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


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.


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.


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.


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


Julian 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.


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).


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.


It’s publish or perish, Jim – but not as we know it

perishOr to put it another way: The scientist’s dilemma . . . Where to publish?

Let me explain.

It’s autumn 1982. And just over a year since I joined the faculty of The University of Birmingham. Our department had a new Mason Professor of Botany, someone with a very different academic background and interests from myself.

At one departmental coffee break several of us were sitting around discussing various issues when the topic of academic publishing came up.

“In which journals do you publish, Mike?” the new head of department asked me. 1355408371_883_00_800I told him that I’d published several papers in the journal Euphytica, an international journal covering the theoretical and applied aspects of plant breeding. It’s now part of the Springer stable, but I’m not sure who the publisher then.

His next question surprised me. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was gob-smacked. “Is that a refereed journal?” he asked, and went on to explain that he’d never even heard of Euphytica. In my field, Euphytica was considered then as an excellent choice for papers on genetic resources. In a sense he was valuing my academic output based on his ‘blinkered’ view of our shared discipline, botany, which is after all a broad church.

10722Springer now has its own in-house genetic resources journal, Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution (I’m a member of the editorial board), but there are others such as Plant Genetic Resources – Characterization and Utilization (published by Cambridge University Press). Nowadays there are more journals to choose from dealing with disciplines like seed physiology, molecular systematics and ecology, among others, in which papers on genetic resources can find a home.

But in the 1970s and 80s and beyond, I’d always thought about the visibility of my research to others working in the same or allied fields. My research would be of little or no interest to researchers beyond genetic resources or plant breeding for example. So choice of journal in which to publish was predicated very much on this basis. Today, with online searches, the world’s voluminous scientific publishing is accessible at the click of a mouse, it’s perhaps less important exactly where you publish.

Back in the day we had to seek out a hard copy of a journal that interested us, or use something like Current Contents (I’m surprised that’s still going, even in hard copy) to check, on a regular basis, what was being published in various journals. And then contact the author for a reprint (before the days of email).

I can remember way back in the mid-1980s when I had to write a review of true potato seed, when you had to pay for a special literature search through the university library. Now everyone can do it themselves—from their own desk. Nowadays you just search for a journal online, or tap in a few key words, and Hey Presto! there’s a list of relevant papers, complete journal contents lists, abstracts, and even full papers if your institute has a subscription to the journal or the article itself is Open Access.

So the dynamics of scientific publishing have changed from the days when I first began. In some respects then scientific publishing has never been easier but then again never more challenging. Not only are scientists publishing more but they are expected to publish more. Sink or swim!

About a year ago, I was ‘invited’ to join ResearchGatea social networking site for scientists and researchers to share papers, ask and answer questions, and find collaborators. Since then I receive almost daily (if not more frequent) stats about my science publications and who is citing them. It’s obviously quite gratifying to know that many of the papers I published over the decades are still having scientific traction, so-to-speak. And ResearchGate gives me a score indicating how much my papers are being cited (currently 32.10—is this good? I have no idea). There’s obviously no metric that determines the quality of these papers, nor whether they are being cited for good or bad.

In the 1980s there was some discussion of the value of citation indices. I remember reading an interesting article in an internal University of Birmingham newsletter, Teaching News I think it was called, that was distributed to all staff. In this article the author had warned against the indiscriminate use of citation indices, pointing out that an excellent piece of scholarship on depopulation in rural Wales would receive a much lower citation than say a lower quality paper on the rise of fascism, simply because the former represented a much narrower field of academic pursuit.

Today there are so many more metrics, journal impact factors and the like that are taken into account to assess the quality of science. And for many young researchers these metrics play an important role—for good or bad—for the progression of their careers. Frankly, I don’t understand all of these, and I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about them when I was a young researcher.


Prof. David Colquhoun, FRS

And there are many pitfalls. I came across this interesting article on the blog of Professor David Colquhoun, FRS (formerly professor of pharmacology at University College London) about the use (and misuse) of metrics to assess research performance. There was one very interesting comment that I think sums up many of the concerns about the indiscriminate use of publication metrics:

. . . in six of the ten years leading up to the 1991 Nobel prize, Bert Sakmann failed to meet the metrics-based publication target set by Imperial College London, and these failures included the years in which the original single channel paper was published and also the year, 1985, when he published a paper that was subsequently named as a classic in the field. In two of these ten years he had no publications whatsoever.

