Gelia Castillo – a synthesis tour de force

I was searching YouTube the other day for videos about the recent 5th International Rice Congress held in Singapore, when I came across several on the IRRI channel about a long-time friend and former colleague, Professor Gelia Castillo, who passed away in August 2017 at the age of 89¹.

Gelia was a distinguished rural sociologist, emeritus professor at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB) and, since 1999, a National Scientist of the Philippines, the highest honor that can be bestowed on any scientist.

I’m proud to have counted her among my friends.

I’d known Gelia since the late 1970s when she joined the Board of Trustees of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, the first woman board member and, if memory serves me correctly, one of the first women to serve on any board among the CGIAR centers when they were dominated by white Caucasian males (a situation that no longer obtains, thankfully).

The CGIAR centers in 2018 (from CIAT Annual Report 2017-2018).

I know that Gelia went to serve on the board of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (now Bioversity International) based in Rome, and other boards inside and outside the CGIAR.

I was a young scientist, in my late 20s, working for CIP in Costa Rica (and throughout Central America) when Gelia joined the center’s board, bringing (as she did everywhere she went) a welcome breath of fresh air—and a clarity of independent thinking—that categorized all her intellectual contributions. She influenced policymakers in government, international development circles, and academe, [and] pioneered the concept of participatory development.

Gelia was born into a poor family in Pagsanjan in Laguna Province, just 31 km east of Los Baños, the city² where she spent her entire academic career. She completed her graduate studies in the United States with MS (1953) and PhD (1960) degrees in rural sociology from Penn State and Cornell, respectively. She retired from UPLB in 1993, a couple of years after I landed in the Philippines, when we renewed our friendship after more than a decade.

But retirement did not mean slowing down. Besides her international board commitments, Gelia became ‘synthesizer-in-chief’ at IRRI, an honorary role through which she attended institute seminars and science reviews. She was also a valued adviser to successive Directors General. Let Gelia herself explain.

Gelia kept us honest! Why do I say this? She had an uncanny ability always to see the broader picture and bring together quite different perspectives to bear on the topic in hand. She herself admitted that, early in her career, she decided to concentrate on ‘synthesis’, an academic and intellectual focus and a skill (gift almost) that few manage to harness successfully. It wasn’t just her social sciences training.

In developing a research strategy and plan, any organization like IRRI needs skilled and dedicated researchers. But often, because each is deeply involved in his or her own projects, they find it hard to see (often necessary) links with other disciplines and research outcomes. Gelia was able to extract the essence of the institute’s research achievements and pull it together, mostly with approval but sometimes with justified criticism. Given her expertise in participatory research, working with poor families in rural areas (the ‘clients, as it were, of IRRI’s research and products), and promoting gender studies, Gelia could, almost at the drop of a hat, deliver a succinct synthesis of everything she had listened to, and provide suggestions for future directions. After a week of intense annual science review presentations and discussions, Gelia would be called upon, at the end of the final afternoon, to deliver her synthesis. Here she is, at the IRRI science review in 2010.

And almost without fail, she could hit the mark; and while she could be critical, never were criticisms aimed at individuals. Her analysis never became personal. I’m sure her wise words are sorely missed at IRRI.

Permit me to finish with a personal recollection. I retired from IRRI in April 2010 and, in subsequent years, I only saw her a couple of times, later that same year and in August 2014, when I was organizing the 3rd and 4th International Rice Congresses, and had to visit IRRI in that capacity.

Sharing cake and reminiscences with Gelia (in the DPPC office) on my last day at IRRI, 30 April 2010.

But just before I retired, in March 2010, I delivered my ‘exit’ seminar: Potatoes, pulses and rice – a 40 year adventure, a synthesis of my career in international agricultural research and academia. It must have struck a chord with Gelia. Because after it was all over, she came up to me, took me by the hand, and planted a large kiss on my cheek. That was praise indeed! A memory I cherish.


¹ Written by my friend and former colleague, Gene Hettel (who had been Head of IRRI’s Communication & Publication Services), IRRI published this obituary shortly after her death. There you will also find links to the speeches at her memorial service.

² In 2000, under Presidential Proclamation Order No. 349, the Municipality of Los Baños was designated and declared a Special Science and Nature City of the Philippines.

In perpetuity . . . or longer (updated 17 October 2018)

The airwaves yesterday were full of the news¹ about the secure, in perpetuity funding that the Crop Trust has awarded (annually USD1.4 million) to support the operations of the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines. The genebank conserves the largest and most genetically diverse collection of rice genetic resources that is the genetic base of rice improvement programs worldwide. It’s the first genebank to receive this sort of funding commitment.

In perpetuity! Forever! That’s a long time. In some ways, of course, it’s not a completely open-ended commitment. The agreement (to be signed on World Food Day, 16 October², during the 5th International Rice Congress in Singapore) will, I understand, be subject to five-year reviews, and the development of a business plan that will guide how, where and what will get done. That plan must inevitably evolve over time, as new technologies not only enhance how rice seeds can be better preserved but also how they can be used in rice improvement. Not that I can see IRRI screwing up and losing the funding. That behavior is not in the institutional DNA!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken McNally

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

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

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

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


¹ BBC, Nature, and New Food Magazine, among others.

² My friend and former IRRI colleague, Gene Hettel, kindly sent me some photos and videos from yesterday’s signing ceremony in Singapore between IRRI and the Crop Trust.

Crop Trust Executive Director Marie Haga and IRRI Director General Matthew Morell sign the agreement assuring in perpetuity funding for the International Rice Genebank.

Head of the genebank Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton speaking after the signing of the agreement. On the left is Charlotte Lusty, Head of Programs and Genebank Platform Coordinator at the Crop Trust.

One very nice touch during the ceremony was the recognition of Pola de Guzman’s 40 years dedicated service to genetic conservation at IRRI.

Well done, Pola!

 

 

Whither the grasspea?

Would you knowingly eat something that could harm you? That’s the dilemma facing millions of poor, subsistence farmers and their families from time to time, especially in India, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, when the alternative is not eating anything at all. Famine.

From the beginnings of agriculture and earlier, 10,000 or more years ago, farmers have cultivated and consumed in times of adversity, the seeds of a plant known scientifically as Lathyrus sativus L.¹ Or, more commonly, the grasspea. It’s also an important fodder crop for livestock.

On the plus side, grasspea has a good protein profile and, as a legume, it supplies nitrogen to the soil through its root nodules. Its particular agricultural value is that it can be grown in times of drought, as well as when the land is flooded. It’s the ultimate insurance crop for poor, subsistence farmers.

Yet, it holds a deadly secret. β-ODAP. Or more precisely, β-L-oxalyl-2,3-diaminopropionic acid to give its full name, an amino acid that is also a neurotoxin responsible for the condition known as lathyrism, a non-reversible paralysis. No wonder, then, that its cultivation is banned in some Indian states. In the past, its consumption has also had severe consequences in Europe.

‘Gracias a la Almorta’ or ‘Thanks to the Grasspea’ by Francisco de Goya (painted between 1811 and 1813), painted during the Spanish War of Independence, when poor people turned to eating grasspea, and suffered paralysis from lathyrism. However, on the British Museum website it suggests grain (millet) rather than ‘grasspea’, and no mention of lathyrism. ‘Almorta’ is a Spanish word for grasspea.

Yet, when needs must, poor farmers turn to the grasspea when there is nothing else to eat because drought or floods have wiped out other crops.

So what’s being done to overcome the grasspea’s downside? Fortunately, an international collaborative research effort (funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund), Unlocking the Potential of Grass pea for Resilient Agriculture in Drought Prone Environments (UPGRADE), aims to breed ‘sweet’ varieties of grasspea with a low content of the neurotoxin.

I learned about this project yesterday evening when I happened to tune into BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science (you can listen from about 11′ 20″ into the program). The John Innes Centre in the UK is one of the project members, and in Prof. Cathie Martin‘s lab, Dr Anne Edwards is screening about 500 different grasspea lines, testing them for β-ODAP content, and also introgressing the lower content trait into different genetic backgrounds, for future testing in the field.

I was fascinated to hear how this international collaboration was making progress towards defeating the scourge of lathyrism, as I’d also worked on grasspea almost 40 years ago. But from a crop evolution and genetic resources point of view.

