then, Steph and the girls were ready to fly out to the Philippines to join me.
But I have to make special mention to two very special ladies, who made my first months at GRC (and IRRI in general) so much easier: the GRC secretaries Sylvia Arellano (L below) and Tessie Santos (R). Jewels in the IRRI crown.
Sylvia was my personal secretary, and had worked for TT Chang for a number of years before he retired. Tessie supported the other internationally-recruited scientist in the genebank, British geneticist Dr Duncan Vaughan, and the rest of the genebank staff as and when needed.
Sylvia (known as Syl to everyone) was a mine of information, knew exactly who to contact should I need to follow up on any issue, and was quick to advise me how to deal with colleagues (especially the old timers) with whom I had to work across the institute. She knew just how to get things done, call in favors, and the like. I reckon that without her day-to-day support my first few months at IRRI (before I knew the ropes or understood the institutional politics) would have been far less productive. I cannot thank her too much for all the support she gave me, and we remain in contact and good friends to this day, even though it’s eleven years since I retired from IRRI, and almost 25 years since she last worked with me.
When I was on home leave in the UK during the summer of 1997, I had a phone call from the then Director General, Dr George Rothschild, who asked ‘permission’ for Sylvia to move from my office to become Executive Secretary to the Director General. It was hardly an offer I could refuse, and in any case, it was a huge promotion for Syl. She remained as Executive Secretary to the DG until her retirement a few years back, serving under three DGs (possibly four) and an Acting DG.
Tessie was quite shy, and seemed rather in awe of me. But she was a valued member of the GRC staff, and on those occasions when Syl was away from the institute, Tessie would admirably step into her shoes as my personal secretary. After a few months and once she got used to me, Tessie began to relax in my presence. Tessie was just the sort of staff member that IRRI should be proud of: hard-working, loyal, knowledgeable. And it was my good fortune that Syl had someone like Tessie to back her up.
By the end of 1991, I was very much at home at IRRI. I had a good relationship with Klaus Lampe (well, for the next couple of years or so), I had the measure of my immediate boss, Deputy Director General for International Programs, Dr Fernando ‘Nanding’ Bernardo for whom, I’m sad to relate, I didn’t have much time, and I was moving ahead with plans for the upgrade of the genebank, and reorganization of the staff. It felt like the world was my oyster, and I looked forward to the coming year with the family in Los Baños as well.
Originally thinking that I’d remain at IRRI for perhaps a couple of three-year contracts, but certainly no longer than ten years, when I retired at the end of April 2010 I’d been at IRRI for almost 19 years. Joining IRRI was the best career move I made.
I worked overseas for much of my career—just over 27 years—in three countries. For those who are new to my blog, I’m from the UK, and I worked in agricultural research (on potatoes and rice) in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines, besides spending a decade in the UK in between teaching plant sciences at the University of Birmingham.
I have been asked, from time to time, which of the three countries Steph and I enjoyed the most. That’s not really a fair question.
Each country was a totally different experience, reflecting to a large extent that stage of our lives. We were young and newly-married in Peru in the early 1970s, our first time abroad. We raised our elder daughter Hannah in Costa Rica in the late 1970s, and were already in our early 40s when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, with two growing daughters: Hannah was 13, and Philippa just nine (born in Worcestershire in the UK). I got to learn a second language, Spanish, and became quite fluent by the time we left the Americas in 1981.
Now that I’ve been retired for over a decade, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on those years spent abroad.
I won’t deny that I have a particular soft-spot for Peru. It was a country I’d wanted to visit since I was a small boy, when I often spent hours poring over maps of South America, imagining what those distant countries and cities would be like to visit.
I don’t know why I was particularly drawn to the map of South America. I guess it’s the iconic shape for one thing. But, when I first moved up to high school in 1960, just before my 12th birthday, our geography lessons focused on several South American countries. I wrote to a number of embassies in London asking for information packs, and was rewarded over the following weeks with a host of brochures, maps, and the like.
Anyway, to cut a long story short (I have posted several stories elsewhere about my early days in Lima), I was offered, in February 1971, the opportunity to work in Peru, initially for just a year from September that year. Things didn’t go to plan, and it wasn’t until January 1973 that I actually landed in Lima, which became my home for the next three years.
13 October 1973
Steph joined me in July, and we married the following October in the Miraflores suburb where we rented an apartment. Working at the International Potato Center (known as CIP through its Spanish acronym) we both traveled frequently to the center’s research station in Huancayo, an important town in the central Andes of Peru, in the broad and fertile Mantaro valley, a 300 km journey that often took six hours or more. The highway, the Carretera Central, crossed the Andes at a highest point of 4,843 metres (15,890 ft) at Ticlio (around Km 120).
In my own work collecting indigenous varieties of potatoes, I traveled to many parts of northern Peru, in the Departments of Ancash, La Libertad, and Cajamarca in 1973 and 1974.
And to the south around Lake Titicaca in the Department of Puno and near Cuzco, where I continued my research towards a PhD.
Collecting potato flower buds for chromosome counts, from a farmer’s field near Cuzco, in February 1974.
Steph and I also took great pleasure in taking our Volkswagen deep into the mountains, and on long trips down the coast to Arequipa and up to Lake Titicaca. And north to the Callejón de Huaylas in Ancash, below Peru’s highest mountain Huascarán, and on to Cajamarca further north.
Looking north to the Callejon de Huaylas, and Nevado Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.
I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu just a week after I arrived in Peru, and had great pleasure taking Steph there in December the same year. In fact we delayed our honeymoon so we could book a stay at the tourist hotel at Machu Picchu (a hotel that closed many years ago).
Enjoying Machu Picchu in December 1973.
Our years in Lima were special. As I said, it was the first time Steph and I had worked abroad. CIP was a young organization, founded just over a year before I joined. There was a small group of staff, pioneers in a way, and there weren’t the layers of bureaucracy and procedures that bedevil much larger and longer-established organizations.
Peru is a stunningly beautiful country, and lived up to all my expectations. I was not disappointed. It had everything: culture, history, archaeology, landscapes. And wonderful food. You name it, Peru had it.
But, after three years, it was time to move on, and that’s when we began a new chapter in Costa Rica from April 1976 a new chapter. Professionally, for me it was a significant move. I’d turned 27 a few months earlier. CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program to adapt potatoes to hot and humid conditions, so-called ‘tropical potatoes’. I was on my own; I had to rely on my own resources to a large extent. It was a steep learning curve, but so worthwhile and stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.
We remained in Costa Rica for almost five years, based at a regional agricultural research institute, CATIE, in the small town of Turrialba, some 70 km east of San José, the capital city.
The CATIE administration building
We enjoyed trips to the volcanoes nearby: Turrialba, Irazú, and Poás, to the beaches of northwest Costa Rica, just south of the frontier with Nicaragua on the Guanacaste Peninsula. Also to the north of Panama where potatoes were the main crop in the volcanic region just south of the international border.
Hannah was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. It was a great place to raise a small child. In 1980 we took her the Monteverde National Biological Reserve in the northwest of the country (and many hours drive from Turrialba) in search of the Resplendent Quetzal.
Resplendent quetzal. (Image courtesy of Prof. Rob Beynon).
Professionally, I learnt a lot about potatoes as a crop, about the management of potato diseases, and seed production, and contributed to setting up one of the first multi-country programs among any of the CGIAR centers. PRECODEPA as it was known set the standard for multilateral cooperation between national programs for many years to come.
I had a great team, albeit small, working with me: Jorge, Moisés, and Leda, and I wrote about them and catching up again after 40 years in a recent blog post.
Costa Rica is such a beautiful, green country, a tropical paradise, with about 25% of its land area set aside for national parks and the like. It’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and I spent many hours sitting on the doorstep at home, sipping a super ice-cold beer (Cerveza Tropical was my beverage of choice) watching the multitude of birds that visited our garden. On one Christmas bird survey in the Turrialba valley, me and my birding partner spotted around 100 different species in half a day! And mammals as well: skunks, armadillos, and coatimundi among those found in the garden, not to mention some of the world’s most poisonous snakes.
After almost five years there, it was time to move on, with the expectation of a posting with CIP to the Philippines. Instead we returned to the UK in 1981, and didn’t actually make it to the Philippines until a decade later. An archipelago of more than 7600 islands; the Land of Smiles.
By the end of the 1980s I was much less enamored of academic life, and had begun to look out for new opportunities. One particularly interesting one came along in September 1990 when I applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.
For much of my career, I have taken a keen interest in science communication. Such that, a couple of years after I’d become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning & Coordination in 2001, I was asked to take on line management responsibility for several of IRRI’s administrative units, including the Communication and Publications Services (CPS) headed by my good friend Gene Hettel. My job changed to some degree, as did my title: Director for Program Planning & Communications.
I’ve always felt that scientists have a responsibility to explain their work to the general public in plain language. We’re fortunate here in the UK; there are several leading lights in this respect who have made their mark in the media and now represent, to a considerable extent, ‘the face of science’ nationally. None of them is shy about speaking out on matters of concern to society at large.
Sir David Attenborough (far left, above) is one of the world’s leading advocates for biodiversity conservation who also eloquently explains the threat and challenges of climate change. Professors Alice Roberts (second left, of The University of Birmingham) and Brian Cox (second right, The University of Manchester) have both made their mark in TV broadcasts in recent years, bringing fascinating programs covering a range of topics to the small screen. And then again, there’s Sir Paul Nurse (far right), Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and former President of the Royal Society. I was particularly impressed with his Richard Dimbleby Lecture, The New Enlightenment, on the BBC in 2012 about his passion for science. It’s well worth a watch.
I would never claim to be in the same league as these illustrious scientists. However, over the years I have tried—in my small way—to raise awareness of the science area with which I am most familiar: plant genetic resources and their conservation. And in this blog, I have written extensively about some of my work on potatoes at the International Potato Center in Peru and on rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, as well as training genetic resources scientists at the University of Birmingham.
So, when I was approached a few weeks ago to be interviewed and contribute to a podcast series, Plant Breeding Stories, I jumped at the chance.
The podcasts are hosted by Hannah Senior, Managing Director of PBS International, a world leading company in pollination control. So far, there have been eleven podcasts in two series, with mine broadcast for the first time just a couple of days ago. In this clip, Hannah explains the rationale for the series.
Just click on the image below to listen to our 35 minute conversation about genetic resources, genebanks, and their importance for plant breeding and food security. Oh, and a little about me and how I got into genetic resources work in the first place.
I hope you find the podcast interesting, and even a little bit enlightening. A transcript of the broadcast can be downloaded here. Thanks for listening.
If, in the summer of 1970, someone had told me that one day I would be teaching botany at university, I would have told them they were delusional. But that’s what happened in April 1981 when I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. Hard to believe that’s already 40 years ago today. I stayed at Birmingham for a decade.
Birmingham is a campus university, one of the first, and also the first of the so-called ‘redbrick‘ universities. The campus has changed radically in the 30 years since I left, but many of the same landmarks are still there. The beauty of the campus can be appreciated in this promotional video.
