How long is a piece of string?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the most important collections are held at:

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

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

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

Essentially, there are three basic taxonomic approaches:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SM Bukasov

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

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

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

Jack Hawkes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Spooner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brexit means Brexit. What an almighty cock-up!

Forty-five years ago today, 1 January 1973, the United Kingdom (along with Denmark and Ireland) became a member of the European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Union (EU). Now we are on the verge of leaving the EU. March 2019 is not so far away.

Brexit is and, I believe, will become a social, political, and economic catastrophe for this country. I am firm Remainer, yet a member of that demographic who apparently swung the referendum vote in favour of Leave (I turn 70 in November this year). I refuse to be labelled a ‘Remoaner’.

What beggars belief is that the government apparently had no end-plan developed when Article 50 was triggered earlier in 2016 (and only just beginning to discuss this!), nor had they carried out comprehensive risk analyses or impact studies, never mind what Brexit Secretary David Davis has or has not said. His vagueness and the way he has approached the Brexit negotiations seemingly as a game with limited or no consequences is an insult to the nation.

What I still cannot fathom—and the blame must be placed at the door of former Prime Minister David Cameron—is why the referendum bar (which was ‘advisory’) was never set higher. By this I mean that there should there have been an absolute majority of the electorate required in favour of leaving the EU. As it is, only 37% of the electorate (almost 52% of those who voted) are forcing us out of the EU with all the consequences for our economy, for trade, security, travel, education, science, health, human rights. Every part of the fabric of the nation will be affected in one way or another. It’s also astonishing to me that parts of the UK that have benefited especially from EU membership (in terms of regional grants and the like) voted to leave, or that constituencies like the fishermen believe that things will improve for them post-Brexit.

I’m sick to death of hearing Brexit means Brexit, the will of the British people, the best deal possible, or taking back control. Well, Theresa, David, Boris Johnson and all you other second class politicians (or failed ones like Ian Duncan-Smith and Chris Grayling, to mention but two among the many, especially on the Conservative benches), I’m afraid the EU holds all the cards in these negotiations. Our status as a small island of diminishing consequence off the coast of mainland Europe will be confirmed.

Our accession to the EEC came a decade after the President of France, Charles de Gaulle famously failed to back the UK’s application to become a member stating that the British government lacks commitment to European integration. In November 1967, he vetoed the UK’s application a second time.

In the light of what has happened ever since, including a confirmatory membership referendum in 1975 under the Labour government headed by Harold Wilson, and subsequent constant carping from the sidelines by the British government under Margaret Thatcher, you have to admit that de Gaulle’s perspective was somewhat prescient.

From my own perspective, I was proud that Prime Minister Edward Heath eventually prevailed and signed the terms of accession to the EEC in December 1972.

I believe that membership has brought a level of stability and economic prosperity to the UK that we could not have achieved on our own. The EU represents a market for 50% or more of our international trade. And now we are about to throw that away and jeopardise our future. Talk about baby and the bath water.

More than 50% of the UK population (based on 2011 census demographic data) were born at or after the UK joined the EEC. That goes up to around 75% if you take into account those who were teenagers or so on accession. The UK inside the EEC/EU is all they have ever known.

I’m a passionate supporter of continued membership of the EU. Well, perhaps passionate is a little strong. But I’m certainly an keen advocate for continued (and pro-active) membership. Yes, there are problems, issues, challenges being a member of the EU; no doubt about it. The EU is not a perfect institution, by any stretch of the imagination. Had the UK been a more committed member (rather than carping constantly from the sidelines), then I believe we could have brought much of our renowned British pragmatism to help resolve many of the structural and operational issues that bedevil the EU.

Theresa May’s government is incompetent (more a Coalition of Chaos than Strong and Stable), and while the Brexit ‘divorce’ negotiations are said to have made some progress (although I’m not really sure what), her ministers, especially David Davis, have become increasingly mendacious. Their arrogance and lack of respect for the electorate and facts is truly staggering. The Conservative Party has become a party of ostriches (especially MPs like the honorable member for the eighteenth century, Jacob Rees-Mogg). Furthermore we are being held to ransom by the short-sighted, bigoted, and lack of imagination Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, that May now has to rely on for support in the House of Commons. What a mess we are in.