When I returned to The University of Birmingham in 1981, I decided to start a small research project on grasspea, looking at the diversity and broader genetic resources of this important but somewhat neglected crop, in addition to continuing my research on potatoes.

In 1981, one of the students attending the one-year MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources was Abdul bin Ghani Yunus from Malaysia. He worked on his dissertation project under my supervision, to study the diversity of grasspea. I already had assembled a collection of grasspea varieties from different sources around the world including the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg, so Ghani had quite a stock of varieties to work with.

His dissertation led to one scientific paper, Variation in the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L. and wild species, published in the journal Euphytica in 1984. There were two principal conclusions:

  • L. sativus is a highly variable species, and there is a clear distinction between the blue-flowered forms from south-west Asia, Ethiopia and the Indian subcontinent, and the white and white and blue flowered forms with white seeds which have a more westerly distribution. Differences in vegetative parts may be due to selection for forage types.
  • L. sativus appears to be closely related to L. cicera and L. gorgoni, and this relationship needs further investigation.

Ghani returned to Malaysia in 1982 to continue his research and teaching at the University of Agriculture, Selangor and I heard little from him, until about 1986. Then, he contacted me again, asking about the possibilities of returning to Birmingham to complete a PhD under my supervision. He wanted to work on a tropical species from Malaysia. But since he did not envision spending time back in Malaysia during his PhD program, I explained that working on this species (I don’t now remember what it was) was not feasible, since we wouldn’t be able to grow it successfully in the glasshouse at Birmingham. After all, it wasn’t the species per se that was the most important aspect for his PhD; it would be the focus, the scientific methods and approaches he would learn and employ that were more important.

I convinced him to continue his work on Lathyrus, but broadening its scope to study the biosystematics or biological relationships of the grasspea with the species considered to be its closest relatives. In that way we anticipated better defining the genetic resources or gene pools of the grasspea (an essential prerequisite if, at some time in the future, a breeding program was set up that needed to exploit more diversity), as well as trying to shed some light on the origin of this neglected food crop.

In 1990, Ghani successfully presented his PhD thesis, Biosystematics of Lathyrus Section Lathyrus with special reference to the grass pea, L. sativus L., leading to two more useful scientific papers that have been widely cited:

  • The genepools of the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L., in Plant Breeding (1991). This research concerned the cross-breeding relationships of the grasspea and its closest relatives, based on experimental pollinations, pollen tube growth microscopy, and chromosome pairing, confirming one of our earlier hypotheses about L. cicera.
  • Phenotypic polymorphism of six isozymes in the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.), in Euphytica (1991). Ghani concluded that there was more genetic variation than perhaps expected in this self-pollinating species, and we discussed the implications of exploiting this diversity in plant breeding.

Today, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) receives financial support from the Crop Trust to conserve almost 4200 samples of grasspea in its genebank, with 2000 safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault above the Arctic Circle.

Of course, grasspea is not the only edible plant species that comes with a health risk. In South America, for example, there are so-called ‘bitter’ varieties of cassava, an important source of carbohydrate, producing cyanogenic compounds that must be removed before the roots are safe to eat. Indigenous communities throughout Brazil evolved techniques to express the poisonous juice and make the food safe. In other parts of South America ‘sweet’ varieties were selected over thousands of years, and became the genetic base of commercial cassava varieties grown world-wide. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Cali, Colombia has the world’s largest cassava germplasm that I was privileged to see in 2016 when I was conducting an evaluation of the CGIAR’s genebanks program.

This grasspea story is a good example of how progress can be made when there’s a clear research project objective, funding is available, and researchers around the world agree to pool their expertise towards solving an important problem. With recent reports that the head of DFID (the UK’s government department managing overseas development assistance or ODA) is seriously considering making changes to the 0.7% of national income commitment to the ODA budget, grasspea improvement for marginalized communities goes to show just how important such funding is, and the potential impact it can have on the lives of some of the poorest people around the world. This is the raison d’être of international agricultural research for development, an endeavor in which I participated over four decades.


¹ Grasspea is a relative of the garden sweetpea, Lathyrus odoratus, a plant that is grown for its showy, fragrant blooms.

Crystal balls, accountability and risk: planning and managing agricultural research for development (R4D)

A few days ago, I wrote a piece about perceived or real threats to the UK’s development aid budget. I am very concerned that among politicians and the wider general public there is actually little understanding about the aims of international development aid, how it’s spent, what it has achieved, and even how it’s accounted for.

Throughout my career, I worked for organizations and programs that were supported from international development aid budgets. Even during the decade I was a faculty member at The University of Birmingham during the 1980s, I managed a research project on potatoes (a collaboration with the International Potato Center, or CIP, in Peru where I had been employed during the 1970s) funded by the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA), the forerunner of today’s Department for International Development (DFID).

I actually spent 27 years working overseas for two international agricultural research centers in South and Central America, and in the Philippines, from 1973-1981 and from 1991-2010. These were CIP as I just mentioned, and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a globally-important research center in Los Baños, south of Manila in the Philippines, working throughout Asia where rice is the staple food crop, and collaborating with the Africa Rice Centre (WARDA) in Africa, and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Latin America.

All four centers are members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) that was established in 1971 to support investments in research and technology development geared toward increasing food production in the food-deficit countries of the world.

Dr Norman Borlaug

The CGIAR developed from earlier initiatives, going back to the early 1940s when the Rockefeller Foundation supported a program in Mexico prominent for the work of Norman Borlaug (who would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970).

By 1960, Rockefeller was interested in expanding the possibilities of agricultural research and, joining with the Ford Foundation, established IRRI to work on rice in the Philippines, the first of what would become the CGIAR centers. In 2009/2010 IRRI celebrated its 50th anniversary. Then, in 1966, came the maize and wheat center in Mexico, CIMMYT—a logical development from the Mexico-Rockefeller program. CIMMYT was followed by two tropical agriculture centers, IITA in Nigeria and CIAT in Colombia, in 1967. Today, the CGIAR supports a network of 15 research centers around the world.

Peru (CIP); Colombia (CIAT); Mexico (CIMMYT); USA (IFPRI); Ivory Coast (Africa Rice); Nigeria (IITA); Kenya (ICRAF and ILRI); Lebanon (ICARDA); Italy (Bioversity International); India (ICRISAT); Sri Lanka (IWMI); Malaysia (Worldfish); Indonesia (CIFOR); and Philippines (IRRI)

The origins of the CGIAR and its evolution since 1971 are really quite interesting, involving the World Bank as the prime mover.

In 1969, World Bank President Robert McNamara (who had been US Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) wrote to the heads of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome and the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) in New York saying: I am writing to propose that the FAO, the UNDP and the World Bank jointly undertake to organize a long-term program of support for regional agricultural research institutes. I have in mind support not only for some of the existing institutes, including the four now being supported by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations [IRRI, CIMMYT, IITA, and CIAT], but also, as occasion permits, for a number of new ones.

Just click on this image to the left to open an interesting history of the CGIAR, published a few years ago when it celebrated its 40th anniversary.

I joined CIP in January 1973 as an Associate Taxonomist, not longer after it became a member of the CGIAR. In fact, my joining CIP had been delayed by more than a year (from September 1971) because the ODA was still evaluating whether to provide funds to CIP bilaterally or join the multilateral CGIAR system (which eventually happened). During 1973 or early 1974 I had the opportunity of meeting McNamara during his visit to CIP, something that had quite an impression on a 24 or 25 year old me.

In the first couple of decades the primary focus of the CGIAR was on enhancing the productivity of food crops through plant breeding and the use of genetic diversity held in the large and important genebanks of eleven centers. Towards the end of the 1980s and through the 1990s, the CGIAR centers took on a research role in natural resources management, an approach that has arguably had less success than crop productivity (because of the complexity of managing soil and water systems, ecosystems and the like).

In research approaches pioneered by CIP, a close link between the natural and social sciences has often been a feature of CGIAR research programs. It’s not uncommon to find plant breeders or agronomists, for example working alongside agricultural economists or anthropologists and sociologists, who provide the social context for the research for development that is at the heart of what the CGIAR does.

