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.

Development aid is under threat . . . and Brexit isn’t helping

The United Kingdom is one of just a handful of countries that has committed to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on overseas development assistance (ODA or foreign aid) in support of the UN’s development goals. In fact that 0.7% target commitment is enshrined in UK law passed in 2015 (under a Conservative government), and the target has been met in every year since 2013. That’s something we should be proud of. Even the Tories should be proud of that. It seems, however, that many aren’t.

For a variety of reasons, the aid budget is under threat. After years of government austerity and the decline of home-grown services (NHS, police, education, and the like) through under-funding, and as we lurch towards Brexit, the right-wing media and politicians are seizing every opportunity to ignore (or actively distort, even trivialize) the objectives of development aid and what it has achieved around the world.  Or maybe they just lack understanding.

In 2016, the UK’s ODA budget, administered by the Department for International Development (DFID), was just over £13 billion (almost USD20 billion). Check this link to see where DFID works and on what sort of projects it spends its budget. That budget has ‘soared’, according to a recent claim by The Daily Mail.

In the post-Brexit referendum febrile atmosphere, the whole topic of development aid has seemingly become toxic with increasing calls among the right-wing media, headed by The Daily Mail (and supported by The Daily Express and The Telegraph) for the development budget to be reduced and instead spent on hiring more doctors and nurses, and other home-based services and projects, pandering to the prejudices of its readers. Such simplistic messages are grist to the mill for anyone troubled by the UK’s engagement with the world.

From: John Stevens and Daniel Martin for the Daily Mail, published at 22:42, 5 April 2018 | Updated: 23:34, 5 April 2018

There is unfortunately little understanding of what development assistance is all about, and right-wing politicians who really should know better, like the Member for Northeast Somerset (and the Eighteenth Century), Jacob Rees-Mogg have jumped on the anti-aid bandwagon, making statements such as: Protecting the overseas aid budget continues to be a costly mistake when there are so many other pressing demands on the budget.

Now there are calls for that 2015 Act of Parliament to be looked at again. Indeed, I just came across an online petition just yesterday calling on Parliament to debate a reduction of the development aid budget to just 0.2% of GNI. However, 100,000 signatures are needed to trigger a debate, and as I checked this morning it didn’t seem to be gaining much traction.

I agree it would be inaccurate to claim that all development aid spending has been wise, reached its ultimate beneficiaries, or achieved the impacts and outcomes intended. Some has undoubtedly ended up in the coffers of corrupt politicians.

I cannot agree however, with Conservative MP for Wellingborough and arch-Brexiteer, Peter Bone, who is reported as stating: Much of the money is not spent properly … What I want to see is more of that money spent in our own country … The way to improve the situation in developing countries is to trade with them.

As an example of the trivialization by the media of what development aid is intended for, let me highlight one example that achieved some notoriety, and was seized upon to discredit development aid.

What was particularly irksome apparently, with a frenzy whipped up by The Daily Mail and others, was the perceived frivolous donation (as high as £9 million, I have read) to a project that included the girl band Yegna, dubbed the Ethiopian Spice Girls, whose aim is to [inspire] positive behavior change for girls in Ethiopia through drama and music.

I do not know whether this aid did represent value for money; but I have read that the program did receive some positive reviews. However, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact raised some concerns as far back as 2012 about the Girl Effect project (known as Girl Hub then).

From their blinkered perspectives, various politicians have found it convenient to follow The Daily Mail narrative. What, it seems to me, they failed to comprehend (nor articulate for their constituencies) was how media strategies like the Girl Effect project can effectively target (and reach) millions of girls (and women) with messages fundamental to their welfare and well-being. After being in the media spotlight, and highlighted as an example of ‘misuse’ of the aid budget, the support was ended.

In a recent policy brief known as a ‘Green Paper’, A World for the Many Not the Few, a future Labour government has pledged to put women at the heart of British aid efforts, and broaden what has been described by much of the right-wing media as a left-wing agenda. Unsurprisingly this has received widespread criticism from those who want to reduce the ODA budget or cut it altogether.

But in many of the poorest countries of the world, development aid from the UK and other countries has brought about real change, particularly in the agricultural development arena, one with which I’m familiar, through the work carried out in 15 international agricultural research centers around the world supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR that was founded in 1971, the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network.

In a review article¹ published in Food Policy in 2010, agricultural economists Mitch Renkow and Derek Byerlee stated that CGIAR research contributions in crop genetic improvement, pest management, natural resources management, and policy research have, in the aggregate, yielded strongly  positive impacts relative to investment, and appear likely to continue doing so. Crop genetic improvement research stands out as having had the most profound documented positive impacts. Substantial evidence exists that other research areas within the CGIAR have had large beneficial impacts although often locally and nationally rather than internationally.

In terms of crop genetic improvement (CGI) they further stated that . . . estimates of the overall benefits of CGIAR’s contribution to CGI are extraordinarily large – in the billions of dollars. Most of these benefits are produced by the three main cereals [wheat, maize, and rice] . . . average annual benefits for CGIAR research for spring bread wheat, rice (Asia only), and maize (CIMMYT only) of $2.5, $10.8 and $0.6–0.8 billion, respectively . . . estimated rates of return to the CGIAR’s investment in CGI research ranging from 39% in Latin America to over 100% in Asia and MENA [Middle east and North Africa].

DFID continues to be a major supporter of the CGIAR research agenda, making the third largest contribution (click on the image above to open the full financial report for 2016) after the USA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At £43.3 million (in 2016), DFID’s contribution to the CGIAR is a drop in the ocean compared to its overall aid budget. Yet the impact goes beyond the size of the contribution.

I don’t believe it’s unrealistic to claim that the CGIAR has been a major ODA success over the past 47 years. International agricultural research for development has bought time, and fewer people go to bed hungry each night.

Nevertheless, ODA is under threat everywhere. I am concerned that in the clamour to reduce (even scrap) the UK’s ODA international collaborations like the CGIAR will face even more funding challenges. In Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ dystopia there is no certainty that enormous support provided by USAID will continue at the same level.

Most of my professional career was concerned with international agricultural research for development, in South and Central America (with the International Potato Center, or CIP, from 1973 to 1981) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines (from 1991 to 2010). The conservation of plant genetic resources or  agrobiodiversity in international genebanks (that I have highlighted in many stories on this blog) is supported through ODA. The crop improvement programs of the CGIAR centers like CIMMYT, IRRI, ICARDA and ICRISAT have released numerous improved varieties for use in agricultural systems around the world. Innovative research is combating the threats of new crop diseases or the difficulties of growing crops in areas subject to flooding or drought².

This research (often with critical links back into research institutes and universities in donor countries) has led to improvements in the lives of countless millions of poor people around the world. But the job is not finished. Populations continue to grow, with more mouths to feed. Civil unrest and conflicts continue to blight some of the poorest countries in the world. And biology and environment continue to throw challenges at us in the form of new disease strains or a changing climate, for example. Continued investment in ODA is essential and necessary to support agricultural research for development.

Agriculture is just one sector on the development spectrum.  Let’s not allow the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone, or The Daily Mail to capture the development debate for what appear to be their own xenophobic purposes.

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¹ Renkow, M and D Byerlee, 2010. The impacts of CGIAR research: A review of recent evidence. Food Policy 35 (5), 391-402. doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.04.006

² In another blog post I will describe some of this innovative research and how the funding of agricultural research for development and greater accountability for ODA has become rather complicated over the past couple of decades.

Taking back control?

It seems that the [Dis]United Kingdom is inexorably on the path to the ‘Brexit Promised Land’, the Conservative’s ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, as we prepare to leave the European Union (EU) less than one year from now (at 23:00 on Friday 29 March 2019 to be precise, midnight Brussels time). Can that Brexit rollercoaster be stopped in its tracks? Regrettably, I’m less sanguine about that prospect than I was just a month or so back. The UK’s place should be in Europe, taking an active and leading role, bringing our renowned pragmatism to bear on the issues of the day.

What have we done over the past 40 years? Carped and whinged from the sidelines.

As I read online the other day, we spent decades seeking various opt-outs under the terms of the various EU treaties. Now that we are on course to leave, our negotiators are seeking to secure various opt-ins—the cherished ‘bespoke’ agreement that Prime Minister ‘Come What’ May tells us is the government’s end game. Ironic.

Recently, Brexit was knocked off the headlines. Why? Russia! While I agree that there is considerable (circumstantial) evidence linking the Russian government to the recent poisoning by nerve agent of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury in the west of England, the government has done its best to exploit that incident, in my opinion, to remove Brexit from daily headlines. Isn’t that what all politicians do when faced with internal dissent. They try to galvanize support around an actual or perceived external threat. Result? Brexit hasn’t been hitting the headlines so much. Until yesterday, that is.

Woe is me! What have I done?

With one year to go, the Prime Minister embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the nation, visiting locations in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to spread the good word about our bright future once we have left the EU. She even raised, once again, the prospect of a ‘Brexit dividend‘ that would permit us to spend more on the National Health Service (NHS) and education. For my readers outside the UK, let me explain. During the 2016 referendum campaign, the Leave side toured the country in a bright red bus with this slogan emblazoned on its side:

Before the referendum, the UK had the fastest-growing economy among the G7 countries; now it’s the slowest, and we haven’t even left the EU yet.

It’s easy to quantify what we will lose when we leave the EU. What has not been spelled out without equivocation is what we stand to gain. Apart from the usual platitudes negotiating free trade agreements with nations around the world (assuming that they want to have agreements with us), the main driving force seems to be ‘taking back control’. But of what?

Of our borders, our laws, and our money, apparently. After 45 years of being a member of the EU (and the EEC/EC before that), our economy and fabric of the nation is intimately tied to Europe. Unraveling those close ties is complex and a daunting challenge.

The immigration card was played unashamedly by the Leavers during the referendum campaign, the despicable Nigel Farage (of UKIP) chief among them. Yes, membership of the Single Market does mean that citizens of other EU countries have the right to come to live and work in the UK. Many did come, and occupied jobs that UK citizens were often unwilling to take on (such as in the agricultural/horticultural and service/hospitality industries). They also paid their taxes and National Insurance (Social Security) contributions.

Already there has been a negative Brexit effect with EU citizens returning home, leaving vacancies that are hard to fill from local labor pools. The government has been and is obsessed by the immigration statistics, harking back surely to the time when Theresa May was Secretary of State for the Home Office. However, the data show that there has been more immigration from nations from outside the EU than from within.

What about our laws? I haven’t seen the British Parliament sitting on their laurels or out of a job since we joined the EU. Parliamentarians are constantly enacting new legislation. The bugbear of arch-Brexiteers such as Ian Duncan-Smith, Bernard Jenkin, Bill Cash, John Redwood, Peter Bone, and the pompous and inimitable Jacob Rees-Mogg, is the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Being a member of the European club, we are subject to its rules and regulations but benefit from common rights, and any infringements come under the jurisdiction of the ECJ which is anathema to Brexiteers. The worry for Remainers is that when we leave the EU, and powers are repatriated to the British Parliament, there will be a wholesale ditching of many of these hard-won rights. Time will tell, but will be resisted fiercely.

DaDa, LiFo, and BoJo – the three Brexiteers

The UK is one of the top financial contributors to the EU budget, and there will be a black hole when we leave. That’s why, in the Brexit negotiations, the EU has (rightly) insisted that the UK meets its financial contributions to commitments it has already made. These stretch into decades in the future and amount to tens of billions of pounds. So much for the ‘Brexit dividend’ that the delusional Boris Johnson promoted (and successfully duped a section of the electorate) on the Leave campaign bus. As our economy slows, as the tax base declines, as trading possibly becomes more difficult, what will be the real economic outcome for us all? I cannot believe it can be as rosy as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis has indicated, or the number of free trade agreements lined up as International Trade Secretary Liam Fox seems to believe.

At almost 70, I’m part of the demographic that overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. Which I didn’t, I hasten to add, something you must have realized by now reading this blog post.

The next years outside the EU are likely to be tough economically and financially. There will be inconveniences that I guess we will cope with, albeit grumbling all the time. I have fewer years ahead of me than I have enjoyed. I fear for the younger generations, and how life outside the EU will impact on them. Our younger daughter and husband live in the northeast, one of the areas that is predicted to be most negatively impacted by Brexit (even though a majority there voted to leave). They have two young boys, six and four. What does the future hold for them. Our elder daughter lives in the USA and will soon become a US citizen. There again, the USA is going through its own Trumpian dystopia right now.

Listening to pro-Leave supporters interviewed on various news channels yesterday, it seems to me that they haven’t yet fully understood the impact of their fateful voting decisions two years ago. It’s hard to appreciate just what factors drove their agendas. Even regions of the nation that have benefited from EU regional development funds voted to leave. Extraordinary! But it will come home to them in due course in a very personal way, when they make plans for their annual summer vacations in Spain or Portugal, the south of France or sunny Greece. No more reciprocal health cover arrangements probably, possible airline and flights issues, long queues to pass through immigration, unexpected mobile phone roaming charges, among many others. Once their pockets are hit—and hard—for things they have come to expect, they will complain that they never signed up for these restrictions when they voted Leave.

Of course, everything is going to be fine, say May & Co. Even though we are leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, we will eventually come to agreement with the EU for a sensible solution, if they would just stop bullying us. Or are we going to face that oft-quoted ‘cliff edge’ Here are two views.

And still nothing appropriate is said about the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK that has a land border with another EU country. David Davis seems to be in ‘La-La Land’ on this issue.

The real negotiations for our future prosperity and security have yet to start. Liam Fox and others talk about free trade talks and agreements as if they are a one-way ticket. It is about arriving at a position acceptable to both parties to the negotiation. Compromise, give-and-take is the name of the game. Win some, lose some. That probably means that more of the so-called ‘red lines’ will be crossed, positions abandoned in the interests of an overall agreement. The fishermen (and their parliamentary supporters like Farage and Rees-Mogg) who were so enraged last week when the transition agreement was announced, and which did not exclude access to British territorial waters by boats from other EU countries, will probably find that in order to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, fishing rights will be sacrificed. That’s just the reality.

Here are some more broken promises. Just click on the image below to read the article in The Guardian from a couple of days ago.

Another concern is that the UK just not have the technical capacity to negotiate multiple trade agreements. The government is frantically recruiting trade negotiators. Surely, heavyweights like the USA (with whom we have been ‘promised’ a quick and comprehensive free trade agreement after Brexit, notwithstanding Trump’s current protectionist stance) will flex their muscles, to ensure access by US corporations to UK markets and the NHS, the former for food produced under lower standards than we currently enjoy through the EU, and the latter with the aim of privatizing health cover. I envisage our government just rolling over in its desperation to secure the deal.

Will there be a second referendum to vote on the actual terms of the final agreement with the EU? While I hope there will be, I’m not optimistic, although I will continue to support efforts to make one a reality.

With less than a year to go before Brexit, and almost two years after the referendum, we are still no closer to knowing, never mind understanding, what a post-Brexit relationship with the EU (or the rest of the world for that matter) will look like. Either the Theresa May, David Davis et al. are playing their cards very close to their chests, or they simply have no idea, nor have effectively planned for the future. I fear the latter. The sooner the Conservatives are voted out of power the better. Unfortunately, the Labour alternative under left-wing Jeremy Corbin looks no more rosy. Where is the middle ground of politics? Where are the statesmen and women who are more concerned about the fate of the nation rather than their own political party or career? I despair of politics in the UK today, and I despair that the country is meandering down a path to its own economic decline.

Taking back control? Humbug! This must be the first time, as someone wrote recently, that a government is actively working to bring about a decline in the nation’s prosperity rather than the reverse.

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%.

No time for complacency . . .

There was a germplasm-fest taking place earlier this week, high above the Arctic Circle.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault celebrated 10 years and, accepting new seed samples from genebanks around the world (some new, some adding more samples to those already deposited) brought the total to more than 1 million sent there for safe-keeping since it opened in February 2008. What a fantastic achievement!

Establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault really does represent an extraordinary—and unprecedented—contribution by the Norwegian government to global efforts to conserve plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Coinciding with the tenth anniversary, the Norwegian government also announced plans to contribute a further 100 million Norwegian kroner (about USD13 million) to upgrade the seed vault and its facilities. Excellent news!

An interesting article dispelling a few myths about the vault was published in The Washington Post on 26 February.

The CGIAR genebank managers also met in Svalbard, and there was the obligatory visit to the seed vault.

Genebank managers from: L-R front row: ICRAF, Bioversity International, and CIAT, CIAT; and standing, L-R: CIMMYT, ILRI, IITA, ICRISAT, IRRI, ??, CIP, ??, Nordgen, ICRAF

Several of my former colleagues from six genebanks and Cary Fowler (former director of the Crop Trust) were recognized by the Crop Trust with individual Legacy Awards.

Crop Trust Legacy Awardees, L-R: Dave Ellis (CIP), Hari Upadhyaya (ICRISAT), Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton (IRRI), Daniel Debouck (CIAT), Ahmed Amri (ICARDA), Cary Fowler (former Director of the Crop Trust). and Jean Hanson (ILRI). Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

This timely and increased focus on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, celebrities getting in on the act, and HRH The Prince of Wales hosting (as Global Patron of the Crop Trust) a luncheon and meeting at Clarence House recently, help raise the profile of safeguarding genetic diversity. The 10th anniversary of the Svalbard vault was even an item on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today news program this week. However, this is no time for complacency.

We need genebanks
The management and future of genebanks have been much on my mind over the past couple of years while I was leading an evaluation of the CGIAR’s research support program on Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections (otherwise known as the Genebanks CRP, and now replaced by its successor, the Genebank Platform). On the back of that review, and reading a couple of interesting genebank articles last year [1], I’ve been thinking about the role genebanks play in society, how society can best support them (assuming of course that the role of genebanks is actually understood by the public at large), and how they are funded.

Genebanks are important. However, don’t just believe me. I’m biased. After all, I dedicated much of my career to collect, conserve, and use plant genetic resources for the benefit of humanity. Genebanks and genetic conservation are recognized in the Zero Hunger Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

There are many examples showing how genebanks are the source of genes to increase agricultural productivity or resilience in the face of a changing climate, reduce the impact of diseases, and enhance the nutritional status of the crops that feed us.

In the fight against human diseases too I recently heard an interesting story on the BBC news about the antimicrobial properties of four molecules, found in Persian shallots (Allium hirtifolium), effective against TB antibiotic-resistance. There’s quite a literature about the antimicrobial properties of this species, which is a staple of Iranian cuisine. Besides adding to agricultural potential, just imagine looking into the health-enhancing properties of the thousands and thousands of plant species that are safely conserved in genebanks around the world.

Yes, we need genebanks, but do we need quite so many? And if so, can we afford them all? What happens if a government can longer provide the appropriate financial support to manage a genebank collection? Unfortunately, that’s not a rhetorical question. It has happened. Are genebanks too big (or too small) to fail?

Too many genebanks?
According to The Second Report on The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture published by FAO in 2010, there are more than 1700 genebanks/genetic resources collections around the world. Are they equally important, and are their collections safe?

Fewer than 100 genebanks/collections have so far safeguarded their germplasm in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, just 5% or so, but among them are some of the largest and most important germplasm collections globally such as those in the CGIAR centers, the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan, and national genebanks in the USA and Australia, to name but a few.

I saw a tweet yesterday suggesting that 40% of the world’s germplasm was safely deposited in Svalbard. I find figure that hard to believe, and is more likely to be less than 20% (based on the estimate of the total number of germplasm accessions worldwide reported on page 5 of this FAO brief). I don’t even know if Svalbard has the capacity to store all accessions if every genebank decided to deposit seeds there. In any case, as explained to me a couple of years ago by the Svalbard Coordinator of Operation and Management, Åsmund Asdal, genebanks must meet several criteria to send seed samples to Svalbard. The criteria may have been modified since then. I don’t know.

First, samples must be already stored at a primary safety back-up site; Svalbard is a ‘secondary’ site. For example, in the case of the rice collection at IRRI, the collection is duplicated under ‘black-box’ conditions in the vaults of the USDA’s National Lab for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has been since the 1980s.

The second criterion is, I believe, more difficult—if not almost impossible—to meet. Apparently, only unique samples should be sent to Svalbard. This means that the same sample should not have been sent more than once by a genebank or, presumably, by another genebank. Therein lies the difficulty. Genebanks exchange germplasm samples all the time, adding them to their own collections under a different ID. Duplicate accessions may, in some instances, represent the bulk of germplasm samples that a genebank keeps. However, determining if two samples are the same is not easy; it’s time-consuming, and can be expensive. I assume (suspect) that many genebanks just package up their germplasm and send it off to Svalbard without making these checks. And in many ways, provided that the vault can continue to accept all the possible material from around the world, this should not be an issue. It’s more important that collections are safe.

Incidentally, the current figure for Svalbard is often quoted in the media as ‘1 million unique varieties of crops‘. Yes, 1 million seed samples, but never 1 million varieties. Nowhere near that figure.

In the image below, Åsmund is briefing the press during the vault’s 10th anniversary.

Svalbard is a very important global repository for germplasm, highlighted just a couple of years ago or so when ICARDA, the CGIAR center formerly based in Aleppo, Syria was forced to relocate (because of the civil war in that country) and establish new research facilities—including the genebank—in Lebanon and Morocco. Even though the ICARDA crop collections were already safely duplicated in other genebanks, Svalbard was the only location where they were held together. Logistically it was more feasible to seek return of the seeds from Svalbard rather than from multiple locations. This was done, germplasm multiplied, collections re-established in Morocco and Lebanon, and much has now been returned to Svalbard for safe-keeping once again. The seed vault played the role that was intended. To date, the ICARDA withdrawal of seeds from Svalbard has been the only one.

However, in terms of global safety of all germplasm, blackbox storage at Svalbard is not an option for all crops and their wild relatives. Svalbard can only provide safe storage for seeds that survive low temperatures. There are many species that have short-lived seeds that do not tolerate desiccation or low temperature storage, or which reproduce vegetatively, such as potatoes through tubers, for example. Some species are kept as in vitro or tissue culture collections as shown in the images below for potatoes at CIP (top) or cassava at CIAT (below).

Some species can be cryopreserved at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, and is a promising technology for potato at CIP.

I believe discussions are underway to find a global safety back-up solution for these crops.

How times have changed
Fifty years ago, there was a consensus (as far as I can determine from different publications) among the pioneer group of experts (led by Sir Otto Frankel) that just a relatively small network of international and regional genebanks, and some national ones, was all that would be needed to hold the world’s plant genetic resources. How times have changed!

Sir Otto Frankel and Ms Erna Bennett

In one of the first books dedicated to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources [2], Sir Otto and Erna Bennett wrote: A world gene bank may be envisaged as an association of national or regional institutions operating under international agreements relating to techniques and the availability of material, supported by a central international clearing house under the control of an international agency of the United Nations. Regional gene banks which have been proposed could make a contribution provided two conditions are met—a high degree of technical efficiency, and unrestricted international access. It is of the greatest importance that both these provisos are secured; an international gene bank ceases to fulfil its proper function if it is subjected to national or political discrimination. In the light of subsequent developments, this perspective may be viewed as rather naïve perhaps.

Everything changed in December 1993 when the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force. Until then, plant genetic resources for food and agriculture had been viewed as the ‘heritage of mankind’ or ‘international public goods’. Individual country sovereignty over national genetic resources became, appropriately, the new norm. Genebanks were set up everywhere, probably with little analysis of what that meant in terms of long-term security commitments or a budget for maintaining, evaluating, and using these genebank collections. When I was active in genebank management during the 1990s, and traveling around Asia, I came across several examples where ‘white elephant’ genebanks had been built, operating on shoe-string budgets, and mostly without the resources needed to maintain their collections. It was not uncommon to come across genebanks without the resources to maintain the integrity of the cold rooms where seeds were stored.

Frankel and Bennett further stated that: . . . there is little purpose in assembling material unless it is effectively used and preserved. The efficient utilization of genetic resources requires that they are adequately classified and evaluated. This statement still has considerable relevance today. It’s the raison d’être for genetic conservation. As we used to tell our genetic resources MSc students at Birmingham: No conservation without use!

The 11 genebanks of the CGIAR meet the Frankel and Bennet criteria and are among the most important in the world, in terms of: the crop species and wild relatives conserved [3]; the genebank collection size (number of accessions); their remarkable genetic diversity; the documentation and evaluation of conserved germplasm; access to and exchange of germplasm (based on the number of Standard Material Transfer Agreements or SMTAs issued each year); the use of germplasm in crop improvement; and the quality of conservation management, among others. They (mostly) meet internationally-agreed genebank standards.

For what proportion of the remaining ‘1700’ collections globally can the same be said? Many certainly do; many don’t! Do many national genebanks represent value for money? Would it not be better for national genebanks to work together more closely? Frankel and Bennett mentioned regional genebanks, that would presumably meet the conservation needs of a group of countries. Off the top of my head I can only think of two genebanks with a regional mandate.  One is the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Plant Genetic Resource Centre, located in Lusaka, Zambia. The other is CATIE in Turrialba, Costa Rica, which also maintains collections of coffee and cacao of international importance.

The politics of genetic conservation post-1993 made it more difficult, I believe, to arrive at cooperative agreements between countries to conserve and use plant genetic resources. Sovereignty became the name of the game! Even among the genebanks of the CGIAR it was never possible to rationalize collections. Why, for example, should there be two rice collections, at IRRI and Africa Rice, or wheat collections at CIMMYT and ICARDA? However, enhanced data management systems, such as GRIN-Global and Genesys, are providing better linkages between collections held in different genebanks.

Meeting the cost
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provides the legal framework for supporting the international collections of the CGIAR and most of the species they conserve.

Running a genebank is expensive. The CGIAR genebanks cost about USD22 million annually to fulfill their mandates. It’s not just a case of putting seed packets in a large refrigerator (like the Svalbard vault) and forgetting about them, so-to-speak. There’s a lot more to genebanking (as I highlighted here) that the recent focus on Svalbard has somewhat pushed into the background. We certainly need to highlight many more stories about how genebanks are collecting and conserving genetic resources, what it takes to keep a seed accession or a vegetatively-propagated potato variety, for example, alive and available for generations to come, how breeders and other scientists have tapped into this germplasm, and what success they have achieved.

Until the Crop Trust stepped in to provide the security of long-term funding through its Endowment Fund, these important CGIAR genebanks were, like most national genebanks, threatened with the vagaries of short-term funding for what is a long-term commitment. In perpetuity, in fact!

Many national genebanks face even greater challenges and the dilemma of funding these collections has not been resolved. Presumably national genebanks should be the sole funding responsibility of national governments. After all, many were set up in response to the ‘sovereignty issue’ that I described earlier. But some national collections also have global significance because of the material they conserve.

I’m sure that genebank funding does not figure prominently in government budgets. They are a soft target for stagflation and worse, budget cuts. Take the case of the UK for instance. There are several important national collections, among which the UK Vegetable Genebank at the Warwick Crop Centre and the Commonwealth Potato Collection at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland figure prominently. Consumed by Brexit chaos, and despite speaking favorably in support of biodiversity at the recent Clarence House meeting that I mentioned earlier in this post, I’m sure that neither of these genebanks or others is high on the agenda of Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Michael Gove MP or his civil servants. If a ‘wealthy’ country like the UK has difficulties finding the necessary resources, what hope have resource-poorer countries have of meeting their commitments.

However, a commitment to place their germplasm in Svalbard would be a step in the right direction.

I mentioned that genebanking is expensive, yet the Crop Trust estimates that an endowment of only USD850 million would provide sufficient funding in perpetuity to support the genebanks. USD850 million seems a large sum, yet about half of this has already been raised as donations, mostly from national governments that already provide development aid. In the UK, with the costs of Brexit becoming more apparent day-by-day, and the damage that is being done to the National Health Service through recurrent under-funding, some politicians are now demanding changes to the government’s aid budget, currently at around 0.7% of GDP. I can imagine the consequences for food security in nations that depend on such aid, were it reduced or (heaven help us) eliminated.

On the other hand, USD850 million is peanuts. Take the cost of one A380 aircraft, at around USD450 million. Emirates Airlines has just confirmed an order for a further 36 aircraft!

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation continues to do amazing things through its generous grants. A significant grant from the BMGF could top-up the Endowment Fund. The same goes for other donor agencies.

Let’s just do it and get it over with.

Then we can get on with the job of not only making all germplasm safe, especially for species that are hard to or cannot be conserved as seeds, but by using the latest ‘omics’ technologies [4] to understand just how germplasm really is the basis of food security for everyone on this beautiful planet of ours.

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[1] One, on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog (that is maintained by two friends of mine, Luigi Guarino, the Director of Science and Programs at the Crop Trust in Bonn, and Jeremy Cherfas, formerly Senior Science Writer at Bioversity International in Rome and now a Freelance Communicator) was about accounting for the number of genebanks around the world. The second, published in The Independent on 2 July 2017, was a story by freelance journalist Ashley Coates about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and stated that it is ‘the world’s most important freezer‘.

[2] Frankel, OH and E Bennett (1970). Genetic resources. In: OH Frankel and E Bennett (eds) Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation. IBP Handbook No 11. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[3] The CGIAR genebanks hold major collections of farmer varieties and wild relatives of crops that feed the world’s population on a daily basis: rice, wheat, maize, sorghum and millets, potato, cassava, sweet potato, yam, temperate and tropical legume species like lentil, chickpea, pigeon pea, and beans, temperate and tropical forage species, grasses and legumes, that support livestock, and fruit and other tree species important in agroforestry systems, among others.

[4] McNally, KL, 2014. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd and M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp.166-189 (Chapter 10).

Fashion, so said Louis XIV, is the mirror of history

Amber Butchart (photo by Jo Duck – used with permission)

Just when you least expect it, a real gem of a television series comes along. You’re gathered in. Then you’re hooked!

And that was our experience with fashion historian Amber Butchart’s six part series, A Stitch In Time, recently screened on BBC4.

This is what Amber has to say about the series on her blog: Fusing biography, art and the history of fashion, throughout A Stitch in Time I get to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore, while key garments are recreated using the original techniques.

She peers into the mirror and helps us to interpret the costume clues held within Van Eyck’s mysterious Arnolfini portrait, the role of hand-me-downs among 18th century workers, the impact of cotton on British life, a flamboyant armorial piece which sits at odds with the allegedly brutal nature of its wearer and the impact a scandalously informal gown would have on an already unpopular queen.

What an eye-opener A Stitch in Time has been! And from what I’ve seen in various media, we are not alone in being enthralled by the series.

My wife Steph and I enjoy watching almost any history-related program, so tuned into the first episode on 3 January almost by default. We had no idea what to expect, and we’d never heard of Amber Butchart (herself a fashion icon) even though (as I’ve now discovered) she has broadcast regularly over the past four or five years on BBC radio.

To recreate the items of clothing, Amber relied on the talents and experience of historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila  and her team, Harriet Waterhouse and Hannah Marples. It was amazing to see how every item of clothing was hand stitched. Not a sewing machine is sight, nor an electric iron.

L to R: Harriet, Ninya, Amber, and Hannah

In each program Amber talked about a particular painting—and a tomb effigy in one program—and what each tells us about the person(s) portrayed, how their clothing speaks to us about their social status, and the society in which they lived. And then she enjoyed modeling each of the recreated costumes.

She also delved into other background issues that are part of the story, none perhaps more emotive than that of Dido Belle, born in 1761 the natural (i.e. illegitimate) daughter of Sir John Lindsay and a slave, who moved in the highest circles of English aristocracy since her great uncle was Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. I was already familiar with her story having read the 2014 book that same year by Paula Byrne.

Choosing the topics
I asked Amber how she came to choose the six subjects for the series. She replied: I wanted to show a real range of clothing from history—not just womenswear and royalty. I also wanted to touch on stories that are harder to uncover, to show the difficulties that can be part of the process when looking at marginalised histories. So I chose the artworks for a mixture of these reasons—plus some which are more well known within fashion history, such as Marie Antoinette and Charles II.

Charles was the subject of the first program (depicted receiving a pineapple from his head gardener, in a painting from around 1667, now part of the Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) and “how he used fashion as propaganda with an outfit that foreshadowed the three piece suit”. From what appeared a rather drab suit of clothes in the painting, the completed reconstruction was extremely elegant, with its shot silk lining and black silk ‘bows’ on the trousers, shoulder and sleeves. The other fashion statement is the fantastic number of handmade buttons and their corresponding button-holes.The second program considered the famous Arnolfini portrait by Van Eyck from 1434, that hangs today in the National Gallery.

Once thought to portray a pregnant Mrs Arnolfini, wife of a wealthy merchant, this is no longer believed to be the case. She’s just holding up the rather large amount of cloth that went into making her dress—just because she could, a sign of the family’s wealth. The resulting recreation was stunning, and it was also interesting to watch how the green dye was made. Not for those of a weak olfactory constitution!

The ‘common man’ was the subject of the third program, depicted in a full-size portrait at Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire. Portraits of working men are uncommon. Just take a visit to any National Trust property, as Steph and I do all year round, and there are a thousand and one portraits of members of the aristocracy in all their finery. Such statements of power and fashion!

But The Hedge Cutter at Broughton shows a working man wearing a hand-me-down leather coat, evidently worn by several  generations and generously patched. It’s dark and stained, tattered in places.

The coat expertly recreated by Ninya and her team from soft, pale leather was a delight to behold. Even more compelling were the sewing techniques they had to employ to join the expensive pieces of leather together.

The story of Dido Belle in Program 4, was particularly interesting. In the painting of Dido (with Lady Elizabeth Murray), on display at Scone Palace in Scotland, not all of her dress can be seen, so Ninya and her team had to interpret how it might have been made.