I never, ever had any pretensions to a life in academia. As an undergraduate studying for a combined degree in Environmental Botany and Geography at University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970, I was a run-of-the-mill student. It wasn’t that I had little enthusiasm for my degree. Quite the contrary, for the most part. I enjoyed my three years at university, but I did burn the candle more at one end than the other. Also, I didn’t really know (or understand) how to study effectively, and no-one mentored me to become better. And it showed in my exam results. So while I graduated with a BSc (Hons.) degree, it was only a Lower Second; I just missed out, by a couple of percentage points, on an Upper or 2(i) degree. Perhaps with a little more effort I could have achieved that goal of a ‘better degree’. Que será . . .
I was interviewed in February 1970 and offered a place, but with no guarantee of funding. It wasn’t until late in the summer—about a couple of weeks before classes commenced—that the head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes phoned me to confirm my place (notwithstanding my ‘poor’ degree) and that he’d managed to squeeze a small grant from the university. It was just sufficient to pay my academic fees, and provide an allowance of around £5 per week (about £67 at today’s value) towards my living expenses.
So, in early September 1970 I found myself in Birmingham alongside four other MSc candidates, all older than me, from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Venezuela, excited to learn all about plant genetic resources. I discovered my study mojo, redeeming myself academically (rather well, in fact), sufficient for Jack Hawkes to take me on as one of his PhD students, even as I was expecting to move to Peru to join the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. And that’s what I did for the rest of the decade, working in South and Central America before returning to Birmingham as a member of staff.
The years before Birmingham
I spent over eight years with CIP, between January 1973 and April 1976, working as an Associate Taxonomist in Lima, and helping to manage the multitude of potato varieties in the center’s field genebank, participating in collecting trips to different parts of Peru to find new varieties not already conserved in the genebank, and continuing research towards my PhD.
Sampling potato flower buds for chromosome studies, near Cuzco, 1974
Near Cuzco in southern Peru, 1974
Looking east back over Cajamarca, with the mists rising up from the inca baths.
In the meantime, my girlfriend Stephanie (who I met at Birmingham) and I decided to get married, and she flew out to Peru in July 1973. We were married in Lima in October .
In May 1975, Steph and I returned to Birmingham for six months so I could complete the residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and defend my thesis. We returned to Lima by the end of December just after I received my degree.
From April 1976 and November 1980, Steph and I lived in Costa Rica in Central America on the campus of the regional agricultural research center, CATIE, in Turrialba, a small town 62 km due east of the capital, San José.
By November 1980 I felt it was time to move on, and requested CIP to assign me to another program. We moved back to Lima. However, with one eye on life beyond CIP, and with a growing daughter, Hannah (born in April 1978, and who would, in the next couple of years, be starting school) I also began to look for employment opportunities in the UK.
Looking for new opportunities
Towards the end of 1980 (but before we had returned to Lima) I became aware that a new lectureship was about to be advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany, my alma mater) at Birmingham. With the retirement of Jack Hawkes scheduled for September 1982, the lectureship would be recruited to fill an anticipated gap in teaching on the CUPGR Course.
I sent in an application and waited ‘patiently’ (patience is not one of my virtues) for a reply to come through. By the end of December (when we were already back in Lima, and in limbo so to speak) I was told I was on a long short list, but would only proceed to the final short list if I would confirm attending an interview in Birmingham (at my own expense) towards the end of January 1981. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and with the encouragement of the Dr Sawyer (who promised to keep a position open for me if the Birmingham application was unsuccessful) I headed to the UK.
Since completing my PhD in 1975, I had published three papers from my thesis, and a few others on potato diseases and agronomy. Not an extensive publication list by any stretch of the imagination, compared to what might be expected of faculty candidates nowadays. In reality my work at CIP hadn’t led to many scientific publication opportunities. Publications were not the be-all and end-all metric of success with the international centers back in the day. It’s what one achieved programmatically, and its impact on the lives of potato farmers that was the most important performance criterion. So, while I didn’t have a string of papers to my name, I did have lots of field and managerial experience, I’d worked with genetic resources for a number of years, and my research interests, in taxonomy and biosystematics, aligned well with the new position at Birmingham.
I interviewed successfully (eminent geneticist Professor John Jinks chairing the selection panel), and was offered the lectureship on the spot, from 1 April. The university even coughed up more than half the costs of my travel from Peru for interview. Subject to successfully passing a three-year probation period, I would then be offered tenure (tenure track as they say in North America), the holy grail of all who aspire to life in academia.
Heading to Birmingham
Saying farewell to CIP in mid-March 1981, and after more than eight happy years in South and Central America, Steph, Hannah, and I headed back to the UK via New York, where I had to close our account with Citibank on 5th Avenue.
Steph and Hannah at the top of the Empire State Building
This was just a couple of weeks or so before I was due to begin at Birmingham. We headed first to Steph’s parents in Southend-on-Sea. Since we had nowhere to live in Birmingham, we decided that I should move there on my own in the first instance, and start to look for a house that would suit us.
A few months before I joined Plant Biology, the department had recruited a lecturer in plant biochemistry, Dr John Dodds, a few years younger than me (I was 32 when I joined the university). John and I quickly became friends, and he offered me the second bedroom in his apartment, a short distance from the university.
The search for a house didn’t take long, and by mid-April we’d put in an offer on a house in Bromsgrove, some 13 miles south of the university, which was to remain our home for the next 39 years until we sold up last September. We moved in at the beginning of July, the day before I had to go away for the following two weeks as one of the staff supervising a second year undergraduate ecology field trip in Scotland. Not the most convenient of commitments under the circumstances. But that’s another story.
I start teaching
So, 40 years on, what are my reflections on the decade I spent at Birmingham?
It was midway through the 1980-81 academic year when I joined the department. I spent much of April settling in. My first office (I eventually moved office three times over the next decade) was located in the GRACE Lab (i.e., Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution Lab) where the CUPGR MSc students were based, in the grounds of Winterbourne House, on the edge of the main university campus, and about ten minutes walk from the department.
Pauline Mumford (standing, center) with the MSc Class of ’82 (my first full year at Birmingham) from (L-R) Malaysia, Uruguay, Germany, Turkey, Bangladesh (x2), Portugal, and Indonesia.
By September, an office had been found for me in the main building. This was necessary since, unlike Pauline, I had teaching commitments to undergraduate students on the honours Biological Sciences degree course, as well as having undergraduate tutees to mentor and meet with on a regular basis.
As I said, I’d been recruited to take over, in the first instance, Jack Hawkes’ teaching commitments, which comprised a contribution to the second year module in plant taxonomy, and evolution of crop plants, one of the main components of the CUPGR course. There were also opportunities to develop other courses, and in due time, this is what I did.
At the end of April 1981, Jack called me into his office, handed me his taxonomy lecture notes and said ‘You’re up tomorrow morning’. Talk about being thrown in the deep end. Jack lectured about ‘experimental taxonomy’, patterns of variations, breeding systems and the like, and how taxonomic classification drew on these data. Come the next day, I strode into the lecture theater with as much confidence as I could muster, and began to wax lyrical about breeding systems. About half way through, I noticed Jack quietly walk into the room, and seat himself at the back, to check on how well I was doing (or not). That was one of his mentor roles. He was gone before I’d finished, and later on he gave me some useful feedback—he’d liked what he had seen and heard.
But the lecture hadn’t nearly taken place. One of my colleagues, Dr Richard Lester, who was the lead on the taxonomy module, blithely informed me that he would be sitting in on my lecture the next day. ‘Oh no, you’re not‘ I emphatically retorted. I continued, ‘Walk in and I stop the lecture’. I had never really seen eye-to-eye with Richard ever since the day he had taught me on the MSc Course. I won’t go into detail, but let me say that we just had a prickly relationship. What particularly irked me is that Richard reported our conversation to Jack, and that’s why Jack appeared the next day.
I had quite a heavy teaching load, compared to many of my colleagues, even among those in the other three departments  that made up the School of Biological Sciences. Fortunately, I had no first year teaching. Besides my second year plant taxonomy lectures, I developed a small module on agroecosystems in the Second Year Common Course (of which I became chair over the course of the decade).
In their final year, students took four modules each of five weeks (plus a common evolution course). My long-time friend Brian Ford-Lloyd and I developed a module on plant genetic resources. Besides daily lectures, each student had to complete a short research project. I can’t deny that it was always a challenge to come up with appropriate projects that would yield results in such a short period. But I found working alongside these (mostly enthusiastic) students a lot of fun.
Each year I’d take the group a few miles down the road to the National Vegetable Gene Bank (now the UK Vegetable Genebank) at Wellesbourne, where we’d meet its Director, Dr Dave Astley (who had completed his MSc and PhD, on potatoes with Jack Hawkes at Birmingham). It was a great opportunity for my students to understand the realities of genetic conservation.
I taught a 25 lecture course to the MSc students on crop diversity and evolution, with two practical classes each week during which students would look at as wide a range of diversity as we could grow at Winterbourne (mostly under glass). In this way, they learned about the taxonomy of the different crops, how diversity had developed, their breeding systems, and the like. The practical classes were always the most challenging element to this course. We never knew until each class just what materials would be available.
In 1982, I took a group of students to Israel for a two week course on genetic resources of the eastern Mediterranean. Not all of that year’s intake, unfortunately, as some came from countries that banned travel to Israel.
I developed a module on germplasm collecting, and in the summer months set some field exercises on a synthetic barley population comprising up to ten varieties that differed morphologically, and also matured at different times, among other traits. We would sample this population in several ways to see how each method ‘captured’ the various barleys at the known frequency of each (obviously I knew the proportions of each variety in the population).
The functioning of agroecosystems was something I’d been drawn to during my time in Costa Rica, so I passed some of that interest on to the MSc group, and helped out on some other modules like data management. And I became the Short Course Tutor for students who came to Birmingham for one or other of the two taught semesters, or both in some instances. Looking after a cohort of students from all over the world, who often had limited language skills, was both a challenge and a worthwhile endeavour. To help all of our MSc and Short Course students we worked with colleagues in the English Department who ran courses for students with English as a second language. Each member of staff would record a lecture or more, and these would be worked up into an interactive tutorial between students, ourselves, and the English staff. Once one’s lectures have been pulled apart, it’s remarkable to discover just how many idiomatic phrases one uses quite casually but which mean almost nothing to a non-native speaker.
Each MSc student had to write a dissertation, examined in September at the end of the year (just as I had on lentils in 1971), based on research completed during the summer months after sitting the written exams. Over my decade with the course, I must have supervised the dissertations of 25 students or more, working mainly on potatoes and legumes, and leading in some cases to worthwhile scientific publications. Several of these students went on to complete their PhD under my supervision often in partnership with another research institute like CIP, Rothamsted Experiment Station (now Rothamsted Research), MAFF plant pathology lab in Harpenden, and the Food Research Institute in Norwich.
With PhD students Ghani Yunus (from Malaysia) and Javier Francisco-Ortega (from Spain-Canary Islands).
Left of the tree: Professor Smallman, Jim Callow, Trevor Williams, Jack Hawkes. Right of the tree: Mike Jackson, Richard Lester, Mike Lawrence. And many students, of course.