The lack of focus and understanding in particular over the border issues between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are not only worrying but potentially dangerous. In September I spent 10 days in Northern Ireland, and witnessed how that part of the UK has benefited from a couple of decades of prosperity and peace, now in jeopardy because of Brexit.

But a dilemma I face is that I cannot imagine the opposition Labour Party flourishing in government under Jeremy Corbyn, nor can I see myself supporting Labour in an election. I make no bones about it. I am no fan of Corbyn and his closest acolytes. He is not a credible Prime Minister-in-waiting. I regret that he and his party did not take a stronger pro-EU position. His equivocation is reprehensible. I worry for the future of the Labour Party as the left-wing Momentum group strengthens its stranglehold. Likewise, I am no supporter of what the Conservatives now stand for, and its right-wing agenda.

I can only hope that sounder minds will prevail and brought to bear during 2018. Can Brexit be stopped? More from hope than expectation, I think it just might. But will the EU exert a forfeit to allow us back in, requiring the UK to sign up for measures that we have opted out of? Perhaps.

That is my wish for 2018, and although I never make New Year resolutions, I will continue to support pro-EU initiatives as I am able.

 

Laos – jewel in the rice biodiversity crown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No longer Queen of the Skies

Yesterday, I was sorting through some old 35 mm slides and came across this one taken at Istanbul’s Yeşilköy Airport, in April 1972. There, on the tarmac, are a Turkish Airlines DC-9 and Boeing 707 and, on the left, a Sabena Sud Aviation Caravelle (last flown by any airline in 2005). I’ve flown that aircraft, but I can’t remember when or where. I first flew the 707 in April 1972 on Turkish Airlines from London to Istanbul. Then next, in January 1973, on the B.O.A.C. (that’s British Airways today) route to Lima, Peru via Antigua in the Caribbean, Caracas (Venezuela), and Bogotá (Colombia).

One aircraft that I have since flown countless times is the iconic Boeing 747, in at least five of its configurations: 200, 300, 400, 400-Combi, and SR. So the news that United Airlines had retired its 747 fleet caught my eye a few days ago.

On 7 November, United Airlines flew its last 747 flight. Ever! Flight UA747 between San Francisco (SFO) and Honolulu (HNL) recreated the first ever 747 flight on the same route, on 23 July 1970.

The Boeing 747 flew for the very first time on 9 February 1969, and its launch airline was Pan American World Airways, on 22 January 1970.

The Boeing 747, being displayed to the public for the first time, on 30 September 1968.

Just 50 years since it made its maiden flight, and the 747 is on its way out. Not only has it been retired from United’s fleet, by the end of this year no US airline will operate this beautiful aircraft, the Queen of the Skies, at least as a passenger aircraft. Cathay Pacific had already retired its last passenger jumbo 747-400 in 2016, as did Air France. Singapore Airlines retired its 747 fleet as long ago as 2012. British Airways still has the largest fleet, and Lufthansa and KLM operate significant fleets. But for how much longer? I guess that before long the 747’s recognisable bubble will no longer be seen at airports around the world.

Fifty years ago, the 747 was a game-changer, making intercontinental travel accessible and affordable to the masses.

When did you last fly a 747? It must be a decade ago that Steph and I flew to Minnesota for Christmas on Northwest Airlines. I think our first 747 flight was from Miami to London Heathrow on British Airways, in November 1978. But I’m not sure.

For a decade, when we lived in the Philippines, we regularly flew back to Europe on homeleave on KLM’s 747 (often Combi aircraft) service via Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam’s Schipol. Many work trips to Europe were enjoyed on Lufthansa, or to the US on Northwest Airlines, and subsequently Delta. Some of the more exciting landings on an aircraft of this size were into Hong Kong’s former Kai Tak airport, as this Malaysian Airlines 747 shows.

I’ve flown in all three classes on the 747, mostly in Business Class. Whenever possible on Lufthansa, I upgraded to First Class using airmiles. It was on one of these flights from Frankfurt to Manila via Bangkok (and a colleague of mine and I were the only passengers in First Class out of Bangkok) that I had the opportunity of sitting in the jump seat on the flight deck for the landing at Manila. Magical! Those were, of course, pre-9/11 days.

