Outside the EU . . . even before Brexit

Imagine a little corner of Birmingham, just a couple of miles southwest of the city center. Edgbaston, B15 to be precise. The campus of The University of Birmingham; actually Winterbourne Gardens that were for many decades managed as the botanic garden of the Department of Botany / Plant Biology.

As a graduate student there in the early 1970s I was assigned laboratory space at Winterbourne, and grew experimental plants in the greenhouses and field. Then for a decade from 1981, I taught in the same department, and for a short while had an office at Winterbourne. And for several years continued to teach graduate students there about the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the very reason why I had ended up in Birmingham originally in September 1970.

Potatoes at Birmingham
It was at Birmingham that I first became involved with potatoes, a crop I researched for the next 20 years, completing my PhD (as did many others) under the supervision of Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on the genetic resources and taxonomy of the various cultivated potatoes and related wild species from the Americas. Jack began his potato career in 1939, joining Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, led by Edward Balls. Jack recounted his memories of that expedition in Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes, published in 2003.

29 March 1939: Bolivia, dept. La Paz, near Lake Titicaca, Tiahuanaco. L to R: boy, Edward Balls, Jack Hawkes, driver.

The origins of the Commonwealth Potato Collection
Returning to Cambridge, just as the Second World War broke out, Jack completed his PhD under the renowned potato breeder Sir Redcliffe Salaman, who had established the Potato Virus Research Institute, where the Empire Potato Collection was set up, and after its transfer to the John Innes Centre in Hertfordshire, it became the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) under the management of institute director Kenneth S Dodds (who published several keys papers on the genetics of potatoes).

Bolivian botanist Prof Martin Cardenas (left) and Kenneth Dodds (right). Jack Hawkes named the diploid potato Solanum cardenasii after his good friend Martin Cardenas. It is now regarded simply as a form of the cultivated species S. phureja.

Hawkes’ taxonomic studies led to revisions of the tuber-bearing Solanums, first in 1963 and in a later book published in 1990 almost a decade after he had retired. You can see my battered copy of the 1963 publication below.

Dalton Glendinning

The CPC was transferred to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh in the 1960s under the direction of Professor Norman Simmonds (who examined my MSc thesis). In the early 1970s the CPC was managed by Dalton Glendinning, and between November 1972 and July 1973 my wife Steph was a research assistant with the CPC at Pentlandfield. When the SPBS merged with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in 1981 to form the Scottish Crops Research Institute (SCRI) the CPC moved to Invergowrie, just west of Dundee on Tayside. The CPC is still held at Invergowrie, but now under the auspices of the James Hutton Institute following the merger in 2011 of SCRI with Aberdeen’s Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.

Today, the CPC is one of the most important and active genetic resources collections in the UK. In importance, it stands alongside the United States Potato Genebank at Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin, and the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, where I worked for more than eight years from January 1973.

Hawkes continued in retirement to visit the CPC (and Sturgeon Bay) to lend his expertise for the identification of wild potato species. His 1990 revision is the taxonomy still used at the CPC.

So what has this got to do with the EU?
For more than a decade after the UK joined the EU (EEC as it was then in 1973) until that late 1980s, that corner of Birmingham was effectively outside the EU with regard to some plant quarantine regulations. In order to continue studying potatoes from living plants, Jack Hawkes was given permission by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to import potatoes—as botanical or true seeds (TPS)—from South America, without them passing through a centralised quarantine facility in the UK. However, the plants had to be raised in a specially-designated greenhouse, with limited personnel access, and subject to unannounced inspections. In granting permission to grow these potatoes in Birmingham, in the heart of a major industrial conurbation, MAFF officials deemed the risk very slight indeed that any nasty diseases (mainly viruses) that potato seeds might harbour would escape into the environment, and contaminate commercial potato fields.

Jack retired in 1982, and I took up the potato research baton, so to speak, having been appointed lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology at Birmingham after leaving CIP in April 1981. One of my research projects, funded quite handsomely—by 1980s standards—by the Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development, DFID) in 1984, investigated the potential of growing potatoes from TPS developed through single seed descent in diploid potatoes (that have 24 chromosomes compared with the 48 of the commercial varieties we buy in the supermarket). To cut a long story short, we were not able to establish this project at Winterbourne, even though there was space. That was because of the quarantine restrictions related to the wild species collections were held and were growing on a regular basis. So we reached an agreement with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) at Trumpington, Cambridge to set up the project there, building a very fine glasshouse for our work.

