In the blink of an eye, it seems, 50 years have passed

The first week of October 1967. 50 years ago, to the day and date. Monday 2 October.

I was setting off from my home in north Staffordshire to the port city of Southampton on the the UK’s south coast (via London for a couple of nights), to begin a three year BSc Combined Honours degree course in [Environmental] Botany and Geography at the university. I was about to become a Freshman or ‘Fresher’. Not only anticipating being away from home for the first time (although I’d always been sort of independent), I was looking forward to the excitement of ‘Freshers’ Week’ to make new friends, discovering new activities to take up.

On the afternoon of Wednesday 4 October, I joined the ‘Freshers’ Special’ from Waterloo Station in London, a train chartered by the Students’ Union, and met several fellow students in the same compartment who remained close friends throughout my time at Southampton. Unlike mainline rail services, our train stopped at the small suburban station at Swaythling, and hordes of Freshers were disgorged on to the platform and into buses to take them to their respective Hall of Residence, several of which were close-by.

I’d accepted a place in South Stoneham House (becoming Vice President of the Junior Common Room in my second year in autumn 1968), comprising a sixteen floor tower (now condemned for habitation as there’s a lot of asbestos) alongside a rather elegant Queen Anne mansion built in 1708.

I later discovered that the grounds had been landscaped by Capability Brown. Quite a revelation considering my interest in these things nowadays associated with my membership of the National Trust. It’s sad to know what has happened to South Stoneham in the last decade or so.

I had a room on the sixth floor, with a view overlooking Woodmill Lane to the west, towards the university, approximately 1.2 miles and 25 minutes away on foot. In the next room to mine, or perhaps two doors away, I met John Grainger who was also signed up for the same course as me. John had grown up in Kenya where his father worked as an entomologist. Now that sounded quite exotic to me.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I met the other students who had enrolled for Combined Honours as well as single honours courses in botany or geography, and others who were taking one of these as a two-year subsidiary or one-year ancillary subject.

We were five Combined Honours students: Stuart Christophers from Devon, Jane Elliman from Stroud in Gloucestershire, another whose name was Michael (I forget his surname; he came from Birmingham), John and me. Failing his exams at the end of the first year in early summer 1968, Michael was asked to withdraw, as were about one third of the botany class, leaving fewer than twenty students to head off to an end-of-year field course in Co. Clare, Ireland.

End of first year field course in Co. Clare, July 1968. Dept of Botany lecturers Alan Myers and Leslie Watson are on the left. Beside them is Jenny ? Back row, L-R: Chris ? (on shoulders), Paul Freestone, Gloria Davies, John Grainger, Peter Winfield. Middle row: Nick Lawrence (crouching), Alan Mackie, Margaret Barran, Diana Caryl, John Jackson (Zoology with Botany subsidiary), Stuart Christophers. Front row: Jill Andison, Janet Beasley, Patricia Banner, Mary Goddard, Jane Elliman, Chris Kirby.

As ‘Combined’ students we had, of course, roots in both departments, and tutors in both as well: Dr Joyce ‘Blossom’ Lambert (an eminent quantitative ecologist) in Botany, and Dr Brian Birch, among others, in Geography. However, because of the course structure, we actually had many more contact hours in botany, and for my part, I felt that this was my ‘home department’.

Three years passed quickly and (mainly) happily. The odd pull at the old heart strings, falling in and out of love. I took up folk dancing, and started a Morris dancing team, The Red Stags, that continues today but outside the university as a mixed male-female side dancing Border Morris.

And so, in late May 1970 (the day after the Late Spring Bank Holiday), we sat (and passed) our final exams (Finals), left Southampton, and basically lost contact with each other.

In developing this blog, I decided to try and track down my ‘Combined’ colleagues John, Stuart, and Jane. Quite quickly I found an email address for Stuart and sent a message, introducing myself. We exchanged several emails, and he told me a little of what he had been up to during the intervening years.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to find any contact information for John, although I did come across references to a ‘John Grainger’ who had been involved in wildlife conservation in the Middle East, primarily Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The profile seemed right. I knew that John had stayed on at Southampton to complete a PhD in ecology. Beyond that – nothing! Then, out of the blue in late 2015, John contacted me after he’d come across my blog and posts that I had written about Southampton. We’ve been in touch ever since.

To date, I’ve had no luck tracking down Jane.

Why choose Southampton?
Southampton was a small university in the late 1960s, maybe fewer than 5000 undergraduates. There was no medical faculty, and everything was centred on the Highfield campus. I recently asked John why he decided to study at Southampton. Like me, it seems it was almost by chance. We both sat the same A level exams: biology, geography, and English literature, and we both applied for quite a wide range of university courses. He got a place at Southampton through clearing; I had been offered a provisional place (Southampton had been my third or fourth choice), and my exam results were sufficiently good for the university to confirm that offer. I’d been very impressed with the university when I went for an interview in February. Instinctively, I knew that I could settle and be happy at Southampton, and early on had decided I would take up the offer if I met the grade.

John and I are very much in agreement: Southampton was the making of us. We enjoyed three years academics and social life. It gave us space to grow up, develop friendships, and relationships. As John so nicely put it: . . . thank you Southampton University – you launched me.

My story after 1970
After Southampton, I moved to the University of Birmingham in September 1970, completing a MSc in conservation and use of plant genetic resources in 1971, then a PhD under potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes in 1975. Thus began a career lasting more than 40 years, working primarily on potatoes and rice.

By January 1973 I’d moved to Peru to work in international agricultural research for development at the International Potato Center (CIP), remaining in Peru until 1975, and moving to Costa Rica between 1976 and 1981. Although it was not my training, I did some significant work on a bacterial pathogen of potatoes in Costa Rica.

I moved back to the UK in March 1981, and from April I taught at the University of Birmingham in the Dept. of Plant Biology (formerly botany) for ten years.

By 1991, I was becoming restless, and looking for new opportunities. So I upped sticks and moved with my family to the Philippines in July 1991 to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), firstly as Head of the Genetic Resources Center until 2001, and thereafter until my retirement in April 2010 as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

In the Philippines, I learned to scuba dive, and made over 360 dives off the south coast of Luzon, one of the most biodiverse marine environments in the country, in Asia even.