At its launch, and for several decades afterwards, aircraft flying over oceans were required to have four engines. That’s no longer the case, and most long-distance flights now operate on twin-engined aircraft, since engines have become much more reliable. Today, most airlines operate twin-engined Boeing 777s or Airbus A330s (although they are also on their way out), and now the ‘new’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner and its competitor Airbus A350. The days of the four engine behemoths are past, it seems. Almost.

The Airbus A380 came on to the scene just a decade ago. It made its maiden flight in April 2005, and went into service, with Singapore Airlines two and a half years later. Just 10 years later however (reported yesterday in fact), Singapore Airlines has ‘mothballed’ the first of its A380s.

Sales of the A380 have flagged, and Airbus is now making just a handful a year. Emirates Airlines operates the world’s largest fleet of this aircraft (many times more than any other airline), has just taken delivery of its 100th A380, and waits delivery of a further 45. But the airline is also staking its future also on the new generation 777s, with 150 on order, and has also just announced an order for 40 Dreamliners (much to the disappointment of Airbus that had hoped to woo Emirates with the A350).

I have flown the A380 on three occasions. In October 2010, I flew from Dubai to Bangkok, and was upgraded from Business Class to First since another passenger ‘claimed’ my seat. Then in November 2014, I flew in Business Class from Dubai to Bangkok in Business Class and used airmiles to upgrade to First for the return leg. Then a year ago, I flew Business Class from Birmingham (BHX) via Dubai (DXB) to Melbourne (MEL), Australia, with the DXB-MEL-DXB-BHX sectors on the A380. It’s a beautiful aircraft that I have waxed lyrical about before.

However, I think there’s one aircraft, sadly no longer operational, that’s even more iconic than the 747. The Anglo-French Concorde! With her distinctive shape and profile, Concorde turned heads wherever she flew around the world.

The last ever flight of any Concorde, 26th November 2003.

I got up close and personal with Concorde on one occasion. In June 1970, I’d just finished my final exams at the University of Southampton, and travelled to Fairford in Gloucestershire to spend a long weekend with my eldest brother Martin and his wife Pauline; also young Alex, just two years old. Martin was an engineer on the Concorde flight test program based at RAF Fairford, and took me to see the sleek bird. I remember walking around the aircraft, but whether we went on board or not is no longer clear to me.

Then in the 1980s I saw Concorde twice in the air. During the summer months, it’s not unusual for aircraft heading to Birmingham International (about 15 miles due east from Bromsgrove) to be placed in a holding pattern overhead. One weekend, I heard an approaching aircraft whose engines sounded very different from the usual suspects. Looking up, I saw Concorde banking towards Birmingham, at perhaps no more than 5000 feet. What a spectacular sight. Then, one holiday in Pembrokeshire in South Wales with Steph, Hannah, and Philippa, I heard a loud ‘bang’. I saw a white dot at high altitude streaking westwards across the sky to the south of where we were sitting on the beach. With my binoculars I confirmed it was a British Airways Concorde, heading for New York or Washington. The ‘bang’ must have been its sonic boom.

Concorde 001 flew for the first time from Toulouse on 2 March 1969, just a month after the 747 took to the skies. A month later still, on 9 April, Concorde 002, built in the UK by the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) took off from Filton north of Bristol and flew the short distance to RAF Fairford. During the flight test program, Martin went with Concorde around the world, where it was tested under different landing and take-off conditions. I’m not sure if he ever flew the aircraft.

Only ever operated by British Airways and Air France, Concorde’s supersonic service was launched on 21 January 1976. Just 14 of the 20 Concorde’s built were flown commercially.

Concorde’s fate was sealed however by a small piece of debris on the runway at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on 20 July 2000, which flew up and punctured one of the fuel tanks on AF4590, a charter flight from Paris to New York. Catching fire, Concorde plunged to the ground just minutes after take-off, killing all on board. Three years later, and also citing dwindling revenues, both airlines retired Concorde from their fleets. The supersonic era was over almost before it had begun.

And now I’ll never have that chance. But my mother did!

My brother was one of the lucky ones whose name ‘was pulled from the hat’ to enjoy a special flight on a British Airways Concorde from Filton. Instead, Martin and Pauline gave the seat to my Mum, and she took to the air on BA9082C on 14 July 1984, seat 16B. She was 76 years of age.