Earlier, I mentioned that at the beginning of each academic year every staff member was assigned a group of students (the annual intake then was more than 100 students, and is considerably larger today) as tutees, with whom we would meet on a regular basis. These tutorial sessions, one-on-one or in a small group, were an informal opportunity of assessing each student’s progress, to set some work, and overall to help with their well-being since for many, attending university would be the first time they were away from home, and fending for themselves. The tutorial system was not like those at the Oxbridge colleges.
Most students flourished, some struggled. Having someone with whom to share their concerns was a lifeline for some students. I always thought that my tutor responsibilities were among the most important I had as a member of staff, and ensuring my door was always open (or as open as it could be) whenever a tutee needed to contact me. Not all my colleagues viewed their tutorial responsibilities the same. And I do appreciate that, today, with so many more students arriving at university, staff have to structure their availability much more rigidly, sometimes to excess.
In October 1981, my first final year tutee was Vernonica ‘Noni’ Tong* who went on to complete a PhD with my close colleague, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence on incompatibility systems in poppies. Noni joined the Genetics Department and rose to become Professor of Plant Cell Biology (now Emeritus). Several others also went on to graduate work. Another, Julian Parkhill, graduated around 1987 or 1988, went on to Bristol for his PhD, and is now Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2014.
I like to think that, in some way, I helped these students and others make wise career choices, and instilled in them a sense of their own worth. At least one former tutee (who completed her PhD at the University of Durham) has told me so, and that made it all worthwhile.
The School of Biological Sciences
In September 1982, Jack Hawkes retired from the Mason Chair of Botany, and a young lecturer, Jim Callow from the University of Leeds, was elected to the position. Jim took on the role of MSc Course leader, but the day-to-day administration fell to Brian Ford-Lloyd (as Tutor) and myself (for the Short Course students). Jim was a physiologist/ biochemist with an interest in biotechnology, but nothing about genetic resources. He also had little understanding (or sympathy, so I felt) for my areas of research and teaching interests. He frankly did not understand, so I never developed a good relationship with him.
My closest colleague in the department was Brian who had been appointed to a lectureship around 1977 or 1978. He had completed his PhD in the department in 1973, and he and I were graduate students together until I moved to Peru. We became good friends, and this friendship has lasted until today. He also lived in Bromsgrove, and after I returned to the UK on retirement in 2010, Brian (now Professor Ford-Lloyd) and I would meet up every few weeks for a few beers at the Red Lion on Bromsgrove’s High Street, and to put the world to rights.
On reflection, I can say that relationships among the staff of Plant Biology were pretty harmonious, notwithstanding the comment I made earlier. But several staff were approaching retirement as well, so there was quite a change in the department when a couple of young lecturers were also appointed within a year of me, Drs John Newbury and Jon Green, both of whom also rose to professorships late in their careers.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the School of Biological Sciences underwent a fundamental reorganization, abandoning the federal system, and transforming into a single department with a unitary Head of School. Much to the chagrin of my friends and colleagues in Genetics, Jim Callow was selected as the first Head of School under this new arrangement. To replace the old four department structure, we organized ourselves into five research themes. I joined the Plant Genetics Group, moving my office once again closer to other group members. As a member of this group, I probably had two or three of the best years I spent at Birmingham, with Dr (later Professor) Mike Kearsey as my head of group.
Research and publications
My research interests focused on potatoes and legumes, often sustained by a healthy cohort of MSc and PhD students.
One project, funded by the British government from overseas aid budget in partnership with CIP, investigated the options for breeding potatoes grown from true potato seed. A project that we had to pull the plug on after five years.
In another, Brian and I worked with a commercial crisping (potato chips, in US parlance) company to produce improved potato varieties using induced somaclonal variation, leading to some interesting and unexpected implications for in vitro genetic conservation. There was also an interesting PR outcome from the project.
All in all, my group research led to 29 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, several book chapters, and a range of contributions to the so-called grey literature (not peer-reviewed, but nonetheless important scientifically). You can open a list of those Birmingham publications here.
I’m also proud of the introductory textbook on genetic resources that Brian and I wrote together, published in 1986. It quickly sold its print run of more than 3000 copies.
Then, in 1989, we organized a weekend conference (with Professor Martin Parry of the Department of Geography) on climate change, leading to the pioneer publication of the conference proceedings in 1990  in this newly-emerged field of climate change science. Brian, Martin and I collaborated almost a quarter of a century later to edit another book on the same topic.
I was fortunate to undertake one or two consultancies during my years at Birmingham. The most significant was a three week assignment towards the end of the decade to review a seed production project funded by the Swiss government, that took us Huancayo in the Central Andes, to Cajamarca in the north, and Cuzco in the south, as well as on the coast. This was an excellent project, which we recommended for second phase funding, that ultimately collapsed due to the conflict with the terrorist group Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso that affected all parts of Peruvian society.
The seed project review team (L-R): Peruvian agronomist, me (University of Birmingham), Cesar Vittorelli (CIP Liaison), Swiss economist (SDC), Carlos Valverde (ISNAR, team leader)
With funding from the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega was able to collect an indigenous legume species from his native Canary Islands in 1989, for his dissertation research. I joined Javier for three weeks on that trip.
Collecting escobon (Chamaecytisus proliferus) in Tenerife in 1989
All work and no play . . . Each December, the Plant Biology Christmas party was usually held at Winterbourne House. For several years, we organized a pantomime, written and produced by one of the graduate students, Wendy (I don’t remember her surname). These were great fun, and everyone could let their hair down, taking the opportunity for some friendly digs at one staff member or another. In the photos below, I played the Fairy Godmother in a 1987 version of Cinderella, and on the right, I was the Grand Vizier in Aladdin, seen here with graduate student Hilary Denny as Aladdin. In the top left photo, kneeling on the right, and wearing what looks like a blue saucepan on his head, is Ian Godwin, a postdoc from Australia for one year. Ian is now Professor of Crop Science at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation. To Ian’s left is Liz Aitken, also a postdoc at that time who came from the University of Aberdeen, and now also a Professor at the University of Queensland.
Then, in the summer months, I organized a departmental barbecue that we held in Winterbourne Gardens, that were part of the department in those days, and now open to the public. In this photo, I’m being assisted by one of my PhD students, Denise Burman.
So why did I leave in July 1991?
Professor Martin Parry
Towards the end of the 1980s I also became heavily involved in a university-wide initiative, known as Environmental Research Management or ERM, to promote the university’s expertise in environmental research, chaired by Martin Parry (I became the Deputy Chair). So, coupled with my own teaching, research, and administrative duties in Biological Sciences, I was quite busy, and on my way to promotion. I was doing all the ‘right things’, and working my way up the promotions ladder (competing with all other eligible staff in the Science Faculty). It was quite helpful that the Dean of the Science Faculty, Professor George Morrison (a nuclear physicist), and someone with his finger on the promotions pulse, also took a close interest in ERM, and I got to know him quite well.
When I handed in my resignation in March 1991, I knew that my application for promotion to Senior Lecturer was about to be approved (I was already on the Senior Lecturer pay scale). By then, however, life in academia had lost some of its allure. And Margaret Thatcher was to blame.
Around 1998 or 1989, the Thatcher government forced a number of ‘reforms’ on the universities, bringing in performance initiatives and the like, without which the government would not consider either increased funding to the system or pay increases for staff.
So we all underwent performance management training (something I became very familiar with during the next phases of my career). It was made clear that staff who were struggling (as teachers, researchers, or even with administration) would be offered help and remedial training to up their game. Those of us performing well (which included myself) were offered the opportunity to take on even more. It was a breaking point moment. With the increased emphasis on research performance and research income, I felt that my time in academia had almost run its course. My research interests did not easily attract research council funding. I was beginning to feel like a square peg in a round hole.
So, when in September 1990, a job advert for the position of head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI landed on my desk, I successfully threw my hat in the ring, and joined IRRI in July 1991, remaining there for the next 19 years, before retiring back to the UK in May 2010.
With few regrets I resigned and prepared for the move to the Philippines. I had to see my students (both undergraduate and MSc) through their exams in June before I could, with good conscience, leave the university. My last day was Friday 30 June, and Brian often reminds me that when he came round to our house in Bromsgrove to say goodbye and wish me well the following day, he was shocked at how white-faced and stressed I appeared. Well, it was a big move and I was leaving the family behind for the next six months, and heading off into the unknown to some extent. Early on Sunday morning I headed to Birmingham International Airport to begin the long journey east via London Heathrow.
But that’s not quite the end of my academic life. Not long after I joined IRRI, I was appointed Affiliate Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). Then, with Brian, John Newbury, and colleagues at the John Innes Centre, we developed a collaborative research project looking at the application of molecular markers to study and manage the large rice germplasm collection at IRRI. I was appointed Honorary Senior Lecturer at Birmingham, and for several years when I was back on home leave I would visit the university and lecture to the MSc students on the realities and challenges of managing a large genebank, as well as following up on our research collaboration.
As Director for Program Planning and Communications, I had line management responsibility for (L-R) Communications and Publications Services (Gene Hettel), IRRI’s library (Mila Ramos), IT Services (Marco van den Berg), the Development Office (Duncan Macintosh), and Program Planning (Corinta Guerta).
Was I cut out for a life in academia? Yes and no. I think I fulfilled my duties conscientiously, and with some success in some aspects. I admit that my research contributions were not the strongest perhaps. But I did mostly enjoy the teaching and the interaction with students. I always felt that not enough weight was given to one’s teaching contributions. Back in the day research was the main performance metric, and increasingly the amount of research funding that one could generate. That was a bit of a treadmill. So while I mostly enjoyed my decade at Birmingham, I found the next nineteen years at IRRI far more satisfying. I had the opportunity to put my stamp on an important component of the institute’s program, bringing the genebank and its operations into the 21st century, and ensuring the safety and availability of one of the world’s most important germplasm collections. Having left genebanking behind in 2001, I then enjoyed another nine years as a member of the institute’s senior management team. And, on reflection, I think those management years gave me the most satisfaction of my career.
 Steph also worked at CIP as an Associate Geneticist assisting the head of department, Dr Roger Rowe (who co-supervised my PhD research), to manage the germplasm collection. Prior to joining CIP, Steph had been a research assistant with the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that, in those days, was housed at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh. The CPC is now maintained at the James Hutton Institute west of Dundee.
 These were: Zoology & Comparative Physiology; Genetics; and Microbiology. With Plant Biology, the four departments were administratively semi-independent in a federal School of Biological Sciences, coming together to teach a degree in Biological Sciences, with specialisms in the component disciplines. All first year biologists took the same common course, as well as a multidisciplinary common course in their second year and an evolution course in the third and final year.
In 2000, the School of Biological Sciences merged with the School of Biochemistry to form the School of Biosciences. Then, in 2008, there was a much larger university-wide reorganization, and Biosciences became part of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, one of five Colleges that replaced Faculties across the university.
 Jackson, M., B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), 1990. Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, p. 190.
* On 6 May 2021, it was announced that Noni had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society!
I came across a tweet a few days ago from the International Potato Center (CIP, based in Lima, Peru), reminding everyone that the center will celebrate its Golden Jubilee later this year. Fifty years of successfully bringing improved potato and sweet potato varieties and enhanced technologies to the world!
