Crystal balls, accountability and risk: planning and managing agricultural research for development (R4D)

A few days ago, I wrote a piece about perceived or real threats to the UK’s development aid budget. I am very concerned that among politicians and the wider general public there is actually little understanding about the aims of international development aid, how it’s spent, what it has achieved, and even how it’s accounted for.

Throughout my career, I worked for organizations and programs that were supported from international development aid budgets. Even during the decade I was a faculty member at The University of Birmingham during the 1980s, I managed a research project on potatoes (a collaboration with the International Potato Center, or CIP, in Peru where I had been employed during the 1970s) funded by the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA), the forerunner of today’s Department for International Development (DFID).

I actually spent 27 years working overseas for two international agricultural research centers in South and Central America, and in the Philippines, from 1973-1981 and from 1991-2010. These were CIP as I just mentioned, and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a globally-important research center in Los Baños, south of Manila in the Philippines, working throughout Asia where rice is the staple food crop, and collaborating with the Africa Rice Centre (WARDA) in Africa, and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Latin America.

All four centers are members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) that was established in 1971 to support investments in research and technology development geared toward increasing food production in the food-deficit countries of the world.

Dr Norman Borlaug

The CGIAR developed from earlier initiatives, going back to the early 1940s when the Rockefeller Foundation supported a program in Mexico prominent for the work of Norman Borlaug (who would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970).

By 1960, Rockefeller was interested in expanding the possibilities of agricultural research and, joining with the Ford Foundation, established IRRI to work on rice in the Philippines, the first of what would become the CGIAR centers. In 2009/2010 IRRI celebrated its 50th anniversary. Then, in 1966, came the maize and wheat center in Mexico, CIMMYT—a logical development from the Mexico-Rockefeller program. CIMMYT was followed by two tropical agriculture centers, IITA in Nigeria and CIAT in Colombia, in 1967. Today, the CGIAR supports a network of 15 research centers around the world.

Peru (CIP); Colombia (CIAT); Mexico (CIMMYT); USA (IFPRI); Ivory Coast (Africa Rice); Nigeria (IITA); Kenya (ICRAF and ILRI); Lebanon (ICARDA); Italy (Bioversity International); India (ICRISAT); Sri Lanka (IWMI); Malaysia (Worldfish); Indonesia (CIFOR); and Philippines (IRRI)

The origins of the CGIAR and its evolution since 1971 are really quite interesting, involving the World Bank as the prime mover.

In 1969, World Bank President Robert McNamara (who had been US Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) wrote to the heads of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome and the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) in New York saying: I am writing to propose that the FAO, the UNDP and the World Bank jointly undertake to organize a long-term program of support for regional agricultural research institutes. I have in mind support not only for some of the existing institutes, including the four now being supported by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations [IRRI, CIMMYT, IITA, and CIAT], but also, as occasion permits, for a number of new ones.

Just click on this image to the left to open an interesting history of the CGIAR, published a few years ago when it celebrated its 40th anniversary.

I joined CIP in January 1973 as an Associate Taxonomist, not longer after it became a member of the CGIAR. In fact, my joining CIP had been delayed by more than a year (from September 1971) because the ODA was still evaluating whether to provide funds to CIP bilaterally or join the multilateral CGIAR system (which eventually happened). During 1973 or early 1974 I had the opportunity of meeting McNamara during his visit to CIP, something that had quite an impression on a 24 or 25 year old me.

In the first couple of decades the primary focus of the CGIAR was on enhancing the productivity of food crops through plant breeding and the use of genetic diversity held in the large and important genebanks of eleven centers. Towards the end of the 1980s and through the 1990s, the CGIAR centers took on a research role in natural resources management, an approach that has arguably had less success than crop productivity (because of the complexity of managing soil and water systems, ecosystems and the like).

In research approaches pioneered by CIP, a close link between the natural and social sciences has often been a feature of CGIAR research programs. It’s not uncommon to find plant breeders or agronomists, for example working alongside agricultural economists or anthropologists and sociologists, who provide the social context for the research for development that is at the heart of what the CGIAR does.

And it’s this research for development—rather than research for its own sake (as you might find in any university department)—that sets CGIAR research apart. I like to visualize it in this way. A problem area is identified that affects the livelihoods of farmers and those who depend on agriculture for their well-being. Solutions are sought through appropriate research, leading (hopefully) to positive outcomes and impacts. And impacts from research investment are what the donor community expects.

Of course, by its very nature, not all research leads to positive outcomes. If we knew the answers beforehand there would be no need to undertake any research at all. Unlike scientists who pursue knowledge for its own sake (as with many based in universities who develop expertise in specific disciplines), CGIAR scientists are expected to contribute their expertise and experience to research agendas developed by others. Some of this research can be quite basic, as with the study of crop genetics and genomes, for example, but always with a focus on how such knowledge can be used to improve the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers. Much research is applied. But wherever the research sits on the basic to applied continuum, it must be of high quality and stand up to scrutiny by the scientific community through peer-publication. In another blog post, I described the importance of good science at IRRI, for example, aimed at the crop that feeds half the world’s population in a daily basis.

Since 1972 (up to 2016 which was the latest audited financial statement) the CGIAR and its centers have received USD 15.4 billion. To some, that might seem an enormous sum dedicated to agricultural research, even though it was received over a 45 year period. As I pointed out earlier with regard to rice, the CGIAR centers focus on the crops and farming systems (in the broadest sense) in some of the poorest countries of the world, and most of the world’s population.

But has that investment achieved anything? Well, there are several ways of measuring impact, the economic return to investment being one. Just look at these impressive figures from CIAT in Colombia that undertakes research on beans, cassava, tropical forages (for pasture improvement), and rice.

For even more analysis of the impact of CGIAR research take a look at the 2010 Food Policy paper by agricultural economists and Renkow and Byerlee.

Over the years, however, the funding environment has become tighter, and donors to the CGIAR have demanded greater accountability. Nevertheless, in 2018 the CGIAR has an annual research portfolio of just over US$900 million with 11,000 staff working in more than 70 countries around the world. CGIAR provides a participatory mechanism for national governments, multilateral funding and development agencies and leading private foundations to finance some of the world’s most innovative agricultural research.

The donors are not a homogeneous group however. They obviously differ in the amounts they are prepared to commit to research for development. They focus on different priority regions and countries, or have interests in different areas of science. Some donors like to be closely involved in the research, attending annual progress meetings or setting up their own monitoring or reviews. Others are much more hands-off.

When I joined the CGIAR in 1973, unrestricted funds were given to centers, we developed our annual work programs and budget, and got on with the work. Moving to Costa Rica in 1976 to lead CIP’s regional program in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, I had an annual budget and was expected to send a quarterly report back to HQ in Lima. Everything was done using snail mail or telex. No email demands to attend to on almost a daily basis.

Much of the research carried out in the centers is now funded from bilateral grants from a range of donors. Just look at the number and complexity of grants that IRRI manages (see Exhibit 2 – page 41 and following – from the 2016 audited financial statement). Each of these represents the development of a grant proposal submitted for funding, with its own objectives, impact pathway, expected outputs and outcomes. These then have to be mapped to the CGIAR cross-center programs (in the past these were the individual center Medium Term Plans), in terms of relevance, staff time and resources.

