Learning about crop wild relatives

Much of my work with plant genetic resources has concerned the conservation and use of landrace varieties, of potatoes and rice.

Diversity in potatoes and rice

Yes, I have done some work with wild species, and helped occasionally with collection of wild species germplasm. In terms of research, I managed an active group of scientists at IRRI in the Philippines working on the biosystematics of rice (mainly AA genome species relationships). I also had undergraduate and postgraduate students work on the wild species of Lathyrus and potatoes during the years I taught at The University of Birmingham.

I made just one short collecting trip with Jack Hawkes in early 1975, into the Andes of Central Peru to find wild potatoes. That was a fascinating trip. He knew his potato ecology; he could almost smell them. On returning to the UK in 1981, I joined my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd to collect wild beets in the Canary Islands, and some years later assisted one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega, to collect seeds of a forage legume in Tenerife. I wrote about these two collecting trips recently.  I also helped to collect some wild rices during a visit to Costa Rica in the late 1990s but, in the main, orchestrated a major germplasm collecting program while leaving the actual collecting to my other colleagues in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center.

One of my teaching assignments at Birmingham was a 10-week module, two or three classes a week plus plus an afternoon practical, on crop diversity and evolution. Many of the world’s most important crops such as wheat and barley, and a plethora of legume species such as lentil, chickpea, and faba bean originated in the so-called Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Apart from a couple of short trips to western Turkey, I had limited experience of Mediterranean environments where these crops were domesticated. I’ve since been in Syria a couple of times in the 1990s.

That was all rectified in at the end March-early April 1982¹ when I had the good fortune to participate in a course—two weeks long if my memory serves me well—in Israel, organized by Profs. Gideon Ladizinsky and Amos Dinoor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, at the Rehovot campus near Tel Aviv.

Gideon Ladizinsky explains the ecology of wild lentils (or is that wild chickpea?) while Amos Dinoor looks on.

I recall that the course was funded (or at least supported in part) by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR). Among the other participants were several MSc students, class of 1981-82, from The University of Birmingham attending the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources course in the Department of Plant Biology. Not all the students of that intake could take up the invitation to travel to Israel. Those from Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia for example were not permitted (under their national laws) to visit Israel, even though an invitation had been extended to all students regardless of nationality, and the Israeli authorities would have issued visas without a stamp in their passports.

I don’t remeber all the other participants. We must have been half a dozen or so from Birmingham, plus Bruce Tyler from the Welsh Plant Breeding Station (now part of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, IBERS, at Aberystwyth University), George Ayad from IBPGR, Zofia Bulinska-Radomska and one of her colleagues from the National Centre for Plant Genetic Resources, IHAR, near Warsaw, Poland, Luis Gusmão from Portugal (who attended a short course at Birmingham), and others whose names I cannot remember.

Standing, L-R: Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), Mike Jackson, ??, ??, ??, ??, George Ayad (Egypt, IBPGR), Rainer Freund (Germany), Bruce Tyler (WPBS), Amos Dinoor, ??, Luis Gusmao (Portugal). Front row, L-R: Krystina ?, ??, Brazilian MSc student, Gideon Ladizinsky, Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Margarida Texeira (Portugal).

Bruce Tyler, from the WPBS. An inveterate smoker, one of Bruce’s comments on almost anything was ‘He’s a cracker!’

We stayed at a kibbutz near to Rehovot, and were quite comfortable there. It was a short drive each day into the campus for the classroom activities, some lectures and practical classes. But we also made excursions from the north to the south of the country, and east to the Dead Sea to find crop wild relatives in their native habitats. I wonder, 35 years on, how many of those habitats exist. We travelled freely between Israel and parts of what are now the Palestine Authority controlled West Bank.

We had opportunity of seeing these wild relatives in what was essentially a living laboratory. Both Gideon and Amos, experts in their fields of crop diversity and domestication, and disease epidemiology in wild species, respectively, used many of these wild populations for their research and of their students.

My eyes were opened to the important role of ecology in these seasonally dry-wet landscapes, often on limestone, and the differences to be found between north- and south-facing slopes. I unfortunately no longer have some of the photos I took during that trip of the populations of wild barley, Hordeum spontaneum, that grew over large swathes of the landscape, looking to all intents and purposes like a field of cultivated barley. It was in populations like these, and of wild oats that Amos Dinoor studied the dynamics of disease spread and resistance.

Gideon had a wonderful way of linking species in different habitats, how they maintained they biological identity, often through flowering at different times of the day. I remember on one occasion as we walked through a mixture of oat species with different chromosome numbers, or ploidy. I asked Gideon the time, but he didn’t look at his watch. Instead, he picked a panicle of one of the oats alongside the path, and replied ‘It’s about 4:15 pm’. Then he looked at his watch. It was almost 4:15 pm! He was so familiar with the ecology of these species that, under defined conditions, he could predict when different species would flower. Remarkable! On the coast, south of Tel Aviv, we did look at disease in different wild species. I certainly learned a great deal from this course, and discussing crop evolution and domestication with these experts from the Fertile Crescent, and others like Daniel Zohary (who had published on the origin of lentils about the same time as me in the mid-1970s; he passed away in December 2016). Among the young scientists we met was Dani Zamir who pioneered the use of enzymes, or isozymes,to study the diversity of crops and their wild relatives, tomatoes in his case.