And that got me thinking about the achievements of international agricultural research in general over the past half century, and even a little longer. Let me expand.
CIP’s founding Director General (1971-1991) was Dr Richard Sawyer who envisioned a regional research [network] and collaboration with researchers around the world to develop new technologies and innovations to improve food security. He was my first boss. I joined CIP in January 1973 (when it was still a small institute finding its feet), and just after it had become one of the first international agricultural research centers (often referred to as IARCs) sponsored by the nascent Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.
CGIAR? As Bill Gates wrote in 2019: Never heard of CGIAR? You’re not alone. It’s an organization that defies easy brand recognition . . . It’s too bad that more people don’t know about CGIAR. Their work to feed our hungry planet is as important now as it’s ever been.
The CGIAR was founded on 19 May 1971 and also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was set up as an informal organization of countries, international development agencies and private foundations  that cooperate in underwriting a network of independent, international agricultural research institutes, and originally co-sponsored by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
The CGIAR has undergone a series of transformations since its founding and has, in my opinion, spent far too long navel gazing over the past 30 years about what its role should be—and those of the constituent centers—and how all that research effort could or should be organized. Goodness knows what the opportunity costs (and the actual costs) of interminable consultations, meetings, and the like have been.
Despite the organizational and funding bumps (and scientific challenges, sometimes failures) in the 50 year road, the CGIAR and the IARCs it supports have been incredibly successful. The return on investment in international agricultural research (particularly with regard to plant breeding) has been impressive, not only in monetary terms, but more crucially in terms of the numbers of people who were brought out of poverty or who avoided chronic food shortages.
Let me again quote Bill Gates: No other institution has done as much to feed our world as CGIAR.
Today, there are 15 IARCs in the CGIAR network in 14 (mainly tropical or sub-tropical) countries across the globe, although two, Bioversity International in Rome and the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, have recently formed an Alliance under a single Director General and Board of Trustees.
Four of them pre-date the CGIAR, but were immediately adopted in 1971 once the CGIAR was up and running.
The oldest, at 61 years, is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), founded in 1960  in the Philippines, where I happily (and productively) spent almost 19 years from 1991 to 2010. IRRI was responsible for the Green Revolution in Asia, releasing many high-yielding, short-strawed rice varieties (perhaps the most famous of which was IR8) that were widely adopted because they out-yielded the varieties that farmers were growing in the 1960s.
Two regional centers, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA, in Ibadan, Nigeria) and CIAT, were founded in 1967 in 1970, respectively. Unlike the crop specific mandates of IRRI and CIMMYT (on rice, wheat, and maize), these two centers had a broader ecogeographic focus on a range of crop and livestock systems.
By 1980, there were 13 centers, and five more were added by 1990. There then followed a period of consolidation. Two centers in Ethiopia and Kenya working on livestock and animal diseases merged. A banana and plantain network in France was absorbed into the genetic resources institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome, and in 2002 another institute, ISNAR (in The Hague, Netherlands) was shut down.
So for the past decade and a half, the CGIAR system has stabilised around 15 centers, and to quote Bill Gates once again: . . . most referred to by their own confusing acronyms . . . leaving the uninitiated feeling as if they’ve fallen into a bowl of alphabet soup.
It was a privilege to work at CIP (1973-1981) and IRRI (1991-2010), over 27 years in total. And even while I was teaching at the University of Birmingham between 1981 and 1991, I retained research links with and visited CIP, and also carried out other consultancy work with it and other centers.
Much of the early CGIAR-sponsored research was directed towards increasing crop productivity, breeding new crop varieties that yielded better than existing varieties as I mentioned above in relation to rice. And delving into the large and impressive—and genetically diverse—genebank collections that the centers had set up as a safety net to preserve heritage varieties. There was increased adoption of new varieties by farmers seeking to improve their livelihoods, and old varieties had, in many instances, been cast aside. Who could question their desire to improve their lots, to feed their families, and send their children to school with the hope and expectation that education would help bring them out of poverty and a better life than as a subsistence farmer?
Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, more attention was focused on natural resources such as soils and water, and how these could be managed sustainably. And of course, lying at the heart of everything (which I’m bound to stress, given my background in conservation and use of plant genetic resources) are the eleven center genebanks, the largest and most important network of genebanks worldwide, safely conserving more than 760,000 samples (known as genebank accessions) of cereals, grain legumes, forages, tree species, root and tuber crops, and bananas. This network is supported in part through the Crop Trust.
By the 1990s the early CGIAR model of productivity-focused research was being challenged and, as I mentioned above, research was expanding on the sustainability of natural resources. Furthermore, even the role of international centers was being questioned, whether they were needed any longer. National programs were becoming stronger and less dependent on the international centers for resources and research support, although training of agricultural research professionals remained an important partnership outcome. The centers produce what are known as international public goods, having an impact across multiple locations and sites. The sharing of breeding lines and new varieties is perhaps one of the best examples. National program research is much more site specific.
The international framework within which the centers operated was also becoming more challenging. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in 1993, followed by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture adopted in 2004. These directly affected how centers could maintain their collections of genetic resources and share them globally. On the financial front there was growing concern about the long-term funding to support these collections that has now been resolved, in part, by the intervention of the Crop Trust and its grants to support the center collections in perpetuity fromthe Endowment Fund.
Clearly the adoption of the MDGs, followed by the upgraded SDGs was something that the CGIAR could not ignore, it it wanted to remain relevant. Centers quickly set about explaining how CGIAR-supported researched aligned with and contributed towards achieving these important development goals.
Research across the CGIAR system was reorganized into a series of programs and other initiatives. In its latest reincarnation, One CGIAR is a dynamic reformulation of CGIAR’s partnerships, knowledge, assets, and global presence, aiming for greater integration and impact in the face of the interdependent challenges facing today’s world . . . providing scientific innovations for food, land and water systems. Here is an example how IITA. . . has participated in the unfolding plans and is strategically positioned to contribute to the One-CGIAR agenda in sub-Saharan Africa.
I should also add that, importantly, response to climate change (and its impact on agriculture and natural resources) has been an important element of the CGIAR agenda for many years now.
I don’t wish to sound cynical, but I think the jury is still out. The CGIAR hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in its previous attempts to reorganize. When it comes to change management, it has, in my opinion, taken its collective eye off the ball in terms of the system’s greatest assets: the actual centers and their loyal staff. A former colleague recently shared with me a piece he’d written describing the various attempts to restructure the CGIAR over the years: A solid long-term programme of change management must be put in place which addresses the required culture change needed on merging institutions with long, proud histories and staff who may have served for decades becoming deeply steeped in a given institutional culture.
So, how was research organized and funded? The two are obviously not independent one from the other.
Back in the day, centers received block grants or ‘core’ funding (often referred to as ‘unrestrictive funding’) from donor countries and agencies through the CGIAR. Being independent of one another (and the CGIAR not having any legal identity then) centers set their own research agendas, reporting annually on what had been achieved (outcomes and impact being the name of the game) and how the funding had been spent. The enthusiasm for the IARC model in the 70s and 80s was reflected in the growth of support, and the expansion of the CGIAR agenda to include new centers.
But around the mid-90s, this funding model was under threat. Donors demanded more accountability for their funds, and to influence directly the actual research that centers carried out. They did this by resorting to competitive funding for defined and time-limited project grants, which also meant more time and effort to prepare, submit, and account (scientifically and financially) for these projects than centers had been accustomed to. But it was a model that was here to stay. Unrestricted funding is now almost a thing of the past.
When I left research in 2001 to become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) I took on responsibility for the institute’s research project portfolio. Not what we did; that was the role of the Deputy Director General-Research. My role, among other responsibilities, was to liaise with donors and keep them happy and, in doing so, grow the institute’s budget (which we did very successfully).
When centers were solely responsible, as it were, for their research agendas, they had to accommodate project funding into their research strategic plans—their research blueprints. But it’s important to emphasise that IARC research was never (or hardly ever) science for the sake of science. It was scientific research with a purpose, aimed at real-life issues and constraints. And it had to be the right science of the highest quality. Not that this lofty goal was always achieved.
When I arrived at IRRI in July 1991, its research was organized through the notoriously difficult matrix management, which does have its conceptual appeal. The research program had two axes: programs on one axis, and the contributing scientific divisions on the other. The programs set the research agenda, and the research divisions contributed the scientific expertise. Or, as another former colleague, and head of IRRI’s Plant Pathology Division, Tom Mew explained it (and here I paraphrase): the programs choose the right science (i.e., what needs to be done) and the divisions do the science right. What I soon realised was that at CIP (back in 1973) there was a form of matrix management, with the research arranged in Research Thrusts. But IRRI’s not-altogether-successful implementation of matrix management was probably the first real attempt to employ this approach. It depends on an equal balance (and some tension) between program leaders and division heads. And it was my perception that a couple of long-serving division heads didn’t take kindly to any ‘erosion’ of their influence under matrix management and therefore did not support its implementation as enthusiastically as one might have expected. I’ll say no more.
In this diagram, I have assigned illustrative percentage values of how each research division allocated its resources (particularly staff time) to each of the rice ecosystem-focused programs.
Just a few years later, as the CGIAR navel gazing began in earnest, the research agenda was being reformulated in system-wide programs, organized in a type of matrix management (read ‘centers’ for ‘divisions’) and involving many more players outside the CGIAR as full partners in the research. I should mention that healthy and extensive research partnerships between centers and other institutions had existed even from the early days. However, external players are now much more intimately involved in determining (and implementing) the research.
Since I’ve been retired for eleven years, I’ll be interested to see—from afar—how the CGIAR and its centers fare. While I feel that both have lost their way somewhat, I still have faith that the system will eventually come good, and bring about outcomes and impacts that were the signatures of the system’s heyday. Hopefully, there are better days ahead for international agricultural research. Whether that means another half century or less remains to be seen. Getting past the next decade will be challenge enough.
 The agreement between the Government of the Philippines and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations was signed on 9 December 1959. IRRI’s Board of Trustees met for the first time on 14 April 1960 and approved the institute’s constitution an by-laws. The 1960 date is often cited as the foundation date.
I’ve been fascinated with sex (especially controlled sex) since my undergraduate days at the University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970. We were the socially permissive flower power generation.
But before you get too excited about this post’s content, I need to point out that, as a former botany student, I’m referring to sex among plants! And plant breeding. The real flower power!
Joe Smartt and Edgar Anderson
I guess it all started with two final year honours course on plant speciation (how different species evolve) and plant breeding, taught by geneticist Dr Joe Smartt. It was through the first that I discovered the beauty of introgressive hybridization (a mechanism that blends the gene pools of separate species; see a diagrammatic explanation in this post), a concept first expounded by another of my botanical heroes, Dr Edgar Anderson. And, there was this transformative book to dip into: Variation and Evolution in Plants (published 1950) by another great American botanist, G Ledyard Stebbins. In Joe’s introduction to plant breeding, we followed yet another classic text: Principles of Plant Breeding by American plant breeder and geneticist, Robert W Allard.
And when I moved to the University of Birmingham as a graduate student in September 1970, to study for a Master’s degree in plant genetic resources, Trevor Williams taught a fascinating course on plant variation, emphasising their breeding systems, and how understanding of these was important for the conservation and use of genetic resources. Much of my career subsequently was then spent studying variation and breeding systems in two important crop species, potatoes and rice, and a minor legume species, the grasspea.
