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%.

Laos – jewel in the rice biodiversity crown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

End of an era . . .

One of the most satisfying periods of my working life was setting up and managing the Office for Program Planning and Coordination (DPPC, later to become Program Planning and Communications) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) from May 2001 until my retirement in April 2010. And working with a fine team of people over the years.

30 April 2010 – my last day at IRRI, with the DPPC team (L-R) Eric Clutario, Corinta Guerta, Zeny Federico, Vel Hernandez-Ilao, and Yeyet Enriquez-Agnes (aka ‘The Jackson Five’)

Not only did we achieve a great deal—especially rescuing the institute’s reputation with its donors from the dark place it had sunk to—but we helped to rehabilitate a research culture that had become seriously dysfunctional. The term ‘herding cats’ comes to mind.

The achievements of DPPC are down to the fantastic team of professionals that I was able to bring together, who quickly bought into an ethos for DPPC that I was keen to establish. Thereafter they worked very effectively together to make things happen, often going the extra mile to meet deadlines (mostly externally imposed) even when research colleagues hadn’t always met their side of the ‘project development and management bargain’.

So how did this all come about, who was involved, and why am I waxing lyrical about DPPC at the end of October 2017, over seven years since I retired from IRRI?

Well, the short answer is that at the end of October, the last member of my original DPPC team, Zeny Federico, will retire. Others have retired already, moved on to bigger and better things, or moved to other positions in the institute. It’s the end of an era! DPPC no longer exists. Shortly after I retired it changed its name to DRPC—Donor Relations and Project Coordination, and is to become the IRRI Portfolio Management Office (IPMO).

DPPC is born
In January 2001, I was approached by IRRI Director General Ron Cantrell to take over the office responsible for the institute’s donor relations and project management, and help rebuild its reputation and credibility with its donors¹, as I have described in one of my very first blog posts back in February 2012. In itself this would appear rather strange as I was then head of the institute’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), with day-to-day responsibility managing the world’s largest genebank for rice.

During the visit of a team of management consultants at the back end of 2000, Ron received some bleak feedback about the parlous state of the institute’s donor relations and project management. There was apparently little accurate information about the number and scope, or even commitments, of time-bound projects or grants (often referred to as ‘special projects’, each with its specific objectives and research timeline) within the institute’s overall research framework that IRRI had on its books. I’m not sure exactly how, but my name was suggested as someone to lead an initiative to put things in order.

Let’s talk about funding for international agricultural research for a moment. In January 1973, when I first joined the International Potato Center (CIP), one of 15 international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), most donor support came in the form of lump-sum grants, commonly known as ‘unrestricted funding’. Even in the 1990s, however, the writing was on the wall, the future of ‘unrestricted’ funding was looking uncertain, and ‘special project’ funding started to increase significantly. It’s the norm today.

With ‘special project’ funding, donors have rightly insisted on greater accountability, mostly through regular (often bespoke) reporting on what the research has achieved, what benefits it has brought to farmers and particularly the rural and urban poor, and how the funds have been spent. After all, donor agencies are accountable to tax-payers in their own countries. The challenge for DPPC was not only to meet donor expectations and comply with their funding requirements, but help build a robust research management culture in which individual researchers fully committed to institute goals and objectives rather than focusing on their own, sometimes selfish, research agendas as had increasingly (and regrettably for IRRI) become the situation across the institute. Herding cats!

And while we certainly did help rebuild the institute’s reputation in terms of research project management and accountability, I believe the most important legacy was a solid culture for project development, execution, and management that has served the institute well.

Building the DPPC team
When I moved from GRC to become head of DPPC and an institute director, I asked Zeny to join me. I knew that I needed someone working alongside me who I could rely on completely. Zeny had been my secretary since 1997 when my secretary at that time, Sylvia Arellano was poached by George Rothschild to become the executive secretary in his office. The day after Sylvia moved, George ‘resigned’ as Director General.

Zeny with Sylvia and Tessie Santos. Sylvia and Tessie were secretaries in GRC when I joined IRRI in 1991; both are now retired.