Retirement is sweet! Back in the UK since 2010, my wife Steph and I have become avid National Trusters (and seeing much more of the UK than we had for many years); and my blog absorbs probably more time than it should. I’ve organized two major international rice congresses in Vietnam in 2010 and Thailand in 2014 and just completed a one year review of the international genebanks of eleven CGIAR centers.

Steph and me at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland in mid-September 2017

I was made an OBE in the 2012 New Year’s Honours for services to international food science, and attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace in February 2012.

Receiving my gong from HRH The Prince of Wales (L); with Philippa and Steph after the ceremony in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace (R)

Steph and I met at Birmingham when she joined the genetic resources MSc course in 1971. We married in Lima in October 1973 and are the proud parents of two daughters. Hannah (b. 1978 in Costa Rica) is married to Michael, lives in St Paul, Minnesota, and works as a group director for a company designing human capital and training solutions. Philippa (b. 1982), married to Andi, lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, and is Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University. Both are PhD psychologists! We are now grandparents to four wonderful children: Callum (7) and Zoë (5) in Minnesota; and Elvis (6) and Felix (4) in Newcastle.

Our first full family get-together in the New Forest in July 2016. Standing: Michael and Andi. Sitting, L-R: Callum, Hannah, Zoë, Mike, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa

Stuart’s story (in his own words, 2013)
I spent my first year after Southampton teaching English in Sweden and the following year doing a Masters at Liverpool University. From there I joined Nickersons, a Lincolnshire-based plant breeding/seeds business, acquired by Shell and now part of the French Group Limagrain. 

In 1984 I returned to my native Devon to run a wholesale seeds company that fortunately, as the industry rationalised, had an interest in seed-based pet and animal feeds. Just prior to coming home to Devon I was based near York working with a micronutrient specialist. A colleague of mine there was Robin Eastwood¹ who certainly knew of you. Robin tragically was killed in a road accident while doing consultancy work in Nigeria.

This is my third year of retirement. We sold on our business which had become centred around wild bird care seven years ago now and I stayed on with the new owners for four years until it was time to go !

Stuart has a son and daughter (probably about the same as my two daughters) and three grandchildren.

John’s story
John stayed on at Southampton and in 1977 was awarded his PhD for a study that used clustering techniques to structure and analyse grey scale data from scanned aerial photographs to assess their use in large-scale vegetation survey. In 1975 he married his girlfriend from undergraduate days, Teresa. After completing his PhD, John and Teresa moved to Iran, where he took up a British Council funded lecturing post at the University of Tehran’s Higher School of Forestry and Range Management in Gorgan, on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea.

Alice, Teresa, and John at the Hejaz railway in Saudi Arabia, c. 1981/82.

By early 1979 they were caught up in the Iranian Revolution, and had to make a hurried escape from the country, landing up eventually in Saudi Arabia in February 1980, where John joined the Institute of Meteorology and Arid Land Studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. Between Iran and Saudi Arabia there was an ‘enforced’ period of leisure in the UK, where their daughter Alice was born in December 1979.

John’s work in Jeddah included establishing an herbarium, researching traditional range conservation practices (hima system), and exploring places with intact habitats and interesting biodiversity. This is when his career-long interest in and contributions to wildlife management took hold, and in 1987 he joined a Saudi Commission for wildlife conservation. The work included an ambitious programme of establishing protected areas and breeding endangered native wildlife species for re-introduction – particularly Arabian oryx, gazelles and houbara bustards. The photos below show some of the areas John visited in Saudi Arabia, often with air logistical support from the Saudi military. 

In 1992, he was recruited by IUCN to lead a protected area development project in Ghana where he spent an exhausting but exhilarating 28 months doing management planning surveys of eight protected areas including Mole National Park. Then in 1996, the Zoological Society of London appointed him as  the project manager for a five year, €6 million EU-funded project in South Sinai to establish and develop the Saint Katherine Protectorate. John stayed until 2003, but by then, Teresa and he had separated; Alice had gained a good degree from St Andrew’s University in Scotland.

With a range of other assignments, and taking some time out between in Croatia, South Africa and other places, he was back in Egypt by 2005 to head up a project aimed at enhancing the institutional capacity of the Nature Conservation Sector for planning and implementing nature conservation activities. By 2010, and happily settled with a new partner, Suzanne, John moved to South Africa for several years, returning to Somerset in the past year. Suzanne and John were married in 2014. Retirement brings extra time for pastimes such as sculpting (many stunning pieces can be seen on his website), and some continuing consultancies in the wildlife management sector.

But I can’t conclude this brief account of John’s career without mentioning his thoughts on what being at Southampton meant to him: I have many reasons to be grateful to Southampton University – the degree involved me in the nascent environmental movement and provided me with the general tools and qualifications to participate professionally in the field. It was I think in the years that I was a postgraduate that I learned the true value of being at university and to become intellectually curious.

John sent me a more detailed account of his post-Southampton career that you can read here.

What next?
Fifty fruitful years. Time has flown by. I wonder what others from our cohort got up to? I have some limited information:

  • Allan Mackie went into brewing, and he and I used to meet up regularly in Birmingham when I was a graduate student there.
  • Peter Winfield joined what is now the Department for Agriculture & Fisheries for Scotland at East Craigs in Edinburgh.
  • Diana Caryl married barrister Geoffrey Rowland (now Sir Geoffrey) who she met at Southampton, and moved to Guernsey, where Geoff served as the Bailiff between 2005 and 2012. She has been active with the plant heritage of that island.
  • Mary Goddard completed a PhD at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge (awarded by the University of Cambridge), and married Dr Don MacDonald from the university’s Dept. of Genetics.
  • Zoologist John Jackson (who took the subsidiary botany course for two years) completed a Southampton PhD on deer ecology in the New Forest, and spent many years in Argentina working as a wildlife coordinator for INTA, the national agricultural research institute.

The others? Perhaps someone will read this blog and fill in some details. As to geography, I have no contacts whatsoever.