Plants reproduce in the most weird and wonderful ways. If they didn’t, humanity’s days would be numbered. Where would we be if wheat and rice plants failed to produce their grains, the potato its underground treasure of tubers, or the banana those abundant hands of green fruits? No wonder in times past folks celebrated a Harvest Festival each autumn to give thanks for a successful harvest.
Beautiful acorns on the pedunculate oak, Quercus robur
You only have to look about you in late summer, as I did each day on my walks last year, to see Nature’s bounty all around—the consequence of plant sex. The trees and bushes were dripping with fruit—2020 was a mast year (as I have written about before). I don’t think I’ve seen such a year for acorns on the oak trees. And the chestnuts, hazels, and so many others. Such exuberant fecundity!
Have you ever looked closely at a ‘typical’ flower? Well, for the most part you can see the female pistil(s) comprising the style, stigma, and ovary, and the male stamens that carry the pollen.
However, there are many variations on this basic theme, different arrangements of the sex organs, even separate male and female flowers on the same plant (known as monoecy; maize is a good example) or separate plants (dioecy; holly). Differences in plant reproductive morphology promote self fertilization or cross fertilization. In addition, there is a host of physical and genetic mechanisms to promote or prevent self fertilization, as well as limiting sex between different species. All of this is aimed at ensuring a next generation of plants, and the one after that, and so on.
Plants attract a host of pollinators: visiting insects such as bees and moths, even some nectar-feeding marsupials and bats. I watched a remarkable sequence on David Attenborough’s latest blockbuster series, A Perfect Planet a few nights ago, about the fascinating pollination role of fig wasps.
Did you see the incredible footage of fig wasps on last night's #PerfectPlanet episode? Take a look at this specimen from our #DigitalCollections – a fig containing fig wasps. The females burrow into unripe figs, depositing their eggs and fertilising the fig's internal flowers🌼 pic.twitter.com/B8qp4SNyds
Wind pollination is a common feature of many grasses. However, several wheat and rice species, for example, promiscuously dangle their stamens apparently seeking cross fertilization. But they have often self fertilized before their flowers open. That’s not to deny that some cross pollination does occur in these species, but it’s generally the exception.
Some plants appear to reproduce sexually, but they have got around actual sex through a mechanism known as apomixis. These plants produce seeds but not following the normal fertilization process, so each seedling is a genetic copy of the ‘mother’ plant.
Berries on a diploid potato species, Solanum berthaultii
Other species have given up sex (almost) altogether, instead reproducing vegetatively with the‘offspring’ being genetically identical (or essentially identical) to the mother plant. In others, like the potato, propagation is primarily through tubers. Yet, in the Andes especially where potatoes were first domesticated, many varieties are extremely sexually fertile, and produce berries rather like small tomatoes, although they are inedible. They contain lots of small seeds that we often refer to as true potato seed or TPS. In fact, in one experiment I observed at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru where I worked during the 1970s, a colleague of mine recorded a particular variety known as Renacimiento producing more than 20 t/ha of berries, in addition to about 20 t of tubers.
Anyway, I digress somewhat. During the years I was active scientifically (before I joined the ranks of senior management at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, IRRI in the Philippines), I looked into various aspects of reproductive biology of several species.
In my doctoral research, carried out in the Andes of Peru, I investigated the breeding relationships between potato varieties with different numbers of chromosomes. The potato we consume almost on a daily basis (at least in my home) is known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, and has four sets (48 in total) of chromosomes. It is what we call a tetraploid. Many other potato species have only two sets or 24 chromosomes, and are known as diploids. The tetraploid forms are mostly self fertile; diploids, on the other hand, have a genetic system of self incompatibility, and will only produce seeds if pollinated with pollen from a different genetic type.
This or similar system of self incompatibility is known from other species, like poppies for example. Anyway, the outcome is that ‘self’ pollen will not germinate on the stigma. The two images below (of various pollinations among wild potatoes), show a typical compatible pollination and fertilization event. Lots of pollen grains have stuck to the stigma, have germinated and grown the length of the style to reach the numerous ovules in the ovary.
In these next images, showing incompatible pollinations, few pollen grains remain on the stigma, not all germinated, and those that did, grew erratically. A few pollen tubes may reach the ovules but compared to the compatible pollinations, they are many fewer.
In the 1970s, one of my colleagues at CIP, Chilean breeder/agronomist Primo Accatino, championed the use of TPS as an alternative to propagation from seed tubers. One of the weak links, as it were, in any potato production cycle is the availability and cost of disease-free seed tubers. So TPS was seen as potentially fulfilling a gap in many developing countries that had neither the infrastructure nor staff to support seed potato production.
As I mentioned earlier, the common potato is a tetraploid with four sets of chromosomes, and this complicates the genetics and breeding. Breeding at the diploid level could be more straightforward. At least that was the hope and the challenge when I embarked on a project to produce TPS lines through inbreeding diploid potatoes and single seed descent. Funded by the British government, it involved scientists at the University of Birmingham (where I had joined the staff in 1981), the former Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and CIP in Peru.
Was this just a pipe dream? Perhaps. Before developing the project concept, I’d had extensive discussions with my colleague at Birmingham, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence who worked on self incompatibility in poppies (that has a similar genetic system to that in potatoes). His experience with poppies showed that if one tried long and hard enough, it was possible to break the self incompatibility.
Flowers of Solanum chacoense
We tried—and ultimately failed—closing the project after five years. We decided it would take just too much investment to make progress. If only we’d had available then what are now helping to transform potato breeding: self compatible diploid lines. At the end of the 1990s, scientists working at the USDA potato collection in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin identified self compatible lines in the widespread wild species Solanum chacoense. The Sli gene that confers self compatibility is apparently more widespread than previously thought, and has now been bred into diploid lines. Had we had those self compatible lines back in the 1980s, our work would have perhaps have reached a better conclusion.
When I moved to the Philippines in 1991 to head IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), I had a collection of around 100,000 different lines of rice, cultivated and wild, to conserve in the institute’s International Rice Genebank.
With my colleagues in GRC, Dr Lu Bao-Rong, Amita ‘Amy’ Juliano and Dr Ma Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, I spent several years investigating the breeding relationships between the cultivated forms of rice, Oryza sativa from Asia, and O. glaberrima from West Africa, and the closest wild Oryza species with a similar AA genome. We made thousands of crosses with the aim of understanding not only the breeding relationships, which is important to be able to better use wild species in rice breeding, but also to understand the taxonomy of wild and cultivated rices.
Pollinations (L) in the genebank screenhouse among AA genome species from Asia, Australia, and the New World, and (R) a crossing polygon from those pollinations expressed in terms of spikelet fertility.
This work led to several scientific publications, which you can access here: just look for publications with our names.
Another aspect of plant sex, important for genebank managers, is how the environment can affect plant fertility. While the seeds of many species (including rice and potatoes) can be stored at a low temperature (typically -18ºC) and for decades if not longer, it is essential that only the best seeds are placed in a genebank for long term conservation. That means ensuring that the growing conditions are the best possible to produce seeds of high quality—and in abundance—during an initial multiplication or later on for rejuvenation after some years of storage, if seed stocks are running low, or there are signs that seed viability may be declining.
At IRRI, in Los Baños south of Manila, we were faced with managing a large germplasm collection of rice lines from all over Asia, from Africa, and South America as well. And these had been collected over a very broad latitudinal range, while Los Baños sits at around 14ºN. We were attempting to grow in a single location many different rice lines, some of which had evolved under more temperate conditions, under different temperature regimes and daylengths.
With my colleague Dr Kameswara Rao (and Professor Richard Ellis from the University of Reading, UK) we spent three years carefully analyzing the effects of different growing environments on seed quality for conservation. Just look for publications here under our names to check out what we achieved. The important changes we made to how we grew rice lines for optimum seed quality have endured until today, although (as I have reported elsewhere) changes to post-harvest handling of seeds have been improved through the work of former IRRI seed physiologist, Dr Fiona Hay.
So, as you can see, there are many different, and interesting, facets to plant sex. And as plant breeders and gene conservationists, we aim to exploit the idiosyncrasies of each species to produce more productive crop varieties or ensure the long term survival of varieties that no longer find favor with farmers, or wild species whose habitats are threatened through agricultural expansion, increasing urbanization, or climate change.
I started my first job on 1 January 1973. I retired (at 61) on 30 April 2010, after more than 37 years continuous employment. All but ten years were spent working abroad, in South and Central America, and in Asia. I also got to travel to more than 60 countries in the course of my work in international agricultural research and academia.
I’ve held five different positions in three organizations: the International Potato Center (CIP, in Lima, Peru); the University of Birmingham; and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, in the Philippines). However, I was interviewed for just two of those five positions, although during the course of my career I have flown all over the world for at least three other job interviews, none of which were successful as there always seemed to be an ‘internal candidate’ waiting in the wings. And in all cases, I had to combat jet lag to a greater or lesser extent all the while. You run on adrenaline and a certain degree of sang froid through the interviews .
My first job at CIP, as an Associate Taxonomist, came about almost by chance. In September 1970 I had enrolled on a one year MSc course on plant genetic resources conservation and use in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham. The head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes, was an internationally-renowned potato expert and one of the pioneers of the 1960s genetic conservation movement. Just before Christmas that year he set off for a two month wild potato collecting trip to Bolivia, calling at CIP in Lima to seek some logistical help with the expedition. It was during that visit to CIP that the Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer mentioned that he wanted to send one of his young staff to the Birmingham course in September 1971. And did Jack know anyone who could come to CIP, for just one year, to help look at after the center’s growing germplasm collection of native Andean potato varieties (of which there are thousands).
On returning to the UK at the end of February 1971, Jack phoned me within a day of his return, and mentioned the position at CIP, and asked if I would be interested. I had no hesitation in saying an emphatic Yes! I’d always wanted to visit Peru, and having a position, albeit short-term, in genetic resources conservation was almost too good to be true.
Things didn’t go exactly to plan. There was a delay, while CIP negotiated with the UK government through the Overseas Development Administration (or was it Ministry of Overseas Development back in the day). My travel to Peru was put on hold, but I did register for and begin studies on potatoes towards a PhD in botany.
Sometime during 1972 (I don’t remember exactly when) Richard Sawyer visited Birmingham, and I had an opportunity to sit down with him and Jack to discuss my posting in Lima. By then it had been agreed that it would be longer than just one year, and that I’d stay there long enough to complete the research for my PhD. I must have said all the right things, since Sawyer agreed to this arrangement. What I can say is that it wasn’t a formal interview as such. He had a habit of meeting prospective candidates around the world, often in airports, and deciding there and then if he wanted to hire them.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I flew to Lima on 4 January 1973 and remained there until April 1975, when I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my PhD and to submit my thesis. But before returning to the UK, I met with Sawyer concerning my future ambitions with CIP. And he made me an offer to move into CIP’s Outreach Program (later Regional Research) provided I successfully defended my thesis.