Zeny joined IRRI in 1980, aged 27, as one of the administrative support staff for the International Rice Testing Program (IRTP), which became the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER) at the end of the 80s or thereabouts. Prior to IRRI she had been a clerical research aide with the Corn Program in the Department of Agronomy of the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB), which transferred after 1975 to the university’s Institute of Plant Breeding.

In 1991, when GRC was founded, and merging INGER and the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC, the rice genebank) into a single administrative unit that retained their separate programmatic functions. Without going into detail, many INGER staff (including Zeny) were not, to put it mildly, enthusiastic that INGER was no longer completely independent unit.

By 1997, I think much of that reluctance had disappeared, and Zeny immediately accepted my invitation to become the GRC executive secretary. I couldn’t have hoped for more loyal and committed support over the years. It was a ‘no-brainer’ for her to accompany me to DPPC. She was the anchor among the DPPC team. Since I left IRRI, Zeny’s role has evolved, and she will retire in two weeks as Senior Officer – Administrative Coordination.

I was faced with a decision concerning the three existing staff I inherited, and very quickly came to the conclusion that two of them appeared to be ‘square pegs in round holes’ given the vision I had for DPPC. In any case, I was keen to bring in someone new as my deputy.

And that person was Corinta Guerta, a soil chemist and Senior Associate Scientist working on the adaptation of rice varieties to problem soils. A soil chemist, you might ask? When discussing my new role with Ron Cantrell in early 2001, I’d already mentioned Corinta’s name as someone I would like to try and recruit. What in her experience would qualify Corints (as we know her) to take up a role in donor relations and project management?

Corinta joined IRRI in July 1975 as a Research Assistant 1, when she was 23 years old. Having earlier graduated with a BS degree in chemistry from College of the Holy Spirit in Manila, she then placed sixth in the national Chemist Licensure Examination of the Philippines Professional Regulation Commission. In 1982 she received her MS from UPLB.

But rather than explain here what transpired, why not watch this short video:

When, in April 2009, I accepted a one-year extension to my contract, Corints took over the day-to-day running of DPPC. This gave me time and space to plan the 3rd International Rice Congress to be held in Hanoi in 2010 (IRC 2010), as well as overseeing the IRRI Golden Jubilee celebrations from December 2009 to April 2010. In fact, Corints became de facto head of DPPC from January 2010, with me simply in a mentoring support role. After I retired, she was appointed Director for External Relations and, as far as I’m aware, is the only IRRI national staff member to have joined the institute as a junior researcher and retiring earlier this year at the highest levels of management.

Corints with her DRPC team on her retirement in May 2017

I was delighted in February 2012 that Corints would be visiting several donors in Europe, and that she could join my wife Steph and younger daughter Philippa at an investiture in Buckingham Palace in London when I received my OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales.

Sadly, Corints was widowed around 2003 or so. I watched her son Christian and daughter Diane grow up over the years. Corints is the proud grandmother of a little girl.

Over the years there were several personnel changes in DPPC/DRPC. That was a healthy situation, because they came about for all the right reasons. Staff grew in their positions, and then moved on to broaden their experience further (mainly) outside IRRI. The turnover of staff also brought some positives. New people do things in different ways, bring in new ideas and approaches.

From the outset, I knew we needed an online database to handle all the information and correspondence around each project and grant, ‘glued’ together by a unique ID number for each project/grant. Not exactly ‘rocket science’, but I couldn’t believe the resistance I faced in some quarters (particularly the Finance Office) to adopting this ID. Remember, I came from a genebank background, managing thousands of seed samples, known as ‘accessions’ (= projects/grants), and handled lots of different activities and information through a database management system. We ditched the idea of using a system-in-development from IRRI’s sister center in Colombia, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). I was convinced we could do better. But we needed some in-house expertise to translate ideas into tangible assets. That’s where computer science graduate Eric Clutario enters the DPPC story.