What it also means is that staff spend a considerable amount of time writing reports for the donors: quarterly, biannually, or annually. Not all have the same format, and it’s quite a challenge I have to say, to keep on top of that research complexity. In the early 2000s the donors also demanded increased attention to the management of risk, and I have written about that elsewhere in this blog.

And that’s how I got into research management in 2001, when IRRI Director General Ron Cantrell invited me to join the senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Coordination (later Communications).

For various reasons, the institute did not have a good handle on current research grants, nor their value and commitments. There just wasn’t a central database of these grants. Such was the situation that several donors were threatening to withhold future grants if the institute didn’t get its act together, and begin accounting more reliably for the funding received, and complying with the terms and conditions of each grant.

Within a week I’d identified most (but certainly not all) active research grants, even those that had been completed but not necessarily reported back to the donors. It was also necessary to reconcile information about the grants with that held by the finance office who managed the financial side of each grant. Although I met resistance for several months from finance office staff, I eventually prevailed and had them accept a system of grant identification using a unique number. I was amazed that they were unable to understand from the outset how and why a unique identifier for each grant was not only desirable but an absolute necessity. I found that my experience in managing the world’s largest genebank for rice with over 100,000 samples or accessions stood me in good stead in this respect. Genebank accessions have a range of information types that facilitate their management and conservation and use. I just treated research grants like genebank accessions, and built our information systems around that concept.

Eric Clutario

I was expressly fortunate to recruit a very talented database manager, Eric Clutario, who very quickly grasped the concepts behind what I was truing to achieve, and built an important online information management system that became the ‘envy’ of many of the other centers.

We quickly restored IRRI’s trust with the donors, and the whole process of developing grant proposals and accounting for the research by regular reporting became the norm at IRRI. By the time IRRI received its first grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (for work on submergence tolerant rice) all the project management systems had been in place for several years and we coped pretty well with a complex and detailed grant proposal.

Since I retired from IRRI in 2010, and after several years of ‘reform’ the structure and funding of the CGIAR has changed somewhat. Centers no longer prepare their own Medium Term Plans. Instead, they commit to CGIAR Research Programs and Platforms. Some donors still provide support with few restrictions on how and where it can be spent. Most funding is bilateral support however, and with that comes the plethora of reporting—and accountability—that I have described.

Managing a research agenda in one of the CGIAR centers is much more complex than in a university (where each faculty member ‘does their own thing’). Short-term bilateral funding (mostly three years) on fairly narrow topics are now the components of much broader research strategies and programs. Just click on the image on the right to read all about the research organization and focus of the ‘new’ CGIAR. R4D is very important. It has provided solutions to many important challenges facing farmers and resource poor people in the developing world. Overseas development aid has achieved considerable traction through agricultural research and needs carefully protecting.

There’s more to genebanking than meets the eye (or should be)

The weather was awful last Sunday, very cold, with snow showers blowing in on a strong easterly wind throughout the day. From time to time, I found myself staring out of the window at the blizzards and letting my mind wander. A couple of seemingly unconnected ideas were triggered by a tweet about genebanks I’d read earlier in the day, and something I’d seen about a former IRRI colleague on Facebook the day before.

That got me thinking. It’s almost eight years now since I retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I worked for almost 19 years from July 1991 until the end of April 2010. As the snowflakes fell in increasing abundance, obscuring the bottom of our garden some 15 m away, I began to reminisce on the years I’d spent at IRRI, and how they’d been (mostly) good years to me and my family. My work had been very satisfying, and as I retired I felt that I’d made a useful contribution to the well-being and future of the institute. But one thought struck me particularly: how privileged I felt to have worked at one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes. It was though I was recalling a dream; not reality at all.

In rice fields at IRRI, with magnificent Mt. Makiling in the background.

Behind the plough – now that IS reality. I still have that sombrero, which I purchased shortly after I arrived in Peru in January 1973.

That journey began, as I said, in July 1991 when I became the first head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) taking responsibility for one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks, the International Rice Genebank (IRG), as well as providing administrative oversight to the International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). I gave up genebanking in 2001 and joined the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (DPPC, later Communications). As I had made many important changes to the genebank operations and how rice germplasm was managed, my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton (who joined IRRI in 2002) probably did not face so many operational and staff challenges. However, he has gone on to make several important improvements, such as bar-coding, commissioning new facilities, and overseeing the first germplasm deposits (in 2008) in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Any success I achieved at IRRI during those 19 years is also due to the fine people who worked closely with me. Not so long ago, I wrote about those who brought success to IRRI’s project management and resource mobilization. I haven’t, to date, written so much about my Filipino colleagues who worked in GRC, although you will find several posts in this blog about conserving rice genetic resources and how the genebank operates (or operated until 2010). The 15 minute video I made about the genebank shortly before leaving IRRI shows what IRRI’s genebank is and does, and featuring several staff.

The tweet I referred to earlier was posted by someone who I follow, Mary Mangan (aka mem_somerville | Wossamotta U, @mem_somerville), commenting on a genebank video produced by the Crop Trust on behalf of the CGIAR’s Genebank Platform.

She tweeted: Finally someone did a genebank video. People don’t understand that scientists are doing this; they are told by PBS [the broadcaster] that some grizzled farmer is the only one doing it.

What particularly caught my attention (apart from viewing the entertaining and informative video) was her comment about the role of scientists and, by implication I suppose, that genebanking is (or should be) supported by scientific research. From my own experience, however, a research role for genebanks has not been as common as you might think, or wasn’t back in the day. Unlike IRRI, where we did have a strong genebanking research program¹.

When I interviewed for the head of GRC in January 1991, I made it quite plain that I hoped for—expected even, almost a condition of accepting an appointment—a research role around germplasm conservation and use, something that had not been explicitly stated in the job description. Once I was appointed, however, at the same senior level as any other Division (i.e. department) Head or Program Leader, I was able to bring my genebanking perspectives directly to discussions about the institute’s research and management policies and program. In that respect, I was successful and, having secured an appropriate budget and more staff, I set about transforming the genebank operations.

The IRG organizational structure then was extremely hierarchical, with access to the head by the national staff often channeled through one senior member, Eves Loresto. That was how my predecessor, Dr TT Chang ran the genebank. That was not my style, nor did I think it an effective way to operate. I also discovered that most of the Filipino scientific staff, as Research Assistants, had been in those positions for several years, with little expectation of promotion. Something had to be done.

In 1991, the genebank collection comprised more than 70,000 seed samples or accessions² of cultivated rices (Oryza sativa or Asian rice, and O. glaberrima or African rice) and the 20 or so wild species of Oryza. I needed to understand how the genebank operated: in seed conservation; data management; the various field operations for regeneration, characterization and evaluation of germplasm; and germplasm exchange, among others. I’d never worked on rice nor managed a genebank, even though my professional formation was in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. That was a steep learning curve.


So I took my time, asked lots of questions, and listened patiently (mostly) to the detailed explanations of how and why rice germplasm was handled in this way and not that. It was also the period during which I got to know my Filipino staff. I say ‘got to know’ with some reservation. I’m ashamed to admit that I never did learn to speak Tagalog, although I could, at times, understand what was being said. And while almost all the staff spoke good English, there was always a language barrier. Obviously they always spoke Tagalog among themselves, even when I was around, so I came to rely on one or two staff to act as go-betweens with staff whose English was not so fluent.

After six months I’d developed a plan how to upgrade the genebank operations, and felt confident to implement staff changes. I was also able eventually to find a different (and more significant) role for Eves Loresto that took her out of the ‘chain of command’ between me and other staff members. We took on new ‘temporary’ staff to assist with the burdensome seed handing operations to prepare samples for long-term conservation (many of whom are still with the institute a quarter of century later), and I was able, now that everyone had better-defined responsibilities, to achieve the promotion of more than 70% of the staff.

The genebank needed, I believed, a flatter organizational structure, with each area of the genebank’s critical operations assigned to a single member of staff, yet making sure that everyone had a back-up person to take over whenever necessary. In the structure I’d inherited it was not uncommon for several members of staff to have overlapping responsibilities, with no-one explicitly taking a lead. And no-one seemed to be accountable. As I told them, if they wanted to take on more responsibility (which was a common aspiration) they had to be accountable for their own actions. No more finger-pointing if something went wrong.

How they all grew in their posts! Today, several of the national staff have senior research support positions within the institute; some have already retired.

Flora de Guzman, known to one and all as Pola, is the genebank manager. It soon became obvious to me that Pola was someone itching to take on more responsibility, who was dedicated to germplasm conservation, and had a relevant MS degree. She didn’t let me down, and has become one of the leading lights in genebank management across the eleven CGIAR genebanks that are supported through the Genebank Platform that I mentioned earlier.

Pola manages all the operations inside the genebank: germplasm acquisition; seed cleaning and storage; and exchange (and all the paperwork that goes with that!). Take a peek inside the genebank with Pola, from 1:00 in the video. She worked closely with Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño for the multiplication/regeneration of seeds when seed stocks run low, or seed viability declines. She has done a fantastic job, leading a large team and has eliminated many of the seed conservation backlogs that were like a millstone around our collective necks in the early 1990s. She will be a hard act to follow when the time comes for her to retire.

Ato is a self-effacing individual, leading the genebank field operations. Just take a look at the video I mentioned (at around 2:03 onwards) to see Ato in his domain of several hectares of rice multiplication plots.

Taking the lead from my suggestions, Ato brought all the genebank field operations back on to the institute’s experimental station from farmers’ fields some distance away where they were when I joined IRRI. He enthusiastically adopted the idea of separating multiplication/regeneration of germplasm accessions from those related to characterization, effectively moving them into different growing seasons. For the first years, his colleague Tom Clemeno took on the germplasm characterization role until Tom moved away from GRC and eventually out of the institute. After a battle with cancer, Tom passed away in 2015. ‘Little Big Man’ is sadly missed.

Soccie Almazan became the curator of the wild rices that had to be grown in a quarantine screenhouse some distance from the main research facilities, on the far side of the experiment station. But the one big change that we made was to incorporate all the germplasm types, cultivated or wild, into a single genebank collection, rather than the three collections. Soccie brought about some major changes in how the wild species were handled, and with an expansion of the screenhouses in the early 1990s (as part of the overall refurbishment of institute infrastructure) the genebank at last had the space to adequately grow (in pots) all this valuable germplasm that required special attention. See the video from 4:30. Soccie retired from IRRI in the last couple of years.

I’ve written elsewhere about the challenges we faced in terms of data management, and the significant changes we had to make in fusing what were essentially three separate databases using different coding systems for the same characters across the two cultivated species of rice and the wild species. There were three data management staff in 1991: Adel Alcantara, Vangie Gonzales, and Myrna Oliva.

L to R: Myrna, Adel’s daughter, Adel, and Vangie, during a GRC reunion in Tagaytay, just before my retirement in 2010.

One of the first changes we made during the refurbishment of GRC was to provide each of them with a proper workstation, and new computers. Each time our computers were upgraded, the data management staff were the first to benefit from new technology. Once we had made the necessary data structure changes, we could concentrate on developing a genebank management system that would incorporate all aspects from germplasm acquisition through to exchange and all steps in between. After a year or so we had a working system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). Myrna left IRRI by the mid-90s, and Adel and Vangie have retired or moved on. But their contributions to data management were significant, as access to and manipulation of data were fundamental to everything we did.

In terms of research per se, there were two young members of staff in 1991, Amy Juliano and Ma. Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, who were tinkering with several projects of little consequence. They were supervised by a British scientist, Duncan Vaughan (who spent about six months a year collecting wild rices and writing his trip reports). As I said, I was keen to establish a sound research base to rice conservation in GRC, and felt that Amy and Yvette’s talents were not being put to good use. In my opinion we needed a better taxonomic understanding of the genus Oryza based on sound experimental taxonomic principles and methods. After all, the genebank contained several thousand samples of wild rice seeds, a resource that no other laboratory could count on so readily. Despite my best efforts to encourage Duncan to embrace more research he was reluctant to do so. I wasn’t willing to tolerate ‘passengers’ in my group and so encouraged him to seek ‘pastures greener’ more suitable to his personal objectives. By mid-1993 he had left IRRI for a new position in Japan, and we could recruit his replacement to lead the taxonomic research effort.

L to R: Duncan Vaughan inside the genebank’s cold store; Bao-Rong collecting wild rices in Irian Jaya.

Bao-Rong Lu joined us in 1994, having completed his PhD in Sweden, and took Amy and Yvette under his taxonomic wing, so to speak. Amy and Yvette flourished, achieving thousands of crosses between the different wild and cultivated rices, developing tissue culture techniques to rescue seedlings through embryo culture and, once we had a collaborative research project with the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre (funded by UK government department for international aid, DFID), establishing a laboratory to study molecular markers in rice germplasm.

Amy Juliano in the molecular marker laboratory in GRC that she developed (with Sheila Quilloy).

Amy spent a couple of months at Birmingham around 1996 learning new molecular techniques. She was destined for so much more. Sadly, she contracted cancer and passed away in 2004, a great loss to her family and GRC.

I knew from my early days at IRRI that Yvette had considerable promise as a researcher. She was curating the wild species collection, among other duties, and her talents were under-utilized. She took the lead for the biosystematics and cytogenetic research, and under my partial supervision, completed her MS degree at the University of the Philippines – Los Baños (UPLB).

Bao-Rong moved back to China around 2000, giving us the opportunity of moving the research in another direction, and recruiting molecular biologist/biochemist Ken McNally. Ken was already at IRRI, completing an assignment on a perennial rice project. Ken took GRC’s molecular research to another level, with Yvette working alongside, and expanding the research into genomics, culminating in the 3000 rice genomes project. Yvette completed her PhD at UPLB in 2013 as part of that international collaboration, but has now recently retired from IRRI. It was the Facebook post about her being recognized last weekend as a UPLB Outstanding Alumnus that partly triggered this post.

In the early 90s Dr Kameswara Rao and I, supported by Ato, looked at the effects of seed-growing environment and its effect on long-term viability of rice seeds. More recently, Ato worked with Fiona Hay, a British seed physiologist who was recruited to GRC around 2007 or 2008 to extend this research, and they made some interesting changes to seed multiplication protocols and how to dry them post harvest.

The collection grew significantly between 1995 and 2000, with funding from the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), especially with regard to germplasm from the Lao PDR where GRC staff member Dr Seepana Appa Rao was based. We also had an important research component about on-farm conservation of rice varieties recruiting staff with expertise in population genetics and social anthropology. You can read more about that particular Swiss-funded project, and the staff involved, in this story from 2015.

The GRC secretaries who worked with me (L ro R): Zeny (1997-2001); Sylvia (1991-1997), and Tessie (1991 until her retirement a couple of years ago).

There were many support staff who all played their roles, and formed a great team. But I cannot end this post without mentioning the secretaries, of course. When I joined GRC, my secretary was Sylvia Arellano. She helped me through those first months as I was finding my feet. Syl was supported by Tessie Santos. When Sylvia was ‘poached’ by the Director General George Rothschild to become his secretary in 1997 (a position she would occupy until her retirement a couple of years back), Zeny Federico became my secretary. When I crossed over to senior management in 2001, Zeny came with me.

Working with such dedicated staff in GRC made my job easier, and very enjoyable. It was always a pleasure to show others just what the staff had achieved, and invariably visitors to the genebank came away impressed by what they had seen. And they understood that conserving rice varieties and wild species was not just a case of putting seeds in a cold store, but that there were many important and inter-linked components, underpinned by sound research, that enabled to the genebank to operate efficiently and safely preserve rice germplasm long into the future.


¹ The research led to many publications. Click here to see a list (and many more that I have published on crop species other than rice).

² The collection has now grown to almost 128,000 samples. During my tenure the collection grew by more than 25%.

No time for complacency . . .

There was a germplasm-fest taking place earlier this week, high above the Arctic Circle.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault celebrated 10 years and, accepting new seed samples from genebanks around the world (some new, some adding more samples to those already deposited) brought the total to more than 1 million sent there for safe-keeping since it opened in February 2008. What a fantastic achievement!

Establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault really does represent an extraordinary—and unprecedented—contribution by the Norwegian government to global efforts to conserve plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Coinciding with the tenth anniversary, the Norwegian government also announced plans to contribute a further 100 million Norwegian kroner (about USD13 million) to upgrade the seed vault and its facilities. Excellent news!

An interesting article dispelling a few myths about the vault was published in The Washington Post on 26 February.

The CGIAR genebank managers also met in Svalbard, and there was the obligatory visit to the seed vault.

Genebank managers from: L-R front row: ICRAF, Bioversity International, and CIAT, CIAT; and standing, L-R: CIMMYT, ILRI, IITA, ICRISAT, IRRI, ??, CIP, ??, Nordgen, ICRAF

Several of my former colleagues from six genebanks and Cary Fowler (former director of the Crop Trust) were recognized by the Crop Trust with individual Legacy Awards.

Crop Trust Legacy Awardees, L-R: Dave Ellis (CIP), Hari Upadhyaya (ICRISAT), Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton (IRRI), Daniel Debouck (CIAT), Ahmed Amri (ICARDA), Cary Fowler (former Director of the Crop Trust). and Jean Hanson (ILRI). Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

This timely and increased focus on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, celebrities getting in on the act, and HRH The Prince of Wales hosting (as Global Patron of the Crop Trust) a luncheon and meeting at Clarence House recently, help raise the profile of safeguarding genetic diversity. The 10th anniversary of the Svalbard vault was even an item on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today news program this week. However, this is no time for complacency.

We need genebanks
The management and future of genebanks have been much on my mind over the past couple of years while I was leading an evaluation of the CGIAR’s research support program on Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections (otherwise known as the Genebanks CRP, and now replaced by its successor, the Genebank Platform). On the back of that review, and reading a couple of interesting genebank articles last year [1], I’ve been thinking about the role genebanks play in society, how society can best support them (assuming of course that the role of genebanks is actually understood by the public at large), and how they are funded.

Genebanks are important. However, don’t just believe me. I’m biased. After all, I dedicated much of my career to collect, conserve, and use plant genetic resources for the benefit of humanity. Genebanks and genetic conservation are recognized in the Zero Hunger Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

There are many examples showing how genebanks are the source of genes to increase agricultural productivity or resilience in the face of a changing climate, reduce the impact of diseases, and enhance the nutritional status of the crops that feed us.

In the fight against human diseases too I recently heard an interesting story on the BBC news about the antimicrobial properties of four molecules, found in Persian shallots (Allium hirtifolium), effective against TB antibiotic-resistance. There’s quite a literature about the antimicrobial properties of this species, which is a staple of Iranian cuisine. Besides adding to agricultural potential, just imagine looking into the health-enhancing properties of the thousands and thousands of plant species that are safely conserved in genebanks around the world.

Yes, we need genebanks, but do we need quite so many? And if so, can we afford them all? What happens if a government can longer provide the appropriate financial support to manage a genebank collection? Unfortunately, that’s not a rhetorical question. It has happened. Are genebanks too big (or too small) to fail?

Too many genebanks?
According to The Second Report on The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture published by FAO in 2010, there are more than 1700 genebanks/genetic resources collections around the world. Are they equally important, and are their collections safe?

Fewer than 100 genebanks/collections have so far safeguarded their germplasm in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, just 5% or so, but among them are some of the largest and most important germplasm collections globally such as those in the CGIAR centers, the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan, and national genebanks in the USA and Australia, to name but a few.

I saw a tweet yesterday suggesting that 40% of the world’s germplasm was safely deposited in Svalbard. I find figure that hard to believe, and is more likely to be less than 20% (based on the estimate of the total number of germplasm accessions worldwide reported on page 5 of this FAO brief). I don’t even know if Svalbard has the capacity to store all accessions if every genebank decided to deposit seeds there. In any case, as explained to me a couple of years ago by the Svalbard Coordinator of Operation and Management, Åsmund Asdal, genebanks must meet several criteria to send seed samples to Svalbard. The criteria may have been modified since then. I don’t know.

First, samples must be already stored at a primary safety back-up site; Svalbard is a ‘secondary’ site. For example, in the case of the rice collection at IRRI, the collection is duplicated under ‘black-box’ conditions in the vaults of the USDA’s National Lab for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has been since the 1980s.

The second criterion is, I believe, more difficult—if not almost impossible—to meet. Apparently, only unique samples should be sent to Svalbard. This means that the same sample should not have been sent more than once by a genebank or, presumably, by another genebank. Therein lies the difficulty. Genebanks exchange germplasm samples all the time, adding them to their own collections under a different ID. Duplicate accessions may, in some instances, represent the bulk of germplasm samples that a genebank keeps. However, determining if two samples are the same is not easy; it’s time-consuming, and can be expensive. I assume (suspect) that many genebanks just package up their germplasm and send it off to Svalbard without making these checks. And in many ways, provided that the vault can continue to accept all the possible material from around the world, this should not be an issue. It’s more important that collections are safe.

Incidentally, the current figure for Svalbard is often quoted in the media as ‘1 million unique varieties of crops‘. Yes, 1 million seed samples, but never 1 million varieties. Nowhere near that figure.

In the image below, Åsmund is briefing the press during the vault’s 10th anniversary.

Svalbard is a very important global repository for germplasm, highlighted just a couple of years ago or so when ICARDA, the CGIAR center formerly based in Aleppo, Syria was forced to relocate (because of the civil war in that country) and establish new research facilities—including the genebank—in Lebanon and Morocco. Even though the ICARDA crop collections were already safely duplicated in other genebanks, Svalbard was the only location where they were held together. Logistically it was more feasible to seek return of the seeds from Svalbard rather than from multiple locations. This was done, germplasm multiplied, collections re-established in Morocco and Lebanon, and much has now been returned to Svalbard for safe-keeping once again. The seed vault played the role that was intended. To date, the ICARDA withdrawal of seeds from Svalbard has been the only one.

However, in terms of global safety of all germplasm, blackbox storage at Svalbard is not an option for all crops and their wild relatives. Svalbard can only provide safe storage for seeds that survive low temperatures. There are many species that have short-lived seeds that do not tolerate desiccation or low temperature storage, or which reproduce vegetatively, such as potatoes through tubers, for example. Some species are kept as in vitro or tissue culture collections as shown in the images below for potatoes at CIP (top) or cassava at CIAT (below).

Some species can be cryopreserved at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, and is a promising technology for potato at CIP.

I believe discussions are underway to find a global safety back-up solution for these crops.

How times have changed
Fifty years ago, there was a consensus (as far as I can determine from different publications) among the pioneer group of experts (led by Sir Otto Frankel) that just a relatively small network of international and regional genebanks, and some national ones, was all that would be needed to hold the world’s plant genetic resources. How times have changed!

Sir Otto Frankel and Ms Erna Bennett

In one of the first books dedicated to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources [2], Sir Otto and Erna Bennett wrote: A world gene bank may be envisaged as an association of national or regional institutions operating under international agreements relating to techniques and the availability of material, supported by a central international clearing house under the control of an international agency of the United Nations. Regional gene banks which have been proposed could make a contribution provided two conditions are met—a high degree of technical efficiency, and unrestricted international access. It is of the greatest importance that both these provisos are secured; an international gene bank ceases to fulfil its proper function if it is subjected to national or political discrimination. In the light of subsequent developments, this perspective may be viewed as rather naïve perhaps.

Everything changed in December 1993 when the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force. Until then, plant genetic resources for food and agriculture had been viewed as the ‘heritage of mankind’ or ‘international public goods’. Individual country sovereignty over national genetic resources became, appropriately, the new norm. Genebanks were set up everywhere, probably with little analysis of what that meant in terms of long-term security commitments or a budget for maintaining, evaluating, and using these genebank collections. When I was active in genebank management during the 1990s, and traveling around Asia, I came across several examples where ‘white elephant’ genebanks had been built, operating on shoe-string budgets, and mostly without the resources needed to maintain their collections. It was not uncommon to come across genebanks without the resources to maintain the integrity of the cold rooms where seeds were stored.

Frankel and Bennett further stated that: . . . there is little purpose in assembling material unless it is effectively used and preserved. The efficient utilization of genetic resources requires that they are adequately classified and evaluated. This statement still has considerable relevance today. It’s the raison d’être for genetic conservation. As we used to tell our genetic resources MSc students at Birmingham: No conservation without use!

The 11 genebanks of the CGIAR meet the Frankel and Bennet criteria and are among the most important in the world, in terms of: the crop species and wild relatives conserved [3]; the genebank collection size (number of accessions); their remarkable genetic diversity; the documentation and evaluation of conserved germplasm; access to and exchange of germplasm (based on the number of Standard Material Transfer Agreements or SMTAs issued each year); the use of germplasm in crop improvement; and the quality of conservation management, among others. They (mostly) meet internationally-agreed genebank standards.

For what proportion of the remaining ‘1700’ collections globally can the same be said? Many certainly do; many don’t! Do many national genebanks represent value for money? Would it not be better for national genebanks to work together more closely? Frankel and Bennett mentioned regional genebanks, that would presumably meet the conservation needs of a group of countries. Off the top of my head I can only think of two genebanks with a regional mandate.  One is the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Plant Genetic Resource Centre, located in Lusaka, Zambia. The other is CATIE in Turrialba, Costa Rica, which also maintains collections of coffee and cacao of international importance.

The politics of genetic conservation post-1993 made it more difficult, I believe, to arrive at cooperative agreements between countries to conserve and use plant genetic resources. Sovereignty became the name of the game! Even among the genebanks of the CGIAR it was never possible to rationalize collections. Why, for example, should there be two rice collections, at IRRI and Africa Rice, or wheat collections at CIMMYT and ICARDA? However, enhanced data management systems, such as GRIN-Global and Genesys, are providing better linkages between collections held in different genebanks.

Meeting the cost
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provides the legal framework for supporting the international collections of the CGIAR and most of the species they conserve.

Running a genebank is expensive. The CGIAR genebanks cost about USD22 million annually to fulfill their mandates. It’s not just a case of putting seed packets in a large refrigerator (like the Svalbard vault) and forgetting about them, so-to-speak. There’s a lot more to genebanking (as I highlighted here) that the recent focus on Svalbard has somewhat pushed into the background. We certainly need to highlight many more stories about how genebanks are collecting and conserving genetic resources, what it takes to keep a seed accession or a vegetatively-propagated potato variety, for example, alive and available for generations to come, how breeders and other scientists have tapped into this germplasm, and what success they have achieved.

Until the Crop Trust stepped in to provide the security of long-term funding through its Endowment Fund, these important CGIAR genebanks were, like most national genebanks, threatened with the vagaries of short-term funding for what is a long-term commitment. In perpetuity, in fact!

Many national genebanks face even greater challenges and the dilemma of funding these collections has not been resolved. Presumably national genebanks should be the sole funding responsibility of national governments. After all, many were set up in response to the ‘sovereignty issue’ that I described earlier. But some national collections also have global significance because of the material they conserve.

I’m sure that genebank funding does not figure prominently in government budgets. They are a soft target for stagflation and worse, budget cuts. Take the case of the UK for instance. There are several important national collections, among which the UK Vegetable Genebank at the Warwick Crop Centre and the Commonwealth Potato Collection at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland figure prominently. Consumed by Brexit chaos, and despite speaking favorably in support of biodiversity at the recent Clarence House meeting that I mentioned earlier in this post, I’m sure that neither of these genebanks or others is high on the agenda of Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Michael Gove MP or his civil servants. If a ‘wealthy’ country like the UK has difficulties finding the necessary resources, what hope have resource-poorer countries have of meeting their commitments.

However, a commitment to place their germplasm in Svalbard would be a step in the right direction.

I mentioned that genebanking is expensive, yet the Crop Trust estimates that an endowment of only USD850 million would provide sufficient funding in perpetuity to support the genebanks. USD850 million seems a large sum, yet about half of this has already been raised as donations, mostly from national governments that already provide development aid. In the UK, with the costs of Brexit becoming more apparent day-by-day, and the damage that is being done to the National Health Service through recurrent under-funding, some politicians are now demanding changes to the government’s aid budget, currently at around 0.7% of GDP. I can imagine the consequences for food security in nations that depend on such aid, were it reduced or (heaven help us) eliminated.

On the other hand, USD850 million is peanuts. Take the cost of one A380 aircraft, at around USD450 million. Emirates Airlines has just confirmed an order for a further 36 aircraft!

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation continues to do amazing things through its generous grants. A significant grant from the BMGF could top-up the Endowment Fund. The same goes for other donor agencies.

Let’s just do it and get it over with.

Then we can get on with the job of not only making all germplasm safe, especially for species that are hard to or cannot be conserved as seeds, but by using the latest ‘omics’ technologies [4] to understand just how germplasm really is the basis of food security for everyone on this beautiful planet of ours.


[1] One, on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog (that is maintained by two friends of mine, Luigi Guarino, the Director of Science and Programs at the Crop Trust in Bonn, and Jeremy Cherfas, formerly Senior Science Writer at Bioversity International in Rome and now a Freelance Communicator) was about accounting for the number of genebanks around the world. The second, published in The Independent on 2 July 2017, was a story by freelance journalist Ashley Coates about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and stated that it is ‘the world’s most important freezer‘.

[2] Frankel, OH and E Bennett (1970). Genetic resources. In: OH Frankel and E Bennett (eds) Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation. IBP Handbook No 11. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[3] The CGIAR genebanks hold major collections of farmer varieties and wild relatives of crops that feed the world’s population on a daily basis: rice, wheat, maize, sorghum and millets, potato, cassava, sweet potato, yam, temperate and tropical legume species like lentil, chickpea, pigeon pea, and beans, temperate and tropical forage species, grasses and legumes, that support livestock, and fruit and other tree species important in agroforestry systems, among others.

[4] McNally, KL, 2014. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd and M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp.166-189 (Chapter 10).

The Birmingham Class of ’71: plant genetic resources pioneers

Pioneers. That’s what we were. Or, at least, that’s what we thought we were.

Five individuals arriving at The University of Birmingham’s Department of Botany in September 1970 to study on the one-year MSc degree course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR).

Professor Jack Hawkes was the Course Leader, supported by Dr Trevor Williams (as Course Tutor) [1].

Professor Jack Hawkes (L) and Dr Trevor Williams (R)

The MSc course had its first intake (of four students from Canada, Brazil, and the UK) in September 1969. Twenty years later (which was celebrated at the time), hundreds of students had received training in genetic conservation at Birmingham. The course would continue to flourish for a further decade or so, but by the early 2000s there was less demand, limited financial resources to support students, and many of the staff at the university who were the lynch-pins of teaching on the course had moved on or retired.

However, the course had made its impact. There is no doubt of that. Birmingham genetic resources graduates were working all around the world, leading collection and conservation efforts at national levels and, in many cases, helping their countries—and the world—to set policy for the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). At the FAO conference on PGRFA held in Leipzig, Germany in 1996, for example, about 50 of the national delegations were led by, or had members, who had received training at Birmingham.

Former Birmingham MSc and Short Course PGR students (and two staff from IPGRI), at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie in the middle of the front row. Just two former students who attended the conference do not feature in this photo.

The Class of ’71
So, in September 1970, who comprised the second CUPGR cohort? We came from five countries:

  • Felix Taborda-Romero from Venezuela
  • Altaf-ur-Rehman Rao from Pakistan
  • Ayla Sencer from Turkey
  • Folu Dania-Ogbe from Nigeria
  • Mike Jackson (me!) from the UK

Having just graduated a couple of months earlier from the University of Southampton with a BSc degree in Botany and Geography, I was the youngest of the group, just approaching my 22nd birthday. Folu was almost four years my senior, and Ayla was perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, but I’m not sure. Altaf was 34, and Felix the ‘elder’ of the class, at 38.

I guess Ayla was the only one with a specific genetic resources background, coming to Birmingham from an agricultural research institute near Izmir, and having already been involved with conservation work. Felix and Altaf were both academics. As recent graduates, Folu and I were just starting to think about a career in this new field of plant genetic resources. We wouldn’t be disappointed!

Studying alongside mature students who were not only older than my eldest brother (nine years my senior), but who had taken a year out from their jobs to study for a higher degree, was a novel experience for me. There was also a language barrier, to some extent. Felix probably had the weakest English skills; Ayla had already made some good progress before arriving in Birmingham but she struggled with some aspects of the language. Both Altaf and Folu spoke English fluently as a second language.

We occupied a small laboratory on the north corridor, first floor of the School of Biological Sciences building, just a couple of doors down from where Jack, as Mason Professor of Botany and Head of Department, had his office, and just across from Trevor’s office. In 1981, when I returned to Birmingham as Lecturer in Plant Biology, that same room became my research laboratory for six or seven years.

Folu and myself had desk space on one side of the lab, and the others on the other side. We spent a lot of time huddled together in that room. In order to save us time hunting for literature in the university library, we had access to a comprehensive collection of photocopies of many, if not most, of the scientific papers on the prodigious reading lists given to us.

Richard Lester

We had a heavy schedule of lectures, in crop evolution, taxonomic methods, economic botany (from Dr Richard Lester), population genetics and statistics (from staff of the Department of Genetics), computer programming and data management (in its infancy then), germplasm collection, and conservation, among others. At the end of the course I felt that the lecture load during that one year was equivalent to my three-year undergraduate degree course. We also had practical classes, especially in crop diversity and taxonomy, and at the end of the teaching year in May, we had to sit four written exam papers, each lasting three hours.

There were also guest lectures from the likes of experts like Erna Bennett (from FAO) and Jack Harlan from the University of Illinois.

We also had to choose a short research project, mostly carried out during the summer months through the end of August, and written up and presented for examination in September. While the bulk of the work was carried out following the exams, I think all of us had started on some aspects much earlier in the academic year. In my case, for example, I had chosen a topic on lentil evolution by November 1970, and began to assemble a collection of seeds of different varieties. These were planted (under cloches) in the field by the end of March 1971, so that they were flowering by June. I also made chromosome counts on each accession in my spare time from November onwards, on which my very first scientific paper was based.

At the end of the course, all our work, exams and dissertation, was assessed by an external examiner (a system that is commonly used among universities in the UK). The examiner was Professor Norman Simmonds, Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) just south of Edinburgh [2]. He made his scientific reputation working on bananas and potatoes, and published several books including an excellent text on crop evolution [3].

Then and now
So how did we all end up in Birmingham, and what happened after graduation?

Felix received his first degree in genetics (Doutor em Agronomia) in 1955 from the Escola Superior de Agricultura Luiz de Queiroz, Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil. He was a contemporary of Almiro Blumenschein, who went on to collaborate with geneticist and Nobel Laureate Barbara McLintock on the maizes of South America, and head the Brazilian agricultural research institute EMBRAPA (which is the parent organization for the Brazilian national genebank CENARGEN).

Returning to Venezuela, Felix was involved (from 1956-1961) with a national project to breed the first Venezuelan hybrid corns and to organize commercial seed production while also looking after a collection of local varieties and races of corn.

In 1961 he started to work in the Facultad de Agronomía at the Universidad del Zulia, now one of the largest and most important universities in Venezuela. It seems he found out about the Birmingham course in 1969 through contact with Dr Jorge León, a Costarrican botanist working for IICA who had also been worked at FAO in genetic resources, and was a contemporary of Jack Hawkes in the 1960s genetic resources movement. León is second from right, standing, in the photo below. But Felix had also been inspired towards plant genetic resources by the book Plants, Man and Life by American geneticist Edgar Anderson.

Felix self-financed his studies at Birmingham, having taken a sabbatical leave from his university, and arriving in Birmingham by the middle of August. In December 1970, Felix returned briefly to Venezuela to bring his young wife Laura and his newly-born son Leonardo to Birmingham. They took up residence in a house owned by Jack Hawkes in Harborne, a suburb close to the university.

His dissertation, on the effect on growth of supra-optimal temperatures on a local Venezuelan sorghum variety, was supervised by plant physiologist Digby Idle. Having been awarded his MSc (the degree was conferred in December 1971), Felix returned to his university in Maracaibo, and continued his work in sorghum breeding. He was one of the pioneers to introduce grain sorghums in Venezuela, and continued working at the university up until about five years ago when, due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in his native country, Felix and Laura (who has an MSc degree from Vanderbilt University) decided to move to Florida and enjoy their retirement there. His three sons and six grandchildren had already left Venezuela.

Felix and I made contact with each other through Facebook, and it has been wonderful to catch up with him after almost five decades, and to know that since his Birmingham days he has enjoyed a fruitful career in academia and agricultural research, and remains as enthusiastic today, in his mid-eighties, as he was when I first knew him in September 1970.

Altaf was born in Faisalabad in December 1936, and when he came to Birmingham in 1970 he was already Assistant Professor in the Department of Botany at the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad. He had received his BSc (Agric.) degree from that university in 1957, followed by an MSc (Agric.) in 1962.

I cannot remember the topic of his dissertation nor who supervised it, perhaps Richard Lester. After graduation he moved to Bangor University to complete a PhD in 1974 on the genetic variation and distribution of Himalayan wheats and barleys, under the supervision of Professor John Witcombe (from whom I obtained the various photos of Altaf). In 1974 he joined a joint Bangor University-Lyallpur University to collect wheats and barley in northern Pakistan.

He continued his teaching at Faisalabad until 1996 when he retired as Professor of Botany. But he wasn’t finished. He joined the Cholistan Institute of Desert Studies at Islamia Universty and was director from 1998 to 2000. Sadly, in December 2000, just four days after his 64th birthday, Altaf passed away, leaving a wife, two daughters and four sons. Remembered for his devotion to plant genetic resources and desert ecology, you can read his obituary here.

Genetic resources conservation in Turkey received a major boost in the mid-1960s when an agreement was signed between the Government of Turkey and the United Nations Special Fund to establish a ‘Crop Research and Introduction Centre‘ at Menemen, Izmir. The Regional Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI, now the Aegean Agricultural Research Institute) became the location for this project, and Ayla was one of the first scientists to be involved.

Ayla came to Birmingham with a clear focus on what she wanted to achieve. She saw the MSc course as the first step to completing her PhD, and even arrived in Birmingham with samples of seeds for her research. During the course she completed a dissertation (with Jack Hawkes) on the origin of rye (Secale cereale), and she continued this project for a further two years or so for her PhD. I don’t recall whether she had the MSc conferred or not. In those days, it was not unusual for someone to convert an MSc course into the first year of a doctoral program; I’m pretty sure this is what Ayla did.

Completing her PhD in 1973 or 1974, Ayla continued to work with the Turkish genetic resources program until 1981 when she accepted a position at the International Maize and Wheat and Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City, as the first curator of the center’s wheat collection.

I believe Ayla stayed at CIMMYT until about 1990 or so, and then returned to Turkey. I know that she has retired with her daughter to a small coastal town southwest from Izmir, but I’ve been unable to make contact with her directly. The photo below was sent to me by Dr Tom Payne who is the current curator of CIMMYT’s wheat collection. He had dinner with Ayla a couple of years ago during one of his visits to Turkey.

Folu married shortly before traveling to Birmingham. Her husband had enrolled for a PhD at University College London. He had seen a small poster about the MSc course at Birmingham on a notice board at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria where Folu had completed her BSc in Botany. She applied successfully for financial support from the Mid-Western Nigeria Government to attend the MSc course, and subsequently her PhD studies.

Dr Dennis Wilkins

Before coming to Birmingham, Folu had not worked in genetic resources, but had a flair for genetics. Like me, she hoped that the course would be a launch pad for an interesting career. Her MSc dissertation—on floating rice—was supervised Dr Dennis Wilkins, an ecophysiologist. In the late 70s and early 80s, Dennis supervised the PhD of World Food Prize Laureate Monty Jones, who is now the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security in Sierra Leone.

After completing her MSc, Folu began a PhD under the supervision of Trevor Williams on the taxonomy of West African rice, which she completed in 1974. To successfully grow her rice varieties, half of one glasshouse at the department’s garden at Winterbourne was successfully converted to a rice paddy.

In this photo, taken during her PhD studies, Folu’s mother (who passed away in January 2018) visited her in Birmingham. Folu can’t remember the three persons between her and her mother, but on the far left is Dr Rena Martins Farias from Brazil, who was one of the first cohort of MSc students in 1969.

Folu also had the opportunity of joining a germplasm collecting mission to Turkey during 1972. In this photo, Folu (on the right) and Ayla (on the left) are collecting wheat landrace varieties.

Returning to Nigeria, Folu joined the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Benin, Benin City until 2010, when she retired. She taught a range of courses related to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, and conducted research on the taxonomy of African crop plants, characterization of indigenous crops from West Africa, and the ethnobotany of useful indigenous African plants. She counts among her most important contributions to genetic resources the training courses she helped deliver, and the research linkages she promoted among various bodies in Nigeria. She has published extensively.

After retirement from the University of Benin, she was seconded to the new Samuel Adegboyega University at Ogwa in Edo State, where she is Professor and Dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences. She has three children and five grandchildren.

As for myself, I was the only member of our class to be interviewed for a place on the MSc course, in February 1970. I’d heard about it from genetics lecturer at Southampton, Dr Joe Smartt, who stopped me in the corridor one day and gave me a pamphlet about the course, mentioning that he thought this would be right up my street. He wasn’t wrong!

However, my attendance was not confirmed until late August, because Jack Hawkes was unable to secure any financial support for me until then.

Trevor Williams supervised my dissertation on the origin of lentil (Lens culinaris), but as early as February 1971, Jack Hawkes had told me about an opportunity to work in Peru for a year after I’d completed the course, looking after a germplasm collection of native potato varieties at the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. In October 1971 I began a PhD (under Jack’s supervision) on the relationships between diploid and tetraploid potatoes (which I successfully defended in October 1975), and joined CIP in January 1973. Continuing with my thesis research, I also made several potato collecting missions in different regions of Peru.

