Sky-high paddies . . .

No, this is not about inebriated Irishmen.

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


Rice terraces in Banaue, Ifugao Province

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


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

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

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

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

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


The rice terraces at Batad.

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


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

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

Ifugao from the air (RT7)_Page_01

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safeguarding rice biodiversity . . .

lao294I can’t claim it was the most successful project that IRRI – the International Rice Research Institute – ever managed. That would be too arrogant by half.

But by mid-2000 we successfully finished a project, Safeguarding and Preservation of the Biodiversity of the Rice Genepool, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), that significantly enhanced the long-term conservation of rice genetic resources.

The SDC was extremely generous, and funded much of the proposed budget, donating USD3.286 million. Approved for funding in November 1993, we didn’t actually begin any of the project activities in earnest until 1995. That was because we spent 1994 ‘selling’ the project to our colleagues in national genetic resources programs and their superiors in the target countries, holding a series of planning meetings, and forming a Steering Committee, as well as recruiting several staff.


So the effective period of the project were the five years between 1995 and 1999, with a no-cost extension taking the project past its original end date of November 1998. But, as far as the SDC was concerned, this was never a problem. We kept everyone regularly updated on progress and achievements, and in any case, the donor had insisted that time was spent at the project’s initiation bringing everyone on board. It was certainly time well spent. This was particularly so in 1993-94. Why? Well in December 1993 the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force (having been opened for signature at the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992) – just a few weeks after our rice biodiversity project was given the green light. And since the collection of rice varieties and wild species was a major component of the project, we weren’t sure just how committed several countries would be to participate in the project, let alone share their germplasm with others or send a duplicate sample of all collected germplasm for long-term preservation in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI. The negotiations leading to the CBD had certainly opened many cans of worms in terms of access to and use of germplasm, and to what extent germplasm had a strictly commercial value. While so-called ‘agricultural biodiversity’ (the landrace crop varieties, among others) was not the main focus of the CBD, this international treaty did provide the legal framework for access to germplasm, during the period leading up to the CBD, there had been a drop-off in the number of germplasm collecting expeditions, particularly those that were internationally-led. And of course, this was years before the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture had been negotiated to provide the legal framework for germplasm exchange and use.

I think it says a lot for the international standing and reputation of IRRI that we encountered remarkably little opposition (especially among Asian nations) to the idea of participating in a collaborative concerted effort to collect and preserve as much rice biodiversity as possible. Essentially to try and fill the gaps in earlier germplasm collecting efforts. It seemed to us that this was the moment to seize. Civil conflicts were a thing of the past in several countries, infrastructure had improved providing access to areas and regions that had previously been inaccessible. In any case, with the rapid development that some countries were undergoing, we feared that unless something was done, then and there, there might not be an opportunity again in the foreseeable future, and valuable germplasm might be lost. The project had three components on germplasm collecting, on farm conservation, and training.

For germplasm collecting, we recruited two staff: Dr Seepana Appa Rao from India (who had spent much of his career at one of IRRI’s sister centers, ICRISAT in Hyderabad) and Dr Sigrid Liede from Germany. Existing IRRI staff Dr Bao-Rong Lu, a taxonomist from China and Ms Eves Loresto also took on important collecting and training responsibilities.

For the on farm conservation work, geneticist Dr Jean-Louis Pham from France was seconded to IRRI from his home institute IRD for five years. Two social anthropologists, Dr Mauricio Bellon from Mexico and Dr Stephen Morin from the USA worked in the project.

Within six months of the end of the project, we had submitted our final report and an interactive CD containing all the germplasm collecting and training reports, publications, and up to 1000 images (with a descriptive spreadsheet with live links to each image). Just click on the CD image below to automatically download a zip file (approximately 460 MB). Extract or copy the folders and files in the zip file to a new folder Rice Biodiversity on your computer, and click on the Start file. (There is a Read me! file in case you need more instructions.) Unfortunately it’s not possible to open the files interactively directly from the zip file here – you have to download. But that’s where you will find all the detail.


So below, I’ve included just a few highlights of what the project achieved, and its impact.

Collection and ex situ conservation of wild and cultivated rices
Germplasm collectors made one hundred and sixty-five collecting trips, lasting from just a few days to several weeks, in 22 countries between 1995 and 1999. A total of 24,718 samples of cultivated rice (Oryza sativa) was collected, and 2,416 samples of 16 wild Oryza species, weedy types and putative hybrids, and some unclassified samples; there were also samples of at least four species from three related genera.