Then Margaret Thatcher’s government intervened! In 1987, the PBI was sold to Unilever plc, although the basic research on cytogenetics, molecular genetics, and plant pathology were not privatised, but transferred to the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Consequently our TPS project had to vacate the Cambridge site. But to where could it go, as ODA had agreed a second three-year phase? The only solution was to bring it back to Birmingham, but that meant divesting ourselves of the Hawkes collection. And that is what we did. However, we didn’t just put the seed packets in the incinerator. I contacted the folks at the CPC and asked them if they would accept the Hawkes collection. Which is exactly what happened, and this valuable germplasm found a worthy home in Scotland.

In any case, I had not been able to secure any research funds to work with the Hawkes collection, although I did supervise some MSc dissertations looking at resistance to potato cyst nematode in Bolivian wild species. And Jack and I published an important paper together on the taxonomy and evolution of potatoes based on our biosystematics research.

A dynamic germplasm collection
It really is gratifying to see a collection like the CPC being actively worked on by geneticists and breeders. Especially as I do have sort of a connection with the collection. It currently comprises about 1500 accessions of 80 wild and cultivated species.

Sources of resistance to potato cyst nematode in wild potatoes, particularly Solanum vernei from Argentina, have been transferred into commercial varieties and made a major impact in potato agriculture in this country.

Safeguarded at Svalbard
Just a couple of weeks ago, seed samples of the CPC were sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) for long-term conservation. CPC manager Gaynor McKenzie (in red) and CPC staff Jane Robertson made the long trek north to carry the precious potato seeds to the vault.

Potato reproduces vegetatively through tubers, but also sexually and produces berries like small tomatoes – although they always remain green and are very bitter, non-edible.

We rarely see berries after flowering on potatoes in this country. But they are commonly formed on wild potatoes and the varieties cultivated by farmers throughout the Andes. Just to give an indication of just how prolific they are let me recount a small piece of research that one of my former colleagues carried out at CIP in the 1970s. Noting that many cultivated varieties produced an abundance of berries, he was interested to know if tuber yields could be increased if flowers were removed from potato plants before they formed berries. Using the Peruvian variety Renacimiento (which means rebirth) he showed that yields did indeed increase in plots where the flowers were removed. In contrast, potatoes that developed berries produced the equivalent of 20 tons of berries per hectare! Some fertility. And we can take advantage of that fertility to breed new varieties by transferring genes between different strains, but also storing them at low temperature for long-term conservation in genebanks like Svalbard. It’s not possible to store tubers at low temperature.

Here are a few more photos from the deposit of the CPC in the SGSV.

I am grateful to the James Hutton Institute for permission to use these photos in my blog, and many of the other potato photographs displayed in this post.

 

Rice Today . . . and tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appar Rao collecting upland rice in the Lao PDR

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

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

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

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Gene Hettel and Duncan Macintosh

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

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

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

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

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

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“Oi’ll give it foive”

coat_of_arms_of_birmingham-svgBirmingham lies at the heart of England. It is the UK’s second city.

I first visited Birmingham in the 1960s. At that time I was living in Leek, just under 60 miles to the north in North Staffordshire. I moved to Birmingham in September 1970 when I began my graduate studies in the Department of Botany at The University of Birmingham, never envisaging that I would return a decade later to join the staff of the same department. Since 1981, my wife and I have lived in Bromsgrove, some 13 miles south of Birmingham in northeast Worcestershire (with a 19 year break while I worked in the Philippines).

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Birmingham city center, overlooking New Street Station, the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and Rotunda, and the BT Tower, and looking towards the Black Country further on.

Birmingham is one of seven metropolitan boroughs that make up the County of  West Midlands, from Wolverhampton in the northwest to Solihull and Coventry in the southeast, and encompassing the area known as the Black Country lying to the west of Birmingham proper.

To the ears of someone from outside the region, everyone in the West Midlands speaks with the same ‘Brummie‘ accent, rated the least appealing in the nation. Shame! There are subtle differences across the region, but I can understand why most outsiders maybe hear just a single accent. You can read (and hear) what one American writer has to say about ‘Brummie’ here.

It is rather interesting to note that one Brummie, accent and all, has made it big on US television. Comedian John Oliver came to the fore on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and now in his own Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Here’s a classic Oliver monologue about Donald Trump.