When Corints and I interviewed Eric, he quickly understood the essential elements of what we wanted to do, and had potential solutions to hand. Potential became reality! I don’t remember exactly when Eric joined us in DPPC. It must have been around September or October 2001, but within six months we had a functional online grants management system that already moved significantly ahead of where the CIAT system has languished for some time. Our system went from strength to strength and was much admired, envied even, among professionals at the other centers who had similar remits to DPPC.

I could outline an idea to Eric and within the same day he’d have a prototype to show me. Once we could make the database accessible on the intranet, then all researchers were able to monitor research progress and expenditures, and non-confidential correspondence, related to the projects they were working in.

After about four years, I discussed with the head of IRRI’s IT Services about how IRRI more widely could benefit from Eric’s expertise. With everyone’s agreement, Eric transferred to IT Services, but with a guaranteed 50% commitment to DPPC. In this way his expertise could be deployed to solve other pressing database issues outside DPPC without compromising his support to us. And, as far as I know, that arrangement has remained in place to some extent.

In 2007, Eric was seconded to Bioversity International in Rome for several months to contribute to an inter-center initiative. I don’t remember the details. I also attended a workshop in FAO to launch this particular project, and Eric I traveled there together. It was his first time to fly, and we flew Business Class on Emirates. I don’t think Eric could imagine his good fortune. This was what flying must be like all the time.

(L) On theFAO terrace, overlooking the Circo Massimo, and (R) enjoying a macchiato together in one of Rome’s many sidewalk cafes

Eric in his ‘mafioso’ pose at the Colosseum

Another member of team was needed to handle the ‘donor intelligence’ in the first instance, then take over other aspects of project management. During my time we had three staff as Assistant Manager / Manager in this position.

L-R: Monina La’O, Sol Ogatis, and Marileth ‘Yeyet’ Enriquez

Monina La’O joined DPPC in September 2001, and started to compile information about the donor community and funding opportunities. She left in December 2002, when she married and moved with her husband away from the Manila area.

Monina’s despedida from DPPC in November/December 2002, with friends from other units.

That’s when Sol Ogatis came to our attention, in February 2003. A BS Economics graduate from UPLB, Sol was working as a supervisor at the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Manila. Sol did a great job, building a solid donor base for the information system, and the essential links between DPPC and research staff around the institute.

By July 2008, new opportunities had come along, and Sol decided to take a new position in the US Embassy in Manila as Coordinator for the US Export Control and Related Border Security Program. And she’s still there, but her legacy at IRRI endures.

Sol’s farewell from DPPC on 22 August 2008. L-R: me, Sol, Corints, Zeny, and Vel

Sol was replaced by Marileth Enriquez, known as ‘Yeyet’, in December 2008. A molecular genetics graduate from UPLB, and holding a Masters degree in Technology Management from the University of the Philippines – Diliman, Yeyet came to us from the Colombo Plan Staff College for Technician Education for Human Resource Development in the Asia Pacific Region. Building on the work of her predecessors, Yeyet took this role to another level, and soon had taken over some of the more detailed project development aspects that Corints had managed, once Corints had broader responsibilities as a Director and oversight of other units.

L-R: Yeyet, Vel, and Zeny

In March 2009 we decided to make an office trip to the rice terraces north of Manila. Yeyet quickly took on the role of ‘expedition organizer’, and we had a great visit to Banaue, Sagada and Baguio. Steph joined us on that trip.

Come October 2015, Yeyet decided to seek pastures new, and joined Save the Children Philippines as Director of Awards. In early 2014, she married Christian, an accountant who had worked in IRRI’s Finance Office. I was privileged to be invited to become a sponsor (known as ‘ninong’ in Tagalog) when they married. And although I was unable to attend their wedding, I did send a surprise video greeting.

Marisol ‘Sol’ Camasin was the only one of the three original staff who stayed on as an office clerk, until September 2002. She was replaced by Analyn Jopia until early 2004, when Vel Hernandez-Ilao joined the office on a half-time basis (shared with the DDG-Research office). Vel became full time member of the DPPC team in April 2007.