I was back in Lima just before the end of December, but not sure then to which regional office I would be posted although we had already initiated some plans for a move to Central America, about which I wrote recently. In April 1976, Steph and I left Lima headed for Turrialba in Costa Rica. And we remained there for almost five years, until the end of November 1980 in fact.
Returning to Lima, I had expected to move on to another of the CIP’s regional offices. Brazil was proposed, but when that fell through, we set about planning to move to the Philippines.
But fate intervened. Around September or October 1980 I heard about a new lectureship (in plant genetic resources) in my old department (by then renamed Plant Biology) at the University of Birmingham. I was torn. I was very happy at CIP and enjoyed the work I had been doing in various aspects of potato production. There again, a tenure-track university lectureship was too good an opportunity to ignore. So I sent in an application.
Around mid-December or so, I received feedback that my name would be put on the short list of candidates for interview, with one proviso. I had to commit to travel to Birmingham (at my own expense) for interview. After a long discussion with Steph, and looking at the most economical way of flying back to the UK (I eventually used Freddie Laker’s Skytrain airline into London-Gatwick from Miami), I confirmed my availability for interview during January.
I was in Birmingham for just over 36 hours (two nights) and afterwards I took the opportunity of visiting my mother who was staying with my eldest brother Martin and his family in Gloucestershire, south of Birmingham. I was in the UK for just under a week all told.
We were three candidates (one female, two male) and I guess that I was, to all intents and purposes, the ‘internal candidate’ (so I can’t rail too much about internal candidates) being the only one with an existing affiliation with the university. I was the last to be interviewed and arrived at the interview room a short while before my turn, to find the first candidate waiting in the corridor while the second was being grilled. We had been told to wait outside the interview room until all interviews had been concluded. One of us would be then invited back in to discuss a possible job offer.
With dry mouth and somewhat sweaty palms (and feeling rather jaded through jet lag) I entered the interview room with some trepidation. However, I was greeted by some friendly faces. The interview panel (certainly five persons) was chaired by Professor John Jinks, head of the Genetics Department and a formidable intellect. He was supported by Professor Derek Walker, head of the Biochemistry Department and Dean of the Science Faculty. There were three staff from Plant Biology: Jack Hawkes, Dr Dennis Wilkins (a fierce ecologist whose interviewing style seemed like a dog worrying a bone – I’d already come across him during my interview for a place on the MSc course, and as a graduate student), and Dr (later Professor) Brian Ford-Lloyd, who I’d known since my early graduate days and who has remained a lifelong friend and colleague with whom I have since published three books and many scientific papers. There may have been another person from the university administration, but I don’t recall.
I guess the interview must have lasted about 40 minutes, each member of the panel taking turns to probe my suitability for this lectureship. Unlike interviews for academic and research positions nowadays, I did not have to present a seminar to the department or be ‘interviewed’ by anyone outside the panel. (Incidentally, when the Mason Chair of Botany became vacant in 1982 on Jack Hawkes’ retirement, none of the staff met any of the professorial candidates nor were they expected to present a seminar).
Interview over, I joined the other two candidates outside, each of us deep in our own thoughts and very little conversation among us. After what seemed an age, but was probably no more than about 15 minutes, the door opened, and Brian came out to invite me back. John Jinks told me that the panel had agreed to offer me the lectureship and asked if I would accept it. I had already discussed with Steph what my answer would be under these circumstances. Unequivocally yes!
I don’t remember much after that. Except that Jack invited me for dinner at his house. I was staying in one of the guest rooms at Staff House in the center of the Birmingham campus. Early next morning, I made my way to the railway station and headed south for a few days before flying back to Peru and telling Steph (and our young daughter Hannah, almost three) the good news.
I joined the Plant Biology faculty on 1 April 1981 and spent ten years teaching undergraduate classes in flowering plant taxonomy, agricultural systems (as a component of a second year common course), and an honours course (with Brian) on plant genetic resources. But most of my teaching was at graduate level, to students from all over the world, who came to Birmingham for its world-renowned MSc course on genetic resources.
Then there was research on potatoes and legumes, and during this decade I supervised a number of graduate students to successfully submit their PhD theses. I had some administrative responsibilities that we were all expected to carry, some more than others. Towards the end of the 80s, however, things were changing at the university, and Margaret Thatcher’s government intervention in higher education was causing considerable disruption and disquiet. I found myself increasingly disillusioned with academic life.
Fate intervened, once again. I received notice of a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines to lead one of the world’s most important genebanks. I decided to throw my hat in the ring. It was not an easy decision. Since IRRI was a sister institute to CIP, funded the same way through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) I knew, more or less what I would be letting myself in for if I joined IRRI.
However, there were more pressing personal issues. When we returned to the UK in 1981, our elder daughter Hannah was almost three. Her sister Philippa was born in May 1982. In 1991 they were thirteen and nine, and about to make the transition from from middle to high school, and from first to middle school, respectively. How would they cope with a move halfway across the world, leaving everything familiar behind, all their friends, and moving into an entirely new education system (we’d already decided that boarding school in the UK would not be an option).
In early January 1991 I was invited for interview at IRRI, and flew with British Airways on a flight from London-Gatwick via Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong. The interviews were scheduled for Tuesday to Thursday, three rather intensive days of panel discussions, one-on-one meetings with senior staff, and a seminar. So I chose a flight that would get me into Manila on the Monday afternoon. Well, that was the plan. Arriving at Gatwick I discovered that my flight was delayed about 12 hours. Our designated 747 had a mechanical fault that could not be sorted easily, so we had to wait for a replacement plane to arrive from Florida before being turned around for the flight to the Far East. What a miserable experience. As a result I arrived to IRRI’s research campus in Los Baños (about 65 km south of Manila) around 01:30 on Tuesday morning and, checking over the interview schedule that had been left in my room at IRRI’s guesthouse, noted to my distinct discomfort that I had a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, and his three Deputies at 07:00. Having left a request to be woken at 06:15, I took a sleeping pill, not that it helped much .
My internal clock was eight hours awry, but somehow I made it through the breakfast, and the next three days, taking a flight back to the UK late on Thursday night. I think I must have slept for a week once I was back in the UK.
There were three candidates for the genebank position. And we all had MSc (genetic resources) and PhD degrees (two on potatoes, one on rice) from the University of Birmingham and with Jack Hawkes as our PhD supervisor. I knew the other two candidates very well. One managed the Vegetable Genebank at Wellesbourne near Birmingham and the other headed the genebank at another CGIAR center in Nigeria, IITA. Although we overlapped some days at IRRI, our schedule of interviews and meetings meant that we hardly saw anything of each other.
On reflection, the interview schedule was gruelling, with hardly any time to catch one’s breath. We were kept on the go all the time, often with just short breaks between one interview and the next. It was an IRRI tradition to involve as many of the staff in interviewing candidates as possible, with a multiplicity of interview panels representing the different disciplines or a mixture . And of course there was the more detailed interaction with staff in the genebank in my case.
Because the different panels did not interact with one another, candidates (as in my case) were faced with the same line of questions across different panels. Very repetitive and tiresome. And there were, in my opinion, the totally unacceptable and asinine questions from some IRRI staff, some of which received short shrift from me.
Let me give you two or three examples. I was asked if I was prepared to work hard. One line of questioning seemed to question my suitability for joining a center like IRRI and the CGIAR in general. I answered by a question: when did the person join the CGIAR? I was able to reply that I had joined and left the CGIAR years before this particular person had even first entered international agricultural research. 15: love to me! Another scientist, British, was obsessed with my undergraduate career and how successful I had been, notwithstanding that I had graduate degrees, and had been working already for almost 20 years.
A couple of weeks after arriving back in the UK I received a phone call from Lampe offering me the position, which I accepted after some negotiation over the salary and benefits package they originally put on the table. I joined IRRI on 1 July that year, and remained there until my retirement a decade ago.
 At one interview for the Crop Trust in Rome, I was interrupted by someone as I was delivering my seminar, a vision for the future of the organization. After the second interruption, in which this person had tried to ‘correct’ me, I had to tell her that this was my seminar, not hers, and went on to explain my thoughts on web presence. As it turned out I was not selected, but the organization did adopt my proposal for a more meaningful URL for its website.
On another occasion at Trinity College, Dublin, I delivered my seminar in the very lecture theater (in the Department of Botany) where Michael Caine had his wicked way with Julie Walters in the 1983 film Educating Rita.
When I interviewed for a position at ICARDA in Syria, much to my consternation and many members of staff the internal candidate accompanied me to one of the panel interviews, and even sat in on the interview. Needless to say a stop was soon put to that. Very unprofessional for senior management to even allow this to happen.
 When I joined IRRI and was involved in interviewing candidates (sometimes as chair of the selection committee) I tried to streamline the process somewhat, reducing the number of panel interviews per se, giving more time for informal interactions, while giving more responsibility to the selection panel.
GRC? It’s short for the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, which I had the privilege to lead between July 1991 and April 2001. I’m not sure if GRC is an organizational unit at IRRI anymore having just checked IRRI’s organizational structure dated April 2020.
However, GRC is/was the home of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, the largest of its kind globally for rice. It safely conserves more than 130,000 samples (known as accessions) of cultivated and wild rice species from around the world and, as the most genetically-diverse collection of rice anywhere, it is the foundation for food security in many countries, especially in Asia. Rice breeders have dipped into this valuable resource for almost six decades since IRRI was founded in 1960 and the first germplasm samples brought to Los Baños by my predecessor, Dr TT Chang.
Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño
Anyway, this post is not about me or Dr Chang, but about someone who surely was the quiet man of GRC. Who is this low-key individual?
Why, Renato Reaño of course, known to one and all as ‘Ato’.
Not long after I joined IRRI, it became clear to me that Ato should become my right-hand man for managing all the genebank field operations, from multiplication and rejuvenation of seed samples, as well as establishing and looking after field plots for germplasm characterization (although the actual scoring of the materials was the responsibility for a few years of another colleague, Tom Clemeno, who passed away in 2015).
So, once I’d made an analysis of how the genebank was being managed when I took the helm in 1991, and decided on changes I deemed necessary (not universally accepted by all genebank in the first instance after several decades of working under Dr Chang), I asked Ato to take on the role of Field Operations Manager (although at that time he was officially still only a Research Assistant).
Ato retired from IRRI in March this years after more than 36 years of loyal—and very productive—service to the institute. Over the years, and as his confidence grew, taking on more responsibilities, Ato was promoted to new levels in the IRRI hierarchy, and retired as a Senior Associate Scientist.
Along the way he was elected to lead the IRRI employees association (an excellent indication of the esteem in which his colleagues held him), and he was also elected President of the Crop Science Society of the Philippines (CSSP) for 2006-2007.
Ato helped develop and implement many necessary changes to field operations. What is often not fully appreciated that for the long-term conservation of seeds in a genebank, what happens in the field during the growing season and how seeds are handled through the drying process are as important—if not more so in some respects—than the actual storage conditions. Dr Fiona Hay, a seed physiologist who was hired after I’d passed the GRC baton to my successor Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton in 2002, studied how the drying of seeds could be improved further, and Ato’s role in managing the rice germplasm in the field and the drying after harvest was pivotal. I’ve written about those aspects of rice germplasm management in an August 2015 post.