There was one interesting episode during the course. When teaching crop evolution to my Birmingham students, I encouraged them to analyse the evidence presented to account for the origin and evolution of different crop species, often based on conflicting hypotheses. So, it was natural for them to ask questions at the end of each lecture, and even question the interpretations they had heard. After just one or two sessions, and much to the consternation of my students, the ‘professors’ refused to take any questions. As I explained to my group, their hosts had worked on a range of species in depth, and were convinced that their interpretations were the correct (and only?) ones to be believed.  My students hadn’t been impolite or ‘aggressive’ in their questioning, just keen to explore more ideas.

We did also have opportunities for sight-seeing, around Jerusalem and to the Dead Sea, as well as understand some more about irrigation agriculture for which Israeli scientists and engineers had become renowned.

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¹ I remember the dates quite well, as they coincided with the invasion of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic by Argentina, and the course group had many discussions in the bar at night what the reaction of Margaret Thatcher’s government would be.

Navigating the Stourport Ring

I’m fascinated by canals. You have to admire the visionaries who financed and built the canals, and the armies of men who constructed them.

Most canals in England and Wales were dug by gangs of navvies in the 18th and early 19th centuries. However, within just a generation or two the canals were already in decline as an expanding railway network made transportation of goods cheaper and faster. The writing was on the wall for the canals once George Stephenson had demonstrated the power of steam locomotion.

The economic justification for and value of the canals waned, and they fell into disuse, and no longer navigable. However, in recent decades there has been a resurgence in the use of inland waterways. Today some 2000 miles of navigable waterways (canals and rivers) are managed by the Canal & River Trust, used mainly for pleasure traffic. Narrowboat holidays on the canals are very popular.

I have written several stories about the pleasure Steph and I take from walking along the towpath of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, that runs north-south between Gas Street Basin in the center of Birmingham and the River Severn at Worcester. The canal is less than two miles east of our home in Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire. Our walks normally cover small sections of the towpath between Tardebigge Top Lock (No. 58) and Astwood Bottom Lock (No. 17), a distance of about 5½ miles.

We not only enjoy the surrounding countryside, tranquil for the most part (unless a mainline express is speeding by about half a mile to the west), but also watching the canal narrowboats navigating their way up and down the Tardebigge Flight, the longest flight (of 30 locks) in the country, some with a greater degree of proficiency than others. Some days it can be like Piccadilly Circus¹ with boats queuing up to pass through the locks.

Taking to the water
We have taken only one canal holiday, in the summer of 1983, when Steph, Hannah (just five years old), Philippa (15 months) and me took to the water for a week, to navigate the Stourport Ring.

The Ring, for our purposes, comprised four waterways:

If I remember correctly, the various links connecting the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal with the BCN via the Stourbridge Canal and the Dudley Canals were not navigable in 1983.

Setting out, and setting some rules
It was early July, and we took Hannah out of school for the week with readily-granted permission from Mr Richards, the headmaster at Finstall First School. That would be almost impossible nowadays. We had chosen a small, 4-berth narrowboat for our holiday, Blue Heron, from a hire-boat center operating out of Alvechurch, about 15 minutes from home. So, packing clothes for a week, and several boxes of groceries (including the inevitable wine boxes that were very popular in the 80s), we headed to Alvechurch to board our boat.

Blue Heron, with Steph at the helm, and Philippa in the bow.

After a familiarization tour of the boat, one of the marina staff joined us for the first three miles to the first lock on our trip, Tardebigge Top Lock. Not only would that be the first lock we’d encounter over the next week, but it was one of the deepest. So, the marina staff not only wanted to guide us safely through this lock but also to show us the rudiments of safe canal navigation.


Looking at the various photos I have included in this post, you might be forgiven for questioning our apparent lack of awareness of on-board safety. Only Hannah is wearing a life jacket, something that would not be allowed more than three decades later. At five years old, we had to set Hannah some strict limits how to move around the boat. At 15 months, Philippa was already walking, and would crawl and stagger around the cabin whenever we moored for a meal break or at night. With either Steph or me steering the boat, one of us had to operate the locks, raising/ lowering the paddles to empty or fill each lock, and open the lock gates. So it was important we knew where the girls were at all times.

To keep Philippa safe, we put her in a high chair in the bow of the boat, and with her mob cap for protection, and a good coating of sun cream, she was (mostly) quite happy watching the world go by at a leisurely 4 mph (the maximum speed permitted on the canals), waving to passers-by, or falling asleep when the fancy took her. Hannah would often sit beside whoever was steering at the stern of the boat, or ‘help’ with the locks.

Our journey continues
Having successfully passed through Tardebigge Top Lock, we headed down a few more on our own, before mooring for the night just below the Engine House, then a nightclub/restaurant (but now converted into luxury apartments), near Lock 55 or 54, in the early evening. With two small children on board, we had to get them fed and not too late bedded down for the night.

The view from Tardebigge Top Lock (No. 58).

Looking south on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal near Lock 54. The Malvern Hills can be seen in the far distance.

We spent all the next day completing the Tardebigge flight, but I’m not sure if we reached Worcester that same day, or took another day. Probably the latter. However, we spent one night at Worcester’s Diglis Basin before facing the River Severn.

It had become clear on the final stretch into Worcester that Hannah was not her usual perky self. And by bedtime, she had a temperature. The next morning she really looked very unwell, so she and I headed off into the center of Worcester in search of medical help. Although only 15 miles or so from home, it felt like 100 miles. I didn’t have our doctor’s telephone number with me. In any case, there were no mobile phones in 1983.