However, through one of the earliest posts on this blog, Proud to be a botanist, which I wrote in April 2012, I was contacted by taxonomist Les Watson, who was one of the staff who took us on the first year field course to Co. Clare, and by graduate student Bob Mepham, who had taught a catch-up chemistry course to students like John Grainger and me, as we hadn’t studied that at A Level, and which was a requirement to enter the Single Honours course in botany. Another botany graduate, Brian Johnson, two years ahead of me and who sold me some books he no longer needed, also commented on one post about a field course in Norfolk.

I’m ever hopeful that others will make contact.


¹Robin Eastwood had completed the Birmingham MSc course in the early 1970s when I had already left for Peru. If memory serves me right, Robin did start a PhD, and was around the department when I returned from Lima in Spring 1975 to submit my PhD dissertation.

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.


There’s more to genetic resources than Svalbard

Way above the Arctic Circle (in fact at 78°N) there is a very large and cold hole in the ground. Mostly it is dark. Few people visit it on a daily basis.

A germplasm backup for the world
Nevertheless it’s a very important hole in the ground. It is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where more than 70 genebanks have placed — for long-term security, and under so-called blackbox storage [1] — a duplicate sample of seeds from their genetic resources (or germplasm) collections of plant species important for agriculture. Many of the most important and genetically diverse germplasm collections are backed up in Svalbard. But there are hundreds more collections, including some very important national collections, still not represented there.

A beacon of light – and hope – shining out over the Arctic landscape. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

Since it opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault has hardly ever been out of the media; here is a recent story from Spain’s El Pais, for example. If the public knows anything at all about genetic resources and conservation of biodiversity, they have probably heard about that in relation to Svalbard (and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex).

The Svalbard Vault is a key and vital component of a worldwide network of genebanks and genetic resources collections. It provides a long-term safety backup for germplasm that is, without doubt, the genetic foundation for food security; I have blogged about this before. At Svalbard, the seeds are ‘sleeping’ deep underground, waiting to be wakened when the time comes to resurrect a germplasm collection that is under threat. Waiting for the call that hopefully never comes.

Svalbard comes to the rescue
But that call did come in 2015 for the first and only time since the vault opened. Among the first depositors in Svalbard in 2008 were the international genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium, including the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). The ICARDA genebank conserves important cereal and legume collections from from the Fertile Crescent (the so-called ‘Cradle of Agriculture’) in the Middle East, and from the Mediterranean region. Until the civil war forced them out of Syria, ICARDA’s headquarters were based in Aleppo. Now it has reestablished its genebank operations in Morocco and Lebanon. In order to re-build its active germplasm collections, ICARDA retrieved over 15,000 samples from Svalbard in 2015, the only time that this has happened since the vault was opened. Now, thanks to successful regeneration of those seeds in Morocco and Lebanon, samples are now being returned to Svalbard to continue their long sleep underground.

ICARDA genebank staff ready to send precious seeds off to the Arctic. Dr Ahmed Amri, the ICARDA Head of Genetic Resources, is third from the right. Photo courtesy of ICARDA.

Another point that is often not fully understood, is that Svalbard is designated as a ‘secondary’ safety backup site. Genebanks sending material to Svalbard are expected to have in place a primary backup site and agreement. In the case of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which I am most familiar with for obvious reasons, duplicate germplasm samples of almost the entire collection of 127,000 accessions, are stored under blackbox conditions in the -18°C vaults of The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. Although ICARDA had safety backup arrangements in place for its collections, these involved several institutes. To reestablish its active collections in 2015 it was simpler and more cost effective to retrieve the samples from just one site: Svalbard.

We see frequent reports in the media about seeds being shipped to Svalbard.  Just last week, the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, Scotland, announced that it was sending seeds of potatoes from the Commonwealth Potato Collection to Svalbard; it was even reported on the BBC. A few days ago, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico sent a ton of seeds to the vault. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in Cali, Colombia sent its latest shipment of beans and tropical forages last October.


Dr Åsmund Asdal, Coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, from the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), receives a shipment of germplasm from CIAT in October 2016. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

The germplasm iceberg
Key and vital as Svalbard is, it is just the tip of the germplasm iceberg. The Svalbard vault is just like the part of an iceberg that you see. There’s a lot more going on in the genetic resources world that the public never, or hardly ever, sees.

There are, for example, other types of genetic resources that will never be stored at Svalbard. Why? Some plant species cannot be easily stored as seeds because they either reproduce vegetatively (and are even sterile or have low fertility at the very least; think of bananas, potatoes, yams or cassava); or have so-called recalcitrant seeds that are short-lived or cannot be stored at low temperature and moisture content like the seeds of many cereals and other food crop species (the very species stored at Svalbard). Many fruit tree species have recalcitrant seeds.

Apart from the ICARDA story, which was, for obvious reasons, headline news, we rarely see or hear in the media the incredible stories behind those seeds: where they were collected, who is working hard to keep them alive and studying the effects of storage conditions on seed longevity, and how plant breeders have crossed them with existing varieties to make them more resistant to diseases or better able to tolerate environmental change, such as higher temperatures, drought or flooding. Last year I visited a potato and sweet potato genebank in Peru, a bean and cassava genebank in Colombia, and one for wheat and maize in Mexico; then in Kenya and Ethiopia, I saw how fruit trees and forage species are being conserved.

Here is what happens at IRRI. You can’t do these things at Svalbard!

These are the day-to-day (and quite expensive) operations that genebanks manage to keep germplasm alive: as seeds, as in vitro cultures, or as field collections.

But what is the value of genebank collections? Check out a PowerPoint presentation I gave at a meeting last June. One can argue that all germplasm has an inherent value. We value it for its very existence (just like we would whales or tigers). Germplasm diversity is a thing of beauty.

Most landraces or wild species in a genebank have an option value, a potential to provide a benefit at some time in the future. They might be the source of a key trait to improve the productivity of a crop species. Very little germplasm achieves actual value, when it used in plant breeding and thereby bringing about a significant increase in productivity and economic income.