Ato made the field operations look straightforward. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had to handle thousands of seed samples each planting season, nurturing each one, ensuring there were no mix-ups.
He had a great rapport with his staff. Here he is with some of them in 2017 after they had finished the harvest of more than 4000 samples, and dried them successfully using the new approach that I referred to in the August 2015 post above.
Ato (second from right) with his field staff in 2017. Photo courtesy of Fiona Hay.
Each season (there being two in Los Baños, wet and dry) Ato took responsibility for growing thousands of seed samples, some for the first time after they had been acquired by the genebank, others for routine regeneration if seed viability had declined or seed stocks were running low, or for characterization of the different rices for a whole series of traits, such as days to flowering, plant height, color of grains, and the like.
But to have a better appreciation of Ato’s work in the field and how that contributed to the work of the genebank, just watch this segment, 2:04 – 4:29 minutes in the video below to see for yourselves.
Ato remained the quiet man of GRC during the years I was at the helm, but he constantly grew in confidence, taking his first overseas trip on behalf of the genebank to present a paper at ICRISAT in Hyderabad, India in 1995, and eventually being recognised by his peers and elected to the roles I mentioned earlier.
I also relied on Ato to help me interact with GRC staff. If I became aware of a staff ‘situation’ developing (perhaps an unease I could detect as I made my daily visits to every part of the genebank), it would have been difficult for me as Head of GRC, and as a non-Filipino who didn’t speak Tagalog, to easily get to the bottom of things. Then I would ask Ato to help find out what was going on, deal with it if he could, and only elevate issues to me that needed my intervention. This relationship worked well, and I was very grateful to Ato for the management support he provided in this respect.
Thanks for everything that you did, Ato. Your contributions to the long-term conservation of rice genetic resources will long be remembered and appreciated.
With Ato’s retirement, there’s just one of ‘my’ staff left. Genebank Manager Pola de Guzman will also retire later this year. It will finally be the end of the Chang-Jackson-Sackville Hamilton era.
I visited Sri Lanka just the once. However, I don’t even remember which year or month. Only that it was the early 1990s, probably around 1993 or 1994. That was when I was planning a major rice conservation project at IRRI, and I wanted to determine if or how any Sri Lankan organizations would participate. As it turned out, for reasons that I’ll explain in due course, Sri Lanka did not join the project.
The Sri Lankan genebank, The Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) is based in Kandy in the island nation’s Central Province, of which it is the capital. It lies amongst the hills of the central plateau. The hills surrounding Kandy are covered in tea plantations. And, in many ways, Kandy is a magical place to visit. The scenery is outstanding.
Although I don’t remember in which hotel I stayed, I do remember it was perched on the summit of one of the hills, with views in every direction, as you can see in the gallery above. In the stillness of the dawn, I woke each morning to the sounds of birds calling to each other across the valleys. What a wonderful start to the day.
Kandy is home to a magnificent botanical garden (the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya just west of the city) and one of Buddhism’s most sacred places of worship, the Temple of the Tooth or Sri Dalada Maligawa, is located in the city center.
The Plant Genetic Resources Centre was opened in 1990. Its construction was a donation from the Government of Japan in 1989. So when I visited it had been open for just a few years—and looked like it. But, unlike one or two other genebanks whose construction Japan had supported in other Asian countries, the staff at PGRC were certainly making the most of their expanded facilities to store seeds and tissue culture or in vitro conservation.
Once again I am unable to name most of the people I met at PGRC, with one exception: Mr CN Sandanayake, who was one of my MSc students at the University of Birmingham in 1986.
CN Sandanayake talks with one of his colleagues at PGRC.
And as you can see from one of the photos in the gallery above, everything stops for tea!
When I discussed participation in the IRRI-led rice biodiversity project, it was clear that Sri Lanka had already made significant progress to collect and conserve indigenous rice varieties and wild species. My former colleague at IRRI, Dr Duncan Vaughan had visited Sri Lanka in the 1980s to help with the collection of wild rices.
Furthermore, PGRC had a cadre of excellent technical staff, and as you can see from the photos, excellent facilities for germplasm conservation. And, given the ongoing civil war there were many no-go areas in the country, especially in the north and east. However, in Kandy, there was no tangible signs of the conflict.
There I met with MS Dhanapala, a rice breeder who had also come to Birmingham in the 1980s to attend short courses on plant genetic resources, and also spend some time in the Department of Genetics.
Sitting, L-R: Dhanapala, me, Sandanayake. I don’t remember the names of those standing.
Sri Lanka has had a very successful rice breeding program, and many of its varieties have been adopted throughout Asia, after being shared and trialled through INGER, the IRRI-led International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, that I wrote about in 2015.
Now to return to Kandy tourism.
The Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya cover almost 150 acres. There are wide open spaces to wander around, but also exquisite orchid houses to enjoy, with a multiplicity of species and varieties to take in.
As I mentioned, the Temple of the Tooth is a sacred shrine to Buddhists, and although not overrun with pilgrims during my visit was, nevertheless, quite busy.
One of the most impressive exhibits, in a side room, is a huge, stuffed elephant that died in 1988. This was Raja, a tusker who led ceremonial processions from the Temple for over 50 years.
All too soon my stay in Kandy was over, and I headed down to Colombo on the west coast to take my flight back to Singapore, and from there to the Philippines. It’s certainly a country I would like to return to.
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.
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.
Laos or the Lao PDR (the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – actually a Unitary Marxist–Leninist one-party socialist republic) is one of the few landlocked countries in Asia. But it does have a connection to the sea, down the Mekong River where, through its mighty delta in Vietnam, it disgorges into the South China Sea. For a considerable length, the Mekong is the international border between Myanmar and Laos, and Thailand and Laos.
The Swiss, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), also funded an in-country Lao-IRRI Program. So, as we were looking to strengthen the collection and conservation of indigenous rice varieties and wild rices in that country, it was a logical step to associate our rice biodiversity project administratively with the Lao-IRRI Project. The scientist who we hired for the Lao component of the project, Dr Seppana Appa Rao (originally from a sister center, ICRISAT, in Hyderabad, India) was based in the Lao capital Vientiane, and reported on a day-to-day basis to the leader of the Lao-IRRI Project, Australian agronomist Dr John Schiller (who passed away a couple of years ago).
Enjoying dinner with Appa Rao and John Schiller at John’s home in Vientiane.
In February 1997 I was joined on one of these visits to Laos by my wife Steph. IRRI had a generous travel policy. For every so many days a scientist was travelling outside the Philippines (but discounting the days of departure and arrival), his/her spouse or partner was entitled to one trip to a destination in Asia. So, we took advantage of that policy for a slightly extended visit to Laos (to take in some of the sights) as well as a weekend in Bangkok, through we had to transit in any case. A trip to Laos inevitably involved an overnight stop in Bangkok on both legs of the journey, taking a late flight out of Manila to Bangkok (about three hours) then the first flight on Thai Airways or Lao Aviation the next morning to Vientiane.
When I first visited Laos in 1995, the population of Vientiane was less than 400,000. It’s now reported at over 800,000. Back in the day it had the feel of a small town hugging the banks of the Mekong. But even then the traffic could become snarled at times. I wonder what it’s like nowadays? Looking at a satellite image the other day, the spread from the city center is clear. Even back in the 1990s, the city had begun to rapidly spread eastwards. The National Agricultural Research Center (NARC) of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) had its research station in this area, and where a rice genebank was constructed with financial support from the Swiss.
On this particular trip, Steph and I spent time with Appa and his Lao colleagues, Dr Chay Bounphanousay and Ms Kongphanh Kanyavong at the research center, looking at the genebank, field plots and various other facilities used to conserve the rice varieties collected throughout the country. This was also of interest for Steph as she originally trained in genetic resources, and has an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation and use from the University of Birmingham (where we met in 1971/72).
L-R: Kongphanh Kanyavong, Appa Rao, and Chay Bounphanousay
We also visited a research site where wild rices were being monitored in a joint project with Japanese scientists. It was hoped that data from that project would inform the establishment of field or in situ conservation sites around the country.
Driving around Vientiane as tourists, we noted that two buildings dominate the skyline in the city center. The first, the Patuxai monument, is a huge war memorial that commemorates the struggle for independence from France. The other, a short distance away to the northeast, is Pha That Luang, a large, gold covered Buddhist stupa.
Pha That Luang
Ph Phat Luang
And after a hard day in the field, or touring the city and markets, what better way to end the day than a stroll along the banks of the Mekong.
That’s Thailand on the far bank.
On another day, Appa, his wife, Chay, and Kongphanh took us for a boat excursion round the Nam Ngum Reservoir, about 70 km north of Vientiane, and afterwards to the Lao Zoo nearby.
Steph and I were also invited to participate in a Baci Ceremony at John’s home, which involves the tying of white cotton strings around person’s wrists and the prayer saying or well wishing for the person that the ceremony is intended for. I had been to one of these ceremonies before, during my first visit to Laos. Another new IRRI staff member, agronomist Bruce Linquist and his family, were also welcomed to Laos at this particular ceremony.
But the tourist highlight of our visit was a weekend in Luang Prabang (a 40 min flight north of Vientiane), an ancient city standing on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan River.
In 1997 there were few tourists in the city besides ourselves. As we walked through the streets of the ‘old town’ the locals we passed would smile and say hello, and go on about their business. They paid no attention to us whatsoever. Luang Prabang has become a mecca for tourists from afar, and must be a very different place nowadays.
After checking into our hotel (I don’t remember which one—it was new and on the southwest of the city center), we set out to explore the sights.
First on our list was the sixteenth century Buddhist temple Wat Xieng Thong, or Temple of the Golden City, at the northern end of the peninsula. It is one of the most important shrines in the country.
The architecture is breathtaking, and as we wandered around the temple, there was a just a feeling of serenity.
Later in the day before sunset, we climbed 100m high Phousi Hill to enjoy the 360° panorama from the summit, looking north over the old town and the Nam Khan River.
I guess the highlight of our trip to Luang Prabang was the 25 km or so boat trip we took upstream along the Mekong to visit the shrines at the Pak Ou Caves, which are opposite the mouth of the Ou River as it flows into the Mekong.
As I already mentioned, Luang Prabang was very quiet, and we hired a river boat to ourselves. The journey took about two hours, during which we had the chance to take in, close-up, the majesty of the Mekong.
At the landing stage where we took our boat. You can see several of these boats behind Steph, looking north along the Mekong.
Mekong River, nr. Luang Prabang, Laos
Approaching the landing stage at Pak-Ou, our boatman carefully positioned his boat so that we could disembark safely. While we were ashore, he turned the boat around ready for the return, but also a short diversion into the mouth of the Ou River.
There are two caves: Tham Ting is the lower; Tham Phum is the upper. Both are filled with hundreds if not thousands of Buddha sculptures.
Approaching the caves from the Mekong
Lion carving in Tham Phum
We were the only visitors on this day, and had the site to ourselves. Nowadays, it’s rather different as this photo (copied from the website http://www.viajeasean.com) clearly shows.
After a late afternoon meal overlooking the Mekong back in Luang Prabang, our visit to this ancient city came to an end, and we flew back to Vientiane the following morning, and on to Bangkok.