Nevertheless, we finally got to see a doctor (after completing a slew of NHS forms because we were being treated as ‘visitors’, not our own doctor), who diagnosed tonsillitis, and prescribed a course of antibiotics. It was remarkable how quickly those had an effect, because by late afternoon Hannah was feeling very much better, and almost back to her normal self by bedtime.

Diglis Basin in Worcester.

Our departure from Worcester was delayed until after lunch. We steeled ourselves for the section of our trip on the River Severn. We had good weather (and for the whole week), and no particular difficulties on the river itself. But we did have to pass through the Diglis Lock connecting Diglis Basin with the River Severn. This lock is wide and deep, and a challenge for two canal novices like Steph and myself. I don’t remember that this lock was assisted.

Once on the Severn we turned north, having a grandstand view from the center of the river of Worcester Cathedral on the east bank, and the city center.

There was just one other lock on the Severn itself, at Holt, to bypass a weir. That lock had lock keepers, and was electrically operated. Once we reached Stourport-on-Severn, it was time to leave the river and join the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, for the next stage of our trip.

Entering the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal at Stourport-on-Severn.

This canal passes through the center of Kidderminster, a town famous world-wide for its carpet-making industry, then on through some lovely and peaceful red sandstone landscapes near Kinver in South Staffordshire.

We must have taken a couple of days to travel this section as far as Aldersley Junction, where we had to turn east and join the Birmingham Canals Navigation. However, as we needed water and some other supplies, we travelled a couple of miles further north, joining the Shropshire Union Canal at Autherley Junction for a very short distance before turning around to moor up for the night by Aldersley Junction. At Autherley Junction, there is a stop lock, with just a small height difference, a matter of inches, between the two canals to prevent drainage of one canal into the other.

The next section on the BCN was our penultimate day, taking us from Aldersley Junction, through the Black Country, Birmingham city center, and south again on to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, mooring up north of Alvechurch in order to arrive back on time at the marina the next day.

From Aldersley Junction there is a flight of 21 locks that raise the canal 132 feet. We made an early start, with the idea of stopping about half way for breakfast. However, we discovered at about one third of the climb that a previous boat had left the lock paddles open and several pounds between the locks had drained completely. The photo below was taken on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal a couple of years ago when several refurbishment projects were underway. But it shows the sort of scene that greeted us that morning on the BCN. It must have taken an hour or more to restore water levels to the pounds before we could get on the move once again.

Travelling between Wolverhampton and Birmingham in 1983 was like passing through a desolate lunar landscape, with scenes of dereliction all around. This is part of the so-called Black Country of Dudley and Tipton, formerly an important industrial area. Today this whole area has been reclaimed for housing. Even the derelict warehouses along the canals in the center of Birmingham have either been refurbished as ‘desirable residences’ or demolished and replaced by new housing and offices.

Near Gas Street Basin in 1983.

Signposts on the canal, Wolverhampton to the left, Worcester to the right.

However in 1983, there was little shade along the banks of the BCN in the Black Country of Dudley and Tipton. It was a very hot day, and the sun was beating down. Because we had to travel more miles than usual, I had my lunch and tea breaks on the move, so to speak. Just as we crossed Gas Street Basin, the weather broke and there was a tremendous thunderstorm. With that, we decided to moor until the storm had passed, before continuing south, past the University of Birmingham Edgbaston campus, and through the one and a half mile long Wast Hills Tunnel (under the Lickey Hills) north of Alvechurch, one of the longest in the country. We moored close to where the A441 crosses the canal at Hopwood, and enjoyed an evening meal at the Hopwood House pub.

The University of Birmingham campus from the canal near Selly Oak.

Just passed through one of the tunnels north of Alvechurch.

With only a short distance to Alvechurch, we spent a couple of hours cleaning the boat on the final morning, getting everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, and arriving back at the marina by the noon deadline.

From there, it was just a case of hopping into our car, and within 15 minutes we were back home. A very enjoyable holiday and, as you can tell as you read this post, one that left me with long-lasting memories.

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¹ The phrase it’s like Piccadilly Circus is commonly used in the UK to refer to a place or situation which is extremely busy with people.

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.

 

“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).

birmingham

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

phillips-jade

Jade Phillips

That was the title of a one day meeting on plant genetic resources organized by doctoral students, led by Jade Phillips, in the School of Biosciences at The University of Birmingham last Thursday, 2 June. And I was honoured to be invited to present a short talk at the meeting.

Now, as regular readers of my blog will know, I began my career in plant genetic resources conservation and use at Birmingham in September 1970, when I joined the one year MSc course on genetic conservation, under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes. The course had been launched in 1969, and 47 years later there is still a significant genetic resources presence in the School, even though the taught course is no longer offered (and hasn’t accepted students for a few years). Staff have come and gone – me included, but that was 25 years ago less one month, and the only staff member offering research places in genetic resources conservation is Dr Nigel Maxted. He was appointed to a lectureship at Birmingham (from Southampton, where I had been an undergraduate) when I upped sticks and moved to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1991.

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Click on this image for the full program and a short bio of each speaker.

Click on each title below; there is a link to each presentation.