L-R: Zeny, Sol, me, Corints, Eric, and Monina in late 2001

L-R: Analyn, Eric, Corints, Monina, me, and Zeny, in October 2002

L-R: me, Sol, Eric, Corints, Vel, and Zeny at Antonio’s in Tagaytay for our Christmas lunch in December 2004

L-R: Yeyet, Corints, Zeny, Vel, me, and Eric near Batad rice terraces in March

Nominally the ‘junior’ in DPPC, Vel very quickly became an indispensable member of the team, taking on more responsibilities related to data management. She has a degree in computer science. However, just a month or so back, an opportunity presented itself elsewhere in the institute, and Vel moved to the Seed Health Unit (SHU) as the Material Transfer Agreements Controller. As the SHU is responsible for all imports and exports of rice seeds under the terms of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture using Material Transfer Agreements, Vel’s role is important to ensure that the institute is compliant under its agreement with FAO for the exchange of rice germplasm. Vel married Jason a few years back, and they have two delightful daughters.

With her departure, and Zeny’s pending retirement, that’s the original team I put together gone forever.

We took on some short-term staff from time-to-time, to cover for Vel when she was expecting her first child, or when the work load required an additional pair of hands, between Sol’s departure and Yeyet coming on board, for example. Colleen Fernandez comes to mind, as does Froilan ‘Popo’ Fule.

But there is someone else I must mention who was a member of the DPPC Team although not an IRRI employee as such. In 2005, the donors to the CGIAR decided that they would only continue funding programs if each center rolled out a risk assessment and business continuity initiative. I drew the short straw, and had to decide how we would do that. With advice from the head of the CGIAR’s Internal Audit Unit (IAU), John Fitzsimon (who became Inspector General at FAO in Rome for six years from February 2010), and whose office was just down the corridor from mine, we decided to develop a bottom-up approach, but needed a safe pair of hands to manage this full-time. So we hired Alma Redillas Dolot as a consultant, and she stayed with DPPC for a couple of years before joining the IAU.

Working intensively with all programs, divisions and units, Alma built up a comprehensive picture of all the risks facing the institute including financial, legal, reputational, scientific, and logistical risks, and plans to mitigate or respond to these. Among all the CGIAR centers it was by far the most comprehensive risk assessment and management plan developed.

Following her stint in the IAU, Alma moved to Nairobi, Kenya to join the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) as Head of Internal Auditing Unit, remaining there for about seven years. She received some pretty serious mentoring from some very influential persons. Do you recognise next to whom she is standing?

With former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others.

Taking a sabbatical from AGRA in 2012, Alma also completed her Master in Public Administration degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in May 2013. Returning to Nairobi, she stayed with AGRA for a couple more years, before making another move, in 2016, to Vienna and the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as an Internal Auditor in the Office of Internal Oversight Services.

All work and no play . . .
Over the years, we had lots of fun together socially, playing badminton twice a week, dining out at Christmas or enjoying a BBQ at my house, sometimes with staff of the Development Office (one of the units I supervised, and closely linked to DPPC).

Just before I left the Philippines, in March 2010, the DPPC Team enjoyed a long weekend at the beach at Arthur’s Place (where Steph and I used to snorkel and scuba dive) together with colleagues from the Development Office.

Looking back, I have been immensely privileged to work with such a dedicated team, and very smart people. Much smarter than me!

As one of them told me recently: ‘You were like the conductor of a [great] orchestra. We were the virtuosos‘. I like that analogy. They also seemed to have appreciated my management style, allowing them to get on with their tasks, after we’d agreed on what needed tackling, without constant interference from me. Micromanagement is something I detest.

The last time I saw my team was in August 2014 when I visited IRRI in connection with the 4th International Rice Congress. As usual we spent a lovely evening together, at Sulyap in San Pablo.

After seven years of retirement, I miss the daily camaraderie as a member of the DPPC Team. As Joe Gargery would say, in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations: ‘What larks!’

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¹Not all these donors support IRRI. Here is a list of current donors to the institute.

Rice Today . . . and tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appar Rao collecting upland rice in the Lao PDR

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

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

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

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Gene Hettel and Duncan Macintosh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jade Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Jackson
Valuing genebank collections

Åsmund Asdal (NordGen)
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Neil Munro (Garden Organic)
Heritage seed library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nicolay Vavilov is a hero of mine

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

Jackson FINAL - Valuing Genebank Collections

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

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

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 13. Tales (mainly) from the ‘Ring of Fire’

Earth, wind, and fire (not that Earth, Wind & Fire—still active 45 years after the group formed).

No, these are some reflections, going back almost as far as EWF, about my encounters with and experiences of earthquakes, typhoons, and volcanoes (fortunately mostly dormant) around the Ring of Fire.

But first, a summer morning in west Wales
Take 19 July 1984 for example. Steph and I with our two daughters Hannah and Philippa were enjoying a week’s holiday in Pembrokeshire, in west Wales. We’d rented a nice cottage, in Broad Haven, on the coast south of St David’s. As usual, one of us had gone downstairs to make a cup of tea. Steph says it was her; I think it was me. No matter. But just as the tea-maker was about to climb the stairs back to our bedroom (lying in bed, waking up to and enjoying a cup of tea, is one of life’s simple pleasures), we felt the house shake. There had been an earth tremor, hardly worthy of the description ‘earthquake’. But noticeable enough, especially if, like me, you had become sensitized to such tectonic events.

Further north, close to the epicenter on the Llŷn Peninsula, it was much stronger, registering 5.4 on the Richter scale, and was ‘the largest known onshore earthquake to occur in the UK since instrumental measurements began‘. It was felt all over Wales and many parts of England. Chimneys fell from roofs. Liverpool was apparently quite badly hit.

But a Richter 5 quake in the UK is nothing compared to what I have experienced along the ‘Ring of Fire‘.

October 1974
Thursday 3 October started as a normal day. Steph and I had taken the staff bus from our apartment in the Lima district of Miraflores to the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina (on the eastern outskirts of the city, and close to the National Agrarian University). We didn’t have our car that day. The government had introduced a gasoline rationing system, and the decal we choose allowed us to drive only over the weekends and on alternate days during the week. This is relevant.

36 chromosomes from a triploid potato variety.

I had arranged to show one of the laboratory technicians how to make chromosome preparations from potatoes. Then, around 09:20, as I was enjoying a cup of coffee, and without any warning, the whole building started to rock and shake backwards and forwards. Clearly this was more than the all-too-frequent earth tremors or temblores that we were ‘used’ to. We all rushed out of the building into the car park. I was still carrying my cup of coffee! And in the car park we all endeavored to remain upright as the ground rolled back and forth, almost a meter at a time, for over two minutes! At La Molina the earthquake (or terremoto) was recorded over 8 on the Richter Scale. Remember of course that the scale is a logarithmic one, so the La Molina earthquake was hundreds of times more powerful than the alarming Llŷn Peninsula version in 1984.

Damage to laboratories and offices at CIP was considerable.

Fortunately there were fewer than 80 deaths and only a couple of thousand injuries around the city, because many people were already in their places of work that were better constructed to withstand an earthquake. However, it was the continual aftershocks (the strongest—at 7.1—felt on Saturday 9 November just before 08:00 as military parade was commencing in downtown Lima) that unnerved everyone. Ever since I have been hypersensitive to any sort of movement of that kind. ‘Did the earth move for you?‘ holds no pleasant connotations.

However, it was in May 1973 that I saw first hand the aftermath of a powerful earthquake. My colleague, Zosimo Huaman and I were away from Lima on a three-week trip to collect native varieties of potatoes from farmers in the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad in central-northern Peru. Just north of Huaraz in the Callejon de Huaylas, and beneath Peru’s highest mountain, Huascarán, lie the remains of two towns, Yungay and Ranrahirca. On 31 May 1970 a huge earthquake triggered an ice and rock landslide from the top of Huascarán, which quickly sped down the mountain obliterating everything in its path. More than 70,000 people lost their lives, and the two towns were destroyed. When we visited just three years later the scene in Yungay was one of utter devastation, with just a few palm trees surviving, and the statue of Christ in the cemetery.