The collecting effort in the Lao PDR was particularly impressive, with more than 13,000 samples of cultivated and wild rice now safely conserved in the local genebank and in the IRG. The collecting activities in sub-Saharan Africa focused almost entirely on wild species, and in general the number of samples collected was not high. The resource investment to collect this material was quite high but realistic given the somewhat sparse geographical distribution of the species populations, and the difficulties in collecting.

By the end of the project, more than 80% of the cultivated rice samples and 68% of the wild had been sent to the International Rice Genebank at IRRI for long-term conservation. All the details can be seen here.

On farm management of traditional rice varieties
In 1994, IRRI organized a workshop about on farm conservation of genetic resources. The participants agreed on the need to develop its scientific basis,because on farm  conservation of genetic resources was strongly advocated in international forums, but there was limited understanding of what this approach really meant. We therefore felt that more research should be conducted to understand farmers’ management of crop diversity and its genetic consequences. This was especially true in the case of rice for which very limited knowledge was available. So we set out to:

  • increase knowledge on farmers’ management of rice diversity, the factors that influence it, and its genetic implications; and
  • identify strategies to involve farmers’ managed systems in the overall conservation of rice genetic resources.

We developed research sites and teams in northern Luzon, Philippines, in central Vietnam, and in Orissa, India. And always we had that mix of geneticists and social scientists to provide a broad perspective on the dynamics of rice agriculture in terms of on farm management/conservation.

The contribution of this IRRI-coordinated project for on-farm conservation was to:

  • bring hard data and facts to the debate on the use and relevancy of on-farm conservation of rice genetic resources, and on the impact of deployment of modern varieties on biodiversity;
  • identify avenues for the implementation of on-farm conservation strategies;
  • explore the role that research institutions could play in the future;
  • develop methodologies and competencies in the assessment of rice diversity and its management by farmers through partnership with national programs;
  • increase the awareness and understanding of issues related to on-farm conservation and the value of local diversity both in NARS and local development agencies;
  • share its experience, with other researchers through the participation to various conferences and meetings, publication of papers, organization of a workshop, and collaboration with other projects.

An important ‘spin-off’ from the research concerned the restoration of germplasm in areas where varieties had been lost. During the course of the research, a major typhoon hit northern Luzon in the Philippines where we were working with farmers. During that season almost all of rice agriculture was wiped out, and many farmers no longer had access to the varieties they had previously grown, and none were available through official Department of Agriculture channels. Fate was on our side. In a previous season, project staff had samples a wide range of varieties from the farmers at the project sites, taken them to Los Baños, grown them out for morphological and genetic characterization and, in the process, multiplying the seed stocks. We were able to provide each farmer with up to 1 kg of seeds of each variety on request, and in total we sent back about 20 tonnes of seeds. Not all farmers wanted their indigenous varieties and changed over completely to modern, high-yielding varieties.

Strengthening of germplasm conservation by national agricultural research systems (NARS) and non-government organizations/ farmers’ organizations (NGOs/FOs)
Between 1995 and 1999, we ran 48 courses or on-the-job training opportunities in 14 countries and at IRRI headquarters in the Philippines. The training encompassed field collection and conservation, characterization, wild rice species, data management and documentation, genebank management, seed health, analysis of socioeconomic data, and molecular analysis of germplasm. And we trained more than 670 national program personnel. IRRI staff were involved in the management, coordination, and presentation of almost all the training activities.

However, the story doesn’t end there.


Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton

While some gaps remain for germplasm collection and duplication of germplasm at IRRI, these issues have been taken up by my successor as head of the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton. Even so, the size of the International Rice Genebank Collection (IRGC) had increased by about 25% by 2000, not bad for a period when discussions in international fora (the CBD and the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture) had put the brakes on germplasm sharing. Most of the national collections in Asia are now duplicated at IRRI, although some important Indian germplasm has never been duplicated, and I believe this remains the case still. The Africa Rice Center and IRRI have also cross-duplicated African germplasm, but I don’t have the latest information on this nor on the status with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia.

Since the biodiversity project ended, the International Treaty mentioned earlier has also come into force and rice is one of the important crops specifically covered by that treaty.