Nigel Maxted (University of Birmingham)
Introduction to PGR conservation and use

Ruth Eastwood (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – Wakehurst Place)
‘Adapting agriculture to climate change’ project

Holly Vincent (PhD student, University of Birmingham)
Global in situ conservation analysis of CWR

Joana Magos Brehm (University of Birmingham)
Southern African CWR conservation

Mike Jackson
Valuing genebank collections

Åsmund Asdal (NordGen)
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Neil Munro (Garden Organic)
Heritage seed library

Maria Scholten
Natura 2000 and in situ conservation of landraces in Scotland: Machair Life (15 minute film)

Aremi Contreras Toledo, Maria João Almeida, and Sami Lama (PhD students, University of Birmingham)
Short presentations on their research on maize in Mexico, landraces in Portugal, and CWR in North Africa

Julian Hosking (Natural England)
Potential for genetic diversity conservation – the ‘Fifth Dimension’ – within wider biodiversity protection

I guess there were about 25-30 participants in the meeting, mainly young scientists just starting their careers in plant genetic resources, but with a few external visitors (apart from speakers) from the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew-Wakehurst Place, the James Hutton Institute near Dundee, and IBERS at Aberystwyth.

The meeting grew out of an invitation to Åsmund Asdal from the Nordic Genetic Resources Center (NordGen) to present a School of Biosciences Thursday seminar. So the audience for his talk was much bigger.

asmund

Åsmund is Coordinator of Operation and Management for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and he gave a fascinating talk about the origins and development of this important global conservation facility, way above the Arctic Circle. Today the Vault is home to duplicate samples of germplasm from more than 60 depositor genebanks or institutes (including the international collections held in the CGIAR genebank collections, like that at IRRI.

Nigel Maxted’s research group has focused on the in situ conservation and use of crop wild relatives (CWR), although they are also looking at landrace varieties as well. Several of the papers described research linked to the CWR Project, funded by the Government of Norway through the Crop Trust and Kew. Postdocs and doctoral students are looking at the distributions of crop wild relatives, and using GIS and other sophisticated approaches that were beyond my comprehension, to determine not only where there are gaps in distributions, lack of germplasm in genebank collections, but also where possible priority conservation sites could be established. And all this under the threat of climate change. The various PowerPoint presentations demonstrate these approaches—which all rely on vast data sets—much better than I can describe them. So I encourage you to dip into the slide shows and see what this talented group of scientists has been up to.

Neil Munro from Garden Organic described his organization’s approach to rescue and multiply old varieties of vegetables that can be shared among enthusiasts.

n_munro

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

julian

Julian Hosking from Natural England gave some interesting insights into how his organization was looking to combine the conservation of genetic diversity—his ‘Fifth Dimension’—with conservation of natural habitats in the UK, and especially the conservation of crop wild relatives of which there is a surprisingly high number in the British flora (such as brassicas, carrot, and onions, for example).

So, what about myself? When I was asked to contribute a paper I had to think hard and long about a suitable topic. I’ve always been passionate about the use of plant genetic diversity to increase food security. I decided therefore to talk about the value of genebank collections, how that value might be measured, and I provided examples of how germplasm had been used to increase the productivity of both potatoes and rice.

m_jackson

Nicolay Vavilov is a hero of mine

Although all the speakers developed their own talks quite independently, a number of common themes emerged several times. At one point in my talk I had focused on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet to illustrate the biological value (easy to use versus difficult to use) of germplasm in crop breeding.

Jackson FINAL - Valuing Genebank Collections

In the CWR Project research several speakers showed how the genepool concept could be used to set priorities for conservation.

Finally, there was one interesting aspect to the meeting—from my perspective at least. I had seen the titles of all the other papers as I was preparing my talk, and I knew several speakers would be talking about future prospects, especially under a changing climate. I decided to spend a few minutes looking back to the beginning of the genetic conservation movement in which Jack Hawkes was one of the pioneers. What I correctly guessed was that most of my audience had not even been born when I started out on my genetic conservation career, and probably knew very little about how the genetic conservation movement had started, who was involved, and what an important role The University of Birmingham had played. From the feedback I received, it seems that quite a few of the participants were rather fascinated by this aspect of my talk.

Through hard work, great things are achieved

BirminghamUniversityCrestPer Ardua Ad Alta

That’s the motto of The University of Birmingham, and ‘these sentiments sum up the spirit of Birmingham and illustrate the attitude of the people who have shaped both the city and the University.’

Almost 50 years ago, I had no inkling that I would have more than half a lifetime’s association with this university. Receiving its royal charter in 1900 (although the university was a successor to several institutions founded in the 19th century as early as 1828), Birmingham is the archetypal ‘redbrick university‘, located on its own campus in Edgbaston, about 3 miles southwest of Birmingham city center.


First encounter in 1967

My first visit to the university was in May or June 1967—to sit an exam. Biology was one of the four subjects (with Geography, English Literature, and General Studies) I was studying for my Joint Matriculation Board Advanced Level high school certificate (essentially the university entrance requirement) here in the UK. We were only four or five biology students at my high school, St Joseph’s College in Trent Vale, Stoke-on-Trent (motto: Fideliter et Fortiter).

Now, I don’t remember (maybe I never knew) whether we were too few in number to sit our biology practical exam at the school, or all students everywhere had to attend an examination venue, but we set off by train from Stoke to Birmingham, and ended up at the School of Biological Sciences building. It was a new building then, and the (federal) School had only recently been formed from the four departments of Botany, Zoology & Comparative Physiology, Genetics, and Microbiology.