Further north, Zosimo and I had the opportunity of visiting several remote villages on foot. In one (I don’t recall the name) we were welcomed as honored guests, and in my case, as a representative of Queen Elizabeth. After making a short speech of thanks in broken Spanish to about 200 residents gathered in the ‘town hall’, everyone came up and shook my hand. Apparently they had received no help for the government to rebuild their communities nor livelihoods even three years after the earthquake.

Over the course of our three years in Lima, five years in Costa Rica, and almost 19 years in the Philippines, we felt many earth tremors, some stronger than others, but never as awe-inspiring or sphincter-challenging as that in October 1974.

Winds over the Pacific
The Pacific Ocean sees its fair share of tropical storms and stronger. Severe storms in the Pacific are called ‘typhoons’, and the Philippines is unlucky to be battered, on average, by 20 or more each year.  Developing way to the east in the open ocean, typhoons head due west towards the Philippines, but often veer northwards and clip the northern tip of the main island of Luzon. Nevertheless, the weather effects of high winds and heavy and prolonged rainfall can affect a much wider area than hit by the ‘eye of the storm’. Some typhoons do head straight for Metro Manila and its 11.8 million population, many living in poverty.

During our almost two decades in Los Baños (working and living at the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, some 65 km south of Manila, we were hit by just a couple of super typhoons (although after our departure in May 2010 there have been others) but we did feel the effects of many of the typhoons that barreled into the country, disrupting daily life and communications.

I was away in Laos on 3 November 1995 when Los Baños was hit by Super Typhoon Angela (known as Rosing in the Philippines). I’d departed totally unaware that a typhoon was headed for the Philippines, let alone one that was expected to develop into a ‘super typhoon’. It was only when I tried to phone home during the height of the storm that I realised what I had missed. You can experience something of the force of this typhoon and the unimaginable rainfall that accompanied it in the video below, made by my neighbor and former colleague, Gene Hettel.

At the end of September 2006, the Philippines was hit by Typhoon Milenyo. This was a slow-moving typhoon, dumping a huge amount of rain. In the Los Baños area, most damage was caused by flooding not by the wind. Laguna de Bay rose several meters. The Philippines national genebank in Los Baños was flooded to a depth of several meters because debris washed down the sides of nearby Mt Makiling accumulated created a log jam under a bridge and causing the creek to overflow.

At IRRI Staff Housing, there were several major landslips and the integrity of the Guesthouse and several houses threatened. Creeks around the campus of the University of the Philippines – Los Baños were scoured, and much timber and other vegetation felled.

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Since 2010, there have been two super typhoons. In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda in the Philippines) killed more than 6000 people in the Philippines, and was the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall. Many of the deaths in Tacloban were caused by a storm surge. And in July 2014 (just before I made a visit to IRRI) Super Typhoon Glenda did considerable damage to IRRI’s glasshouses and other buildings. Here is another video by Gene Hettel taken at the height of Super Typhoon Glenda.

Now the fire . . . 
I lived on the slopes of two volcanoes for almost 24 years; in Costa Rica, on Volcán Turrialba and in the Philippines, on Mt Makiling. On one occasion I got to the top of Turrialba, driving most of the way with a colleague from CATIE, Dr Andrew King and his wife Heather. That must have been about 1976 or 1977. I almost made it to the top of Makiling, but the final stretch—almost vertical and defeating my arthritic hips—was impossible. Makiling has been dormant for centuries. Turrialba had been inactive for a hundred years but burst into life at the end of October 2014.

To the west of Turrialba stands the Irazú volcano, the highest in Costa Rica at more than 3400 m. It has a perfect crater with a turquoise lake.

