Déjà vu, again?

A rather interesting experiment was reported on the BBC TV news at 6 o’clock this evening. Tree scientists in 12 European countries will assess the response of many different tree species at 37 locations along a 1600 mile stretch of Atlantic coastline. The saplings planted at all sites come from the Mediterranean, eastern Europe, California, and beyond. The experiment will last for decades as scientists monitor the growth and health of the trees.

Multilocation field trials of this type are essential if we are ever to get a handle on how plants (and crops) respond under a changing climate, and what germplasm (and in the case of trees, for example, which provenances) should be tapped to maintain productivity.

It’s not only response to increasing temperature that will be critical. It’s that we’ll be experiencing higher temperatures under existing daylengths (or photoperiod). So experiments over a wide range of latitude can begin to investigate some of these temperature x photoperiod relationships.

In December 1990 (while I was at the University of Birmingham) I presented a paper on crop networks and global warming [1] at a joint EUCARPIA/IBPGR symposium, held in Wageningen, the Netherlands. I put forward a proposal to establish a network of field trials of barley (Hordeum vulgare) landraces from a very wide geographical range across Europe, to cover the broadest distribution of both latitude and longitude. Since barley is a weakly buffered genetically – it has 2n=2x=14 chromosomes, and is a self-fertilizing diploid – most of the genetic variation in any line should be expressed.

The barley germplasm exists, as do the databases. Click on the image for an interesting link.

In this way I suggested that we could use the power of multilocation trials to help identify germplasm traits for use in breeding under climate change. Needless to say, the idea went down like a lead balloon, and I didn’t pursue it further; in any case I moved on and joined IRRI. Quite a number of the symposium participants told me that my proposal was not worth pursuing, simply because climate change was not a reality. Now we know different. But just think how much further we would be ahead today if multilocation trials had been started a couple of decades ago.

When I joined IRRI in 1991, I had, as head of the Genetic Resources Center, overall responsibility for INGER – the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, but not day-to-day management. At one early meeting I suggested that perhaps a new model for multilocation testing should be adopted with proper randomized and replicated trials at carefully selected locations – but only where collaborators would be willing to conduct rather more sophisticated field trials, as well as collect accurate weather data. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that this was not INGER, and despite my best efforts to bring about change and inject some science, the network continued on its merry way, collecting volumes of data of little use to anyone. Another opportunity lost!

So it is rather heartening to see that, at last, some scientists have bitten the bullet – and a big one at that, since the trials will last several decades. Now that’s what I call commitment.

[1] Jackson, MT, 1991. Global warming: the case for European cooperation for germplasm conservation and use. In: Th.J.L. van Hintum, L. Frese & P.M. Perret (eds.), Crop Networks. Searching for New Concepts for Collaborative Genetic Resources Management. International Crop Network Series No. 4. International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, Rome, Italy. Papers of the EUCARPIA/IBPGR symposium held in Wageningen, the Netherlands, December 3-6, 1990. pp. 125-131.

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