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  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  for example. Stressed plants produce seeds of lower quality and, in wheat, have an effect on seedling vigour and potentially on yield .
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.
Incidentally, 30 years on, it’s worthwhile to take a second look at Chapter 6 in our genetic resources and climate change book  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.
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 , 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.
 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
 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.
 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.
 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
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.
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.
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.
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!
One thing I had known from a young boy was that I wanted to see the world; and work overseas if possible. Following somewhat in the footsteps of my parents, Fred and Lilian Jackson.
Who would have thought that a degree in botany would open up so many opportunities?
Come 1 January, it will be 47 years since I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and the start of a 37 year career in the plant sciences: as a researcher, teacher, and manager. Where has the time flown?
However, I have to admit that Lady Luck has often been on my side, because my academic career didn’t get off to an auspicious start and almost thwarted my ambitions.
While I enjoyed my BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (in environmental botany and geography) I was frankly not a very talented nor particularly industrious student. I just didn’t know how to study, and always came up short in exams. And, on reflection, I guess I burnt the candle more at one end than the other.
It would hard to underestimate just how disappointed I was, in June 1970, to learn I’d been awarded a Lower Second Class (2ii) degree, not the Upper Second (2i) that I aspired to. I could have kicked myself. Why had I not applied myself better?
But how was I to support myself for the one year course, and pay the tuition fees? I didn’t have any private means and, in 1970, the Course had not yet been recognized for designated studentships by any of the UK’s research councils.
Through the summer months I was on tenterhooks, and with the end of August approaching, started seriously to think about finding a job instead.
Then salvation arrived in the form of a phone call from Professor Hawkes, that the university had awarded me a modest studentship to cover living expenses and accommodation (about £5 a week, or equivalent to about £66 in today’s money) as well as paying the tuition fees. I could hardly believe the good news.
Starting a career in international agricultural research
Just before Christmas 1970, Hawkes traveled to Peru and Bolivia to collect wild potatoes. On his return in February 1971, he dangled the possibility of a one year position in Peru (somewhere I had always wanted to visit) to manage the potato germplasm collection at CIP while a Peruvian researcher came to Birmingham for training on the MSc Course. Then, in mid-summer, CIP’s Director General, Dr. Richard Sawyer, visited Birmingham and confirmed the position at CIP beginning in September 1971.
But things didn’t exactly go to plan. Funding from the British government’s overseas development aid budget to support my position at CIP didn’t materialise until January 1973. So, during the intervening 15 months, I began a PhD research project on potatoes (under the supervision of Professor Hawkes), continuing with that particular project as part of my overall duties once I’d joined CIP in Lima, under the co-supervision of Dr. Roger Rowe. That work took me all over the Andes—by road, on horseback, and on foot—collecting native varieties of potatoes for the CIP genebank.
Screening potatoes in Turrialba, Costa Rica for resistance to bacterial wilt.
After successfully completing my PhD in December 1975, I transferred to CIP’s Outreach Program in Central America, moved to Costa Rica for the next 4½ years, and began research on potato diseases, adaptation of potatoes to warm climates, and seed production. This was quite a change from my thesis research, but I acquired valuable experience about many different aspects of potato production. I learnt to grow a crop of potatoes!
But this posting was not just about research. After a year, my regional leader (based in Mexico) moved to the USA to pursue his PhD, and CIP asked me to take over as regional research leader. Thus I began to develop an interest in and (if I might be permitted to say) a flair for research management. In this role I traveled extensively throughout Central America and Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands, and helped to found and establish one of the most enduring and successful research partnerships between national research programs and any international agricultural research institute: PRECODEPA.
Then, just as I was thinking about a move to CIP’s regional office in the Philippines (for Southeast Asia), an entirely different opportunity opened up, and we moved back to the UK.
Back to Birmingham
In January 1981 I successfully applied for a Lectureship in my old department (now named the Department of Plant Biology) at Birmingham. I said goodbye to CIP in March 1981, and embarked on the next stage of my career: teaching botany.
The lectureship had been created to ensure continuity of teaching in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (and other topics) after Professor Hawkes’ retirement in September 1982. I assumed his particular teaching load, in crop plant evolution and germplasm collecting on the MSc Course, and flowering plant taxonomy to second year undergraduates, as well as developing other courses at both undergraduate and graduate level.
In addition to my continuing research interest on potatoes I assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species and one PhD student from Malaysia made an excellent study of species relationships of the one cultivated species, the grasspea, L. sativus. I successfully supervised (or co-supervised) the theses of nine other PhD students (and at least a couple of dozen MSc students) during the decade I spent at Birmingham.
I generally enjoyed the teaching and interaction with students more than research. Having struggled as an undergraduate myself, I think I could empathise with students who found themselves in the same boat, so-to-speak. I took my tutor/tutee responsibilities very seriously. In fact, I did and still believe that providing appropriate and timely tutorial advice to undergraduates was one of the more important roles I had. My door was always open for tutees to drop by, to discuss any issues in addition to the more formal meetings we had on a fortnightly basis when we’d discuss some work they had prepared for me, and I gave feedback.
While I appreciate that university staff are under increasing pressures to perform nowadays (more research, more grants, more papers) I just cannot accept that many consider their tutor responsibilities so relatively unimportant, assigning just an hour or so a week (or less) when they make themselves accessible by their tutees.
The 1980s were a turbulent time in the UK. Politics were dominated by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. And government policies came to significantly affect the higher education sector. By the end of the decade I was feeling rather disillusioned by university life, and although I was pretty confident of promotion to Senior Lecturer, I also knew that if any other opportunity came along, I would look at it seriously.
And in September 1990 just such an opportunity did come along, in the form of an announcement that IRRI was recruiting a head for the newly-created Genetic Resources Center.
Dr. Klaus Lampe
A return to international agriculture It was early January 1991, and I was on a delayed flight to Hong Kong on my way to the Philippines for an interview. Arriving in Los Baños around 1 am (rather than 3 pm the previous afternoon), I had just a few hours sleep before a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr. Klaus Lampe and his two deputies. Severely jet-lagged, I guess I more or less sleep-walked through the next three days of interviews, as well as delivering a seminar. And the outcome? IRRI offered me the position at the end of January, and I moved to the Philippines on 1 July remaining there for almost 19 years.
For the first ten years, management of the International Rice Genebank (the world’s largest collection of rice varieties and wild species) was my main priority. I have written about many aspects of running a genebank in this blog, as well as discussing the dual roles of genebank management and scientific research. So I won’t repeat that here. Making sure the rice germplasm was safe and conserved in the genebank to the highest standards were the focus of my early efforts. We looked at better ways of growing diverse varieties in the single environment of IRRI’s Experiment Station, and overhauled the genebank data management system. We also spent time studying the diversity of rice varieties and wild species, eventually using a whole array of molecular markers and, in the process, establishing excellent collaboration with former colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK.
Dr. Ron Cantrell
Then, one day in early 2001, IRRI’s Director General, Dr. Ron Cantrell, called me to his office, asking me to give up genebanking and join the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications. As I said earlier, I really enjoyed management, but wasn’t sure I wanted to leave research (and genetic resources) behind altogether. But after some serious soul-searching, I did move across in May 2001 and remained in that position until my retirement in April 2010.
Even in that position, my background and experience in the plant sciences was invaluable. All research project proposals for example passed through my office for review and submission to various donors for funding. I was able not only look at the feasibility of any given project in terms of its objectives and proposed outcomes within the project timeframe, I could comment on many of the specific scientific aspects and highlight any inconsistencies. Because we had a well-structured project proposal development and submission process, the quality of IRRI projects increased, as well as the number that were successfully supported. IRRI’s budget increased to new levels, and confidence in the institute’s research strategy and agenda gained increased confidence among its donors.
What a good decision I made all those years ago to study botany. I achieved that early ambition to travel all over the world (>60 countries in connection with my work) in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. But the study (and use) of plants gave me so much more. I used the knowledge and experience gained to help transform lives of some of the poorest farmers and their families, by contributing to efforts to grow better yielding crops, more resilient to climate change, and resistant to diseases.
I’m sure that a degree in botany would be the last in many people’s minds as leading to so many opportunities such as I enjoyed. Knowing that opportunities are out there is one thing. Seizing those opportunities is quite another. And I seized them with both hands. I never looked back.
I should also mention that I also ascribe some of my success to having had excellent mentors—many mentioned in this piece—throughout my career to whom I could turn for advice. Thank you!
If you are interested, a list of my scientific output (papers, book, book chapters, conference presentations and the like) can be seen here.
There’s an interesting article by Nicola Temple and Michael Major (science communications specialists for Scriptoria and the Crop Trust, respectively), on the Genebank Platform website, about Dr David Ellis who retired at the end of 2018 as head of the genebank at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru (where I began my career in international agricultural research in January 1973).
Titled David Ellis: Finding the balance between manager and scientist, the article describes David’s illustrious career, and highlights an important issue that many genebank managers face. Let me quote directly what they wrote:
David argues that genebank managers need to balance science with the management of their collections. “If you focus purely on the science, then management of the genebank suffers,” he says. “If you focus solely on being a genebank manager, then you are never viewed by your scientific peers as a research scientist and that can mean fewer opportunities for collaboration.”
His perspectives—which I fully endorse—resonated with me, and got me thinking about the time, almost 30 years ago, when I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (GRC) with responsibility for (among other things) the internationally-important rice genebank, the International Rice Germplasm Center that, in the fullness of time, we renamed the International Rice Genebank. I was head of GRC for a decade, after which I changed roles at IRRI, and relinquishing all my genetic resources responsibilities.
A career in genetic resources
By July 1991, I’d already been working on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for twenty years. I’d studied at the University of Birmingham under Professor Jack Hawkes and Professor Trevor Williams, and had forged a career at CIP (in Peru and Central America) for over eight years, before returning to Birmingham to join the faculty of the School of Biological Sciences (helping to train the next generation of germplasm scientists).
However, until joining IRRI, I’d never managed a genebank.
I first heard about the job at IRRI in September 1990, when a position announcement landed on my desk in the morning post. I was intrigued. Who had sent this to me? At the same time, the thought of running a genebank was rather attractive, because by 1990 I had become somewhat disillusioned with academic life.
The IRRI position represented an opportunity to return to international agricultural research that I had enjoyed during my years with CIP from 1973-1981.
As initially advertised, the Head of the Genetic Resources Center position was described merely as a service role with no assigned research responsibilities whatsoever. The Head would report directly to the Deputy Director General (International Programs)—not the DDG (Research).
On the positive side, however, the position would be equivalent to other Division Heads and Program Leaders giving the incumbent an opportunity to represent the genebank directly in institute management discussions.
Having sent in my application, I traveled to the Philippines in early January 1991 for an interview, and was offered the position three weeks later. During the interview(s), and in the subsequent negotiations to iron out the terms and conditions of my appointment, I made it a condition of accepting that I (and my future GRC staff) would have a research role. Indeed, without that commitment and support from senior management, I was not interested in the position. I can be persuasive. My viewpoint prevailed!
Learning about genebanking – on the job
Management and science are almost equally important roles. But not quite. Management and safety of any genebank c