The main potato growing area of Costa Rica is found on the slopes of Irazú, and I’ve spent many a long week planting research trials and growing seed potatoes there. After the 1963 eruption, meters of volcanic ash were dumped on the slopes. The soils today are fine, deep and fertile.

A field of potatoes, var. Atzimba, above Cartago on the slopes of the Irazú volcano in Costa Rica.

Los Baños is surrounded by volcanoes.

Mt Makiling from the IRRI research station and rice fields (looking northwest).

cropped-banahaw1.jpg

Mt Banahaw and other volcanoes near San Pablo, south and southeast from the IRRI research station.

About 20 km or so as the crow flies almost due west from Los Baños lies the Taal volcano, apparently one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.

Taal volcano and volcano island from Tagaytay, on the northern rim of a vast caldera.

During our time in the Philippines there was the occasional rumble, but nothing significant since its last major eruption in 1977. Some 400 km southeast from Los Baños and north of the port city of Legazpi is the Mayon volcano, a perfect cone. This is very active and farmers often have to be evacuated when an eruption occurs.

Rice farmer Gloria Miranda’s house at the foot of Mayon Volcano was threatened by lava flows in July 2006. (Photo courtesy of IRRI. Photo by Ariel Javellana).

However, I’ve never been affected directly by a volcanic eruption, only indirectly. Let me explain.

Mt Pinatubo
At the beginning of January 1991 I was invited to interview for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI. I flew out from Gatwick on British Airways via Hong Kong, after a 13 hour delay in London. After a week at IRRI, I flew back to the UK. Uneventful you may say, and so it was. At the end of January, IRRI offered me the position, and I accepted to join in July that year once I’d completed some teaching and examination commitments at The University of Birmingham.

From mid-March, Mount Pinatubo, a seemingly innocuous volcano north of Manila, began to show signs of seismic activity. In early June there was a series of eruptions, but the massive, climactic eruption of 15 June had a massive effect over a huge area. Ash fell on Los Baños, 150 km to the south.

Fewer than 900 people lost their lives, due in no small part to the evacuations that had been enforced in the days leading up to the 15 June eruption.Nevertheless, the impact on humans, livestock and agriculture in general was immense and pitiful.

On June 15, 1991, this is the eruption plume minutes after the climactic eruption.

Manila airport was closed for days, flights were diverted. This was just a fortnight before I was scheduled to fly to the Philippines. Glued to the news each day I waited to see what the outcome would be. Fortunately I was able to travel on 30 June. But it was touch and go.

Over a year later, when we visited the flight deck of a British Airways 747 out of Hong Kong bound for Manila, the First Officer indicated that flights into the Philippines had to take well-defined flight paths to avoid the lingering ash layers at certain levels in the atmosphere, clearly visible to the naked eye.

A volcano with an unpronounceable name
And when it was time to return to the UK in 2010 on my retirement, it was another volcano, thousands of miles from the Philippines, that almost derailed our travel plans. We had booked to fly back (on our usual Emirates route via Dubai) on Sunday 2 May. But just a fortnight or so earlier, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano had erupted; the ever expanding ash cloud effectively closed the airspace over much of Europe for many days.

The estimated ash cloud at 18:00 GMT on 15 April, just a day after the main eruption began.

Once again Fortune smiled on us, and we returned to the UK without delay or incident. Nevertheless, the disruption to air travel, inconvenience to passengers, and not least the economic costs just illustrate how feeble humanity is in the face of the forces of Nature.

Having ‘survived’ numerous earth tremors (or worse) I’m now highly sensitive to anything that smacks of an earthquake. I’m instantly alert. The fugitive impulse kicks in immediately. And you never know, even here in the UK when the next tremor will hit.

The UK is experiencing ever more severe winter storms, with gale-force winds. Not quite on the typhoon scale, but damaging enough, all the same. I hate lying in bed hearing the wind howling around, gusting as though the chimney might be toppled at any moment.

But unless I choose to, I’m unlikely to encounter an active volcano any time soon. Touch wood! However, those Icelandic volcanoes can be highly unpredictable.