To ensure the long-term conservation of rice germplasm at IRRI, there was a significant investment during the early 1990s to refurbish and upgrade the genebank as well as enhancing the actual conservation procedures followed. In recent years another sub-zero storage vault for long-term conservation was added to the genebank.

When I joined IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center in 1991 there was already in place an agreement with the USDA-ARS National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation for the ‘black box’ safety duplication of the entire IRRI collection – and that continues today.

In February 2008 a significant dimension was added to global crop germplasm conservation efforts with the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault under the auspices of the Global Crop Diversity Trust (and the Government of Norway) – photos courtesy of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The whole IRRI collection – including those samples collected during the SDC-funded project – are now safely sitting under the permafrost in Spitsbergen, inside the Arctic Circle.

In this video, you can see genebank staff at IRRI preparing all the seed samples to send to Svalbard.

And in the next video, the late Professor Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 2004 and at that time a Board Member of the Global Crop Diversity Trust) and the Prime Minister of Norway, H.E. Mr Jens Stoltenberg carry the first box of germplasm – from IRRI no less – into the seed vault.

The work to safeguard rice biodiversity is never-ending. But a great deal has been achieved. Being part of a global network of genebanks – some in several Asian countries focusing specifically on rice  – IRRI’s contribution is extremely important.


The broad genetic diversity of rice and its wild relatives is safe for the future, and I’m very proud to have played my part in that effort.

Around the world . . . in 40 years. Part 1: Home is where the heart is.

The other day I was using TripAdvisor on Facebook to see how many countries I’d visited over the past 40 odd years, and was surprised to discover that it’s almost 90. Many of these visits were connected with my work one way or another. However, I’ve lived in three countries outside the UK:

  • in Peru from January 1973 to April 1976, and November 1980 to March 1981, with the International Potato Center (CIP), at its Lima headquarters; 
  • in Costa Rica, from April 1976 to November 1980, leading CIP’s regional program at that time, located at CATIE in Turrialba; and
  • in the Philippines, from July 1991 to April 2010, with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.

In this series of stories, I will recall many of the places I’ve visited, and my impressions. In this first part, I focus on Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. I’ll add more images to all posts as and when I am able to digitize the many slides that I have in my collection.

First foreign forays
But first things first. Until 1969, however, I had never been outside the UK. In September that year, I joined a group of Morris and sword dancers from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to participate in a bagpipe festival at Strakonice in Czechoslovakia. It was a novel experience for me to travel across Holland and southern Germany by road, seeing new sights (and sites). But more of this in another post.

In 1972, I attended a genetic resources conference organized by EUCARPIA – the European Association for Plant Breeding Research, held at Izmir on the Aegean coast of Turkey, south of Istanbul – quite exotic. Together with a group of other students from Birmingham, I stayed at an olive research institute at Bornova, some miles outside Izmir, rather than at the comfortable hotel in the city center where the conference was being held. One thing I do remember was the daily breakfast – a plate of stuffed olives, some goat’s milk cheese, crusty bread, and a glass of tea. I was a much fussier eater in those days, and was not taken with olives – quite the reverse today! We did get to visit the ancient ruins of Ephesus – a magnificent city. I returned to Izmir in the late 70s while I was working for CIP, and there was a regional meeting about potato production.

In January 1973 I moved to Lima, Peru, fulfilling an ambition I’d had since I was a little boy. Peru was everything I hoped it would be. It’s a country of so many contrasts. Of course the Andes are an impressive mountain chain, stretching the whole length of the country, and reaching their highest point in Nevado Huascarán (shown in the photo above), at over 22,000 feet.  Then there’s the coastal desert along the Pacific Ocean, which is bisected every so often with rivers that flow down from the mountains, creating productive oases, wet enough to grow rice in many places. And on the eastern side of of the mountains, the tropical rainforest drops to the lowlands of the Amazon basin, with rivers meandering all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away.

Lima is a huge city today, with more than 8 million inhabitants; in 1973 it had perhaps a million or so. Situated in one of the world’s driest deserts, there is always a water problem. Goodness knows how the city authorities cope; it was a big problem 40 years ago. I first arrived to Lima in the dead of night and was whisked away to my pensión. It was a bit of a shock the following morning seeing all the bare mountains surrounding the city, even though I was staying in one of the more leafy and green suburbs, San Isidro. Flying into Lima in daylight, and driving into the city from the airport one is confronted by the reality of poverty, with millions now living in the shanty towns or pueblos jovenes that spread incessantly over the desert and into the coastal foothills of the Andes.