Just before 2 pm, the five of us—and about 100 other students—trooped into the main laboratory (that I subsequently came to know as the First Year Lab) on the second floor. Little did I know that just over three years later I’d be joining the Department of Botany as a graduate student, nor that 14 years later in 1981 I would join the faculty as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Nothing could have been further from my mind as I settled down to tackle a dissection of the vascular system of a rat, and the morphology of a gorse flower, among other tasks to attempt.

Birmingham was not on the list of universities to which I had applied in December 1966. I’d chosen King’s College, London (geography), Aberystwyth (zoology and geography), Southampton (botany and geography), York (biology), Queen Mary College, London (general biological sciences), and Newcastle (botany and geography). In the end, I chose Southampton, and spent three very happy if not entirely fruitful years there.

Entering the postgraduate world

Jack Hawkes

Jack Hawkes

The next time I visited Birmingham was in February 1970. I had applied to join the recently-founded postgraduate MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources. I was interviewed by Course Director and Head of the Department of Botany, Professor JG Hawkes and Senior Lecturer and plant ecologist, Dr Denis Wilkins.

Despite the grilling from both of  them, I must have made an impression because I was offered a place for the following September. The only problem: no support grant. Although Hawkes had applied for recognition by one of the research councils to provide postgraduate studentships, nothing had materialized when I applied (although he was successful the following year, and for many years afterwards providing studentships to British students). So, after graduation from Southampton in July 1970 I was on tenterhooks all summer as I tried to sort out a financial solution to attend the course. Finally, around mid-August, I had a phone call from Hawkes telling me that the university would provide a small support grant. It was only £380 for the whole year, to cover all my living expenses including rent. That’s the equivalent of about £5600 today. The university would pay my fees.

All set then. I found very comfortable bed-sit accommodation a couple of miles from the university, and turned up at the department in early September to begin my course, joining four other students (from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and Venezuela). It was during this one year course that I really learned how to study, and apart from my weekly Morris dancing night, I had few other distractions. It was study, study, study: and it paid off. The rest is history. I graduated in September 1971, by which time I’d been offered a one-year position at the newly-founded International Potato CenterCIP logo (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and I was all set for a career (I hoped) in the world of genetic resources and conservation. As it turned out, my travel to South America was delayed by more than a year during which time I registered for and commenced a PhD study on potatoes, finally landing in Lima in January 1973 and beginning a career in international agricultural research that lasted, on and off, until my retirement in 2010. I carried out most of my PhD research in Peru, and submitted my thesis in October 1975.

Jack Hawkes and me discussing landrace varieties of potatoes in the CIP potato germplasm collection, Huancayo, central Peru in early 1974.

Graduation December 1975. L to R: Jack Hawkes (who co-supervised my PhD), me, and Trevor Williams (who became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources). Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation.

Then I returned to Lima, spending another five years with CIP in Costa Rica carrying out research on bacterial diseases of potatoes among other things.

I should add that during the academic year 1971-72, a young woman, Stephanie Tribble, joined the MSc course. A few months later we became an ‘item’.

Steph’s MSc graduation at the University of Birmingham in December 1972, just weeks before I flew to South America and join the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru.

After graduation, she joined the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh, but joined me in Lima in July 1973. We married there in October, and she also had a position with CIP for the years we remained in Lima.

A faculty position
On 1 April 1981 I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology.

Richard Sawyer

By mid-1980, after almost five years in Costa Rica, I felt that I had achieved as much as I could there, and asked my Director General in Lima, Dr Richard Sawyer, for a transfer to a new position. In November, we moved back to Lima, and I was expecting to be posted either to Brazil or possibly to the Philippines. In the meantime, I had been alerted to a recently-established lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at Birmingham, and had been encouraged to apply¹. With encouragement from Richard Sawyer², and having been invited for interview, I made the trek back to the UK from Lima towards the end of January 1981. The interview process then was very different from what might be expected nowadays. No departmental seminar. Just a grilling from a panel chaired by the late Professor John Jinks, FRS, Dean of the Faculty of Science and head of the Department of Genetics. There were three staff from Plant Biology (Hawkes, Dennis Wilkins, and Brian Ford-Lloyd), and the head of the Department of Biochemistry and Deputy Dean, Professor Derek Walker.

We were three candidates. Each interview lasted about 45 minutes, and we all had to wait outside the interview room to learn who would be selected. I was interviewed last. Joining the other two candidates afterwards, we sat side-by-side, hardly exchanging a word between us, nervously waiting for one of us to be called back in to meet the panel. I was the lucky one. I was offered the position, accepted immediately, and a couple of days later flew back to Lima to break the news and make plans to start a new life with Steph and our daughter Hannah (then almost three) in Birmingham.

Over the 10 years I spent at Birmingham I never had the worry (or challenge) of teaching any First Year Course – thank goodness. But I did contribute a small module on agricultural systems to the Second Year common course (and became the Second Year Chair in the School of Biological Sciences), as well as sharing teaching of flowering plant taxonomy to plant biology stream students mtj-and-bfl-book-launchin the Second Year. With my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd (with whom I’ve published three books on genetic resources) I developed a Third Year module on genetic resources that seems to have been well-received (from some subsequent feedback I’ve received). I also contributed to a plant pathology module for Third Year students. But the bulk of my teaching was to MSc students on the graduate course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources – the very course I’d attended a decade earlier. My main focus was crop evolution, germplasm collecting, and agricultural systems, among others. And of course there was supervision of PhD and MSc student research projects.

One of the responsibilities I enjoyed was tutoring undergraduate students, and always had an open door if they needed to see me. It quite shocked me in the late 1990s when my elder daughter, then a student at Swansea University, told me that her tutors had very limited and defined access hours for students. Of course you can’t be on call all day, every day, but you have to be there if a student really need to see you. And my tutees knew that if my office door was open (as it mostly was) they were free to come in and see me.

Once the four departments of the School of Biological Sciences merged into a single department in 1988, I aligned myself with and joined the Plant Genetics Group, and found a better role for myself. I also joined and became Deputy Chair of a cross-disciplinary group called Environmental Research Management (ERM) whose aim was to promote the strength of environment-related research across the university. Through ERM I became acquainted with Professor Martin Parry, and together with Brian Ford-Lloyd we published a book on genetic resources and climate change in 1990, and another in 2014 after we had retired.

Moving on
Even though the prospect of promotion to Senior Lecturer was quite good (by 1989 I’d actually moved on to the Senior Lecturer pay scale), I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with university life by that time. Margaret Thatcher and her government had consistently assaulted the higher education sector, and in any case I couldn’t see things getting any better for some years to come. In this I was unfortunately proved correct. In September 1990 a circular dropped into my post, advertising a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. This was for a germplasm specialist and first head of the Genetic Resources Center. So I applied, was interviewed in January 1991, and accepted the position with a view to joining the institute from 1 July. They actually wanted me to start on 1 April. But as I explained—and IRRI Management accepted—I had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill at the university. In February I began to teach my third year module on genetic resources for the last time, and set the exams for all students to take in May and June. Once the marking and assessments had been completed, I was free to leave.

Friday 28 June was my last day, ending with a small farewell party in the School. I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. And, as they say, the rest is history. I never looked back. But now, retirement is sweet, as are my memories.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
¹ Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 and, recognizing that his departure would leave a big hole in the MSc teaching, the university approved the recruitment of a lecturer in plant genetic resources (with a focus on crop evolution, flowering plant taxonomy, and the like) essentially covering those areas where Jack had contributed.
² Dick Sawyer told me that applying for the Birmingham position was the right thing to do at that stage of my career. However, the day before I traveled to the UK he called me to his office to wish me well, and to let me know whichever way the interview went, he would have a new five-year contract waiting on his desk for me on my return. From my point of view (and I hope CIP’s) it was a win-win situation. Thus I left for the interview at Birmingham full of confidence.

 

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket . . . or your seeds in a single genebank

On 20 May 2015, a long article was published in The Guardian about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), popularly—and rather unfortunately—known as the ‘Doomsday Vault’. I’ve recently been guilty of using that moniker simply because that’s how the vault has come to be known, rightly or wrongly, in the media.

Authored by US-based environment correspondent of The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, the article had the headline grabbing title: The doomsday vault: the seeds that could save a post-apocalyptic world.

You get a flavor of what’s in store, however, from the very first paragraph. Goldenberg writes: ‘One Tuesday last winter, in the town nearest to the North Pole, Robert Bjerke turned up for work at his regular hour and looked at the computer monitor on his desk to discover, or so it seemed for a few horrible moments, that the future of human civilisation was in jeopardy.’

Turns out there was a relatively minor glitch in one of the supplementary cooling systems of this seed repository under the Arctic permafrost where millions of seeds of the world’s most important food staples and other species are being stored, duplicating the germplasm conservation efforts of the genebanks from which they were sent. Hardly the stuff of Apocalypse Now. So while making a favorable case for the need to store seeds in a genebank like the Svalbard vault, Goldenberg ends her introduction with this somewhat controversial statement: ‘Seed banks are vulnerable to near-misses and mishaps. That was the whole point of locating a disaster-proof back-up vault at Svalbard. But what if there was a bigger glitch – one that could not be fixed by borrowing a part from the local shop? There is now a growing body of opinion that the world’s faith, in Svalbard and the Crop Trust’s broader mission to create seed banks, is misplaced. [The emphasis in bold is mine.] Those who have worked with farmers in the field, especially in developing countries, which contain by far the greatest variety of plants, say that diversity cannot be boxed up and saved in a single container—no matter how secure it may be. Crops are always changing, pests and diseases are always adapting, and global warming will bring additional challenges that remain as yet unforeseen. In a perfect world, the solution would be as diverse and dynamic as plant life itself.’ 

I have several concerns about the article—and the many comments it elicited that stem, unfortunately, from lack of understanding on the one hand and ignorance and prejudice on the other.

  • Goldenberg gives the impression that it’s an either/or situation of ex situ conservation in a genebank versus in situ conservation in farmers’ fields or natural environments (in the case of crop wild relatives).
  • There is a perception apparently held by some that the development of the SGSV has been detrimental to the cause of in situ conservation of crop wild relatives.
  • Because there is no research or use of the germplasm stored in the SGSV, then it only has an ‘existence value’. Of course this does not take into account the research on and use of the same germplasm in the genebanks from which it was sent to Svalbard. Therefore Svalbard by its very nature is assumed to be very expensive.
  • The role of Svalbard as a back-up to other genebank efforts is not emphasized sufficiently. As many genebanks do not have adequate access to long-term conservation facilities, the SGSV is an important support at no cost directly to those genebanks as far as I am aware. However, Svalbard can never be a panacea. If seeds of poor quality (i.e less than optimum viability) are stored in the vault then they will deteriorate faster than good seeds. As the saying goes: ‘Junk in, junk out’.
  • The NGO perspective is interesting. It seems it’s hard for some of our NGO colleagues to accept that use of germplasm stored in genebanks actually does benefit farmers.Take for example the case of submergence tolerant rice, now being grown by farmers in Bangladesh and other countries on land where a consistent harvest was almost unheard of before. Or the cases where farmers have lost varieties due to natural disasters but have had them replaced because they were in a genebank. My own experience in the Cagayan valley in the northern Philippines highlights this very well after a major typhoon in the late 1990s devastated the rice agriculture of that area. See the section about on farm management of rice germplasm in this earlier post. They also still harbour a concern that seeds in genebanks are at the mercy of being expropriated by multinationals. In the comments, Monsanto was referred to many times, as was the issue of GMOs. I addressed this in the comment I contributed.

I added this comment that same day on The Guardian web site:
‘For a decade during the 1990s I managed one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks – the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Large, because it holds over 116,000 samples of cultivated varieties and wild species of rice. And important, because rice is the most important food staple feeding half the world’s population several times daily.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), the so-called ‘Doomsday Vault’ in Spitsbergen, holds on behalf of IRRI an almost complete duplicate set of samples (called ‘accessions’), in case something should happen to the genebank in Los Baños, south of Manila. I should add that for decades the USDA has also held a duplicate set in its genebank at Fort Collins in Colorado, under exactly the same ‘black box’ terms as the SGSV.

Germplasm is conserved so that it can be studied and used in plant breeding to enhance the productivity of the rice crop, to increase its resilience in the face of climate change, or to meet the challenge of new strains of diseases and pests. The application of molecular biology is unlocking the mysteries of this enormous genetic diversity, making it accessible for use in rice improvement much more efficiently than in past decades.

Many genebanks round the world and the collections they manage do not have access to long-term and safe storage facilities. This is where the SGSV plays an important role. Genebanks can be at risk from a whole range of natural threats (earthquakes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, etc.) or man-made threats: conflicts, lack of resources, and inadequate management that can lead to fires, flooding, etc. Just take the example of the International Rice Genebank. The Philippines are subject to the natural threats mentioned, but the genebank was designed and built to withstand these. The example of the ICARDA genebank in Aleppo highlights the threat to these facilities from being located in a conflict zone.

To understand more about what it means to conserve a crop like rice please visit this post on my blog.  There is an enlightening 15 minute video there that I made about the genebank.

It is not a question of taking any set of seeds and putting them into cold storage. Only ‘good’ seeds will survive for any length of time under sub-zero conditions. Many studies have shown that if stored at -18C, seeds with initial high viability may be stored for decades even hundreds of years. The seeds of many plant species – including most of the world’s most important food crops like rice, wheat, maize and many others conform to this pattern. What I can state unequivocally is that the seeds from the genebanks of the world’s most important genebanks, managed like that of IRRI under the auspices of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), have been routinely tested for viability and only the best sent to Svalbard.

Prof. Phil Pardey, University of Minnesota

Prof. Phil Pardey, University of Minnesota

The other aspect of Goldenberg’s otherwise excellent article are the concerns raised by a number of individuals whose ‘comments’ are quoted. I count both Phil Pardey and Nigel Maxted among my good friends, and it seems to me that their comments have been taken completely out of context. I have never heard them express such views in such a blunt manner. Their perspectives on conservation and use, and in situ vs. ex situ are much more nuanced as anyone will see for themselves from reading their many publications. The SEARICE representative I do not know, but I’ve had many contacts with her organization. It’s never a question of genebank or ex situ conservation versus on-farm or in situ conservation. They are complementary and mutually supportive approaches. Crop varieties will die out for a variety of reasons. If they can be stored in a genebank so much the better (not all plant species can be stored successfully as seeds, as was mentioned in Goldenberg’s article). The objection to genebanks on the grounds of permitting multinationals to monopolize these important genetic resources is a red herring and completely without foundation.

So the purpose of the SGSV is one of not ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’. Unfortunately the name ‘Doomsday Vault’ as used by Goldenberg has come to imply a post cataclysm world. It’s really much more straightforward than that. The existence of the SGSV is part of humanity’s genetic insurance policy, risk mitigation, and business continuity plan for a wise and forward-thinking society.’

Over the next couple of days others chipped in with first hand knowledge of the SGSV or genetic conservation issues in general.

Simon Jeppsonsiminjeppson is someone who has first-hand knowledge and experience of the SGSV, and he wrote: ‘I’m currently working as the project coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on behalf of NordGen and I just wanted to add some of my reflections on this article some of the comments.

This article is an interesting read but a rather unbalanced one. The temperature increase that is described as putting the world heritage in jeopardy is a misconception. There has been a background study used as a worst case scenario during the planning stage of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault based on the seeds stored in the old abandoned mine shaft mentioned. These results were published in 2003 and even the most recent data (after 25 years in permafrost conditions prevailing in the same mountain without active cooling) shows that all samples are still viable. Anyone curious about this can for themselves try out various storage temperatures and find out the predicted storage time for specific crops at: http://data.kew.org/sid/viability/

Further I have some reflections regarding some of the recently posted comments. The statement “Most seed resources for plant breeding come from farmers’ fields via national seed stores in developing countries: these countries are not depositing in Svalbard.” is wrong; more than 60% of the deposited material originates from developing countries. Twenty-three of depositors represent national or regional institutes situated in developing counties, 12 are international centers and 28 are from developed countries according to IMF. This data is readily available at: http://www.nordgen.org/sgsv