And it’s this research for development—rather than research for its own sake (as you might find in any university department)—that sets CGIAR research apart. I like to visualize it in this way. A problem area is identified that affects the livelihoods of farmers and those who depend on agriculture for their well-being. Solutions are sought through appropriate research, leading (hopefully) to positive outcomes and impacts. And impacts from research investment are what the donor community expects.

Of course, by its very nature, not all research leads to positive outcomes. If we knew the answers beforehand there would be no need to undertake any research at all. Unlike scientists who pursue knowledge for its own sake (as with many based in universities who develop expertise in specific disciplines), CGIAR scientists are expected to contribute their expertise and experience to research agendas developed by others. Some of this research can be quite basic, as with the study of crop genetics and genomes, for example, but always with a focus on how such knowledge can be used to improve the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers. Much research is applied. But wherever the research sits on the basic to applied continuum, it must be of high quality and stand up to scrutiny by the scientific community through peer-publication. In another blog post, I described the importance of good science at IRRI, for example, aimed at the crop that feeds half the world’s population in a daily basis.

Since 1972 (up to 2016 which was the latest audited financial statement) the CGIAR and its centers have received USD 15.4 billion. To some, that might seem an enormous sum dedicated to agricultural research, even though it was received over a 45 year period. As I pointed out earlier with regard to rice, the CGIAR centers focus on the crops and farming systems (in the broadest sense) in some of the poorest countries of the world, and most of the world’s population.

But has that investment achieved anything? Well, there are several ways of measuring impact, the economic return to investment being one. Just look at these impressive figures from CIAT in Colombia that undertakes research on beans, cassava, tropical forages (for pasture improvement), and rice.

For even more analysis of the impact of CGIAR research take a look at the 2010 Food Policy paper by agricultural economists and Renkow and Byerlee.

Over the years, however, the funding environment has become tighter, and donors to the CGIAR have demanded greater accountability. Nevertheless, in 2018 the CGIAR has an annual research portfolio of just over US$900 million with 11,000 staff working in more than 70 countries around the world. CGIAR provides a participatory mechanism for national governments, multilateral funding and development agencies and leading private foundations to finance some of the world’s most innovative agricultural research.

The donors are not a homogeneous group however. They obviously differ in the amounts they are prepared to commit to research for development. They focus on different priority regions and countries, or have interests in different areas of science. Some donors like to be closely involved in the research, attending annual progress meetings or setting up their own monitoring or reviews. Others are much more hands-off.

When I joined the CGIAR in 1973, unrestricted funds were given to centers, we developed our annual work programs and budget, and got on with the work. Moving to Costa Rica in 1976 to lead CIP’s regional program in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, I had an annual budget and was expected to send a quarterly report back to HQ in Lima. Everything was done using snail mail or telex. No email demands to attend to on almost a daily basis.

Much of the research carried out in the centers is now funded from bilateral grants from a range of donors. Just look at the number and complexity of grants that IRRI manages (see Exhibit 2 – page 41 and following – from the 2016 audited financial statement). Each of these represents the development of a grant proposal submitted for funding, with its own objectives, impact pathway, expected outputs and outcomes. These then have to be mapped to the CGIAR cross-center programs (in the past these were the individual center Medium Term Plans), in terms of relevance, staff time and resources.

What it also means is that staff spend a considerable amount of time writing reports for the donors: quarterly, biannually, or annually. Not all have the same format, and it’s quite a challenge I have to say, to keep on top of that research complexity. In the early 2000s the donors also demanded increased attention to the management of risk, and I have written about that elsewhere in this blog.

And that’s how I got into research management in 2001, when IRRI Director General Ron Cantrell invited me to join the senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Coordination (later Communications).

For various reasons, the institute did not have a good handle on current research grants, nor their value and commitments. There just wasn’t a central database of these grants. Such was the situation that several donors were threatening to withhold future grants if the institute didn’t get its act together, and begin accounting more reliably for the funding received, and complying with the terms and conditions of each grant.

Within a week I’d identified most (but certainly not all) active research grants, even those that had been completed but not necessarily reported back to the donors. It was also necessary to reconcile information about the grants with that held by the finance office who managed the financial side of each grant. Although I met resistance for several months from finance office staff, I eventually prevailed and had them accept a system of grant identification using a unique number. I was amazed that they were unable to understand from the outset how and why a unique identifier for each grant was not only desirable but an absolute necessity. I found that my experience in managing the world’s largest genebank for rice with over 100,000 samples or accessions stood me in good stead in this respect. Genebank accessions have a range of information types that facilitate their management and conservation and use. I just treated research grants like genebank accessions, and built our information systems around that concept.

Eric Clutario

I was expressly fortunate to recruit a very talented database manager, Eric Clutario, who very quickly grasped the concepts behind what I was truing to achieve, and built an important online information management system that became the ‘envy’ of many of the other centers.

We quickly restored IRRI’s trust with the donors, and the whole process of developing grant proposals and accounting for the research by regular reporting became the norm at IRRI. By the time IRRI received its first grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (for work on submergence tolerant rice) all the project management systems had been in place for several years and we coped pretty well with a complex and detailed grant proposal.

Since I retired from IRRI in 2010, and after several years of ‘reform’ the structure and funding of the CGIAR has changed somewhat. Centers no longer prepare their own Medium Term Plans. Instead, they commit to CGIAR Research Programs and Platforms. Some donors still provide support with few restrictions on how and where it can be spent. Most funding is bilateral support however, and with that comes the plethora of reporting—and accountability—that I have described.

Managing a research agenda in one of the CGIAR centers is much more complex than in a university (where each faculty member ‘does their own thing’). Short-term bilateral funding (mostly three years) on fairly narrow topics are now the components of much broader research strategies and programs. Just click on the image on the right to read all about the research organization and focus of the ‘new’ CGIAR. R4D is very important. It has provided solutions to many important challenges facing farmers and resource poor people in the developing world. Overseas development aid has achieved considerable traction through agricultural research and needs carefully protecting.

There’s more to genebanking than meets the eye (or should be)

The weather was awful last Sunday, very cold, with snow showers blowing in on a strong easterly wind throughout the day. From time to time, I found myself staring out of the window at the blizzards and letting my mind wander. A couple of seemingly unconnected ideas were triggered by a tweet about genebanks I’d read earlier in the day, and something I’d seen about a former IRRI colleague on Facebook the day before.

That got me thinking. It’s almost eight years now since I retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I worked for almost 19 years from July 1991 until the end of April 2010. As the snowflakes fell in increasing abundance, obscuring the bottom of our garden some 15 m away, I began to reminisce on the years I’d spent at IRRI, and how they’d been (mostly) good years to me and my family. My work had been very satisfying, and as I retired I felt that I’d made a useful contribution to the well-being and future of the institute. But one thought struck me particularly: how privileged I felt to have worked at one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes. It was though I was recalling a dream; not reality at all.

In rice fields at IRRI, with magnificent Mt. Makiling in the background.

Behind the plough – now that IS reality. I still have that sombrero, which I purchased shortly after I arrived in Peru in January 1973.

That journey began, as I said, in July 1991 when I became the first head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) taking responsibility for one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks, the International Rice Genebank (IRG), as well as providing administrative oversight to the International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). I gave up genebanking in 2001 and joined the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (DPPC, later Communications). As I had made many important changes to the genebank operations and how rice germplasm was managed, my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton (who joined IRRI in 2002) probably did not face so many operational and staff challenges. However, he has gone on to make several important improvements, such as bar-coding, commissioning new facilities, and overseeing the first germplasm deposits (in 2008) in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Any success I achieved at IRRI during those 19 years is also due to the fine people who worked closely with me. Not so long ago, I wrote about those who brought success to IRRI’s project management and resource mobilization. I haven’t, to date, written so much about my Filipino colleagues who worked in GRC, although you will find several posts in this blog about conserving rice genetic resources and how the genebank operates (or operated until 2010). The 15 minute video I made about the genebank shortly before leaving IRRI shows what IRRI’s genebank is and does, and featuring several staff.

The tweet I referred to earlier was posted by someone who I follow, Mary Mangan (aka mem_somerville | Wossamotta U, @mem_somerville), commenting on a genebank video produced by the Crop Trust on behalf of the CGIAR’s Genebank Platform.