But Lima is a vibrant city, and the country is full of exquisite surprises. In 1973 there was a left-wing military junta governing Peru, and although there have been many democratically-elected governments since (and some more military ones as well) there was the major threat from terrorist groups like Sendero Luminoso and Tupac Amaru in the 80s that made travel difficult around the country. Between 1973 and 1975 when I lived there it was relatively safe, and my work took me all over the Andes, collecting potatoes for the germplasm collection at CIP, and carrying out research in farmers’  fields.

I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu on a couple of occasions, and the market town of Pisac, as well as many of the archaeological sites on the Peruvian coast. Although I have traveled across the Nazca plain by road, and could see evidence of the famous lines even at ground level, I never did get to see them from the air – one ambition yet to be fulfilled. Getting to know Lima is a must, and visiting the many museums. The skyline of the second city Arequipa, in the south of the country is dominated by the volcano El Misti. And no visit to Peru is complete without a trip to Puno and Lake Titicaca at over 4000 m above sea level. Take your oxygen bottle, or try the mate de coca (an infusion made from the leaves of the coca plant) to cope with the altitude.

My work with IRRI took me back to Peru on several occasions in later years. While at Birmingham University in the 80s I had also been part of a four man review that traveled around Peru for three weeks looking at a seed potato project. I also had a research project with CIP, and on a couple of visits, I also did some work on cocoa, traveling to some native cocoa sites near Iquitos on the Amazon River, and also at Tarapoto. Unfortunately, a cocoa germplasm project I was advising the UK chocolate industry about, and some of my potato research, was affected by the activities of the terrorist groups mentioned earlier, and the drug dealers or narcotraficantes.

My wife and I were married in Lima in October 1973.

Click to read all my Peru stories, my CIP stories, and view a web album of Peru photos taken in 1973 and 1974.

Costa Rica
After three years in Peru, we moved to Costa Rica, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The continental divide, dotted with a number of active volcanoes, runs the length of the country, with tropical lowlands on the east Caribbean coast, and drier lowlands on the west Pacific. We lived in Turrialba, some 70 km or so, east of the capital San José. Our elder daughter Hannah was born in Costa Rica.

The volcanoes are spectacular, and my potato work took me almost every week to the slopes of the Irazú volcano, the main potato growing area of the country, and about 50 km from Turrialba. It dominates the horizon from San Jose, and its most famous recent activity was in 1963 on the day that President Kennedy landed in San José for a state visit. That eruption lasted for more than a year. But the volcanic activity is the basis of deep and rich soils on the slopes of the volcano.

Costa Rica has had an interesting history. After a short civil war in 1948 the armed forces were abolished, and the country invested heavily in social programs and education. It also established a nation-wide network of national parks, and has one of the biggest proportions of land dedicated to national parks of any country. In April 1980 Steph, Hannah and me were staying at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve when we received the sad news of my father’s death. We’d gone to Monteverde to try and see the resplendent quetzal – and how lucky we were. Magnificent!

In the 1970s, Costa Rica was a very safe place to live. San José was a small city; it had only about 250,000 inhabitants while we lived there. And the police did not carry any sidearms or other automatic weapons – only screwdrivers. Screwdrivers? Yes, to remove the plates from illegally parked cars! In the late 70s, when the Sandinista Revolution against the Somoza government was at its height in Nicaragua, many refugees came south over the border. And crime rates – along with house rentals – climbed steeply.

In the mid-90s I had opportunity to return to Costa Rica on a couple of occasions, and went hunting wild rices in the Guanacaste National Park in the northwest of the country, close to the frontier with Nicaragua. Ecotourism is a major activity, and with so many national parks to visit and a wealth of wildlife to observe, Costa Rica offers plenty for those interested in the outdoors.

The Philippines
Having spent a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham in the UK after leaving CIP, I began to get itchy feet towards the end of the 80s, and was offered a position at IRRI from July 1991. I moved then, and my family (my wife and two daughters, Hannah and Philippa) made the move just after Christmas.