I guess the flight must have been a spin around the Bay of Biscay to the north coast of Spain and back to Filton, around two to three hours, and going supersonic for part of the flight. It was always one of Mum’s brightest memories.

 

On 13 July 1985, the Live Aid concert opened at Wembley Stadium in London at noon, then at the US venue in Philadelphia just under two hours later. Phil Collins (formerly of Genesis) performed his set in Wembley, took a helicopter to Heathrow and by flying on Concorde to the US, was able to join Eric Clapton on stage in Philadelphia a few hours later.

While the supersonic age has passed me by, and almost certain not to return in my lifetime, there are still many new aviation adventures to explore. I look forward to my first flights—whenever they may be—on the Dreamliner and the A350.

 

Civil War destruction . . . genebank redemption

A couple of months back, I enjoyed an excellent 672 page biography of Confederate Major General Thomas J ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Written by SC Gwynne in 2014,  Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson is an account of Jackson’s theatre of operations in Virginia (and in those areas that became West Virginia after it broke from Virginia in 1863), which centered on the Shenandoah Valley, a region just north of where Steph and I travelled across the Appalachians in June this year.

Jackson’s death (from pneumonia after he was wounded in the arm by friendly fire) following the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia from 30 April to 6 May 1863 is perhaps among the most significant ‘What if’s’ of the American Civil War. Stonewall was undoubtedly one of the Confederacy’s most successful generals, and history is left to ponder what the outcome of the Civil War might have been had he lived longer, and his success rate against Union forces maintained.

Steph and I saw evidence of the conflict, the to-ing and fro-ing of opposing forces, when we visited the Pinnacle at Cumberland Gap on the borders between Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Successive Union and Confederate forces fought over and continually swapped possession of this key passage through the mountains.

And now I have just finished another book, Noah Andre Trudeau’s 2008 Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea (at 671 pages) based in large part on the personal accounts of officers and men among the 60,000 who took part in the November-December 1864 campaign in Georgia (the Empire State of the South) led by Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, from Atlanta to Savannah, 250 miles to the southeast on the Atlantic coast. They were divided into different columns, and lived off the land as they moved south, through landscapes that hindered their progress as much as did the continual harassment from Confederate forces on their periphery.

Our 2017 USA road trip began in Atlanta, and paralleled, I now discover, the route of Sherman’s March to the Sea although his route took him further east. His occupation of Savannah (where we stayed for a night), and subsequent move up through South Carolina (just as we did) marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, as Sherman and his superior, Ulysses S Grant, closed in on Confederate capital Richmond in Virginia, and the final capitulation of Confederate forces under General Robert E Lee at the Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

Arriving in Savannah, Union forces found an elegant city of wide, tree-lined boulevards (hanging with Spanish moss) and quiet squares, much as Steph and I did on our trip. Savannah was a delight.

After the end of the Civil War, Sherman’s ‘exploits’ in Georgia were immortalised in Marching Through Georgia, composed by Henry Clay Work.

To me, three aspects of the Civil War stand out. This must have been one of the first wars in which an extensive railway network transported troops and supplies over long distances. In Georgia, Sherman’s troops ripped up hundreds of miles of railway tracks on their March to the Sea. Second, the electric telegraph was an essential (but not always available) system of communication between armies and civilian administrations. Thirdly, the war must also be one of the first to be documented in detail photographically. New York-born Matthew Brady was one of the earliest photographers in the country, renowned for his Civil War output.

Having criss-crossed this region and the southern Appalachians myself, I remain in awe of the feats undertaken by both Union and Confederate armies, tens of thousands of men marching across some of the most difficult terrain, under the most adverse weather conditions, and then having to face each other in battle. The casualties on both sides were catastrophic, the wounds inflicted unimaginable, and rudimentary surgery and medical care often leading to as many deaths after the battles as during them. Conditions in camps were frequently squalid, and diseases were rife. In fact, as many soldiers may have died from disease as on the battlefield.

So what has this whole saga got to do with genetic resources? Let me explain. In an earlier post about crop diversity, I’d commented on soldiers’ accounts of the ‘corn fields’ which they passed, the long-strawed varieties grown, and through which they trampled during the Battle of Waterloo.