She tweeted: Finally someone did a genebank video. People don’t understand that scientists are doing this; they are told by PBS [the broadcaster] that some grizzled farmer is the only one doing it.

What particularly caught my attention (apart from viewing the entertaining and informative video) was her comment about the role of scientists and, by implication I suppose, that genebanking is (or should be) supported by scientific research. From my own experience, however, a research role for genebanks has not been as common as you might think, or wasn’t back in the day. Unlike IRRI, where we did have a strong genebanking research program¹.

When I interviewed for the head of GRC in January 1991, I made it quite plain that I hoped for—expected even, almost a condition of accepting an appointment—a research role around germplasm conservation and use, something that had not been explicitly stated in the job description. Once I was appointed, however, at the same senior level as any other Division (i.e. department) Head or Program Leader, I was able to bring my genebanking perspectives directly to discussions about the institute’s research and management policies and program. In that respect, I was successful and, having secured an appropriate budget and more staff, I set about transforming the genebank operations.

The IRG organizational structure then was extremely hierarchical, with access to the head by the national staff often channeled through one senior member, Eves Loresto. That was how my predecessor, Dr TT Chang ran the genebank. That was not my style, nor did I think it an effective way to operate. I also discovered that most of the Filipino scientific staff, as Research Assistants, had been in those positions for several years, with little expectation of promotion. Something had to be done.

In 1991, the genebank collection comprised more than 70,000 seed samples or accessions² of cultivated rices (Oryza sativa or Asian rice, and O. glaberrima or African rice) and the 20 or so wild species of Oryza. I needed to understand how the genebank operated: in seed conservation; data management; the various field operations for regeneration, characterization and evaluation of germplasm; and germplasm exchange, among others. I’d never worked on rice nor managed a genebank, even though my professional formation was in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. That was a steep learning curve.

So I took my time, asked lots of questions, and listened patiently (mostly) to the detailed explanations of how and why rice germplasm was handled in this way and not that. It was also the period during which I got to know my Filipino staff. I say ‘got to know’ with some reservation. I’m ashamed to admit that I never did learn to speak Tagalog, although I could, at times, understand what was being said. And while almost all the staff spoke good English, there was always a language barrier. Obviously they always spoke Tagalog among themselves, even when I was around, so I came to rely on one or two staff to act as go-betweens with staff whose English was not so fluent.

After six months I’d developed a plan how to upgrade the genebank operations, and felt confident to implement staff changes. I was also able eventually to find a different (and more significant) role for Eves Loresto that took her out of the ‘chain of command’ between me and other staff members. We took on new ‘temporary’ staff to assist with the burdensome seed handing operations to prepare samples for long-term conservation (many of whom are still with the institute a quarter of century later), and I was able, now that everyone had better-defined responsibilities, to achieve the promotion of more than 70% of the staff.

The genebank needed, I believed, a flatter organizational structure, with each area of the genebank’s critical operations assigned to a single member of staff, yet making sure that everyone had a back-up person to take over whenever necessary. In the structure I’d inherited it was not uncommon for several members of staff to have overlapping responsibilities, with no-one explicitly taking a lead. And no-one seemed to be accountable. As I told them, if they wanted to take on more responsibility (which was a common aspiration) they had to be accountable for their own actions. No more finger-pointing if something went wrong.

How they all grew in their posts! Today, several of the national staff have senior research support positions within the institute; some have already retired.

Flora de Guzman, known to one and all as Pola, is the genebank manager. It soon became obvious to me that Pola was someone itching to take on more responsibility, who was dedicated to germplasm conservation, and had a relevant MS degree. She didn’t let me down, and has become one of the leading lights in genebank management across the eleven CGIAR genebanks that are supported through the Genebank Platform that I mentioned earlier.

Pola manages all the operations inside the genebank: germplasm acquisition; seed cleaning and storage; and exchange (and all the paperwork that goes with that!). Take a peek inside the genebank with Pola, from 1:00 in the video. She worked closely with Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño for the multiplication/regeneration of seeds when seed stocks run low, or seed viability declines. She has done a fantastic job, leading a large team and has eliminated many of the seed conservation backlogs that were like a millstone around our collective necks in the early 1990s. She will be a hard act to follow when the time comes for her to retire.

Ato is a self-effacing individual, leading the genebank field operations. Just take a look at the video I mentioned (at around 2:03 onwards) to see Ato in his domain of several hectares of rice multiplication plots.

Taking the lead from my suggestions, Ato brought all the genebank field operations back on to the institute’s experimental station from farmers’ fields some distance away where they were when I joined IRRI. He enthusiastically adopted the idea of separating multiplication/regeneration of germplasm accessions from those related to characterization, effectively moving them into different growing seasons. For the first years, his colleague Tom Clemeno took on the germplasm characterization role until Tom moved away from GRC and eventually out of the institute. After a battle with cancer, Tom passed away in 2015. ‘Little Big Man’ is sadly missed.

Soccie Almazan became the curator of the wild rices that had to be grown in a quarantine screenhouse some distance from the main research facilities, on the far side of the experiment station. But the one big change that we made was to incorporate all the germplasm types, cultivated or wild, into a single genebank collection, rather than the three collections. Soccie brought about some major changes in how the wild species were handled, and with an expansion of the screenhouses in the early 1990s (as part of the overall refurbishment of institute infrastructure) the genebank at last had the space to adequately grow (in pots) all this valuable germplasm that required special attention. See the video from 4:30. Soccie retired from IRRI in the last couple of years.

I’ve written elsewhere about the challenges we faced in terms of data management, and the significant changes we had to make in fusing what were essentially three separate databases using different coding systems for the same characters across the two cultivated species of rice and the wild species. There were three data management staff in 1991: Adel Alcantara, Vangie Gonzales, and Myrna Oliva.

L to R: Myrna, Adel’s daughter, Adel, and Vangie, during a GRC reunion in Tagaytay, just before my retirement in 2010.

One of the first changes we made during the refurbishment of GRC was to provide each of them with a proper workstation, and new computers. Each time our computers were upgraded, the data management staff were the first to benefit from new technology. Once we had made the necessary data structure changes, we could concentrate on developing a genebank management system that would incorporate all aspects from germplasm acquisition through to exchange and all steps in between. After a year or so we had a working system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). Myrna left IRRI by the mid-90s, and Adel and Vangie have retired or moved on. But their contributions to data management were significant, as access to and manipulation of data were fundamental to everything we did.

In terms of research per se, there were two young members of staff in 1991, Amy Juliano and Ma. Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, who were tinkering with several projects of little consequence. They were supervised by a British scientist, Duncan Vaughan (who spent about six months a year collecting wild rices and writing his trip reports). As I said, I was keen to establish a sound research base to rice conservation in GRC, and felt that Amy and Yvette’s talents were not being put to good use. In my opinion we needed a better taxonomic understanding of the genus Oryza based on sound experimental taxonomic principles and methods. After all, the genebank contained several thousand samples of wild rice seeds, a resource that no other laboratory could count on so readily. Despite my best efforts to encourage Duncan to embrace more research he was reluctant to do so. I wasn’t willing to tolerate ‘passengers’ in my group and so encouraged him to seek ‘pastures greener’ more suitable to his personal objectives. By mid-1993 he had left IRRI for a new position in Japan, and we could recruit his replacement to lead the taxonomic research effort.

L to R: Duncan Vaughan inside the genebank’s cold store; Bao-Rong collecting wild rices in Irian Jaya.

Bao-Rong Lu joined us in 1994, having completed his PhD in Sweden, and took Amy and Yvette under his taxonomic wing, so to speak. Amy and Yvette flourished, achieving thousands of crosses between the different wild and cultivated rices, developing tissue culture techniques to rescue seedlings through embryo culture and, once we had a collaborative research project with the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre (funded by UK government department for international aid, DFID), establishing a laboratory to study molecular markers in rice germplasm.

Amy Juliano in the molecular marker laboratory in GRC that she developed (with Sheila Quilloy).

Amy spent a couple of months at Birmingham around 1996 learning new molecular techniques. She was destined for so much more. Sadly, she contracted cancer and passed away in 2004, a great loss to her family and GRC.