There are some spectacular examples, however, and if only a small proportion of the economic benefits of improved varieties was allocated for long-term conservation, the funding challenge for genebanks would be met. Human welfare and nutrition are also enhanced through access to better crop varieties.

impact-paper_small_page_01Last year, in preparation for a major fund-raising initiative for its Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, the Crop Trust prepared an excellent publication that describes the importance of genebanks and their collections, why they are needed, and how they have contributed to agricultural productivity. The economic benefits from using crop wild relatives are listed in Table 2 on page 8. Just click on the cover image (right) to open a copy of the paper. A list of wild rice species with useful agronomic traits is provided in Table 3 on page 9.

Linking genebanks and plant breeding
Let me give you, once again, a couple of rice examples that illustrate the work of genebanks and the close links with plant breeding, based on careful study of genebank accessions.

The indica variety IR72 was bred at IRRI, and released in 1990. It became the world’s highest yielding rice variety. One of its ancestors, IR36 was, at one time, grown on more than 11 million hectares. IR72 has 22 landrace varieties and a single wild rice, Oryza nivara, in its pedigree. It gets its short stature ultimately from IR8, the first of the so-called ‘miracle rices’ that was released in 1966. IRRI celebrated the 50th anniversary of that release recently. Resistance to a devastating disease, grassy stunt virus, was identified in just one accession of O. nivara from India. That resistance undoubtedly contributed to the widespread adoption of both IR36 and IR72. Just click on the pedigree diagram below to open a larger image [2].

IR Varieties_TOC.indd

The pedigree of rice variety IR72, that includes 22 landrace varieties and one wild species, Oryza nivara. Courtesy of IRRI.

A more recent example has been the search for genes to protect rice varieties against flooding [3]. Now that might seem counter-intuitive given that rice in the main grows in flooded fields. But if rice is completely submerged for any length of time, it will, like any other plant, succumb to submergence and die. Or if it does recover, the rice crop will be severely retarded and yield very poorly.

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene after a period of inundation

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene following transient complete submergence. Photo courtesy of IRRI.

Seasonal flooding is a serious issue for farmers in Bangladesh and eastern India. So the search was on for genes that would confer tolerance of transient complete submergence. And it took 18 years or more from the discovery of the SUB1 gene to the release of varieties that are now widely grown in farmers’ fields, and bringing productivity backed to farming communities that always faced seasonal uncertainty. These are just two examples of the many that have been studied and reported on in the scientific press.

There are many more examples from other genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium that maintain that special link between conservation and use. But also from other collections around the world where scientists are studying and using germplasm samples, often using the latest molecular genetics approaches [4] for the benefit of humanity. I’ve just chosen to highlight stories from rice, the crop I’m most familiar with.

[1] Blackbox storage is described thus on the Crop Trust website ( “The depositors who will deposit material will do so consistently with relevant national and international law. The Seed Vault will only agree to receive seeds that are shared under the Multilateral System or under Article 15 of the International Treaty or seeds that have originated in the country of the depositor.

Each country or institution will still own and control access to the seeds they have deposited. The Black Box System entails that the depositor is the only one that can withdraw the seeds and open the boxes.” 

[2] Zeigler, RS (2014). Food security, climate change and genetic resources. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 1-15.

[3] Ismail, AM & Mackill, DJ (2014). Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 251-269.

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

Genebanking, East Africa style

As part of the evaluation of the CGIAR’s program on Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections (aka the Genebanks CRP), my colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I made site visits to two genebanks in Kenya and Ethiopia, at the World Agroforesty Centre (ICRAF) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), respectively.


L to R: Director General Tony Simons, Brian, Alice Muchugi, and me

Learning about trees
While I have visited ICRAF (the acronym for the institute’s former name, which is still used) a couple of times in the past, I had never visited the genebank, and was intrigued to learn more about the particularities of conserving tree germplasm for food and agriculture. And we were not disappointed.

ICRAF’s Genetic Resources Unit (GRU) is part of the Tree diversity, domestication and delivery science domain, and is managed by Dr Alice Muchugi. On its web site, it states that the GRU has a global role to collect, conserve, document, characterize and distribute a diverse collection of agroforestry trees, mainly focusing on indigenous species in all ICRAF working regions. The ICRAF seed bank in Nairobi and field genebanks in the regions ensure the supply of superior tree germplasm for research and conserve material for the benefit of present and future generations. The current aim of ex situ conservation activities at ICRAF is to be a world leader in the conservation of agroforestry tree germplasm and develop a global conservation system for priority agroforestry trees. Genetic resources databases provide information on agroforestry tree taxonomy, uses, suitability and sources of seed as well as details of the ICRAF agroforestry genetic resources collection. The Genetic Resources Strategy guides in ensuring that collections are conserved to international standards, encouraging quality research to fill information gaps and promote use, and sharing knowledge and germplasm to improve livelihoods.

The genebank holds more than 5000 accessions of some 190 tree species. Among the important species are the tallow tree (Allanblackia floribunda), the baobab (Adansonia spp.), and a whole slew of fruit tree species like mango.While many have seeds that can be stored at low temperature, others have short-lived or so-called recalcitrant seeds. Seed conservation is therefore quite challenging. Some species can only be maintained as living plants in field genebank collections at several sites around Africa and also in Peru. The conservation biology of some of the species is further complicated by sex! Some trees have separate male and female plants, known as dioecy. As you can imagine, this is a very important characteristic to know at the seedling stage, since it might take up to 25 years for a tree to flower. And it’s not much consolation for a farmer to discover then that he has planted only male trees. Knowing whether a seed or seedling is male or female is actually a rather important conservation objective.

Not only is the biology complicated for ICRAF’s genebank staff, seed size varies from the ‘dust’ of gum trees (Eucalyptus species) to fruits and seeds weighing a kilo or more. Many have very hard seed cases, and staff have to resort to garden secateurs to break into them, or even place a seed in a workbench vice and attack them with hammer and chisel! Because so few seeds are available for some species, the seedlings from germination tests are most often taken to the field nursery. In the following photos, Alice Muchugi and some of  her staff explain how seeds are tested in the laboratory and stored in the genebank

My genetic resources experience is limited mainly to potatoes and rice, each of which presents its own challenges. But nothing like the scale of agroforestry species. It was fascinating to see how Alice and her staff are successfully facing these challenges.