Even today the Philippines is the easiest country to travel in – especially if you don’t have much free time. First of all, it’s spread over more than 7000 islands. But travel by road can be slow, and extremely frustrating. It certainly tested my patience for long enough – and I was driving mainly between Los Baños and Manila. For all the almost 19 years we lived in the Philippines, there were always roadworks on the road to Manila – now completed – and the highway also connects the port of Batangas on the south coast of Luzon with Manila. The volume of traffic is horrendous, and on the open road the slow-moving (and frequently stopping) tricycles and jeepneys don’t help with the traffic flow.

And because we took our annual home-leave in the UK, there wasn’t much other time for getting to know the Philippines., even though my wife and I lived in Los Baños for longer than we’d lived anywhere else. Each year we’d depart on home-leave and going home. On the return we would be coming home. Our home was provided by IRRI in a gated community some 10 minutes drive from the research center. It was built in the early 60s on the slopes of dormant volcano Mt Makiling. Los Baños is the thriving Science City of the Philippines, home to the Los Baños campus of the University of the Philippines (UPLB) and other important scientific research institutes, besides IRRI.

Our daughters attended the International School in Manila (ISM), and were bused into Manila early each day. By 1999, Philippa’s senior year, the school bus would leave IRRI Staff Housing at 0430 in order to reach the Makati campus by the start of school at 0715. The children would return by about 1630 or so, relax for a while, have dinner, then get down to homework, studying sometimes as late as midnight. Then up again at 0400. We were all glad when Philippa graduated. In 2002 ISM moved to a new (and more easily accessible) campus, several years after Hannah and Philippa had left, and a move that had been promised since about 1994.

Steph and I would get away to the beach as often as possible, about once a month. She would snorkel, and kept very detailed records over 18 years of the fish and corals that she observed in front of Arthur’s Place in Anilao, Batangas. I learned to scuba dive in 1993, and until we left the Philippines, that was my main hobby. Here are two more underwater videos from Anilao:

Finally in March 2009, we had the opportunity of visiting the world-famous rice terraces in the Ifugao province north of Manila. We went with a group of staff from my office. The journey both ways was tedious to say the least, taking almost 17 hours door-to-door on the return, with stops, even though the distance is less than 500 km. But it was worth it. The terraces are spectacular, and although it’s necessary to walk into the terraces at Batad, it’s well worth the effort. We stayed in Banaue, then traveled on to Sagada to see the famous caves with ‘hanging coffins’ and the local weaving. It was a short trip, but very memorable. Click here to open a web album.

We unfortunately did not get to see many of the fiestas that abound in the Philippines. But what we did see – every day – were the smiling faces of the lovely Filipino people. Yes, the Philippines was where our hearts were, for almost 19 years.

I’ll be posting other stories about the countries and places I’ve visited over the past 40 years, so please check from time-to-time.

Indiana Me . . . temples in the jungle

Over my career, I was very fortunate to be able to combine business trips with short visits to some of the world’s iconic heritage sites, or take time out for a quick vacation in the region without having to fly half way round the world.

When we lived in Peru, I visited Machu Picchu a couple of times; almost anywhere you travel in Peru you are immersed in archaeology. In Central America we had the opportunity to visit the pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala (and I hope to post photos from here once I have digitized the slides), and also those at Teotihuacan, just north of Mexico City. But one of the most impressive sites must surely be the huge temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. And we had the chance to visit there in December 2000.

On flights from Bangkok to Manila I have often overflown Angkor Wat, and even from 30,000 feet its extent looks truly impressive (even if there is also evidence over the whole countryside of the intense bombing that Cambodia suffered over several decades of war).

Angkor Wat is located in northwest Cambodia, near the town of Siem Reap, and near the Tonlé Sap, a huge seasonally flooded lake that acts as an overflow for the Mekong River during its flooding.

While we refer to Angkor Wat as a ‘site’, there are in fact many temples and other complexes covering a large area, apparently about 200 square kilometers. The beauty of the stone carvings, the iconic stone faces pointing in four directions, and the wonder of the forest reclaiming the various temples all add to the mystery of Angkor.

I’m not going to attempt to describe in detail what Angkor Wat has to offer, but a visit there has to last more than just one day. We stayed there for three nights, and although we were able to many of the sites and temples, there are plenty more mysteries to uncover, hidden by the jungle that has reclaimed its dominance over the area.

Some of the temple complexes, like the Angkor Wat site itself and Bayon are large with many beautiful buildings to explore, others are much smaller, comprising just a couple of buildings or so. Just click on these photos to open web albums (scanned images rather than original digital photos).

When we visited, it was possible to move freely around all the sites, look inside the temples, climb the towers – and really explore. While it was quite busy in some sites, we did manage to get away from the bulk of the tourists. But the increasing number of visitors to Angkor Wat is now giving rise to concerns, as this recent story on the BBC website discusses.

Settlements at Angkor Wat stretch back thousands of years, but much of what we see today was constructed from about the 11-12th centuries onwards, reaching its peak a couple of centuries later. I’ve read estimates of more than 1 million people were involved in building the temples. And for an ex-rice scientist like myself, that begs the question about the extent and productivity of rice agriculture that was required to keep this huge population fed.

In addition to the Angkor Wat and Bayon sites, these are the other sites you can ‘visit’:

Let me finish with a quote from the Introduction in Dawn Rooney’s guidebook to Angkor Wat [1]: The temples startle with their splendour and perfection, but beyond the emotions they evoke lie complex microcosms of a universe steeped in cosmology. While a thorough understanding may be out of reach for many, the monuments’ profound beauty touches everyone . . . 


[1] Rooney, D (1997). Angkor – an Introduction to the Temples. Passport Books, Lincolnwood (Chicago), Illinois 60646-1975.
ISBN: 0-8442-4766-9

Investing in diversity . . . the IRRI genebank

During the mid-90s, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) coordinated a major program (funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation – SDC) to collect and conserve rice varieties in more than 20 countries by visiting areas that had not been extensively collected in previous decades. The aim was to ensure the long-term survival of varieties that had been nurtured by farmers and their husbands for generations. Over a five year period from 1996, more than 25,000 rice samples were collected, and stored in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, increasing the collection there by approximately 25%. About half of the samples (some 13,000) came from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). An IRRI staff member, Dr Seepana Appa Rao (formerly with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics – ICRISAT) spent four years traveling throughout the country, alongside Lao scientists, to make the first comprehensive collections of rice germplasm.

Duplicates samples are now conserved at IRRI, but very quickly after collection, Lao breeders started to screen the germplasm for useful traits, and use different materials to increase productivity.

Rice farmers in the Lao PDR still grow thousands of different rice varieties, from the lowland paddy fields with their patchwork of varieties to the sloping fields of the uplands where one can see many different varieties grown in complex mixtures, shown in the photos below. The complexity of varieties is also reflected in the names given by farmers [1].

And germplasm collecting was repeated in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam in Asia, and countries in East and southern Africa including Uganda and Madagascar, as well as Costa Rica in Central America (for wild rices). We invested a lot of efforts to train local scientists in germplasm collecting methods. Long-time IRRI employee (now retired) and genetic resources specialist, Eves Loresto, visited Bhutan on several occasions.

The IRRI Genebank

When I first joined IRRI in July 1991 – to head the Genetic Resources Center – I discovered that many aspects of the genebank procedures and operations were outdated or inefficient, and we set about a program of renovation and upgrading (that has been a continuous process ever since, as new technologies supersede those used before). The genebank holds more than 113,000 samples, mainly of cultivated rice varieties, with perhaps as many as 70% or so unique. Duplicate safety samples are stored at the USDA National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, and at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (operated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust). In fact, the first seeds into the Svalbard vault came from IRRI when it opened in February 2008!

The genebank now has three storage vaults (one was added in the last couple of years) for medium-term (Active) and long-term (Base) conservation. Rice varieties are grown on the IRRI farm, and carefully dried before storage. Seed viability and health is always checked, and resident seed physiologist, Fiona Hay (formerly at the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew) is investigating factors which affect long-term storage of rice seeds.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – so rather than describe how this genebank runs, do take the time to watch a 14 minute video which shows all the various operations for both cultivated and wild rices.

In 1994 there was a major review of CGIAR center genebanks. In preparation for that review we wrote a genebank operations manual, which still describes how and why the genebank works. I felt that this would be a useful legacy for whoever came after my tenure as head of the genebank. Operations can always evolve and change – but here is a basis for how rice is conserved in the most important genebank for this crop.

[1] Appa Rao, S, C Bounphanousay, JM Schiller & MT Jackson, 2002. Naming of traditional rice varieties by farmers in the Lao PDR. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 49, 83‐88.