In their commentaries during the March to the Sea, Union soldiers were fortunate to live quite well off their foraging activities. In fact, this was part of Sherman’s overall strategy, although backed up with sufficient supplies and beef-on-the-hoof for about five to six weeks, and his calculations based on an understanding of the agricultural economy of the region through which his army would pass.

Soldiers report dining on hogs and chicken, potatoes and sweet potatoes in abundance, peanuts, rice, molasses and honey. I think that, in general, ‘potatoes’ probably refers just to sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) rather than so-called Irish potato, Solanum tuberosum. It interesting to note how important were three crops not native to this southeast region of the country, nor the USA in general: sweet potatoes (from the Asia-Pacific region), peanuts from South America, and rice from Africa and Asia.

This was, of course, a slave-based economy. Without slave labour, the growing of cotton and rice would have been almost impossible. In antebellum Georgia (as in South Carolina) rice cultivation was very important since the early 18th century. As Sherman’s armies approached Savannah, they encountered rice paddies more frequently. Some had standing crops which they harvested and processed in numerous rice mills once they got them operational again. Other rice paddies, closer to the city, had been flooded (perhaps also with brackish or salt water) and were formidable barriers to infantry. Crossing these wide open landscapes, deep in mud, attacking Union troops were clearly exposed to Confederates entrenched behind carefully-sited defensive lines.

On Monday 19 December 1864, during a manoeuvre on difficult terrain to cross over the Savannah River into South Carolina, one soldier from Massachusetts wrote: We came across rice fields all cut up with ditches from 1 to 10 ft wide, which we had to get over as best we could; part of the way was through rice as high as our heads & all wet with dew. Clearly not a modern HYV! So what could this rice be?

It was probably Carolina Gold, a variety originally thought to have been introduced into South Carolina and Georgia from Madagascar¹. The slaves, many from West Africa, knew all about growing rice, since there is an indigenous rice culture in that part of the continent.

Rice paddy (of Carolina Gold?) near Savannah, GA

Rice cultivation went into decline after the Civil War, due to many factors including the destruction of paddies, reluctance of emancipated slaves to take on this work, and other global trade pressures. Other parts of the USA became important rice-growing areas, such as California, southern Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. By the 1940s Carolina Gold was hardly in cultivation anywhere. Was it lost? Not completely.

In the 1980s, a eye doctor from Savannah by the name of Dr Richard Schulze (and a keen duck hunter) discovered that seeds of Carolina Gold were held in a USDA collection at Beaumont in Texas (the USDA’s rice collection is now held at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center-DBNRRC- in Stuttgart, Arkansas). Scientists at Beaumont multiplied seeds of this accession, sending Schultze some 14 pounds of seeds. By 1988, these had been multiplied to 10,000 pounds. Carolina Gold is now grown quite widely, among other heirloom varieties.

There is even a Carolina Gold Rice Foundation whose mission is to advance the sustainable restoration and preservation of Carolina Gold Rice and other heirloom grains and raise public awareness of the importance of historic ricelands and heirloom agriculture.

In October 2010, my former IRRI colleague, Tom Hargrove (who passed away in January 2011) writing for Rice Today about two varieties of rice, Carolina Gold and Carolina White, found along the banks of the Amazon in northeast Peru, conjectured that they were taken there by Confederados, people from the southern US who moved to Brazil around the time of the Civil War. The rice, called Carolino by local farmers, was found by CIAT rice breeder (and an old friend of mine), César Martínez.

When I checked the Genesys database, I found 19 accessions with the name Carolina Gold, in the USDA collection and in the International Rice Genebank Collection at IRRI. Most have available seeds. The accessions at IRRI are duplicates of USDA accessions. Some are breeding materials or selections. I wonder which one was provided to Richard Schulze? In any case, even though they have the same Carolina Gold name, I wonder how genetically distinct they are from one another.

Once again, my interest in the American Civil War (and history more generally) has come together with my other ‘obsession’, the conservation and use of plant genetic resources.