I knew from my early days at IRRI that Yvette had considerable promise as a researcher. She was curating the wild species collection, among other duties, and her talents were under-utilized. She took the lead for the biosystematics and cytogenetic research, and under my partial supervision, completed her MS degree at the University of the Philippines – Los Baños (UPLB).

Bao-Rong moved back to China around 2000, giving us the opportunity of moving the research in another direction, and recruiting molecular biologist/biochemist Ken McNally. Ken was already at IRRI, completing an assignment on a perennial rice project. Ken took GRC’s molecular research to another level, with Yvette working alongside, and expanding the research into genomics, culminating in the 3000 rice genomes project. Yvette completed her PhD at UPLB in 2013 as part of that international collaboration, but has now recently retired from IRRI. It was the Facebook post about her being recognized last weekend as a UPLB Outstanding Alumnus that partly triggered this post.

In the early 90s Dr Kameswara Rao and I, supported by Ato, looked at the effects of seed-growing environment and its effect on long-term viability of rice seeds. More recently, Ato worked with Fiona Hay, a British seed physiologist who was recruited to GRC around 2007 or 2008 to extend this research, and they made some interesting changes to seed multiplication protocols and how to dry them post harvest.

The collection grew significantly between 1995 and 2000, with funding from the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), especially with regard to germplasm from the Lao PDR where GRC staff member Dr Seepana Appa Rao was based. We also had an important research component about on-farm conservation of rice varieties recruiting staff with expertise in population genetics and social anthropology. You can read more about that particular Swiss-funded project, and the staff involved, in this story from 2015.

The GRC secretaries who worked with me (L ro R): Zeny (1997-2001); Sylvia (1991-1997), and Tessie (1991 until her retirement a couple of years ago).

There were many support staff who all played their roles, and formed a great team. But I cannot end this post without mentioning the secretaries, of course. When I joined GRC, my secretary was Sylvia Arellano. She helped me through those first months as I was finding my feet. Syl was supported by Tessie Santos. When Sylvia was ‘poached’ by the Director General George Rothschild to become his secretary in 1997 (a position she would occupy until her retirement a couple of years back), Zeny Federico became my secretary. When I crossed over to senior management in 2001, Zeny came with me.

Working with such dedicated staff in GRC made my job easier, and very enjoyable. It was always a pleasure to show others just what the staff had achieved, and invariably visitors to the genebank came away impressed by what they had seen. And they understood that conserving rice varieties and wild species was not just a case of putting seeds in a cold store, but that there were many important and inter-linked components, underpinned by sound research, that enabled to the genebank to operate efficiently and safely preserve rice germplasm long into the future.

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¹ The research led to many publications. Click here to see a list (and many more that I have published on crop species other than rice).

² The collection has now grown to almost 128,000 samples. During my tenure the collection grew by more than 25%.

The Birmingham Class of ’71: plant genetic resources pioneers

Pioneers. That’s what we were. Or, at least, that’s what we thought we were.

Five individuals arriving at The University of Birmingham’s Department of Botany in September 1970 to study on the one-year MSc degree course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR).

Professor Jack Hawkes was the Course Leader, supported by Dr Trevor Williams (as Course Tutor) [1].

Professor Jack Hawkes (L) and Dr Trevor Williams (R)

The MSc course had its first intake (of four students from Canada, Brazil, and the UK) in September 1969. Twenty years later (which was celebrated at the time), hundreds of students had received training in genetic conservation at Birmingham. The course would continue to flourish for a further decade or so, but by the early 2000s there was less demand, limited financial resources to support students, and many of the staff at the university who were the lynch-pins of teaching on the course had moved on or retired.

However, the course had made its impact. There is no doubt of that. Birmingham genetic resources graduates were working all around the world, leading collection and conservation efforts at national levels and, in many cases, helping their countries—and the world—to set policy for the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). At the FAO conference on PGRFA held in Leipzig, Germany in 1996, for example, about 50 of the national delegations were led by, or had members, who had received training at Birmingham.

Former Birmingham MSc and Short Course PGR students (and two staff from IPGRI), at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie in the middle of the front row. Just two former students who attended the conference do not feature in this photo.

The Class of ’71
So, in September 1970, who comprised the second CUPGR cohort? We came from five countries:

  • Felix Taborda-Romero from Venezuela
  • Altaf-ur-Rehman Rao from Pakistan
  • Ayla Sencer from Turkey
  • Folu Dania-Ogbe from Nigeria
  • Mike Jackson (me!) from the UK

Having just graduated a couple of months earlier from the University of Southampton with a BSc degree in Botany and Geography, I was the youngest of the group, just approaching my 22nd birthday. Folu was almost four years my senior, and Ayla was perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, but I’m not sure. Altaf was 34, and Felix the ‘elder’ of the class, at 38.

I guess Ayla was the only one with a specific genetic resources background, coming to Birmingham from an agricultural research institute near Izmir, and having already been involved with conservation work. Felix and Altaf were both academics. As recent graduates, Folu and I were just starting to think about a career in this new field of plant genetic resources. We wouldn’t be disappointed!

Studying alongside mature students who were not only older than my eldest brother (nine years my senior), but who had taken a year out from their jobs to study for a higher degree, was a novel experience for me. There was also a language barrier, to some extent. Felix probably had the weakest English skills; Ayla had already made some good progress before arriving in Birmingham but she struggled with some aspects of the language. Both Altaf and Folu spoke English fluently as a second language.

We occupied a small laboratory on the north corridor, first floor of the School of Biological Sciences building, just a couple of doors down from where Jack, as Mason Professor of Botany and Head of Department, had his office, and just across from Trevor’s office. In 1981, when I returned to Birmingham as Lecturer in Plant Biology, that same room became my research laboratory for six or seven years.

Folu and myself had desk space on one side of the lab, and the others on the other side. We spent a lot of time huddled together in that room. In order to save us time hunting for literature in the university library, we had access to a comprehensive collection of photocopies of many, if not most, of the scientific papers on the prodigious reading lists given to us.

Richard Lester

We had a heavy schedule of lectures, in crop evolution, taxonomic methods, economic botany (from Dr Richard Lester), population genetics and statistics (from staff of the Department of Genetics), computer programming and data management (in its infancy then), germplasm collection, and conservation, among others. At the end of the course I felt that the lecture load during that one year was equivalent to my three-year undergraduate degree course. We also had practical classes, especially in crop diversity and taxonomy, and at the end of the teaching year in May, we had to sit four written exam papers, each lasting three hours.

There were also guest lectures from the likes of experts like Erna Bennett (from FAO) and Jack Harlan from the University of Illinois.

We also had to choose a short research project, mostly carried out during the summer months through the end of August, and written up and presented for examination in September. While the bulk of the work was carried out following the exams, I think all of us had started on some aspects much earlier in the academic year. In my case, for example, I had chosen a topic on lentil evolution by November 1970, and began to assemble a collection of seeds of different varieties. These were planted (under cloches) in the field by the end of March 1971, so that they were flowering by June. I also made chromosome counts on each accession in my spare time from November onwards, on which my very first scientific paper was based.

At the end of the course, all our work, exams and dissertation, was assessed by an external examiner (a system that is commonly used among universities in the UK). The examiner was Professor Norman Simmonds, Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) just south of Edinburgh [2]. He made his scientific reputation working on bananas and potatoes, and published several books including an excellent text on crop evolution [3].

Then and now
So how did we all end up in Birmingham, and what happened after graduation?

Felix received his first degree in genetics (Doutor em Agronomia) in 1955 from the Escola Superior de Agricultura Luiz de Queiroz, Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil. He was a contemporary of Almiro Blumenschein, who went on to collaborate with geneticist and Nobel Laureate Barbara McLintock on the maizes of South America, and head the Brazilian agricultural research institute EMBRAPA (which is the parent organization for the Brazilian national genebank CENARGEN).

Returning to Venezuela, Felix was involved (from 1956-1961) with a national project to breed the first Venezuelan hybrid corns and to organize commercial seed production while also looking after a collection of local varieties and races of corn.

In 1961 he started to work in the Facultad de Agronomía at the Universidad del Zulia, now one of the largest and most important universities in Venezuela. It seems he found out about the Birmingham course in 1969 through contact with Dr Jorge León, a Costarrican botanist working for IICA who had also been worked at FAO in genetic resources, and was a contemporary of Jack Hawkes in the 1960s genetic resources movement. León is second from right, standing, in the photo below. But Felix had also been inspired towards plant genetic resources by the book Plants, Man and Life by American geneticist Edgar Anderson.