The Genetic Resources Research Institute (GeRRI) of Kenya
Brian and I took the opportunity of visiting the national genebank of Kenya, located at ‘at the former KARI Muguga South, 28 km from Nairobi, in Kiambu County. Muguga, located at an altitude of 2200 metres above sea-level, has a bimodal rainfall pattern and provides naturally cool temperatures that are conducive for genetic resources conservation‘. This was interesting for a number of reasons. We wanted to have a national perspective on the CGIAR genebanks program we were evaluating, but also to see how this national genebank was operating. The Institute Director, Dr Desterio Nyamongo, is also a Birmingham genetic resources alumnus, having studied for his MSc in the early 1990s (after I had left to join IRRI). I should add that Brian was the Course Director for the MSc course on plant genetic resources.

The genebank has more than 45,000 accessions of 2000 species, landraces and wild species, and aims eventually to cover the flora of Kenya. The comprises the usual facilities for data management, seed conservation, and cold storage units. We were very impressed with the program of the genebank, and it has engaged very actively in international agreements for the collection, conservation, and use of genetic resources. Its recent collaboration with Hyderabad-based ICRISAT has led to collections of sorghum, pigeonpea and finger millet in Kenya, and germplasm is now conserved in both the GeRRI and in ICRISAT’s regional genebank in Nairobi where it has already been evaluated for useful traits and selections released to farmers.

I had one small embarrassing moment as we were shown around the genebank. When introduced to one of the staff, Mr Joseph Kamau, he told me we had already met. My mind was a blank. In 1998, he had attended a training course at IRRI on morphological and agronomic characterisation of rice varieties, as part of the participation by Kenya in the IRRI-led (and Swiss-sponsored) Rice Biodiversity Project. There he is on the left in the second row.


Now, forages are another thing . . .
After Nairobi, Brian and I moved on to ILRI’s Addis Ababa campus. We had earlier visited ILRI’s headquarters in Nairobi, located a few miles west of ICRAF.

ILRI’s genebank has always been located in Ethiopia, and has a very large collection of forage species (legumes and grasses) important for livestock. It has almost 19,000 accessions of 1000 species. During our recent visit to Australia we heard about a strategy for the conservation of forage species that aims to rationalise the forages collection held at ILRI and CIAT in Colombia (that I visited at the end of July). Forages are complex to conserve. The breeding system for many is not fully understood, nor their tolerance of low temperature storage conditions. The strategy contemplates archiving some of the species, since it’s unlikely that they will be useful for agriculture, even in the medium-term.

The head of the genebank is Dr Jean Hanson, a seed physiologist by training, and another Birmingham alumna, both MSc (1973) and PhD. Jean and I received our PhD degrees at the same congregation in December 1975. Jean has tried to retire at least once, but was asked to return to her old position after her successor left ILRI after just one year. Nevertheless, Jean has her sights set on permanently retiring once the new genebank facilities in Addis are commissioned in 2017.

In managing a genebank, you sometimes have to make tough (even hard) decisions. I never expected to have to become hard-hatted!

But that’s exactly what we had to do during our visit, as Jean showed us round the impressive building that is being constructed around the existing cold store and will expand the conservation capacity significantly. It’s also interesting that the genebank and its collection will now be managed through ILRI’s Feed and Forages Biosciences program, whose new head, Dr Chris Jones is keen to use genomics to study and exploit the diversity in this important germplasm collection.

In these photos, Jean explained some of the complexities of seed increase in the greenhouse (these were Trifolium or clover species), and in the field where it’s often necessary to spatially separate different accessions to prevent cross pollination. She also showed us bar-coded samples in small refrigerators of the Most Original Samples – samples closest genetically to the germplasm collected in the field. We did go inside one of the cold stores after navigating our way through a construction site. Thus the hard hats for health and safety purposes.

This is an important investment by ILRI in its genetic resources conservation responsibilities, and is a great commitment for the future, based no doubt on the broader institutional support for genetic resources conservation through the Genebanks CRP (soon to become the Genebanks Platform).


If it’s Wednesday, it must be Colombia . . .

Not quite the ‘Road to Rio . . .’
I have just returned from one of the most hectic work trips I have taken in a very long time. I had meetings in three countries: Peru, Colombia, and Mexico in just over 6½ days.

And then, of course, there were four days of travel, from Birmingham to Lima (via Amsterdam), Lima to Cali (Colombia), then on to Mexico City, and back home (again via Amsterdam). That’s some going. Fortunately the two long-haul flights (BHX-AMS-LIM and MEX-AMS-BHX) were in business class on KLM. Even so the journeys from Lima to Cali (direct, on Avianca) and Cali to Mexico (via Panama City, on COPA) were 12 hours and 11 hours door-to-door, respectively, the former taking so long because we were delayed by more than 5 hours.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am leading the evaluation of the program to oversee the genebank collections in eleven of the CGIAR centers (known as the Genebanks CRP). Together with my team colleague, Marisé Borja, we met with the genebank managers at the International Potato Center (CIP, in Lima), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, in Cali), and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, in Texcoco near Mexico City).

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A drop of cognac.

It all started on Sunday 24 July, when I headed off to Birmingham Airport at 04:30 for a 6 o’clock flight to Amsterdam. Not really having slept well the night before, I can’t say I was in the best shape for flying half way round the world. I had a four hour stopover in Amsterdam, and managed to make myself more or less comfortable in the KLM lounge before boarding my Boeing 777-300 Lima flight sometime after noon. There’s not a lot to do on a long flight across the Atlantic except eat, drink and (try to) sleep. I mainly did the first two.

It never ceases to impress me just how vast South America is. Once we crossed the coast of Venezuela and headed south over the east of Colombia and northern Peru we must have flown for about three hours over rain forest as far as you could see. I wish I’d taken a few pictures of the interesting topography of abandoned river beds and oxbow lakes showing through all that dense vegetation. At one point we flew over a huge river, and there, on its banks, was a city, with an airport to the west. I checked later on Google Maps, and I reckon it must have been Iquitos in northern Peru on the banks of the Amazon. Over 2000 miles from the Atlantic, ocean going ships can sail all the way to Iquitos. I once visited Iquitos in about 1988 in search of cocoa trees, and we crossed the Amazon (about two miles wide at this point) in a small motorboat.

Then the majestic Andes came into view, and after crossing these we began our long descent into Lima, with impressive views of the mountains all the way and, nearer Lima, the coastal fogs that creep in off the Pacific Ocean and cling to the foothills of the Andes.

We landed on schedule at Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima around 18:00 (midnight UK time) so I had been travelling almost 20 hours since leaving home. I was quickly through Immigration and Customs, using the Preferencial (Priority) line reserved for folks needing special assistance. My walking stick certainly gives me the edge these days on airlines these days.

Unfortunately, the taxi that had been arranged to take me to my hotel, El Condado, in the Lima district of Miraflores (where Steph and I lived in the 1970s) was a no-show. But I quickly hired another through one of the official taxi agencies inside the airport (necessary because of the various scams perpetrated by the cowboy taxi drivers outside the terminal) at half the price of the pre-arranged taxi.

After a quick shower, I met up with old friends and former colleagues at CIP, Dr Roger Rowe and his wife Norma. I first joined CIP in January 1973, and Roger joined in July that same year as CIP’s first head of Breeding & Genetics. He was my first boss!

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They were in the bar, and we enjoyed several hours of reminiscences, and a couple of pisco sours (my first in almost two decades), and a ‘lite bite’ in the restaurant. It must have been almost 11 pm before I settled into bed. That was Sunday done and dusted. The work began the following morning.

All things potatoes . . . and more
I haven’t been to CIP since the 1990s. Given the tight schedule of meetings arranged for us, I didn’t get to see much more than the genebank and dining room.

CIP has a genebank collection of wild and cultivated potatoes (>4700 samples or accessions, most from the Andes of Peru), wild and cultivated sweet potatoes (>6400, Ipomoea spp.), and Andean roots and tubers (>1450) such as ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus), mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), and oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

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Native potato varieties.

Although potatoes are grown annually at the CIP experiment station at Huancayo, some six or more hours by road east of Lima, at over 10,000 feet in the Mantaro Valley, and sweet potatoes multiplied in greenhouses at CIP’s coastal headquarters at La Molina, the collections are maintained as in vitro cultures and, for potatoes at least, in cryopreservation at the temperature of liquid nitrogen. The in vitro collections are safety duplicated at other sites in Peru, with Embrapa in Brazil, and botanical seeds are safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

With a disease pressure from the many diseases that affect potato in its center of origin—fungal, bacterial, and particularly viruses—germplasm may only be sent out of the country if it has been declared free of these diseases. That requires growth in aseptic culture and treatments to eradicate viruses. It’s quite an operation. And the distribution does not even take into account all the hoops that everyone has to jump through to comply with local and international regulations for the exchange of germplasm.

The in vitro culture facilities at CIP are rather impressive. When I worked at CIP more than 40 years ago, in vitro culture was really in its infancy. Today, its application is almost industrial in scale.

Our host at CIP was Dr David Ellis, genebank manager, but we also met with several of the collection curators and managers.

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L to R: Ivan Manrique (Andean roots and tubers), Alberto Salas (consultant, wild potatoes), Marisé Borja (evaluation team), me, René Gómez (Senior Curator), David Ellis.

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Alberto Salas, now in his 70s, worked as assistant to Peruvian potato expert Prof. Carlos Ochoa. Alberto’s wealth of knowledge about wild potatoes is enormous. I’ve known Alberto since 1973, and he is one of the most humble and kind persons I have ever met.

Prior to our tour of the genebank, René Gómez and Fanny Vargas of the herbarium had found some specimens that I had made during my studies in Lima during 1973 and 1974. I was also able to confirm how the six digit germplasm numbering system with the prefix ’70’ had been introduced and related to earlier designations.

It was great to see how the support from the Genebanks CRP has brought about so many changes at CIP.

Lima has changed so much over the past couple of decades. It has spread horizontally and upwards. So many cars! In the district of Miraflores where we used to live, the whole area has been refurbished and become even smarter. So many boutiques and boutique restaurants. My only culinary regret is that the famous restaurant La Rosa Nautica, on a pier over the Pacific Ocean closed down about two months ago. It served great seafood and the most amazing pisco sours.

All too soon our two days in Lima were over. Next stop: Cali, Colombia.

Heading to the Cauca Valley . . . 
Our Avianca flight to Cali (an Embraer 190, operated by TACA Peru) left on time at 10:25. Once we’d reached our cruising altitude, the captain turned off the seat belt sign, and I headed to the toilet at the front of the aircraft, having been turned away from the one at the rear. Strange, I thought. I wasn’t allowed to use the one at the front either. It seems that both refused to flush. The captain decided to return to Lima, but as we still almost a full load of fuel, he had to burn of the excess so we could land safely. So, at cruising altitude and as we descended, he lowered the undercarriage and flaps to create drag which meant he had to apply more power to the engines to keep us flying, thereby burning more fuel. Down and down we went, circling all the time, for over an hour! We could have made it to Cali in the time it took us to return to Lima. We could have all sat there with legs crossed, I guess.

Once back on the ground, engineers assessed the situation and determined they could fix the sensor fault in about a couple of hours. We were taken back to the terminal for lunch, and around 15:30 we took off again, without further incident.

But as we waited at the departure gate for a bus to the aircraft, there was some impromptu entertainment by a group of musicians.

Unfortunately because of our late arrival in Cali, we missed an important meeting with the CIAT DG, who was not available the following days we were there.

CIAT was established in 1967, and is preparing for its 5oth anniversary next year.

Daniel Debouck, from Belgium, is CIAT’s genebank manager, and he has been there for more than 20 years. He steps down from this position at the end of the year, and will be replaced by Peter Wenzl who was at the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Bonn until the end of April this year. Daniel is an internationally-recognised expert on Phaseolus beans.

The CIAT genebank has three significant collections: wild and cultivated Phaseolus beans (almost 38,000 accessions), wild and cultivated cassava (Manihot spp., >6600 accessions in vitro or as ‘bonsai’ plants), and more than 23,000 accessions of tropical forages. Here’s an interesting fact: one line of the forage grass Brachiaria is grown on more than 100 million hectares in Brazil alone!

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Me and Daniel Debouck.

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Bean varieties.

The bean collections are easily maintained as seeds in cold storage, as can most of the forages. But, like potato, the cassava accessions present many of the same quarantine issues, have to be cleaned of diseases, particularly viruses, and maintained in tissue culture. Cryopreservation is not yet an option for cassava, and even in vitro storage needs more research to optimise it for many clones.

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QMS manuals in the germplasm health laboratory.

Like many of the genebanks, CIAT has been upgrading its conservation processes and procedures through the application of a Quality Management System (QMS). A couple of genebanks (including CIP) have opted for ISO certification, but I am of the opinion that this is not really suitable for most genebanks. Everything is documented, however,  including detailed risk assessments, and we saw that the staff at CIAT were highly motivated to perform to the highest standards. In all the work areas, laboratory manuals are always to hand for easy reference.

An exciting development at CIAT is the planned USD18-20 million biodiversity center, with state of the art conservation and germplasm health facilities, construction of which is expected to begin next year. It is so designed to permit the expected thousands of visitors to have good views of what goes on in a genebank without actually having to enter any of the work areas.

On our first night in Cali, our hosts graciously wined and dined us at Platillos Voladores, regarded as one of Cali’s finest restaurants.


We had the private room for six persons with all the wine bottles on the wall, which can be seen in this photo above.

Arriba, arriba! Andale!
On Saturday afternoon around 15:30, we headed to Mexico City via Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. Cali’s international airport is being expanded significantly and there are now international flights to Europe as well as the USA. This must be great for CIAT staff, as the airport is only 15 minutes or so from the research center.

After takeoff, we climbed out of the Cauca Valley and had great views of productive agriculture, lots of sugar cane.


Tocumen is lot busier than when I was travelling through therein the late 1970s. With several wide-bodied jets getting set to depart to Europe, the terminal was heaving with passengers and there was hardly anywhere to sit down. On our COPA 737-800 flight to Mexico I had chosen aisle seat 5D immediately behind the business class section, so had plenty of room to stretch my legs. Much more comfortable than had I stayed with the seat I was originally assigned. I eventually arrived to CIMMYT a little after midnight.

CIMMYT is the second oldest of the international agricultural centers of the CGIAR, founded in 1966. And it is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary in about 1 month from now. IRRI, where I worked for 19 years, was the first center.

Unlike many of the CGIAR centers that have multi-crop collections in their genebanks (ICARDA, ICRISAT, and IITA for example), CIMMYT has two independent genebank collections for maize and wheat in a single facility, inaugurated in 1996, and dedicated to two renowned maize and wheat scientists, Edwin Wellhausen and Glenn Anderson. But CIMMYT’s most famous staff member is Nobel Peace prize Laureate, Norman Borlaug, ‘Father of the Green Revolution’.

Tom Payne and Denise Costich are the wheat and maize genebank managers. CIMMYT’s genebank has ISO 9001:2008 accreditation.

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Ayla Sençer

Tom has been at CIMMYT in various wheat breeding capacities for more than 25 years. In addition to managing the wheat genebank, Tom manages the wheat international nurseries. One of the first curators of the wheat collection was Ayla Sençer from Turkey, and a classmate of mine when we studied at Birmingham in 1970 for the MSc in Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources. The CIMMYT wheat collection is unlike many other germplasm collections in that most of the 152,800 samples are actually breeding lines (in addition to landrace varieties and wild species).

Denise joined CIMMYT just a year or so ago, from the USDA. She has some very interesting work on in situ conservation and management of traditional maize varieties in Mexico and Guatemala. A particular conservation challenge for the maize genebank is the regeneration of highland maizes from South America that are not well-adapted to growing conditions in Mexico. The maize collection comprises over 28,000 accessions including a field collection of Tripsacum (a wild relative of maize).

In recent years has received major infrastructure investments from both the Carlos Slim Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. New laboratories, greenhouses and the like ensure that CIMMYT is well-placed to deliver on its mission. And the support received through the Genebanks CRP has certainly raised the morale of genebank staff.

On our last day at CIMMYT (Wednesday), we met with Janny van Beem from the Crop Trust. Janny is a QMS expert, based in Houston, Texas, and she flew over to Mexico especially to meet with Marisé and me. When we visiited Bonn in April we only had opportunity to speak by Skype with Janny for jsut 30 minutes. Since the implementation of QMS in the genebanks seems to be one of the main challenges—and success stories—of the Genebanks CRP, we thought it useful to have an in-depth discussion with Janny about this. And very useful it was, indeed!

On the previous evening (Tuesday) Tom, Denise, Marisé, Janny and I went out for dinner in Texcoco, to a well-known tacqueria, then into the coffee shop next door afterwards. No margaritas that night – we’d sampled those on Monday.

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L to R: Janny, me, Tom, Marisé, and Denise.

But on this trip we did have one free day, Sunday. And I met up with members of CIMMYT’s Filipino community, many of them ex-IRRI employees, some of who worked in units for which I had management responsibility. They organised a ‘boodle fight‘ lunch, and great fun was had by one and all.

Hasta la vista . . .
At 6 pm on Wednesday I headed into Mexico City to take the KLM flight to Amsterdam. It was a 747-400 Combi (half passengers, half cargo). I haven’t flown a 747 for many years, and I’d forgotten what a pleasant experience it can be. It’s remarkable that the 747 is being phased out by most airlines; they are just not as economical as the new generation twin engine 777s, 787s, and A350s.

With the new seating configuration, I had a single seat, 4E, in the center of the main deck forward cabin. Very convenient. I was glad to have the opportunity of putting my leg up for a few hours. Over the previous 10 days my leg had swelled up quite badly by the end of each day, and it was quite painful. The purser asked if I had arranged any ground transport at Schipol to take me from the arrival to departure gates. I hadn’t, so she arranged that for me before we landed. The distances at Schipol between gates can be quite challenging, so I was grateful for a ride on one of the electric carts.


But after we went through security, my ‘assistant’ pushed me to my gate in a wheelchair. I must admit I felt a bit of a fraud. An electric cart is one thing, and most welcome. But a wheelchair? Another was waiting for me on arrival at Birmingham. Go with the flow!


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I was all alone in Business Class from Schipol to Birmingham. We were back at BHX on time, and I was out in the car park looking for my taxi home within about 20 minutes, and home at 6 pm.

Now the hard work really begins—synthesising all the discussions we had with so many staff at CIP, CIAT, and CIMMYT. For obvious reasons I can’t comment about those discussions, but visiting these important genebanks in such a short period was both a challenging but scientifically enriching experience.





Four seasons in one day . . . and white asparagus

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

white asparagus

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

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

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

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




How many crop varieties can you name?

Do you ever look at the variety name on a bag of potatoes in the supermarket? I do. Must get a life.

How many potato varieties can you name? Reds? Whites? Or something more specific, like Maris Piper, King Edward, or Desiree to name just three? Or do you look for the label that suggests this variety or that is better for baking, roasting, mashing? Let’s face it, we generally buy what a supermarket puts on the shelf, and the choice is pretty limited. What about varieties of rice? Would it just be long-grain, Japanese or Thai, arboreo, basmati, maybe jasmine? 

When I lived in the Philippines, we used to buy rice in 10 kg bags (although you could buy 25 kg or larger if you so desired). On each, the variety name was printed. This was important because they all had different cooking qualities or taste (or fragrance in the case of the Thai jasmine rice). In Filipino or Thai markets, it’s not unusual to see rice sold loose, with each pile individually labelled and priced, as the two images below show¹:

Today, our rather limited choice of varieties on the shelf does change over time as new ones are adopted by farmers, or promoted by the breeding companies because they have a better flavor, cooking quality, or can be grown more efficiently (often because they have been bred to resist diseases better).

Apples on the other hand are almost always promoted and sold by variety: Golden Delicious, Pink Lady, Granny Smith, Red McIntosh, and Bramley are some of the most popular. That’s because, whether you consciously think about it, you are associating the variety name with fruit color, flavor and flesh texture (and use). But there were so many more apple varieties grown in the past, which we often now describe as ‘heirloom varieties’. Most of these are just not commercial any more.

In many parts of the world, however, what we might consider as heirloom varieties are everyday agriculture for farmers. For example, a potato farmer in the Andes of South America, where the plant was first domesticated, might grow a dozen or more varieties in the same field. A rice farmer in the uplands of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in Southeast Asia grows a whole mixture of varieties. As would a wheat farmer in the Middle East. There’s nothing heirloom or heritage about these varieties. This is survival.

Heirloom potato varieties still grown by farmers in the Andes of Peru.

An upland rice farmer and her family in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic showing just some of the rice varieties they continue to cultivate. Many Lao rice varieties are glutinous (sticky) and particular to that country.

What’s even more impressive is that these farmers know each of the varieties they grow, what characteristics (or traits) distinguish each from the next, whether it is disease resistant, what it tastes like, how productive it will be. And just as we name our children, all these varieties have names that, to our unsophisticated ears, sound rather exotic.  Names can be a good proxy for the genetic diversity of varieties, but it’s not necessarily a perfect association. In the case of potatoes, for example, I have seen varieties that were clearly different (in terms of the shape and color of the tubers) but having the same name; while other varieties that we could show were genetically identical and looked the same had different names. The cultural aspects of naming crop varieties are extremely interesting and can point towards quite useful traits that a plant breeder might wish to introduce into a breeding program. Some years back, my colleague Appa Rao, I and others published a paper on how and why farmers name rice varieties in the Lao PDR.

In the genebank of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños in the Philippines, there are more than 120,000 samples of cultivated rice. And from memory there are at least 65,000 unique names. Are these genetically distinct? In many cases, yes they are. The genebank of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru conserves about 4000 different potato varieties.

What these potato and rice varieties represent (as do maize varieties from Mexico, wheats from the Middle East, soybeans from China, and beans from South and Central America, and many other crops) is an enormous wealth of genetic diversity or, if you prefer, agricultural biodiversity (agrobiodiversity): the genetic resources of the main staple crops and less widely planted crops that sustain human life. The efforts over the past six decades and more to collect and conserve these varieties (as seeds in genebanks wherever possible) provides a biological safety net for agriculture without depriving farmers of the genetic heritage of their indigenous crops. But as we have seen, time and time again, when offered choices—and that’s what it is all about—farmers may abandon their own crop varieties in favor of newly-bred ones that can offer the promise of higher productivity and better economic return. The choice is theirs (although agricultural policy in a number of countries has worked against the continued cultivation of so-called ‘farmer varieties’).

CGIARThank goodness for the genebanks of 11 centers of the global agricultural research partnership that is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These centers carefully conserve the largest, most important, and genetically-diverse collections of crop germplasm (and forages and trees) of the most important agricultural species. The flow of genetic materials to users around the world is sustained by the efforts of these genebanks under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. And, of course, these collections have added long-term security because they are duplicated, for the most part, in the long-term vaults of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault¹ deep within a mountain on an island high above the Arctic Circle.

Heritage is not just about conservation. Heritage is equally all about use. So it’s gratifying (and intriguing) to see how IRRI, for example, is partnering with the Philippines Department of Agriculture and farmers in an ‘heirloom rice project‘ that seeks ‘to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of heirloom or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems‘ by adding value to the traditional varieties that farmers continue to grow but which have not, until now, been widely-accepted commercially. I gather a project is being carried out by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) for maize in Mexico that aims to raise the cuisine profile of traditional varieties.

Genetic conservation is about ensuring the survival of heritage varieties (and their wild relatives) for posterity. We owe a debt of gratitude to farmers over the millennia who have been the custodians of this important genetic diversity. It’s a duty of care on which humanity must not renege.

¹ Courtesy of IRRI
² The Seed Vault is owned and administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food on behalf of the Kingdom of Norway and is established as a service to the world community. The Global Crop Diversity Trust provides support for the ongoing operations of the Seed Vault, as well as funding for the preparation and shipment of seeds from developing countries to the facility. The Nordic Gene Bank (NordGen) operates the facility and maintains a public on-line database of samples stored in the seed vault. An International Advisory Council oversees the management and operations of the Seed Vault.