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¹ Just after I posted this story earlier today, one of my friends from the Crop Trust, Luigi Guarino, Director of  Science & Programs at the Crop Trust, told me that he had also posted something about Carolina Gold in the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog in November 2007. He was commenting on a paper by Anna McLung (Director of the DBNRRC) and a colleague who used molecular markers to assess the affinity of Carolina Gold with other germplasm from Africa. It seems it was more closely aligned with germplasm from Ghana than Madagascar, fitting in better with the slave trade links between West Africa and the early colonies on the east coast of the United States. Hargrove refers to a Madagascar origin for Carolina Gold, and was obviously not aware of the paper by Anna McLung.

And it seems there’s more to be found about Carolina Gold from a whole slew of stories on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

Genetic resources in safe hands

Among the most important—and most used—collections of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) are those maintained by eleven of the fifteen international agricultural research centers¹ funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Not only are the centers key players in delivering many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015, but their germplasm collections are the genetic base of food security worldwide.

Over decades these centers have collected and carefully conserved their germplasm collections, placing them under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and now, the importance of the PGRFA held by CGIAR genebanks is enshrined in international law, through agreements between CGIAR Centers and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA)². These agreements oblige CGIAR genebanks to make collections and data available under the terms of the ITPGRFA and to manage their collections following the highest standards of operation.

Evaluation and use of the cultivated and wild species in these large collections have led to the development of many new crop varieties, increases in agricultural productivity, and improvements in the livelihoods of millions upon millions of farmers and poor people worldwide. The genomic dissection of so many crops is further enhancing access to these valuable resources.

The CGIAR genebanks
In the Americas, CIP in Peru, CIAT in Colombia, and CIMMYT in Mexico hold important germplasm collections of: potatoes, sweet potatoes and other Andean roots and tubers; of beans, cassava, and tropical forages; and maize and wheat, respectively. And all these collections have serious representation of the closest wild species relatives of these important crops.

In Africa, there are genebanks at Africa Rice in Côte d’Ivoire, IITA in Nigeria, ILRI in Ethiopia, and World Agroforestry in Kenya, holdings collections of: rice; cowpea and yams; tropical forage species; and a range of forest fruit and tree species, respectively.

ICARDA had to abandon its headquarters in Aleppo in northern Syria, and has recently relocated to two sites in Morocco and Lebanon.

ICRISAT in India and IRRI in the Philippines have two of the largest genebank collections, of: sorghum, millets, and pigeon pea; and rice and its wild relatives.

There is just one CGIAR genebank in Europe, for bananas and plantains, maintained by Bioversity International (that has its headquarters in Rome) at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

Genebank security
Today, the future of these genebanks is brighter than for many years. Since 2012 they received ‘secure’ funding through the Genebanks CGIAR Research [Support] Program or Genebanks CRP, a collaboration with and funding from the Crop Trust. It was this Genebanks CRP that I and my colleagues Brian Ford-Lloyd and Marisé Borja evaluated during 2016/17. You may read our final evaluation report here. Other background documents and responses to the evaluation can be found on the Independent Evaluation Arrangement website. The CRP was superseded by the Genebank Platform at the beginning of 2017.

As part of the evaluation of the Genebanks CRP, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I attended the Annual Genebanks Meeting in Australia in November 2016, hosted by the Australian Grains Genebank at Horsham, Victoria.

While giving the Genebanks CRP a favorable evaluation—it has undoubtedly enhanced the security of the genebank collections in many ways—we did call attention to the limited public awareness about the CGIAR genebanks among the wider international genetic conservation community. And although the Platform has a website (as yet with some incomplete information), it seems to me that the program is less proactive with its public awareness than under the CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) more than a decade ago. Even the folks we interviewed at FAO during our evaluation of the Genebanks CRP indicated that this aspect was weaker under the CRP than the SGRP, to the detriment of the CGIAR.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating any return to the pre-CRP or Platform days or organisation. However, the SGRP and its Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) were the strong foundations on which subsequent efforts have been built.

The ICWG-GR
When I re-joined the CGIAR in July 1991, taking charge of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, I became a member of the Inter-Center Working Group on Plant Genetic Resources (ICWG-PGR), but didn’t attend my first meeting until January 1993. I don’t think there was one in 1992, but if there was, I was not aware of it.

We met at the campus of the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA)³ in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was my first visit to any African country, and I do remember that on the day of arrival, after having had a BBQ lunch and a beer or three, I went for a nap to get over my jet-lag, and woke up 14 hours later!