Felix self-financed his studies at Birmingham, having taken a sabbatical leave from his university, and arriving in Birmingham by the middle of August. In December 1970, Felix returned briefly to Venezuela to bring his young wife Laura and his newly-born son Leonardo to Birmingham. They took up residence in a house owned by Jack Hawkes in Harborne, a suburb close to the university.

His dissertation, on the effect on growth of supra-optimal temperatures on a local Venezuelan sorghum variety, was supervised by plant physiologist Digby Idle. Having been awarded his MSc (the degree was conferred in December 1971), Felix returned to his university in Maracaibo, and continued his work in sorghum breeding. He was one of the pioneers to introduce grain sorghums in Venezuela, and continued working at the university up until about five years ago when, due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in his native country, Felix and Laura (who has an MSc degree from Vanderbilt University) decided to move to Florida and enjoy their retirement there. His three sons and six grandchildren had already left Venezuela.

Felix and I made contact with each other through Facebook, and it has been wonderful to catch up with him after almost five decades, and to know that since his Birmingham days he has enjoyed a fruitful career in academia and agricultural research, and remains as enthusiastic today, in his mid-eighties, as he was when I first knew him in September 1970.

Altaf was born in Faisalabad in December 1936, and when he came to Birmingham in 1970 he was already Assistant Professor in the Department of Botany at the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad. He had received his BSc (Agric.) degree from that university in 1957, followed by an MSc (Agric.) in 1962.

I cannot remember the topic of his dissertation nor who supervised it, perhaps Richard Lester. After graduation he moved to Bangor University to complete a PhD in 1974 on the genetic variation and distribution of Himalayan wheats and barleys, under the supervision of Professor John Witcombe (from whom I obtained the various photos of Altaf). In 1974 he joined a joint Bangor University-Lyallpur University to collect wheats and barley in northern Pakistan.

He continued his teaching at Faisalabad until 1996 when he retired as Professor of Botany. But he wasn’t finished. He joined the Cholistan Institute of Desert Studies at Islamia Universty and was director from 1998 to 2000. Sadly, in December 2000, just four days after his 64th birthday, Altaf passed away, leaving a wife, two daughters and four sons. Remembered for his devotion to plant genetic resources and desert ecology, you can read his obituary here.

Genetic resources conservation in Turkey received a major boost in the mid-1960s when an agreement was signed between the Government of Turkey and the United Nations Special Fund to establish a ‘Crop Research and Introduction Centre‘ at Menemen, Izmir. The Regional Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI, now the Aegean Agricultural Research Institute) became the location for this project, and Ayla was one of the first scientists to be involved.

Ayla came to Birmingham with a clear focus on what she wanted to achieve. She saw the MSc course as the first step to completing her PhD, and even arrived in Birmingham with samples of seeds for her research. During the course she completed a dissertation (with Jack Hawkes) on the origin of rye (Secale cereale), and she continued this project for a further two years or so for her PhD. I don’t recall whether she had the MSc conferred or not. In those days, it was not unusual for someone to convert an MSc course into the first year of a doctoral program; I’m pretty sure this is what Ayla did.

Completing her PhD in 1973 or 1974, Ayla continued to work with the Turkish genetic resources program until 1981 when she accepted a position at the International Maize and Wheat and Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City, as the first curator of the center’s wheat collection.

I believe Ayla stayed at CIMMYT until about 1990 or so, and then returned to Turkey. I know that she has retired with her daughter to a small coastal town southwest from Izmir, but I’ve been unable to make contact with her directly. The photo below was sent to me by Dr Tom Payne who is the current curator of CIMMYT’s wheat collection. He had dinner with Ayla a couple of years ago during one of his visits to Turkey.

Folu married shortly before traveling to Birmingham. Her husband had enrolled for a PhD at University College London. He had seen a small poster about the MSc course at Birmingham on a notice board at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria where Folu had completed her BSc in Botany. She applied successfully for financial support from the Mid-Western Nigeria Government to attend the MSc course, and subsequently her PhD studies.

Dr Dennis Wilkins

Before coming to Birmingham, Folu had not worked in genetic resources, but had a flair for genetics. Like me, she hoped that the course would be a launch pad for an interesting career. Her MSc dissertation—on floating rice—was supervised Dr Dennis Wilkins, an ecophysiologist. In the late 70s and early 80s, Dennis supervised the PhD of World Food Prize Laureate Monty Jones, who is now the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security in Sierra Leone.

After completing her MSc, Folu began a PhD under the supervision of Trevor Williams on the taxonomy of West African rice, which she completed in 1974. To successfully grow her rice varieties, half of one glasshouse at the department’s garden at Winterbourne was successfully converted to a rice paddy.

In this photo, taken during her PhD studies, Folu’s mother (who passed away in January 2018) visited her in Birmingham. Folu can’t remember the three persons between her and her mother, but on the far left is Dr Rena Martins Farias from Brazil, who was one of the first cohort of MSc students in 1969.

Folu also had the opportunity of joining a germplasm collecting mission to Turkey during 1972. In this photo, Folu (on the right) and Ayla (on the left) are collecting wheat landrace varieties.

Returning to Nigeria, Folu joined the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Benin, Benin City until 2010, when she retired. She taught a range of courses related to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, and conducted research on the taxonomy of African crop plants, characterization of indigenous crops from West Africa, and the ethnobotany of useful indigenous African plants. She counts among her most important contributions to genetic resources the training courses she helped deliver, and the research linkages she promoted among various bodies in Nigeria. She has published extensively.

After retirement from the University of Benin, she was seconded to the new Samuel Adegboyega University at Ogwa in Edo State, where she is Professor and Dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences. She has three children and five grandchildren.

As for myself, I was the only member of our class to be interviewed for a place on the MSc course, in February 1970. I’d heard about it from genetics lecturer at Southampton, Dr Joe Smartt, who stopped me in the corridor one day and gave me a pamphlet about the course, mentioning that he thought this would be right up my street. He wasn’t wrong!

However, my attendance was not confirmed until late August, because Jack Hawkes was unable to secure any financial support for me until then.

Trevor Williams supervised my dissertation on the origin of lentil (Lens culinaris), but as early as February 1971, Jack Hawkes had told me about an opportunity to work in Peru for a year after I’d completed the course, looking after a germplasm collection of native potato varieties at the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. In October 1971 I began a PhD (under Jack’s supervision) on the relationships between diploid and tetraploid potatoes (which I successfully defended in October 1975), and joined CIP in January 1973. Continuing with my thesis research, I also made several potato collecting missions in different regions of Peru.

From 1976-1981 I continued with CIP as its regional research leader in Central America, based in Costa Rica, working on disease resistance and potato production. I spent a decade back at The University of Birmingham from April 1981, mainly teaching on the genetic resources MSc course, carrying out research on potatoes and legumes, and supervising PhD students.

In 1991, I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños in the Philippines as the first head of the Genetic Resources Center, looking after the International Rice Genebank, and managing a major project to collect and conserve rice genetic resources worldwide. In 2001, I gave up research, left the genebank, and joined IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications, until 2010 when I retired.

But I’ve not rested on my laurels. Since retirement, I’ve organized two international rice science conferences for IRRI in Vietnam and Thailand, co-edited a second book on genetic resources and climate change, and led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program.

My wife Steph is a genetic resources graduate from Birmingham, in 1972, and she joined me at CIP in July 1973 after leaving her position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station where she helped to curate the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC).

We have two daughters, Hannah and Philippa (both PhD psychologists), and four grandchildren.

Sitting (L to R): Callum, Hannah, Zoe, Mike, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael (L) and Andi (R).

Looking back at the past five decades, I think I can speak for all of us that we had successful careers in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, repaying the investments supporting us to study at Birmingham all those years ago. What a journey it has been!

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[1] Trevor left Birmingham at the end of the 1970s to become the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International) in Rome.

[2] The SPBS merged with the the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in Dundee in 1981 to become the Scottish Crops Research Institute. It is now the James Hutton Institute.