And there have now been three series of the cult drama Peaky Blinders about a gangster family in Birmingham just after the ending of the First World War. Again, it’s amazing that this became so popular on the other side of The Pond, given the strong Brummie accents, strong language, and explicit sexual content.

So what has me waxing lyrical this morning about all things Brummie? Well, last night, Heavy Metal band Black Sabbath (of Ozzy Osbourne fame) performed the second of two concerts in Birmingham at the end of an 81-date tour that began in January last year. After 50 years, Black Sabbath have hung up their guitars and microphones. Yesterday’s concert was the final one.

Birmingham is the birthplace of Heavy Metal, but it’s not a genre I appreciate. Nevertheless, this story about Black Sabbath got me thinking.

The ‘Merseyside Sound’ of the 1960s, 1970s is rightly renowned worldwide for The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black, just to mention three of a very long list.

However, there was—and is—a vibrant ‘Birmingham Sound‘, with musicians and bands having an enormous impact everywhere. Do any come immediately to mind? No? Well, among the most famous are: Jeff Lynne and ELO, Roy Wood (in The Move and Wizzard), The Moody Blues, Duran DuranUB40, Dexys Midnight Runners, Slade, even Musical Youth. As anyone who follows my blog will know, I’m a great Jeff Lynne-ELO-Traveling Wilburys fan.

Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie was born in Lancashire, but from early childhood was raised in Birmingham. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was born in West Bromwich in the Black Country, but grew up in Kidderminster, nine miles west of Bromsgrove.

So let’s enjoy some of the Brummie talent.

Flowers in the Rain was the first record to be played at the launch of BBC Radio 1 by DJ Tony Blackburn in 1967.

So what’s this Oi’ll give it foive business?

In the early to mid 1960s, there was a TV series, Thank Your Lucky Stars produced by the Birmingham-based commercial channel, ATV, and broadcast nationwide. In the show’s Wikipedia page it states: Audience participation was a strong feature of Thank Your Lucky Stars, and the Spin-a-Disc section, where a guest DJ and three teenagers reviewed three singles, is a very well remembered feature of the show. Generally American singles were reviewed. It was on this section that Janice Nicholls appeared. She was a former office clerk from the English Midlands who became famous for the catchphrase “Oi’ll give it foive” which she said with a strong Black Country accent.

Janice Nicholls released this dreadful single in 1963, but at least you can hear her say Oi’ll give it foive.

Among the notable comedians and actors proudly from the region are Sir Lenny Henry (who hails from Dudley in the Black Country), and Jasper Carrott and Julie Walters, who are true Brummies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please don’t mock The Donald – he’s such a sensitive boy

Just 18 days. It’s hard to imagine. In a little over two weeks someone who has demonstrated, by his own actions, that he is emotionally unstable and intellectually unfit will be sworn in as the 45th POTUS. And this following a general election that he won by a landslide . . . loss of almost 3 million votes.

I can’t remember anyone being elected to high office in recent decades who is as thin-skinned as President-elect Donald Trump who takes offence at any and all unfavourable commentaries as personal attacks.

I hope it intensifies, as it inevitably must.

The problem (or saving grace for the rest of us) is that The Donald is his own caricature: the hair, the hand gestures, the curl of the lip, the snarl. His inability to put more than a few coherent words together. Certainly I couldn’t say that I’ve ever heard him give a speech, as such. PEOTUS is not one of the 21st century’s orators. He’s obviously more comfortable on Twitter.

He’s not an attractive politician—the term ‘politician’ is a misrepresentation. As if the term ‘businessman’ better describes him, given what appears to have been a rather chequered life in business.

He’s not an attractive human being. Period.

I came across a link earlier to an article that one of my friends and former IRRI colleagues Ken McNally had posted on his Facebook page. A story on the Politicususa website reported an interview with incoming White House Press Secretary and Communications Director, Sean Spicer, who implored the American people not to mock Donald Trump.

There’s more of that to come, particularly from the political cartoonists, who are already having a Trump field day. You only have to type ‘Trump cartoons‘ in Google to find this wealth of criticism and ridicule that The Donald and his cohorts must be finding rather uncomfortable right now. Just look at what the cartoonists did to Richard Nixon before and after the Watergate scandal was revealed, as I blogged about in 2013.