Application of metrics in the way that it’s been done at Imperial and also at Queen Mary College London, would result in firing of the most original minds.

We seem obsessed by metrics. And whenever there is a request for publication metrics for whatever purpose, there are always perverse incentives and opportunities to game the system, as I discovered to IRRI’s cost during the CGIAR annual performance exercise in the late ‘Noughties’. And when the submitted data are scrutinized by someone who really does not understand the nature of scientific publishing, then you’re on a slippery slope to accepting scientific mediocrity.

Transitions . . .

The community of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Agriculture (CGIAR) has mourned the loss of three giants of agricultural research for development, two of whom I have blogged about earlier in the year. For a number of years they were contemporaries, leading three of the research centers that are supported through the CGIAR.


Richard Sawyer

In March, Dr Richard Sawyer, first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru passed away at the age of 93. Richard was my first boss in the CGIAR when I joined CIP in January 1973. He remained Director General until 1991. Not one to suffer fools gladly, Richard set CIP on a course that seemed – to some at least – at odds with the way they thought international agricultural research centers should operate. He was eventually proved correct, and CIP expanded its mandate to include sweet potatoes and other Andean crops. His legacy in potato research lives on.

Trevor Williams

Trevor Williams

In April, Professor Trevor Williams, the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (that became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, and now Bioversity International) passed away after a long respiratory illness, aged 76. Trevor had supervised my MSc thesis when I first joined the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham in September 1970. We did some interesting work together on lentils. Here is my blog post. I also published an obituary in the scientific journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.

Nyle Brady

Nyle Brady

Now we have just heard that Dr Nyle C Brady, third Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines, passed away at the end of November. He was 95. I never worked for Brady, although I met him on several occasions during the 1990s and early 2000s. However, for a decade I worked at IRRI in the building that was named after him when he retired from IRRI in 1981. There is a long-standing tradition of such naming honours at IRRI for former Directors General (and two other dignitaries who were instrumental in setting up IRRI in 1959/60).

This is what IRRI just published recently on its website (where you will find other links and videos):

Dr. Nyle C. Brady, the third director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and long-time professor and leader in soil science at Cornell University in the United States, passed away on 24 November in Colorado at age 95.

After 26 years at Cornell, Brady became IRRI’s director general in 1973. During 8 years at the helm, he pioneered new cooperative relationships between the Institute and the national agricultural research systems in Asia.

In October 1976, Dr. Brady led an IRRI group of scientists on a historic 3-week trip to China where they visited most of the institutions conducting rice research, as well as rice-growing communes where they interacted with farmers (a rare circumstance in 1976). Brady had previously provided China with seeds of IRRI-developed varieties, which jump-started the Institute’s formal scientific collaboration that facilitated the development of the country’s rice economy. The October 1976 trip marked the beginning of dramatic changes in China and of a close relationship between China and IRRI that has resulted in major achievements in rice research.

In a 2006 interview, Dr. Brady said, “My IRRI experience ranks very high. I had three careers: one at Cornell as a professor and a teacher, one at IRRI, and then one in Washington, D.C. with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID; as senior assistant administrator for science and technology, 1981-89), the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP), and The World Bank. I won’t say which one was the more critical. I will say that my experience at IRRI, not only for me but for my wife and family, was a highlight because we were involved in something that would help humanity. I felt I was working with a group of individuals, men and women, who wanted to improve the lot of people. They were not there just to do research and write papers; they were there to solve problems.”

“Nyle Brady led IRRI into a tremendous period of growth in the 1970s, through which some of its greatest achievements came to fruition,” said Robert Zeigler, IRRI’s current director general. “Even after he left IRRI to join USAID, and through his retirement, he was always looking out for IRRI’s best interest. He understood the power of what IRRI had to offer some of the world’s least advantaged people and did what he could to help us realize our full potential. IRRI and the world are better places for having had Nyle at the helm for so many productive years.”

Born in Colorado in the U.S., he earned his B.S. in chemistry from Brigham Young University in 1941 and his PhD in soil science from North Carolina State University in 1947. An emeritus professor at Cornell, he was the co-author (with Ray R. Weil) of the classic textbook, The nature and properties of soils, now in its 14th edition. “He was a giant in soil science and agriculture, and left an important legacy in many ways,” said Weil, professor of environmental science and technology at the University of Maryland.

“Brady was one of the giants of our field, and yet known for his personable approach to students and colleagues,” said Pedro Sanchez, director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center and senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, whom Brady mentored.

Santa’s the name, ho-ho-hoing’s the game

I’ve a secret to reveal. Shhhh!


Ho ho ho!

I’m Santa Claus, and I have the evidence to prove it.¹

Over the years I have taken up the mantle each December to bring joy and happiness to the children at the International Staff Housing community at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, the Philippines.

Actually, I did my first turn, so to speak, in 2002; and each year thereafter until 2009. I retired from IRRI in April 2010.

I had a great deal of fun over the years assuming the persona of Santa Claus and, as far as I could tell, most of the children (of neighbors and their domestic helpers) never did figure out who was the person inside the Santa suit.

IRRI is a multi-national, multi-ethnic, and multi-religion community from all around the world. And it didn’t matter whether you came from a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist background, the children always found magic in Santa’s arrival and the giving and receiving of presents.

My early attempts at ‘being Santa’ certainly needed improvement – too heavy on the rouge. And in the early days I needed some extra padding, which I eventually dispensed with as my natural girth expanded. The beard was all mine, however, and I used to cease trimming it from about the beginning of October onwards. However, some additional white makeup was needed . By the end of 2008, I think I’d developed a much more convincing character.

Here I am in 2003 (heavy on the rouge) . . .

. . . and in 2004 (toned down somewhat).

By 2005, I think I’d developed the makeup pretty well.

Santa with two little Japanese fans, in 2005.

But there was still room for improvement, and once I’d decided in 2006 that Santa needed a new suit of clothes, my ‘interpretation’ thereafter was quite convincing.


Santa’s Japanese fans had grown somewhat, and joined by a brother, in 2008.


With ‘Mrs Santa’, in 2008.

Over the years, I arrived at the Christmas party—at the swimming pool, House No. 1 (of the Director General),  or the Guest House—on a variety of transports. In 2002 it was on the back of a motorcycle driven by my colleague Rob Raab from IRRI’s Training Center. For several years, it was a nicely decorated tricycle, then a jeepney and, for a couple of years, a ‘Philippine reindeer’, aka a carabao.

Of course, when it came to handing out presents, I had the best seat in the house, on the front row of course. It was such a delight to see the expectation and joy on so many young (and not so young) faces.

Well, my Santa days came to end. They were one of my more pleasurable commitments during my second decade at IRRI. And of course by then I’d grown somewhat more stout, my hair had turned almost white, and my whiskers as well.

Once my Santa duties were over, I’d leave the party using my appointed transport, go home, shower, and return to the celebrations sans make-up and Santa clothes. The children were none the wiser of my role, because I’d always started out at the party before going home to metamorphose into Santa.


¹ Most of the photos courtesy of the Santa paparazzi (aka Gene Hettel). smiley face copy


Sky-high paddies . . .

No, this is not about inebriated Irishmen.

It’s a celebration of the ingenuity of human agricultural innovation in northern Luzon in the Philippines where, over the course of several centuries, local indigenous communities tamed the steep valleys to grow paddy rice in irrigated fields high in the mountains (about 1500 m above sea level) and, employing a sophisticated hydrology, to supply water to the terraces and drain them before harvest: the rice terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras, which received UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1995.


Rice terraces in Banaue, Ifugao Province

In March 2009, Steph and me, along with my staff in the Program Planning & Communications (DPPC) office at IRRI—Corinta, Zeny, Yeyet, Vel, and Eric—made a five day, 1000 km trip (see map) north to Ifugao and Mountain Provinces to see these world famous terraces. There is a cluster of five sets of terraces designated under UNESCO, all in Ifugao Province.


L to R: Corinta, Zeny, Rolly (IRRI driver), Vel, Yeyet, Eric, and me – enjoying a San Miguel sundowner near Sagada, Mountain Province.

A long road trip north
We knew it would be a day-long journey from Los Baños to Banaue. Although the first part of the journey to the Science City of Muñoz in Nueva Ecija Province took in divided highways, there were two main ‘obstacles’ in our path. First we had to cross the length of Manila from the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) to the north one (NLEX), a part of the journey fraught with delays and congestion if you hit the traffic at the wrong time. I guess we didn’t fair to badly. Then, once off the main highways, there’s the ever-present frustration of following jeepneys and tricycles that potter along at their own speeds, oblivious to other road users, and which stop continually to pick up and drop off passengers. So even a short journey on a single carriageway road can take forever (or so it seems).

In Muñoz, we visited and had lunch at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) which is the country’s leading research organization on rice, and IRRI’s principal partner for all-things-rice in the Philippines.

After a courtesy visit with the PhilRice Executive Director, we toured several laboratories, and the rice genebank that collaborates closely with the International Rice Genebank at IRRI. In fact, IRRI holds a duplicate sample of much of the PhilRice collection.

The majesty of Batad
From PhilRice it was a long climb of several hours into the mountains, and we arrived to our hotel in Banaue just as the sun was setting. It was an early start the next morning, because we visited the impressive rice terraces at Batad, more than an hour from Banaue by jeepney, and then another couple of hours downhill on foot to reach one of the villages from where there is an impressive vista over the amphitheater of terraces stretched across the hillside.


The rice terraces at Batad.

In 2006, Biggs Javellana, one of IRRI’s photographers at that time, flew over over Ifugao and took a superb collection of aerial photographs.


The rice terraces at Batad from the air. The photograph above was taken from the cluster of houses at center top in this photo.

In 2008, one of the main articles in Rice Today featured Biggs’ photos, and other older ones taken by eminent anthropologist Harold Conklin, Crosby Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University, who had studied the Ifugao for many decades. Just click on the Rice Today cover below to read the article. You can also browse the original photos (and others) here.

Ifugao from the air (RT7)_Page_01

I wasn’t too concerned about the hike to the Batad terraces from the parking area, although it was a long way down.

I was more concerned about the climb back up. But having gone all that distance I wasn’t going to miss out, and with encouragement from Steph and everyone else (and a few helpful shoulders to lean on occasionally) I made it down and up again. And it was certainly worth the effort.

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On the north side of Banaue, on our way to Sagada, Mountain Province on the third day of our trip, we stopped to look back down the valley, and admire the beauty of sky reflected in the flooded rice terraces, recently planted with young seedlings. There really is a majesty in rice agriculture under these circumstances.

Along the route to Sagada there are other rice terraces, at Bay-Yo Barangay near Bontoc in Mountain Province, and just south of Bontoc itself. Sagada is surrounded by quite extensive terraces.

There’s lot to see in Sagada, including weaving for which the town is famous. And the indigenous ‘hanging burials’ with coffins left on the sides of limestone cliffs, or piled up in the many caves that dot the landscape.

The return journey to Los Baños took 17 hours, including comfort stops on the way, lunch in Baguio and dinner near Manila. I think we were all relieved to be back home, but very contented that we had made the trip. It took Steph and me 18 years almost before we actually made the effort.


The heritage of rice agriculture in the Philippine Cordilleras
But what is also special about the rice terraces of Ifugao (and the other sites) is that they are still farmed in the same way, and the communities still practice many of the same rice ceremonies and rituals they have for generations. But rather than me try to explain what this is all about, I will leave it to Aurora (wife of my good friend and former IRRI colleague Gene Hettel) who hails from Banaue and is a proud member of the Ifugao community, to explain in her own words in this video (made by Gene).

Heirloom rice varieties
The farmers also plant traditional rice varieties that they have also cherished for generations. With the pressures of modern agricultural technologies and new varieties, there is always a danger that these varieties will be lost, notwithstanding that they are safely conserved in the PhilRice and IRRI genebanks (and duplicated in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault). If the farmers stop growing them these rice varieties will disappear from everyday agriculture. They have to make a living, and although most varieties are grown for home use, there has recently been an effort to bring them to a wider rice-consuming public. With the Philippine Department of Agriculture, IRRI has initiated an heirloom rice project that aims ‘to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of heirloom or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems.’ Details of the project can be found here.


An exceptional CEO: Bob Zeigler, IRRI Director General, 2005-2015

When the Director General of one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes talks about poverty and food security, and what has to change, the global development community better take note. The Director General of IRRI—the International Rice Research Institute, located in Los Baños, the Philippines—has a unique perspective on these issues, since rice is the most important staple crop on the planet, and the basis of food security for more than half the world’s population who eat rice at least once a day. And rice agriculture is also the livelihood for millions of farmers and their families worldwide. When rice prospers, so do they. They feed their families, they send their children to school. The converse, alas, is also true.


For the past decade, IRRI has been led by a remarkable scientist, someone I am honored to call a friend, and a close colleague for many years. In mid-December, however, Dr Robert ‘Bob’ Zeigler will step down as CEO and Director General of IRRI, a position he has held since March 2005. Bob is IRRI’s ninth Director General. And of all those who have held this position, he perhaps has been uniquely qualified, because of his practical experience of working in many developing countries, his in-depth understanding of international agricultural research funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and his profound knowledge of rice agriculture.

A passion for science
Bob hails from the USA, and completed his BS degree in biological sciences at the University of Illinois in 1972, followed by an MS from the University of Oregon in forest ecology in 1978. He joined the Peace Corps and spent a couple of years in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and it was there that his passion for plant pathology was ignited. He returned to Cornell University to work for his PhD in 1982 on cassava diseases under the guidance of renowned plant pathologist Dr H David Thurston. For his PhD research, Bob also spent time at a sister center, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia that has an important global cassava research program, and germplasm collection. After his PhD Bob returned to Africa, working in the national maize program in Burundi.

After three years, he joined CIAT as a senior plant pathologist and then became head of the rice program. IRRI recruited Bob in December 1991 to lead the Rainfed Lowland Rice Research Program, and I first met Bob around September of that year when he came for interview. I was also a newbie, having joined IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center just three months earlier. After a couple of years or so, he became leader of the Irrigated Rice Research Program. Much of his own research focused on the rice blast pathogen, Magnaporthe grisea, and I know he is particularly proud of the work he and his colleagues did on the population genetic structure of the pathogen.

As a program leader Bob visited all of the rice-growing countries in Asia, and with his experience in Latin America at CIAT, as well as working in Africa, he had a broad perspective on the challenges facing rice agriculture. And of all his eight predecessors as Director General of IRRI, Bob is the only one who made rice his career. This has given him the edge, I believe, to speak authoritatively about this important crop and rice research. His scientific credentials and passion for ‘doing the right science, and doing the science right‘ ensured that Bob was the candidate recruited as the next Director General when Ron Cantrell stepped down in 2004.

First departure from IRRI
Bob first left IRRI in 1998, and became professor and head of the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University. But he couldn’t stay away from international agriculture for long, and by 2004 he became Director of the CGIAR’s cross-cutting Generation Challenge Program (GCP). I like to think my colleagues and I in the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) had something to do with the founding of the GCP, since we held an interdisciplinary workshop in The Hague in September 1999 assessing the role of comparative genetics to study germplasm diversity. I invited Bob as one of the participants. Comparative genetics and its applications became one of the pillars of the GCP. And its was from the GCP that Bob returned to IRRI in March 2005 as the institute’s ninth Director General.

Back ‘home’ again
strategic_plan_cover_4a1f1e1b122f0c53ab77464b73eb40cbAnd it wasn’t long before his presence was felt. It’s not inappropriate to comment that IRRI had lost its way during the previous decade for various reasons. There was no clear research strategy nor direction. Strong leadership was in short supply. Bob soon put an end to that, convening an international expert group of stakeholders (rice researchers, rice research leaders from national programs, and donors) to help the institute chart a perspective for the next decade or so. In 2006 IRRI’s Strategic Plan (2007-2015), Bringing Hope, Improving Lives, was rolled out.

Bob wasn’t averse to tackling a number of staffing issues, even among the senior management team. And although the changes were uncomfortable for the individuals involved (and Bob himself), Bob built a strong team to support the finance, administration, and research challenges that he knew IRRI would face if it was to achieve its goals.

A born leader
Not every good scientist can become a good manager or research leader, but I do think that Bob was an exception. His major strength, as I see it, was to have a clear vision of what he wanted the institute to achieve, and to be able to explain to all stakeholders why this was important, what needed to be done or put in place, and how everyone could contribute. He nurtured an environment at IRRI where research flourished. Rice research was once again at the center of the international agricultural research agenda. Many visitors to the institute commented on the ‘science buzz’ around the institute. And if Bob felt he wasn’t equipped to tackle a particular situation, he sought—and took—advice. Perhaps uniquely among many of the Directors General of the CGIAR centers, Bob has this ability to listen, to argue fiercely if he thinks you are wrong or misguided. But once convinced of an argument, he accepts the alternatives and moves forward. However, he also admits when he gets something wrong, a very important attribute for any CEO.

Science at the heart of IRRI’s agenda
With Bob at the helm, IRRI’s research agenda expanded, as did the funding base, with significant funding coming from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for submergence tolerant rice, for C4 rice, and stressed rice environments. Under Bob’s guidance IRRI developed the first of the CGIAR research programs, GRiSP—the Global Rice Science Partnership. I think that name is instructive. Science and partnership are the key elements. Bob has vigorously defended IRRI’s research for development focus in the face of quite hostile criticism from some of his colleagues and peers among the CGIAR Center Directors. As Bob has rightly rebutted their ‘anti-science’ attacks, by explaining that submergence tolerant rice varieties for example (that are now benefiting millions of farmers in Asia) didn’t materialize as if by magic. There had been an 18 year intensive research program to identify the genetic base of submergence tolerance, and several years to transfer the genes into widely-adapted rice varieties before farmers even had the first seeds.

These are just a few of the research innovations that have taken place with Bob at IRRI’s helm. No doubt there will be much more appearing in print in due course that will fill in many more of the details. I’ll let Bob tell us a few things in his own words, just published in the latest issue of Rice Today.

Public recognition
Over the past 10 years Bob has been invited to speak at many international meetings, including the World Economic Forum held each year in Davos. He’s appeared on numerous television broadcasts and news programs. His contributions to rice science have been recognized with numerous awards and honorary doctorates. Just last week he received from the Government of the Philippines its highest honour awarded to a foreign national—the Order of Sikatuna, Grand Cross (Rank of Datu), Gold Distinction (Katangiang Ginto).

A downturn . . . but continuing strength
It must be rather disappointing for Bob to leave IRRI just as the funding support for the centers has once again hit the buffers, and led to a trimming of IRRI’s research and staff. But even with these setbacks, Bob leaves a strong institute that can and will withstand such setbacks. Incoming Director General Matthew Morell, the current Deputy Director General for Research, has big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, I’m sure that the underlying strength of IRRI will enable Matthew to move IRRI once again towards the important goals of supporting rice farmers, enhancing food security, and reducing poverty. Rice research is closely aligned with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, as it will be with the recently-agreed Sustainable Development Goals. In fact it’s hard to contemplate the successful delivery of these goals without rice being part of the equation.


Bob Zeigler and Mike Jackson after the unveiling of one of two historical markers at IRRI, on 14 April 2010, IRRI’s 50th anniversary.

Thank you
So let me take this opportunity of thanking Bob for his friendship and collegiality over many years, and to wish him and Crissan many years of happy retirement back in Portland, OR. However, I’m sure it won’t be long before he is lured out of retirement in some capacity or other to continue contributing his intellect, experience, and broad perspectives to the global development agenda.

A few anecdotes
But I can’t end this blog post without telling a ‘tale’ or two.

Bob has a great sense of humor, often self-deprecating. Unfortunately this is not always understood by everyone. But I certainly appreciated it, as I’m much the same.

Not long after Bob joined IRRI he took up scuba diving, as did I. And we have, over the years, made some great dives together at Anilao, Batangas. Here are a few memorable photos from a great dive we made at the ‘coral garden’ site, to the south of Sombrero Island in April 2005.

In the 1990s, Bob rode the IRRI Staff bus to and from Staff Housing each day. The ten or so minute drive down to the research center was a good opportunity to catch up on gossip, check a few things with colleagues before everyone disappeared into their offices, or simply to exchange some friendly banter. On two occasions, Bob was the ‘victim’ of some leg-pulling from his colleagues, me included.

I don’t remember which year it was, but Bob had been asked to chair the committee organizing the biennial International Rice Research Conference that would be held at IRRI HQ. The guest speaker was President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, and it was Bob’s responsibility to introduce him. For several weeks Bob would be greeted with the sound advice from his colleagues each time he took the bus: “Remember“, they exhorted him, “It’s President Marcos. Marcos!” In the event, Bob cleverly avoided any embarrassment, simply introducing him as ‘Mr President’.

On a couple of occasions, Bob and I were members of the ‘IRRI Strolling Players’, taking part in a pantomime (usually three performances) in the institute’s auditorium. In 1995 the theme was Robin Hood and His Merry Men. I played a rather camp Prince John; Bob was Friar Tuck.

Bob had the awkward line at some point in the play: “My, that’s a cunning stunt“. And you can imagine the bus banter around that. “Remember Bob, you say it’s a ‘cunning stunt’!” Fortunately Bob was not susceptible to Spoonerisms.

Both Bob and I have contributed over the years to the Christmas festivities at Staff Housing by taking on the role of Santa (hush, don’t tell anyone).

It was fun working with Bob. He set a challenging agenda that staff responded to. It’s not for nothing that IRRI has continued to retain its high reputation for science and scientific impact. And for the past decade IRRI has indeed been fortunate to have Bob in charge.