[3] Simmonds, NW (ed), 1976. Evolution of Crop Plants. Longman, London. A second edition, co-edited with Joe Smartt was published in 1995.

 

How long is a piece of string?

Just three decades after Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro first encountered the potato in the high Andes of Peru in 1532, the potato was already being grown in the Canary Islands. And it found its way to mainland Europe via the Canaries shortly afterwards [1].

The first known published illustration of the potato in Gerard’s Herball of 1597.

The potato was described by English herbalist John Gerard in his Herball published in 1597. In a revised version, published in 1633 over 20 years after his death, there is another beautiful woodcut of the potato, referred to Battata Virginiana or Virginian potatoes.

Potatoes became an important crop by the late 18th century, and particularly the staple of Ireland’s impoverished citizens in the years leading up to the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1840s.

Today, potatoes are one of the world’s most important crops, grown in every continent except Antarctica. Known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, it was given this name by the famous Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus in his 1753 magnum opus, Species Plantarum.

The potato and its wild relatives must be one of the most studied groups of crop plants. Not that I’m biased (having researched potatoes for more than 20 years).

Potato diversity and germplasm collections
Its clear that there is a wealth of information about the diversity within the section of the genus Solanum that encompasses the potato. They have been studied extensively from a taxonomic point of view, breeding efforts worldwide have incorporated genes from many wild species to enhance productivity, and important germplasm collections were set up decades ago to preserve this important diversity, to study it, and use it in potato breeding.

My former colleague (and fellow PhD student at Birmingham), Dr Zosimo Huaman, describes the management of CIP’s wild potato collection in Huancayo to members of the CGIAR’s Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources who held their annual meeting at CIP in 1996.

Among the most important collections are held at:

The wild relatives of the potato have one of the broadest geographical and ecological ranges among species that have been domesticated for human consumption. While the various forms of cultivated potatoes were domesticated in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, and on the coast of Chile, the wild species are found from the southwest USA (in the coniferous forests of Arizona, for instance) through Mexico and the countries of Central America to Panama, along the Andes south to Chile and northern Argentina, and south and east on to the plains of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Wild species are found in the coastal desert of Peru, in the cloud forests of central America to almost 3000 m, at the highest altitudes of the Andes, well over 4000 m, and also growing in the highly humid transition zone on the eastern side of the Andes dropping down to the lowland forests (known as the ‘eyebrow of the mountain’ or ceja de la montaña).

Here is just a very small sample of the diversity—and beauty—of wild potato species (photos courtesy of my friends at the Commonwealth Potato Collection).

How many potato species are there?
Well, it depends, to some extent, on one’s perspectives as a taxonomist, use of different species concepts, and the methods used to study species diversity, and also on the work that earlier taxonomists published.

Essentially, there are three basic taxonomic approaches:

  • Morphology: often based on the study of dried herbarium specimens collected in the wild. In the case of potatoes, this has led to the description of a multiplicity of species, with almost every variant being described as a separate species. This reliance on plant morphology was the approach taken by the 19th and early 20th century botanists.
  • Biosystematics: takes an experimental view of species diversity, of breeding behaviour and relationships, and very much based on collections in the field and the study of ecology, and growing samples in a uniform environment such as the study one of my PhD students, Susan Juned, made of Solanum chacoense, a species from Argentina and Paraguay.
  • Molecular biology: methods have become available in the last couple of decades to analyse the most basic variation in DNA, and helped to refine further how potato taxonomists view the diversity within the tuber-bearing Solanums, and the relationships between species.

While these different approaches still do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how many species there are, we know that taxonomists have described and named more than 200 species. To some extent it’s like asking how long is a piece of string. And that helps me to provide an analogy.

Take a piece of string. If you were to view this string along its length that, to your vision would be fore-shortened, it would be very difficult to say with any degree of certainty just how long the string actually was. However, if you increase the angle at which you view the string, until you are looking at right angles, your ability to estimate its length also increases. At right angles you can see the whole length, and measure it accurately in many different ways.

Taxonomic study is a bit like looking at the string from different angles. Each taxonomist builds on earlier studies, and describing new species or subsuming previously described ones into another species (as merely variants). This is one of the challenges of studying wild potato species: they are highly variable and show considerable phenotypic (or morphological) plasticity. It’s not always possible to study large numbers of plants under uniform conditions to reduce the variation caused by differences in habitats.

The 2n=3x=36 chromosomes of a triploid potato, from a root-tip squash in two cells.

Furthermore potatoes have considerable chromosomal variation, with a base number of x=12, with diploids (2n=24) the most frequent, and mostly self-incompatible (i.e. they cannot self fertilise), infertile triploids (2n=36, including two cultivated species), tetraploids with 2n=48 (mostly self-fertile, and including the cultivated Solanum tuberosum of world-wide agriculture), some pentaploids (2n=60; including one cultivated form), and a few hexaploids with 2n=72. Wild potatoes are uncommonly promiscuous when grown together under experimental conditions, and will inter-cross readily (they are bee-pollinated), yet hybrids often do not survive beyond the second generation in the wild. Many species are separated by ecology, and generally do not come into contact with each other, thus maintaining their species identity.

Nevertheless, this is what makes the study of potatoes and wild species so very interesting, and that captured my interest directly for over two decades, and continues to do so, even though I moved on to the study of other crops like rice and grain legumes.

The potato taxonomists
Many botanists have taken an interest in wild potatoes. During the 19th century, the Swiss-French botanist Alphonse de Candolle (d. 1893) named a number of species, as did François Berthault (d. 1916). But the first decades of the 20th century leading up to the Second World War saw a lot of collecting and taxonomic description. In Germany, Friedrich August Georg Bitter, who specialised in the genus Solanum, described and named many species. However, it was the involvement of several Russian botanists and geneticists, under the leadership of Nicolai Vavilov, that saw an expansion in the collection of potatoes throughout the Americas, but a systematic evaluation of this germplasm leading to even more species being described.

SM Bukasov

Two names come to mind, in particular: SM Bukasov and VS Juzepczuk. They were active during the 1920s and 30s, taking part in several missions to South America, and developing further the concept of potato species. But much of their work was based on morphological comparison leading to the identification of even small variants as new species.

In August 1938, a young Cambridge graduate, Jack Hawkes, traveled to Leningrad in Russia to meet and discuss with Bukasov and Juzepczuk (and Vavilov himself) in preparation for the 1938-39 British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America (which Jack has described in his 2004 memoir Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes [2]).

A young Jack Hawkes (second from right) stands outside a church near Lake Titicaca in northern Bolivia, alongside expedition leader Edward Balls (second from the left).

Jack Hawkes

That collecting expedition, and the subsequent studies (which led to Hawkes being awarded his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1941 for a thesis Cytogenetic studies on South American potatoes supervised by renowned potato scientist Sir Redcliffe N Salaman), was the launch pad, so to speak, of potato taxonomy research for the rest of the 20th century, in which Hawkes became one of the leading exponents.

After Cambridge, Hawkes spent some years in Colombia (where he no doubt continued his studies of wild potatoes) but it was on his return to the UK in 1952 when appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Botany at The University of Birmingham (where he was to remain until his retirement in 1982) that his potato studies flourished, leading him to publish in 1956 his first taxonomic revision of the tuber-bearing Solanums (with a second edition appearing in 1963).

In 1990, he published his final synopsis of the tuber-bearing Solanums [3]; that taxonomic treatment is the one followed by the curators of the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

Jack’s approach to potato taxonomy was based on a thorough study of morphology backed up by rigorous crossing experiments, and a cytogenetic and sometimes serological evaluation of species relationships.

I first met Jack in February 1970 when he interviewed me for a place on his newly-founded MSc course on plant genetic resources, joining the course later that same year. In September 1971 I became one of Jack’s PhD students, joining others who were looking at the origin and evolution of the cultivated species [4].

Donovan S CorrellIn these revisions he was also taking into account the work of US botanist, Donovan S Correll who published his own potato monograph in 1962 [5], as well as three important South American botanists with whom he would collaborate from time-to-time: Professor César Vargas from the National University of Cuzco; Professor Martín Cárdenas from Cochabamba in Bolivia; and Professor Carlos Ochoa, originally from Cuzco, who was a professor at the Universidad Nacional Agraria (UNA) in La Molina, Lima and, around 1975 or so, joined the International Potato Center across the street from the UNA.