Finally, a comment about the statement that “Seeds will not be distributed – only ever sent back to the institute that provided them. The reason is that seeds commonly have seed-borne diseases, sometimes nasty viruses and the rest.” This statement is also a misconception. The seeds samples stored in the vault are of the same seed lots already readily distributed worldwide from the depositing institutes. There are more than 1750 plant genetic institutes many of them distributing several thousand samples every year.’

maxted-nigel-Cropped-110x146Nigel Maxted is a senior lecturer in the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham. As I suspected, when I commented on Goldenberg’s article, Nigel’s contribution to the discussion was taken out of context. He commented: ‘I believe I have been mis-quoted in this article, I do think the Svalbard genebank is worthwhile and I hope the Trust reach their funding goal, even though ex situ does freeze evolution for the accessions included, it provides our best chance of long-term stability for preserving agrobiodiversity in an increasingly unstable world.

I was trying to make a more nuanced point to Suzanne, that I strongly support complementary conservation that involves both in situ and ex situ actions. However at the moment if we compare the financial commitment to in situ and ex situ conservation of agrobiodiversity, globally over 99% of funding is spent on ex situ alone, therefore by any stretch of the imagination can we be considered to be implementing a complementary approach? I was used to make a point and I suppose it would be naive of me to complain, but I hope one day we will stop trying to create an artificial dichotomy between the two conservation strategies and wake up to the need for real complementary conservation. Conservation that includes a balanced range of in situ actions as well to conservation agrobiodiversity before it is too late for us all.’

HawtinGeoff Hawtin is someone who knows what he’s talking about. As Director General of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute for just over a decade from 1991, and the founding Executive Secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Geoff had several telling comments: ‘As someone who has worked for the last 25 years to help conserve the genetic diversity of our food crops, I welcome the article by Suzanne Goldenberg in spite of its very many inaccuracies and misconceptions. She rightly draws attention to the plight of what is arguably the world’s most important resource in the fight against food and nutritional insecurity. If this article results in more attention and funds being devoted to safeguarding this resource—whether on farm or in genebanks—it will have served a useful purpose.

The dichotomy between in situ and ex situ conservation is a false one. The two are entirely complementary and both approaches are vital. For farmers around the world the genetic diversity of their landraces and local varieties is their lifeblood—a living resource that they can use and mould to help meet their current and future needs and those of their families.

But we all live in a world of rapid and momentous change and a world in which we all depend for our food on crops that may have originated continents away. The diversity an African farmer—or plant breeder—needs to improve her maize or beans may well be found in those regions where these crops were originally domesticated – in this case in Latin America, where to this day genetic diversity of these two crops remains greatest. Without the work of genebanks in gathering and maintaining vast collections of such genetic diversity, how can such farmers and breeders hope to have access to the traits they need to develop new crop varieties that can resist or tolerate new diseases and pests, or that can produce higher yields of more nutritious food, or that are able to meet the ever growing threats of heat, drought and flooding posed by climate change?

Scientists have been collecting genetic diversity since at least the 1930s, but efforts expanded significantly in the 1970s and 80s in response to growing recognition that diversity was rapidly disappearing from farmers fields in many parts of the world as a result of major shifts in agricultural production systems and the introduction and adoption of new, higher yielding varieties. Today, thanks to these pioneering efforts, diversity is being conserved in genebanks that no longer exists in the wild or on farmers’ fields.

The common misconception that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault exists to save the world following an apocalyptic disaster is perpetuated, even in the title of the article. In reality, the SGSV is intended to provide a safety-net as a back-up for the world’s more than 1,700 genebanks which themselves, as pointed out in the article, are often far from secure. At a cost of about £6 million to build and annual running and maintenance costs of less than £200,000 surely this ranks as the world’s most inexpensive yet arguably most valuable insurance policy.’

Susan_BragdonFinally, among the genetic resources experts, Susan Bragdon made the following comments: ‘I think the author overstates the fierce debates between the proponents of ex situ and in situ conservation. Most would agree that both are needed with in situ being complemented by ex situ.

The controversy over money is because funders are not understanding this need for both and may feel they have checked off that box by funding Svalbard (which is perhaps better seen as an insurance policy—one never hopes to have to use one’s insurance policy.) Svalbard is of course sexier than the on-farm development and conservation of diversity by small scale farmers around the world. Donors can jet in, go dog sledding, see polar bears. Not as sexy to visit most small-scale farms but there are more and more exceptions (e.g., the Potato Park in Peru)

Articles like this set up a false choice between ex situ and in situ which is simply not shared except by a few loud voices. We need to work together to create the kind of incentives that make small scale farming in agrobiodiverse settings an attractive life choice.’

In her staff biography on the Quaker United Nations Office web page, it relates that ‘from 1997-2005 Susan worked with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute as a Senior Scientist, Law & Policy, on legal and policy issues related to plant genetic resources and in particular managed projects on intellectual property rights, Farmers’ Rights, biotechnology and biological diversity, and on developing decision-making tools for the development of policy and law to manage plant genetic resources in the interest of food security.’

Comments are now closed on The Guardian website for this article. I thought it would useful to bring together some of the expert perspectives in the hope of balancing the arguments—since so many readers had taken the ‘apocalypse’ theme at face value— and making them more widely available.

When I have time, I’ll address some of the perspectives about genebank standards.