I’m not sure if all genebanks were represented at that ILCA meeting. Certainly genebank managers from IRRI, CIMMYT, IITA, CIP, ILCA, IPGRI (the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, now Bioversity International) attended, but maybe there were more. I was elected Chair of the ICWG-PGR as it was then, for three years. These were important years. The Convention on Biological Diversity had been agreed during June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and was expected to come into force later in 1993. The CGIAR was just beginning to assess how that would impact on its access to, and exchange and use of genetic resources.

L-R: Brigitte Maass (CIAT), Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI), ??, Ali Golmirzaie (CIP), Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), ??, ??, Masa Iwanaga (IPGRI), Roger Rowe (CIMMYT), ?? (ICRAF), Melak Mengesha (ICRISAT), Mike Jackson (IRRI), Murthi Anishetty (FAO), Quat Ng (IITA), Jean Hanson (ILCA), Jan Engels (IPGRI).

We met annually, and tried to visit a different center and its genebank each year. In 1994, however, the focus was on strengthening the conservation efforts in the CGIAR, and providing better corrdination to these across the system of centers. The SGRP was born, and the remit of the ICWG-PGR (as the technical committee of the program) was broadened to include non-plant genetic resources, bringing into the program not only ICLARM (the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management, now WorldFish, but at that time based in Manila), the food policy institute, IFPRI in Washington DC, the forestry center, CIFOR in Indonesia, and ICRAF (the International Centre for Research on Agro-Forestry, now World Agroforestry) in Nairobi. The ICWG-PGR morphed into the ICWG-GR to reflect this broadened scope.

Here are a few photos taken during our annual meetings in IITA, at ICRAF (meetings were held at a lodge near Mt. Kenya), and at CIP where we had opportunity of visiting the field genebanks for potatoes and Andean roots and tubers at Huancayo, 3100 m, in central Peru.

The System-wide Genetic Resources Program
The formation of the SGRP was an outcome of a review of the CGIAR’s genebank system in 1994. It became the only program of the CGIAR in which all 16 centers at that time (ISNAR, the International Services for National Agricultural Research, based in The Hague, Netherlands closed its doors in March 2004) participated, bringing in trees and fish, agricultural systems where different types of germplasm should be deployed, and various policy aspects of germplasm conservation costs, intellectual property, and use.

In 1995 the health of the genebanks was assessed in another review, and recommendations made to upgrade infrastructure and techical guidelines and procedures. In our evaluation of the Genebanks CRP in 2016/17 some of these had only recently been addressed once the secure funding through the CRP had provided centers with sufficient external support.

SGRP and the ICWG-GR were major players at the FAO International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources held in Leipzig in 1997.

Under the auspices of the SGRP two important books were published in 1997 and 2004 respectively. The first, Biodiversity in Trust, written by 69 genebank managers, plant breeders and others working with germplasm in the CGIAR centers, and documenting the conservation and use status of 21 species or groups of species, was an important assessment of the status of the CGIAR genebank collections and their use, an important contribution not only in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity, but also as a contribution to FAO’s own monitoring of PGRFA that eventually led to the International Treaty in 2004.

The second, Saving Seeds, was a joint publication of IFPRI and the SGRP, and was the first comprehensive study to calculate the real costs of conserving seed collections of crop genetic resources. Costing the genebanks still bedevils the CGIAR, and it still has not been possible to arrive at a costing system that reflects both the heterogeneity of conservation approaches and how the different centers operate in their home countries, their organizational structures, and different costs basis. One model does not fit all.

In 1996/97 I’d been impressed by some research from the John Innes Institute in the UK about gene ‘homology’ or synteny among different cereal crops. I started developing some ideas about how this might be applied to the evaluation of genebank collections. In 1998, the ICWG-GR gave me the go-ahead—and a healthy budget— to organize an international workshop on Genebanks and Comparative Genetics that I’d been planning. With the help of Joel Cohen at ISNAR, we held a workshop there in ISNAR in August 1999, and to which we invited all the genebank managers, staff working at the centers on germplasm, and many of the leading lights from around the world in crop molecular biology and genomics, a total of more than 50 participants.