And it doesn’t take much to ridicule The Donald. Just listen to the Dalai Lama of all people putting in his two cents worth.

 

Trump is a typical bully – ever ready to attack his so-called ‘enemies’. But he doesn’t like it when the tables are turned.

Does Trump have small fingers? He was particularly sensitive about this during the election campaign. Small or big fingers, it doesn’t really matter when that finger is on the nuclear button. That’s not something to laugh about.

After 157 years, Dickens’s words still ring true

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Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

These are the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ 12th novel, A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859.

These words could also be an accurate description of the past year. What a year 2016 has turned out to be, for so many reasons. I guess we can also now say that we live in the post-truth age.

The best (and worst) for me . . .
Personally, 2016 was the best of times and the worst.

In July, our family got together for the first time. Hannah Michael with Callum and Zoë came over to the UK from Minnesota; Philippa and Andi with Elvis and Felix came down from Newcastle upon Tyne, and we all met up for two weeks’ holiday in the New Forest in Hampshire. A splendid time was had by all!

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In February, I was invited to lead a team of three genetic resources experts to evaluate a multi-center program of the CGIAR genebanks.

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L to R: Jenin Assaf (of the CGIAR’s Independent Evaluation Arrangement, based at FAO in Rome), Marise Borja and Brian Ford-Lloyd (team members), and me.

That evaluation took me to Germany, France, Italy (twice), Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Ethiopia and Australia. As I write this article the team is writing first drafts of its assessment of the program, and we hope to have everything wrapped up by early February. I’ll be glad when it’s done and dusted. I’ve thought about genetic resources and genebanks almost every waking hour since I was first invited to join the evaluation.

Besides our break with the family in the New Forest, Steph and I also managed our ‘annual’ vacation in Minnesota with Hannah and family. We took the opportunity of exploring Minnesota some more, and ‘trekking’ to find the source of the mighty Mississippi River. Actually trekking is rather an exaggeration and there were plenty of signposts showing where we’d encounter the Mississippi as it dribbled, so to speak, out of Lake Itasca at the beginning of its 2000 plus mile journey south to the Gulf of Mexico.

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Personally, 2016 was also the worst of times for me following an accident at the beginning of January when I slipped on black ice, dislocating my right foot and snapping the fibula. As a consequence I am now the proud owner of a long metal plate holding the bones in my right leg together. Once I was allowed to become mobile, I used crutches then a stick for many months. I only gave up using my stick about four weeks ago. I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made, but I’m in for the long haul. My ankle and leg still give me pain, and whereas in the past I might often cover three to five miles on my daily walk, I can still only comfortably cover about two miles. I’m sure this will get better.

And, worldwide, among the worst . . .
But my paltry troubles fade into insignificance compared to what has been played out on the international stage.

The suffering of Syrians in Aleppo (well, in Syria in general and throughout other countries of the Middle East terrorised by Daesh) seems never-ending. Talk about political spin! I have visited Aleppo two (maybe three) times. I was once a candidate for a senior position at ICARDA, one of the centers of the CGIAR, and I guess I would have accepted it had it been offered. Syria looked like an interesting country, and everyone I spoke with at ICARDA told me what a safe place Aleppo was. How times change! Will that seemingly interminable civil war come to an end? As we approach the close of 2016, the battle for Aleppo has ended (more or less), but Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are not going to rest until they have turned the rest of Syria into a pile of rubble. Victory, it seems, comes at any price. Shame on them! The fate of civilians is not part of the security equation.

And there have been political earthquakes in the USA, in the UK (and Europe), and in the Philippines.

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PEOTUS – heaven help us!

The Donald . . . what more can I say?
Who would have believed that His Orangeness, The Donald, Mr Drumpf would secure the American presidency, albeit on a minority popular vote; 2.8 million votes more for Hillary Clinton is quite a margin, even though The Donald still claims he won by a landslide. But then again, his whole campaign was built on mis-truths (aka LIES), denials of comments he made in earlier interviews, lack of policy, a lack of any ability, it seems, to string two coherent words together, although they were, of course, the ‘best words’.

From what little he contributed to the first presidential debate, and in various speeches reported in the news, it’s hard to understand what he really means to Make America Great Again. Based on his choices for cabinet positions, his equivocation over continued links to all his nefarious business interests, and what seems like his complete lack of attention to the things you might expect PEOTUS to take notice of, the USA must be in for a bumpy ride over the next months. Trump scares the s**t out of me. He’s only predictable by his unpredictability, and in a fragile world, I am concerned that such a maverick (and moron) should occupy the most powerful political position in any country.