Calling upon all their knowledge and experience, they recreated a dress that they believe was close to the original. Ninya confirmed to me that Dido’s clothes were the biggest challenge to research, mainly because so much of them are obscured in the painting, and because very little survives in the way of informal dress. Loose, voluminous garments made from expensive silk are prime targets for being made over, cut and reused. As we said in the programme, we were very happy with the results, but there were definitely several possible answers for how this gown was actually cut and constructed!

The Black Prince, son of King Edward III and father of King Richard II, is buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and Amber took us to look at the prince’s gilt-bronze tomb effigy, which shows the item of clothing that was the focus of this episode. The prince is wearing a jupon, a close-fitting tunic worn over a suit of armor and bearing heraldic arms. Warriors wore such an item of clothing in battle so they could be recognized and serve as a rallying point for their troops.

What was particularly interesting about this program (5) is that the prince’s original jupon still exists although no longer on display. After 600 years it’s just too fragile. But after his death in 1376, the jupon was hung above the prince’s tomb and remained there for centuries. Now stored carefully away in a box at the cathedral, the jupon no longer displays its vibrant colors, and although there was perhaps less interpretation needed to reconstruct it, there were still some challenges. The principal one was how to sew the cotton protective wadding between the layers of linen as a backing and the red and blue velvet of the outer layer.

Nevertheless, the completed garment was the most exuberant of the series. As Ninya told me: I loved working on the Black Prince’s jupon. It was an incredibly time-consuming process but it was so rewarding seeing it emerge in all its brightly coloured, gold-embellished glory!

Apparently the gold embroidery alone took 900 hours to complete, stitched on to a linen backing, cut out, and then sewn on to the jupon. Stunning!

In the final programme, Amber explained the court reaction to the most unroyal-like muslin dress (chemise de la reine) worn by the unpopular Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, in an infamous portrait painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1783. Such was the uproar, that the artist had to paint another portrait in a more appropriate dress worthy of a French queen. Muslin was used for undergarments, not for royal portraits. Vigée Le Brun painted more than 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette.

The recreation was an elegant, free-flowing gown, but not (to our modern eyes) the scandalous display for which Marie Antoinette was censured. She would have worn this type of dress in informal settings such as her retreat in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, the Petit Trianon, surrounded by intimates. Underneath the dress Marie Antoinette would have worn stays, and these were also part of the recreation. Ninya told me: . . . the silk damask stays that Harriet made for Marie Antoinette were ridiculously beautiful. There was an elegant sash at the waist, made by Hannah.

Even though the dress looks simple in style, it would nevertheless have been costly to make in the 18th century, as was demonstrated in its reconstruction. Ninya also gave a useful tip to all budding seamstresses on how to make a level hem. Tip of the series!

Perspectives
On reflection, I found the story of Dido Belle the most compelling. And while her dress appeared the most simple among the six, it was, as Ninya told me, a challenge for her team.

But as I think back on the last program and the beautiful dress that was worn by Marie Antoinette, I have to say that was my favorite. Elegant in its ‘simplicity’.

I asked Amber which costume she found the most challenging. This is what she told me: The most challenging to research in many ways was Dido Belle, and also the Hedge Cutter. Researching working dress can be difficult as it doesn’t tend to be kept in museums and wasn’t seriously written about until relatively recently. Dido has a really compelling story, and the transatlantic slave trade played a huge part in our history but is often overlooked. It runs like a thread through fashion history as it relates to cotton, and so I felt it needed to be addressed.

But what was her favorite costume? Having discovered online (from an interview she once gave) that green is apparently her favorite color, I expected her to choose the Arnolfini dress. But no!

In terms of aesthetic, I love the Charles II suit and would absolutely wear it, she replied (in the photo above it does really look elegant on her). In terms of uniqueness of experience, she continued, and historical revelation, it would be the Black Prince’s jupon. Such an incredible experience to literally walk in his shoes, and so far from the clothing that we’re used to today. Experimental archaeology at its best!

So there you have it.

I don’t think I’ll look at a portrait again in quite the same way during one of my many National Trust visits. This series has certainly opened my eyes to another aspect of social history that had, until now, passed me by.

If I have one criticism of the series, it would be this. Each program was short by about 15 minutes, that would have allowed just a little more time to explore the background story, and to focus in on some more detail of the actual techniques for making the costumes. BBC producers take note!

So, I hope that the BBC will commission another series, and allocate sufficient air time to do justice to this fascinating subject. Amber Butchart’s A Stitch in Time has been a joy to watch. This is why we willingly pay the TV licence fee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathing life into history

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my hobbies is history (and archeology to some extent). I’ve often wondered whether I should have read history at university instead of botany. And, when I retired almost eight years ago, I did ponder taking a history degree course at the Open University. However, having decided that retirement meant I no longer had to meet deadlines any more, the allure of studying again soon faded.

Nevertheless, much of my reading focuses on history, and I’ve built up a sizeable library (mostly paperbacks) covering all periods and disciplines (social, economic, cultural, etc.). When we lived overseas in the Philippines I would take back half a suitcase of books after each annual home-leave in the UK. Near where my elder daughter lives in St Paul, Minnesota there is an excellent book store where I’ve been able to pick up a whole range of texts, many about the American Civil War, that I’ve never seen on sale over this side of the Atlantic. There are several university colleges near Half Price Books on Ford Parkway, where students divest themselves of course books each year—to my great advantage.

Here in the UK we are also fortunate that BBC2, BBC4 and Channel 4 regularly broadcast history programs of high quality, and others on archaeology, that provide interesting perspectives on how cultures and societies evolved. Steph and I have been enjoying many of these since we returned to the UK in 2010.

I guess my own fascination with history and archaeology on TV began with Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, a thirteen part documentary series, first broadcast on BBC2 in 1969 about the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy since the Dark Ages. It was apparently the first series commissioned specifically for colour television in the UK (by Sir David Attenborough, then Controller of BBC2). I didn’t actually see the series then; I was too busy being an undergraduate. We acquired the DVD in 2005.

Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, broadcast in 1973 (and which we also viewed years later on DVD), was a highly-acclaimed personal view about the development of human society through its understanding of science.

Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (broadcast from September 2000, over 15 hour-long programs in three series until June 2002) was his personal view of different periods of British (actually, mainly English) history and its events. Once again, we caught up on DVD.

And during this period of working overseas, we enjoyed (on DVD) an impressive list of programs by Michael Wood, in a broadcasting career that began in 1979. He has had several series since we returned to the UK.

David Starkey is a hardy perennial who focuses on the Tudors. Despite several controversies that have surrounded him, he still appears quite regularly.

There is quite a long list of presenters (see below) whose programs we have enjoyed since 2010, covering a wide range of topics and periods. Just this past few weeks we’ve enjoyed a three-part series by Helen Castor about England’s first queen, Jane (great granddaughter of Henry VII), whose reign lasted just nine days in July 1553.

Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon is the ‘flavor of the month’ right now. A two part series, Rome Unpacked, co-presented with chef Giorgio Locatelli about the cultural history of Rome and its cuisine concluded last week. For some reason we didn’t watch the three series of Italy Unpacked broadcast between 2013 and 2015. He’s just started a four part series about the Royal Collection on BBC4, and next week he has a one-off program on BBC2 about the theft of two paintings by Van Gogh from a museum in Amsterdam in 2002. He’s certainly one of the most engaging presenters currently on TV.

But there are two presenters who are new to me with series showing right now on BBC2 and BBC4, respectively.

David Olusoga is a British Nigerian historian, writer and broadcaster who I’d never heard of until his four part series A House Through Time began three weeks ago. It tells the social history of Liverpool through the lives of families who occupied a single house, from when it was built about 200 years ago until the present day.

62 Falkner Street (at one time, number 58) is a four storey terraced house in what was once a fashionable neighborhood, in the Georgian Quarter east of the city center, but within easy striking distance of the docks that were the basis of the city’s prosperity for so many decades.

It has been painstakingly researched. There must be a large team of researchers behind the scenes digging into the census records and other documents published in Liverpool that have provided insights into the business and economic history of the city. It’s a very engaging way to tell the social history of this important port city in England’s northwest, that climbed to the pinnacle of economic prosperity in the 19th century, and fell to the depths of economic decline in the late 20th.

Combining the history of art and fashion, A Stitch in Time (a six part series on BBC4) is presented by TV newcomer Amber Butchart, who has published several books and appears regularly apparently on BBC radio.

Amber is certainly a breath of fresh air, with her flamboyant fashion style, bright red hair, and piercingly blue eyes. Her range of clothes certainly needs a personality like Amber’s to carry off successfully. Elegant!

Working with historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila and her team, Amber fuses biography, art, and the history of fashion, and explores the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore.

In the first program, she looked at the fashion of Charles II’s restoration, and in the second the green gown worn by the lady in the 1434 Arnolfini portrait, painted by Jan van Eyck. The third program was unusual in that the portrait was of a working man, a hedge-cutter, wearing a hand-me-down leather coat.

In each program Amber talks about the social status and lives of the subjects that we can deduce from each painting, while Ninya and her team recreate a costume just from their view of the painting and their detailed understanding of how clothes were made in the past. The Arnolfini recreation was outstanding.

From the outset I wouldn’t have imagined that a series along these lines would grab my attention. I guess we watched the first episode because there was nothing else worth watching across the channels. But then we were hooked, and I hope that the BBC will commission Amber to undertake other projects in the future.

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  • Dan Snow: a Modern History graduate from Oxford University, Snow has an impressive list of programs under his belt.
  • Mary Beard: Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, Beard has presented programs on Rome and Pompeii, among others. Very entertaining.
  • Niall Ferguson: Scottish-born Ferguson has affiliations with many academic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic and specializes in economic and financial history.
  • Simon Sebag-Montefiore: he has presented some excellent city histories, on Jerusalem, Rome, Byzantium, and Vienna.
  • Lucy Worsley: she is Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and has been presenting since 2009, and has written a number of books. Renowned for her penchant for dressing up in her programs, I guess she is not everyone’s cup of tea. But we find her engaging.
  • Suzannah Lipscombe: is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton, and has an impressive list of TV programs to her name.
  • Bettany Hughes: specializes in classical history, and has been broadcasting since the late 1990s.
  • Clare Jackson: is a senior tutor at Cambridge University and has a particular interest in 17th century English history.
  • Dan Jones: a writer and historian, his book on the Plantagenets was adapted for television in 2014 on Channel 5.
  • Sam Willis: is a military historian affiliated with the University of Plymouth.
  • Saul David: is Professor of Military History at the University of Buckingham.
  • Ruth Goodman: is a British freelance historian of the early modern period, specializing in offering advice to museums and heritage attractions.
  • Janina Ramirez: is an art and cultural historian, who works at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education.
  • Jago Cooper: archaeologist and the Curator of the Americas at the British Museum, and specializes in the history and pre-Columbian archaeology of South America. He has presented programs on the Incas and lost kingdoms of Central America (areas particularly close to my heart, having lived in Peru and Costa Rica for over eight years in the 1970s).
  • Neil Oliver: is a Scottish archaeologist who has presented programs on the Vikings and is a resident presenter on Coast.
  • Alice Roberts: is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at The University of Birmingham. A medical doctor and anatomist by training, Roberts front many programs bringing together expertise in archaeology and history, and appears frequently on the BBC.
  • Waldemar Januszczak: is an art critic and TV presenter and documentary producer, with many films to his credit since 1997.