This was a pioneer event for the CGIAR, and certainly the CGIAR genebank community was way ahead of others in the centers in thinking through the possibilities for genomics, comparative genetics, and bioinformatics for crop improvement. Click here to read a summary of the workshop findings published in the SGRP Annual Report for 1999.

The workshop was also highlighted in Promethean Science, a 41 page position paper published in 2000 on the the importance of agricultural biotechnology, authored by former CGIAR Chair and World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin and Gabrielle Persley, a senior strategic science leader who has worked with some of the world’s leading agricultural research and development agencies. They address address the importance of characterizing biodiversity (and the workshop) in pages 21-23.

Although there was limited uptake of the findings from the workshop by individual centers (at IRRI for instance, breeders and molecular biologists certainly gave the impression that us genebankers has strayed into their turf, trodden on their toes so-to-speak, even though they had been invited to the workshop but not chosen to attend), the CGIAR had, within a year or so, taken on board some of the findings from the workshop, and developed a collective vision related to genomics and bioinformatics. Thus, the Generation Challenge Program (GCP) was launched, addressing many of the topics and findings that were covered by our workshop. So our SGRP/ICWG-GR effort was not in vain. In fact, one of the workshop participants, Bob Zeigler, became the first director of the GCP. Bob had been a head of one of IRRI’s research programs from 1992 until he left in about 1998 to become chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University. He returned to IRRI in 2004 as Director General!

Moving forward
Now the Genebanks CRP has been superseded by the Genebank Platform since the beginning of the year. The genebanks have certainly benefited from the secure funding that, after many years of dithering, the CGIAR finally allocated. The additional and external support from the Crop Trust has been the essential element to enable the genebanks to move forward.

In terms of data management, Genesys has gone way beyond the SGRP’s SINGER data management system, and now includes data on almost 3,602,000 accessions held in 434 institutes. Recently, DOIs have been added to more than 180,000 of these accessions.

One of the gems of the Genebanks CRP, which continues in the Genebank Platform, is delivery and implementation of a Quality Management System (QMS), which has two overarching objectives. QMS defines the necessary activities to ensure that genebanks meet all policy and technical standards and outlines ways to achieve continual quality improvement in the genebank’s administrative, technical and operational performance. As a result, it allows genebank users, regulatory bodies and donors to recognize and confirm the competence, effectiveness and efficiency of Platform genebanks.

The QMS applies to all genebank operations, staff capacity and succession, infrastructure and work environments, equipment, information technology and data management, user satisfaction, risk management and operational policies.

The Platform has again drawn in the policy elements of germplasm conservation and use, as it used to be under the SGRP (but ‘ignored’ under the Genebanks CRP), and equally importantly, the essential elements of germplasm health and exchange, to ensure the safe transfer of germplasm around the world.

Yes, I believe that as far as the CGIAR genebanks are concerned, genetic resources are in safe(r) hands. I cannot speak for genebanks elsewhere, although many are also maintained to a high standard. Unfortunately that’s not always the case, and I do sometimes wonder if there are simply too many genebanks or germplasm collections for their own good.

But that’s the stuff of another blog post once I’ve thought through all the implications of the various threads that are tangled in my mind right now.

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¹ Research centers of the CGIAR (* genebank)

  • International Potato Center (CIP), Lima, Peru*
  • International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Cali, Colombia*
  • International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT), Texcoco, nr. Mexico DF, Mexico*
  • Bioversity International, Rome, Italy*
  • International Center for Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Lebanon and Morocco*
  • AfricaRice (WARDA), Bouaké / Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire*
  • International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Nigeria*
  • International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Nairobi, Kenya*
  • World Agroforestry Centre (WARDA), Nairobi, Kenya*
  • International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, India*
  • International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Baños, Philippines*
  • Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia
  • WorldFish, Penang, Malaysia
  • International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Colombo, Sri Lanka
  • International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, DC, USA

² The objectives of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture are the conservation and sustainable use of all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security.

³ ILCA was merged in January 1995 with the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases, based in Nairobi, Kenya, to form the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) with two campuses in Nairobi and Addis Ababa. The forages genebank is located at the Addis campus. A new genebank building was opened earlier this year.

End of an era . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corints with her DRPC team on her retirement in May 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric in his ‘mafioso’ pose at the Colosseum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L-R: Yeyet, Vel, and Zeny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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