Brexit (and the clowns who are  taking us out of the EU) . . .
Nifa (Nigel Farage), BoJo (Boris Johnson) and MiGo (Michael Gove. Arch clowns among many.

We’ve certainly had to put up with our fair share of bozos in UK politics these past months. I voted Remain in last June’s referendum on continuing membership of the European Union. I was one of the 48% who voted. We’re not out of the EU yet, so we’ve not seen the full effect of what might happen. I’m not optimistic, although I’d like to be. Those who supported Leave seem to believe that the other 27 countries will simply roll over and give the UK (or will that be ‘UK lite’, i.e. minus Scotland?) whatever it wants. I fear not. So many benefits were touted if we voted Leave.

I think that worse is yet to come, and it will be years before everything has been sorted out or regularised. It’s not my generation that will suffer. But those who come after us. I feel the Leavers were sold a pony by the likes of Farage, Johnson and Gove. And on the day after the referendum it was clear they had no idea of what to do next. And the government still has no idea what to do. But ‘Brexit means Brexit‘. Time to apply for an Irish passport perhaps – I’m eligible.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachith pose for a photograph during a courtesy visit at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, Laos on September 7. TOTO LOZANO/PPD

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Roa Duterte

A psychopath at the helm in the Philippines . . .
Du30. Rodrigo Duterte, 16th President, ex-Mayor of Davao City in the southern island of Mindanao. He won last May’s general election by a landslide. He’s very popular.

He’s also very outspoken, crude, and—by his own admission—a murderer. An avowed strongman, perhaps he was the man of the moment needed to bring some discipline to day-to-day life in the Philippines, with its political dynasties and celebrity status among politicians. He had the opportunity to make a great difference to the lives of many impoverished Filipinos. Maybe he still can.

He declared war on drug pushers and users, and there have been thousands of extrajudicial killings in the few months since he was inaugurated. It’s clear that his election has split public opinion in the Philippines. It’s sad for me to see how, among many of my friends, there is such a lack of hope for the future under this president.

I know that many of my Filipino friends will not appreciate my candour concerning their country. It’s hard to see how someone as crude as Duterte could be elected president. He hasn’t made friends among the international community. As leader of a country of 100 million you don’t go around calling the President of your principal ally, the USA (or used to be) a ‘son of a whore‘.

Then again, did we expect Trump to be elected in the US general election? Hardly. May we live in interesting times!

2016 is not killing people . . . 
Over the past few days there have been several reported celebrity deaths:  guitarist Rick Parfitt (68, Status Quo), singer/songwriter George Michael (53), Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher (60), author Richard Adams (96, author of Watership Down), and actress Liz Smith (95, the Royle Family). But this follows many others throughout the year: musicians David Bowie (69) and Prince (57), TV legend Sir Terry Wogan (77), and actor Gene Wilder (83). But has 2016 been unusual?

Any death is a cause for sadness among family and friends, and fans. For an elderly person we shouldn’t be so surprised. It’s always a shock, however, when sudden illness robs us of one of our icons. I was only saying to my wife early this morning that perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that some celebrities have passed away at a relatively young age. After all, several of them must have been carrying quite a ‘substance abuse and lifestyle’ load that affected their chances of long life.

Four seasons in one day . . . and white asparagus

I’ve just returned from a week-long trip to Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. And on two of the days, our meetings were held in the former Bundestag (the German parliament building) in United Nations Plaza, just south of the city center, and close to the south/ west bank of the mighty River Rhine. It’s now home to the Crop Trust.

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The River Rhine, looking southeast from the Kennedy Bridge (Kennedybrücke).

CGIARI am leading the evaluation of an international genebanks program, part of the portfolio of the CGIAR (now the CGIAR Consortium). The evaluation has been commissioned by the Independent Evaluation Arrangement (IEA, an independent unit that supports the CGIAR Consortium) whose offices are hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. Regular readers of my blog will know that for almost nine years from 1973 and 19 years from 1991, I worked for two international agricultural research centers, CIP and IRRI respectively. This evaluation of the CGIAR Research Program (CRP) on Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections (also known as the Genebanks CRP) focuses on 11 (of 15) CGIAR centers with genebanks.

Joining me in Bonn were two other team members: Dr Marisé Borja (from Spain) and Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd (from the UK). Our meeting was managed by IEA staff member Ms Jenin Assaf. Dr Sirkka Immonen, the IEA Senior Evaluation Officer was unable to travel at the last moment, but we did ‘meet’ with her online at various times during the four days of our meetings.

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On our way to dinner last Thursday evening. L to R: Jenin Assaf, Marisé Borja, Brian Ford-Lloyd, and yours truly.

Brian and I traveled together from Birmingham, flying from BHX to Frankfurt, and catching the fast train from there to Siegburg/Bonn, a 20 minute taxi ride into the center of the city. The weather on arrival in Frankfurt was quite bright and sunny. By the time we reached Bonn it was raining very heavily indeed. In fact over the course of the next few days we experienced everything that a northern European Spring can throw at you (as in the Crowded House song, Four Seasons in One Day).

Now you can see from the photo above, I’m still using a walking stick¹, and expect to do so for several months more. While walking is definitely becoming easier, my lower leg and ankle do swell up quite badly by the end of the day. I therefore decided to wear ‘flight socks’ for travel. Even so, I had not anticipated the long walk we’d have in Frankfurt Airport. We arrived to a C pier, and it must have been at least a mile by the time we were on the platform waiting for our intercity express (ICE) to Bonn. Now that 40 minute journey was interesting, reaching over 300 kph on several occasions!

We stayed at the Stern Hotel in the central market square in Bonn, which is dominated at the northern end by the Bundesstadt Bonn – Altes Rathaus, the city’s municipal headquarters (it’s the building at the far end of the square in the image below).

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On the first night, last Monday, we met with an old friend and colleague, Dr Marlene Diekmann, and her husband Jürgen. Marlene works for the German development aid agency, GIZ, and was one of my main contacts whenever I had to visit Germany while working for IRRI. Jürgen was the Experiment Station manager for ICARDA based in Aleppo for many years before the Syrian civil war forced the closure of the center there and evacuation of personnel. South of Bonn is the Ahr Valley, a small red wine growing area where Marlene and I have walked through the vineyards in all weathers. It’s amazing how the vines are cultivated on the steep slopes of the valley.

Arriving at the end of April, and with the weather so unpredictable, and unseasonably cold, we missed the cherry blossom festival in Bonn a week earlier. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any cherry blossom anywhere in the city.

Cherry blossom in the streets of Bonn, mid-April 2016. (Photo courtesy of Luigi Guarino).

But there was another delight – culinary – that we did experience, having arrived just as Spargelzeit or ‘asparagus time’ began.

With so many food options to choose from in Bonn, Marlene suggested that we should try the Gaststätte Em Höttche, a traditional German restaurant right next door to the Stern Hotel. That was fine by me as I didn’t fancy a long walk in any case. The food was good (as was the weissbier or wheat beer), and we ate there the following night as well.

And since it was Spargelzeit, it wasn’t just any old asparagus. But white asparagus! Big, white, succulent spears of heaven. Just click on the image below for a more detailed explanation. Enjoyed on their own with a butter sauce, or with ham, schnitzel or fish (halibut was my particular favorite), white asparagus is offered on most menus from the end of April to June. The Germans just go crazy for it.

white asparagus

On the final evening, we had dinner with a number of colleagues from the Crop Trust, at the Restaurant Oliveto in Adenauerallee, less than half a kilometer from the hotel, on the bank of the Rhine.

After a wrap-up meeting on the Friday morning, Brian and I returned to Frankfurt by train, and caught the late afternoon Lufthansa flight back to BHX. Where the weather was equally unpredictable – and cold!

As far as the program evaluation is concerned, the hard work is just beginning, with genebank site visits planned (but not yet confirmed) to Peru (CIP), Colombia (CIAT), and Mexico (CIMMYT) in July/August, to Ethiopia (ILRI) and Kenya (ICRAF) in October, as well as the CGIAR Consortium Office in Montpellier before the end of May, and FAO in Rome by mid-June. We’ll be back in Rome to draft our report in mid-November. Before that, there will be lots of documents to review, and interviews over Skype. No peace for the wicked!

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¹ The walking stick came in handy on the return journey. Waiting in line at Frankfurt Airport to board our flight to Birmingham, one of the Lufthansa ground staff pulled me and Brian out of the queue and took us first through the boarding gate, even offered me a seat until the door to the air-bridge was opened. And we boarded the plane first.

 

 

 

On political campaigns . . .

ballotbox copyI’m a bit of a news junkie, so I’ve been avidly following presidential election campaigns in three countries in online newspapers and on social media.

News from the US presidential election is never absent from the daily headlines, mainly because the two principal contenders on the Republican side, billionaire Donald Trump (or is that Donald Drumpf)¹ and evangelical Senator Ted Cruz, battling it out to win the nomination, increasingly descend to ever lower levels of political debate. Political debate? Their exchanges are not worthy of that epithet. Trump is hardly running an election campaign. I think it would be better to describe it as an election ego-trip.

You would hardly know there’s also an interesting contest on the Democrat side between former First Lady, New York Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. At least they seem to be having a sensible debate.

The other campaigns that interest me are taking place in Peru in April, and in the Philippines in May. Why? Because I have lived and worked in both those countries.

Reading about the three campaigns, two quotations come to mind:

  • Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite (Every nation gets the government it deserves) — attributed to Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821)
  • Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least — Robert Byrne

Goodness knows what sort of campaign there will be in the US after the party conventions if Trump really does become the Republican candidate. He’s both scary and a worry. What will happen if he is ‘denied’ the nomination, and how will his supporters react. The violence we have seen so far directed by these folks against anti-Trump protesters does not bode well for the future.

But there are scary things going on in the Cruz camp as well. He is a right-wing evangelical Christian. And I’ve recently seen footage of him sharing the stage with a fundamentalist Christian preacher who, through his language was inciting Christians to violence, death even, against homosexuals. Because it says so in the Bible.

On the Democrat side, I’m actually surprised how well Bernie Sanders is doing, although I can’t believe he can win the nomination. Nor can I see a 74 year old candidate moving on to be a successful president.

In Peru and the Philippines, some of the candidates are as old as Sanders, but the political situation there is very different from the USA.

The polls in Peru seem to be dominated by Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the disgraced and gaoled former President Alberto Fujimori (who I met in the Philippines during his visit to IRRI). But Fujimori – daughter is also a controversial politician, believed to have benefited personally from her father’s corrupt government. Nevertheless, she is predicted to win the first round of voting. Another discredited candidate is the APRA former president Alan García who served two terms already (1985-1990, 2006-2011).

In the Philippines, which has a party system even weaker than that in Peru, the lists of candidates for both president and vice-president are filled with controversial characters. The posts of President and Vice-President are voted for separately (not as a single ticket in the USA), and it’s often the case that elected candidates come from different political persuasions and diametrically-opposed political platforms.

The current Vice-President Jejomar Binay heads yet another political dynasty, and has been accused of overwhelming corruption. The Mayor of Davao City (in Mindanao) Rodrigo Duterte has served his city for more than two decades, successfully apparently, and regarded as a political ‘hard man’. How a Duterte Administration would pan out nationally is anyone’s guess. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is an outspoken – and (formerly) popular – international lawyer who, once she had declared her candidacy (despite being near death’s door from Stage 4 lung cancer only a short time before), was thought to be well placed to win the presidency. Until, that is, she chose Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (aka ‘Bongbong’) as her running mate for vice-president. Son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos (ousted in a popular uprising in 1986), Bongbong is widely regarded as corrupt and implicated in many of the worst human rights excesses of his father’s regime. Another, Senator Grace Poe, has had her candidacy questioned because of her nationality, having taken US citizenship at one time, which she has now renounced. Which leaves us with the ‘administration’ candidate and Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, Mar Roxas (a scion of yet another political dynasty). Is his wife Korina Sanchez a political liability??

So, in all three countries, the electorates are faced with choosing Presidents or Vice-Presidents from lists of some unsavory candidates, several of whom do not qualify (in my opinion) on ethical or moral grounds to ask for anyone’s vote, never mind political acumen or leadership potential, not even for the most humble elected post.

There will be bumpy political times and roads ahead in all three countries, whatever the election outcomes. Although not a General Election, we face an uncertain political (and economic) future here in the UK with the referendum on continuing membership of the European Union being held on 23 June. Political campaigning and false arguments have not brought out the best on either side of the referendum debate.

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¹ See the full 22 minute video here.