L-R: Danish botanist J Peter Hjerting, Martin Cardenas, and Jack Hawkes in Cochabamba.

Vargas published a number of species descriptions in the 1950s, but made his most significant contribution in his two part monographs, Las Papas Sudperuanas published in 1949 and 1956. I met Vargas on a couple of occasions, first in January 1973 just after I’d joined CIP as Associate Taxonomist. And a second time in February 1974 when I was passing through Cuzco with Dr Peter Gibbs from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Peter was making a study of incompatibility among different forms of the Andean tuber crop, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), and had joined me on an excursion to Cuyo-Cuyo in the Department of Puno. Vargas’s daughter Martha was studying for her MSc degree under Peter’s supervision at St Andrews.

With Prof Cesar Vargas at his home in Urubamba, near Cuzco

It was Carlos Ochoa, however, whose studies of potatoes and their relatives rivalled (and in some respects eclipsed) those of Jack Hawkes. They were quite intense taxonomic rivals, with a not-altogether harmonious relationship at times. Carlos certainly played his taxonomic cards very close to his chest.

Me consulting with Carlos Ochoa concerning the identity of some triploid potatoes, in one the screenhouses at the International Potato Center in 1974.

But the fact that he grew up in the Andes and had, from an early age, taken an interest in the diversity of this quintessential Andean crop and its wild relatives, led him to dedicate his life to uncovering the diversity of potatoes in his homeland. He was also a potato breeder and released some of the most important varieties in Peru, such as Renacimiento, Yungay, and Tomasa Condemayta.

In this video (in Spanish, and broadcast on Peruvian TV on his death in 2008) he talks about his early life in Cuzco, the pressures on him to study medicine or become a lawyer, and how he found his true vocation: the study of wild potatoes.

Setting potato taxonomy and germplasm exploration priorities at CIP
Forty-five years ago this week, CIP convened the first planning workshop on the exploration and taxonomy of potatoes [6], inviting a group of taxonomists and potato breeders to meet in Lima and mull over the ‘state of play’ taking into consideration what taxonomic research had already been accomplished, what was in the pipeline, and what CIP’s germplasm exploration policy (especially in Peru) should be. I attended that meeting (as an observer), having landed in Lima just a few days earlier.

On the taxonomic side were Jack Hawkes, Carlos Ochoa, and Donald Ugent who was a ethnobotany professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Richard Tarn, a potato breeder from Agriculture Canada at Fredericton, New Brinswick, had completed his PhD under Jack’s supervision at Birmingham. Frank Haynes, a professor of genetics and potato breeder at North Carolina State University (and long-time friend and colleague of CIP’s first Director General, Richard Sawyer) and Roger Rowe [7], then curator of the USDA’s potato collection at Sturgeon Bay (who would join CIP in July 1973 as the Head of Breeding and Genetics, and become my PhD co-supervisor) were the other participants.

Workshop participants looking at CIPs germplasm collection in the field at Huancayo (3000 m) in central Peru. L-R: David Baumann (CIP field manager), Frank Haynes, Jack Hawkes, Roger Rowe, and Don Ugent.

In 1969, Jack had published (with his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting [8]) a monograph of the potatoes of southern cone countries of South America [9], and by the time of the CIP 1973 workshop was well into research on the potatoes of Bolivia [10], leading publication of a monograph in 1989.

Peter Hjerting collecting Solanum chacoense in Bolivia in 1980. Standing next to him is Ing. Israel Aviles, a Bolivian member of the expedition. Their driver looks on.

What I’ve never been able to fathom after all these years is why Ochoa decided to write his own monograph of the Bolivian species rather than concentrating in the first instance on the Peruvian species. Nevertheless Ochoa did produce his own fine monograph in 1990 [11], beautifully illustrated with some fine watercolours by CIP plant pathologist Franz Frey. This was followed by an equally magnificent volume on the potatoes of Peru in 2004 [12], also illustrated by Frey.

Throughout his expeditions and research, Ochoa was supported by several assistants, the most notable being Ing. Alberto Salas. Now in his mid-70s, he has been collecting wild potatoes for five decades.

I knew Alberto when I first joined CIP in 1973, and it was a delight to meet him again (although he had retired) during my visit to CIP in July 2016.

Taking up the baton
With retirement, Hawkes and Ochoa passed the potato taxonomy baton to a new generation of researchers, principally David Spooner, a USDA scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who made several collecting trips throughout the Americas.

David Spooner

David’s research took potato systematics to a new level, employing the developing molecular and genomic approaches, and use of different classes of markers to help him refine his understanding of the diversity of the tuber-bearing Solanums, building of course on the very solid Hawkes and Ochoa foundations.

Although no longer working on potatoes (his most recent focus on carrots supported the PhD thesis of Carlos Arbizu, Jr, the son of one of my PhD students at Birmingham in the 1980s), David’s scientific output on potatoes has been prodigious. With molecular insights supporting more traditional methods he has proposed a 50% reduction in the number of potato species from the more than 200 listed in Hawkes’s 1990 publication.

Is this the end of the potato taxonomy story? Probably for the time-being. It’s unlikely that anyone will pursue these studies to the same depth as Hawkes and Hjerting, Ochoa, or Spooner. Nevertheless, as the curators of the Commonwealth Potato Collection have done, most potato researchers will take a pragmatic approach and fix on a particular taxonomic treatment on which to base their management or use of germplasm. Taxonomy is one of those disciplines in which subjective interpretations (obviously based on empirical studies of diversity) can lead to contrary classifications. What is a distinct species to one taxonomist may be merely a variant to another. Undoubtedly these different taxonomic treatments of the tuber-bearing Solanums have permitted us to have a much better appreciation of just how long ‘the potato piece of string’ really is.

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[1] Hawkes, JG & J Francisco-Ortega, 1993. The early history of the potato in Europe. Euphytica 70, 1-7.

[2] Hawkes, JG, 2004. Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes – Memories of the British Empire Potato Collectiing Expedition to South America 1938-1939. Wageningen, the Netherlands. ISBN: 90-901802-4.

[3] Hawkes, JG, 1990. The Potato – Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London.

[4] Since I was working on the origin and evolution of a cultivated species of potato for my PhD, I made only one short collecting trip for wild species with Jack in early 1975, to the Departments of Huanuco, Cerro de Pasco, and Lima. On his trips to Peru between 1973 and 1975 he would join me in the field to look at the germplasm I was studying and give me the benefit of his potato wisdom.

[5] Correll, DS, 1962. The Potato and its Wild Relatives. Contributions from the Texas Research Fiundation 4, pp. 606. Texas Research Foundation, Renner, Texas.

[6] International Potato Center, 1973. Report of the Workshop on Germplasm Exploration and Taxonomy of Potatoes. Lima, Peru. 35 pp.

[7] I’ve kept in touch with Roger and his wife Norma all these years. After I left CIP in 1981, Roger moved to East Africa to work with the animal diseases center that became ILRI after its merger with another CGIAR livestock center in Ethiopia. He was DDG-Research at CIMMYT in Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While I was at IRRI, he was based in Cairo working for the CGIAR center that became WorldFish (with its headquarters in Penang, Malaysia). Before it moved to Malaysia, ICLARM as it then was had its offices in Manila, and we would see Roger in the Philippines from time-to-time. It was great to meet up with Roger and Norma again in July 2016 when I was in Lima for the genebank review that I led.

[8] From what I can determine through a Google search, as of January 2018, Peter celebrated his 100th birthday in 2017. He has a Mexican tetraploid (2n=4x=48) species named after him, Solanum hjertingii. When I was at Birmingham in the 1980s I had two PhD students, Lynne Woodwards and Ian Gubb who studied this species because its tubers lack so-called enzymatic blackening, a trait that could be very useful in potato breeding.

[9] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting, 1969. The Potatoes of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – A Biosystematic Study. Annals of Botany Memoirs No. 3. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[10] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting, 1989. The Potatoes of Bolivia – Their Breeding Value and Evolutionary Relationships. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[11] Ochoa, CM, 1990. The Potatoes of South America: Bolivia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[12] Ochoa, CM, 2004. The Potatoes of South America: Peru. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru.