From a single potato tuber to one tonne in a year? Yes, it can be done.

After I’d completed my PhD in October 1975, I stayed on in the UK for a couple of months to sort out ideas and initial drafts for several journal papers, before returning to Lima, Peru just before the end of December, where I was to begin a post-doctoral fellowship with the International Potato Center (CIP). I’d already been working with CIP since January 1973 but I was uncertain in January 1976 where I was going to be located, or what my responsibilities would be. I had spent the previous three years working in CIP’s germplasm program, collecting native varieties of potatoes throughout the Peruvian Andes, and studied the evolution and ethnobotany of cultivated potato species (which formed the basis of the thesis I submitted to the University of Birmingham).

Moving to Costa Rica
CIP Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to move to Costa Rica in Central America to establish a research program on adaptation of potatoes to warm, humid environments, and also to participate in and support other regional activities from CIP’s regional office in Toluca, Mexico. Following a reconnaissance and feasibility mission with CIP colleagues Drs Roger Rowe (head of breeding and genetics) and Ed French (head of plant pathology) to Costa Rica in early January, my wife Steph and I moved to Turrialba in April to be based at CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza).

Those first few months were a wake-up call. Not only did I have to establish my own program, hire support staff (Leda Avila as secretary, Jorge Aguilar as research assistant, and Moisés Pereira as technician), and develop the facilities I might need, I also had to navigate rather carefully through the ‘politics’ of a host institution that felt – certainly at that time and for several years subsequently – very insecure. With its limited budget, CATIE management saw my assignment in Turrialba merely as a ‘cheap pair of hands’ to contribute to its research program on inter-cropping systems. I had a hard time convincing CATIE colleagues that, in the first instance, my research should focus on testing and identifying germplasm that showed broad adaptation and could be included in the broader systems research. I also had those other commitments outside Costa Rica that had to be managed as well.

Well, the long and short of it, was that we encountered a serious problem with bacterial wilt, caused by Ralstonia solanacearum, and from then, the focus of my research turned from warm environment adaptation to resistance studies and agronomic management.

Potatoes in Costa Rica during the 1970s
Bacterial wilt was also a serious problem for farmers in certain areas of the lower elevation production zones in Costa Rica. Potatoes have never been a major crop in Costa Rica (rice and beans are much more important staples), but on the slopes of the Irazú volcano near Cartago to the east and northeast of San José (the capital of Costa Rica), potato production is the main economic activity. In the mid- to late-1970s there were only about 10,000 ha of potatoes grown, and about 95% of the production was centered on this Cartago region. Within the Ministry of Agriculture there were only a couple of staff dedicated to potatoes, one agronomist and one pathologist. The small size of the Costa Rican potato program (and others in Central America) was the justification for developing the Regional Cooperative Potato Program (PRECODEPA) in 1978.

Two varieties of Mexican origin, Atzimba and Rosita, made up almost 100% of the production. Atzimba had been developed originally for its resistance to late blight, caused by Phytophthora infestans.

A field of potatoes, var. Atzimba, above Cartago near San Juan de Chicua.

Potato fields of white-flowered var. Atzimba. Because of the steep slopes on the flanks of the Irazu volcano, farmers still use ox-drawn ploughs. These volcanic soils are very deep and fertile.

Mike Jackson using a motorized back-pack sprayer to fumigate potato seedlings in a virus resistance trial. Sprayers of this type produce a turbulent fine mist that effectively applies the pesticide. We were perhaps a little lax in terms of health and safety in the 70s!

In Costa Rica, however, it was extremely susceptible, because the climatic conditions permitted the cultivation of potatoes all year round somewhere in this rather restricted area on the flanks of the volcano. There was always fungal inoculum floating around, and farmers were often obliged to spray their crops at least once a week or more often. Believing that higher doses of fungicides would be more effective than the recommended dosage, the quantity of fungicide used was unacceptable. But it was difficult to persuade farmers to spray more effectively, to use machine powered back-pack sprayers rather than hand-pumped equipment that merely soaked the upper surfaces of the potato leaves. This is not very effective. The machine sprayers create a finer mist and also turbulence among the potato canopy and reach the undersides of the leaves where the fungus actually sporulates.

No healthy seed potatoes
As a vegetatively-propagated crop, potatoes are prone to the build up of several virus diseases that can, unless kept in check, result in a reduction of yield (or degeneration)  year on year. That’s why in many countries there are seed production systems to provide potato farmers with healthy planting stock each year. Three common viruses were prevalent in Costa Rica: potato virus X (PVX), potato virus Y (PVY), and potato leafroll virus (PLRV) – singly, or more commonly, in combination, and as such were a serious threat to the long-term viability of national potato production. More so, it has to be said, than other pests and diseases that affected the crop that could be controlled – if applied effectively and safely – by a range of chemical treatments.

Costa Rica did not have a seed production program in the 1970s (and I haven’t been able to determine whether the foundations we at CIP laid in terms of seed production were maintained) even though many farmers did try to source their seed tubers from farms located at the highest elevations. Many farmers kept  the smallest tubers from a commercial production or ware crop as ‘seed potatoes’ with the inevitable degeneration this practice brought with it. The main problem was that seed stocks were not being constantly being replenished with healthy tubers in a foundation seed initiative. The challenge was therefore to develop a seed production program that could effectively supply the seed potato needs of the country – several thousand tonnes annually.

Although healthy, virus-free stocks of Atzimba and Rosita were readily available, as well as bacterial wilt resistant varieties like MS-35-22 from tissue cultures initially but most often as a small number of virus-free tubers, how was it going to be possible to quickly multiply these seed stocks to a quantity that would begin to have some impact on potato yields in the short term?

Jim Bryan showing Jorge Aguilar, on the right, and a techician from the Costa Rican national potato program how to make single node cuttings.

The challenge
In 1979, CIP seed production specialist Jim Bryan joined me in Costa Rica on a one-year sabbatical to focus on the seed production needs of the Central American region. And together – with colleagues from the Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería – we developed a rapid multiplication program, not only to provide the foundation seed for Costa Rica, but also to put into practice many of the ideas that Jim had been developing at CIP headquarters in Peru, but which had not been tested in an actual production context. And at the same time we set ourselves a challenge: to produce one tonne of potatoes from a single tuber in a year (since the growing conditions in Costa Rica permitted more or less all-year-round production).

We converted our screen-houses in Turrialba full-time to this rapid multiplication project. We were sent a small quantity of basic seed tubers that had passed through tissue culture in Lima to eradicate viruses, or received actual tissue culture stocks that we grew on in a makeshift chamber at the plant pathology laboratory in the University of Costa Rica in San José, managed by my good friends and colleagues Drs Luis Carlos González Umaña (a bacteriologist with whom I collaborated over several years on bacterial wilt research) and virologist Rodrigo Gámez Lobo (who became the first director of the biodiversity institute, INBio).

But how to rapidly multiply limited seed stocks? Obviously we had to maintain the health of this basic seed, so only grew the tubers in pots inside the screen-house, in a ‘compost’ of sugarcane bagasse mixed with coarse river sand for better drainage. Having first sterilized this mixture, it was an excellent medium for growing potatoes in pots.

Once we had these plants established we could then start to take a whole range of cuttings: stem cuttings, single node cuttings (usually from young seedlings), sprout cuttings, and leaf-bud cuttings. Rooted cuttings could be grown on in the screen-house to produce more ‘mother plants’ or transplanted directly to the field. The same with single node cuttings and sprout cuttings. Leaf bud cuttings were made from senescing stems (or potato vines) and the axillary buds swelled to form a small tuber.

Each cutting was derived from an axillary bud, and these were stimulated to grow once the apical meristem had been removed from each stem. Cuttings were ‘planted’ in coarse river sand, kept constantly watered, and after a couple of weeks or thereabouts, most had produced healthy roots. Sometimes we used a rooting hormone, but mostly this was not necessary.

Stem cuttings

Single node cuttings

Sprout cuttings

Leaf bud cuttings

Going to the field

With the mixture of rooted cuttings planted directly in the field, plus the numerous tubers from cuttings in the screen-house, it was possible to produce hundreds of ‘daughter’ plants from each ‘mother’ plant that we grew only in the screen-house. And taken over a year, we did show that it was possible to produce one tonne of potatoes from a single tuber. Establishing a basic seed program based on the rapid multiplication of important varieties ensured that there was a constant replenishment of healthy seed available to farmers.

Spreading the word
Through PRECODEPA, we held several training courses in Turrialba on rapid multiplication techniques, and also produced a small brochure (in English and Spanish).

Rapid Multiplication Techniques for Potatoes_Page_01

Click on this image to open the brochure as a PDF file.

Storing seed tubers
Once we had harvested tubers from the screen-house – and for our other research projects – we had to have somewhere to store our seed stocks. At that time, my two colleagues from CIP headquarters in Lima, Dr Bob Booth and Mr Roy Shaw, had designed and promoted in many parts of the world low coast diffused light storage units. And based on their design, we built a prototype for warm humid conditions in Turrialba. It consisted of a double skin of corrugated fiberglass sheets, a wide overlapping roof to provide shade in the strong tropical sun, and an air conditioner to keep the temperature around 20C or so.

We placed bags of sand inside the store and kept them constantly wet, and therefore increased the humidity inside. We also monitored both the temperature and relative humidity as can be seen in one of the photos in the gallery below. Under these diffused light conditions, potato sprouts grow slowly and sturdy. certainly for our needs it was a viable and efficient option for potato storage.

Did we succeed?
I have no idea to what extent the seed production program prospered. One of the issues was commitment from the Ministry itself, but also the continuity of personnel in the potato program.

I left Costa Rica in November 1980 and returned to Lima, expecting to move to another CIP regional office early in 1981. The regional office in Los Baños, Philippines was mooted as a likely venue. As it turned out I resigned from CIP in March 1981 and joined the School of Biological Sciences – Department of Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. Ten years later I did end up in Los Baños when I joined IRRI. But that’s another story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Bryan – a friend indeed

I first met Jim Bryan in February 1973, just under two months after I’d first arrived in Lima, Peru to join the International Potato Center (CIP) as associate taxonomist. Jim had returned from home leave in the USA taken at the end of 1972 after completing his contract with the USAID-North Carolina State University potato project in Peru. He joined CIP as Seed Production Specialist. Over time, Jim became my closest friend and colleague at CIP, but we didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Early on, Jim thought it was his role to ‘supervise’ my work – something I didn’t take kindly to, and told him so in no uncertain terms. But as I got to know Jim (and his wife Jeanne and family) better, I came to realise what a firm friend he could be, and how much about growing potatoes and potato production I could learn from him.

A native of Gooding, Idaho, Jim was born in March 1930. He served in the Korean War, and afterwards gained BS and MS degrees in agricultural education. He taught vocational agriculture for four years, then joined the potato program at the University of Idaho. In 1966 Jim was recruited as a Seed Specialist to join the North Carolina project by Dick Sawyer (who was to become the first Director General of CIP when it was founded in 1971), and moved to Lima with his wife, three daughters (Wendy, Julie and Mary) and son Chris. I guess he hadn’t expected to remain in Peru for the next 30 years, mostly at CIP. Like many expat staff joining CIP, Jim did not initially speak Spanish, and despite his best efforts he never really did develop a good command of the language. But that didn’t really matter; he tried . . . and if he couldn’t think of the words he needed, some arm-waving and the use of  “X, X, X” usually got him by, and was much appreciated by local administrative and research staff.

Jim’s work in seed production took him all over the world and he was much in demand by colleagues in national potato programs in many countries. That was because his feet were firmly planted in the potato fields that he loved. He always looked for practical solutions, and ones that were doable and affordable. He was an excellent teacher, never afraid to get stuck in, and his hands dirty. And this was the best way to get across the important concepts and practices of potato seed production and health. Jim was responsible for setting up the germplasm export facilities and procedures at CIP, to make sure that the diseases endemic to potatoes in Peru, especially virus diseases, were not spread around the world. In recognition of his important contributions to potato science, Jim was elected an Honorary Life Member of the Potato Association of America in 1992.

I moved to Costa Rica in 1976, and Jim joined my regional program for one year in 1979. He was assigned as a seed specialist for the new consortium program – Programa Regional Cooperativa de Papa (PRECODEPA) – funded by the Swiss government. One of the projects that Jim and I worked on was the development of rapid multiplication techniques for potatoes such as stem cuttings, leaf bud cuttings, and sprout cuttings through which it’s possible to produce 1 tonne of potatoes from a single tuber in a year. And we did achieve this with several varieties, producing the various cuttings in a screen house in Turrialba, and transplanting them to fields on the slopes of the Irazu volcano. Jim also trained many national program staff in these techniques. We developed a useful booklet on rapid multiplication techniques and some training slide sets, which seem quite crude today when you think what digital technologies can offer.

Transplanting cuttings on the Irazu volcano in Costa Rica

After retirement Jim and Jeanne moved to Seattle to be near their three daughters (meanwhile Chris was across the other side of the USA in Florida), and Steph and I had opportunity of visiting them there on more than one occasion. 

Jim was an avid stamp collector, and built up a wonderful collection of British stamps and any depicting potatoes from all around the world. A heavy smoker all his life, this eventually affected Jim’s health and he developed emphysema, and became dependent on an oxygen bottle. The last letter I received from Jim in early 2010, just after his 80th birthday, was still full of optimism however. He told me that one of his goals had been to reach 80, and every day afterwards would be a bonus. Sadly Jim died in August later that year.