From 1976-1981 I continued with CIP as its regional research leader in Central America, based in Costa Rica, working on disease resistance and potato production. I spent a decade back at The University of Birmingham from April 1981, mainly teaching on the genetic resources MSc course, carrying out research on potatoes and legumes, and supervising PhD students.

In 1991, I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños in the Philippines as the first head of the Genetic Resources Center, looking after the International Rice Genebank, and managing a major project to collect and conserve rice genetic resources worldwide. In 2001, I gave up research, left the genebank, and joined IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications, until 2010 when I retired.

But I’ve not rested on my laurels. Since retirement, I’ve organized two international rice science conferences for IRRI in Vietnam and Thailand, co-edited a second book on genetic resources and climate change, and led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program.

My wife Steph is a genetic resources graduate from Birmingham, in 1972, and she joined me at CIP in July 1973 after leaving her position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station where she helped to curate the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC).

We have two daughters, Hannah and Philippa (both PhD psychologists), and four grandchildren.

Sitting (L to R): Callum, Hannah, Zoe, Mike, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael (L) and Andi (R).

Looking back at the past five decades, I think I can speak for all of us that we had successful careers in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, repaying the investments supporting us to study at Birmingham all those years ago. What a journey it has been!


[1] Trevor left Birmingham at the end of the 1970s to become the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International) in Rome.

[2] The SPBS merged with the the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in Dundee in 1981 to become the Scottish Crops Research Institute. It is now the James Hutton Institute.

[3] Simmonds, NW (ed), 1976. Evolution of Crop Plants. Longman, London. A second edition, co-edited with Joe Smartt was published in 1995.


Genetic resources in safe hands

Among the most important—and most used—collections of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) are those maintained by eleven of the fifteen international agricultural research centers¹ funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Not only are the centers key players in delivering many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015, but their germplasm collections are the genetic base of food security worldwide.

Over decades these centers have collected and carefully conserved their germplasm collections, placing them under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and now, the importance of the PGRFA held by CGIAR genebanks is enshrined in international law, through agreements between CGIAR Centers and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA)². These agreements oblige CGIAR genebanks to make collections and data available under the terms of the ITPGRFA and to manage their collections following the highest standards of operation.

Evaluation and use of the cultivated and wild species in these large collections have led to the development of many new crop varieties, increases in agricultural productivity, and improvements in the livelihoods of millions upon millions of farmers and poor people worldwide. The genomic dissection of so many crops is further enhancing access to these valuable resources.

The CGIAR genebanks
In the Americas, CIP in Peru, CIAT in Colombia, and CIMMYT in Mexico hold important germplasm collections of: potatoes, sweet potatoes and other Andean roots and tubers; of beans, cassava, and tropical forages; and maize and wheat, respectively. And all these collections have serious representation of the closest wild species relatives of these important crops.

In Africa, there are genebanks at Africa Rice in Côte d’Ivoire, IITA in Nigeria, ILRI in Ethiopia, and World Agroforestry in Kenya, holdings collections of: rice; cowpea and yams; tropical forage species; and a range of forest fruit and tree species, respectively.

ICARDA had to abandon its headquarters in Aleppo in northern Syria, and has recently relocated to two sites in Morocco and Lebanon.

ICRISAT in India and IRRI in the Philippines have two of the largest genebank collections, of: sorghum, millets, and pigeon pea; and rice and its wild relatives.

There is just one CGIAR genebank in Europe, for bananas and plantains, maintained by Bioversity International (that has its headquarters in Rome) at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

Genebank security
Today, the future of these genebanks is brighter than for many years. Since 2012 they received ‘secure’ funding through the Genebanks CGIAR Research [Support] Program or Genebanks CRP, a collaboration with and funding from the Crop Trust. It was this Genebanks CRP that I and my colleagues Brian Ford-Lloyd and Marisé Borja evaluated during 2016/17. You may read our final evaluation report here. Other background documents and responses to the evaluation can be found on the Independent Evaluation Arrangement website. The CRP was superseded by the Genebank Platform at the beginning of 2017.

As part of the evaluation of the Genebanks CRP, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I attended the Annual Genebanks Meeting in Australia in November 2016, hosted by the Australian Grains Genebank at Horsham, Victoria.

While giving the Genebanks CRP a favorable evaluation—it has undoubtedly enhanced the security of the genebank collections in many ways—we did call attention to the limited public awareness about the CGIAR genebanks among the wider international genetic conservation community. And although the Platform has a website (as yet with some incomplete information), it seems to me that the program is less proactive with its public awareness than under the CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) more than a decade ago. Even the folks we interviewed at FAO during our evaluation of the Genebanks CRP indicated that this aspect was weaker under the CRP than the SGRP, to the detriment of the CGIAR.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating any return to the pre-CRP or Platform days or organisation. However, the SGRP and its Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) were the strong foundations on which subsequent efforts have been built.

When I re-joined the CGIAR in July 1991, taking charge of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, I became a member of the Inter-Center Working Group on Plant Genetic Resources (ICWG-PGR), but didn’t attend my first meeting until January 1993. I don’t think there was one in 1992, but if there was, I was not aware of it.

We met at the campus of the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA)³ in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was my first visit to any African country, and I do remember that on the day of arrival, after having had a BBQ lunch and a beer or three, I went for a nap to get over my jet-lag, and woke up 14 hours later!

I’m not sure if all genebanks were represented at that ILCA meeting. Certainly genebank managers from IRRI, CIMMYT, IITA, CIP, ILCA, IPGRI (the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, now Bioversity International) attended, but maybe there were more. I was elected Chair of the ICWG-PGR as it was then, for three years. These were important years. The Convention on Biological Diversity had been agreed during June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and was expected to come into force later in 1993. The CGIAR was just beginning to assess how that would impact on its access to, and exchange and use of genetic resources.

L-R: Brigitte Maass (CIAT), Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI), ??, Ali Golmirzaie (CIP), Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), ??, ??, Masa Iwanaga (IPGRI), Roger Rowe (CIMMYT), ?? (ICRAF), Melak Mengesha (ICRISAT), Mike Jackson (IRRI), Murthi Anishetty (FAO), Quat Ng (IITA), Jean Hanson (ILCA), Jan Engels (IPGRI).

We met annually, and tried to visit a different center and its genebank each year. In 1994, however, the focus was on strengthening the conservation efforts in the CGIAR, and providing better corrdination to these across the system of centers. The SGRP was born, and the remit of the ICWG-PGR (as the technical committee of the program) was broadened to include non-plant genetic resources, bringing into the program not only ICLARM (the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management, now WorldFish, but at that time based in Manila), the food policy institute, IFPRI in Washington DC, the forestry center, CIFOR in Indonesia, and ICRAF (the International Centre for Research on Agro-Forestry, now World Agroforestry) in Nairobi. The ICWG-PGR morphed into the ICWG-GR to reflect this broadened scope.

Here are a few photos taken during our annual meetings in IITA, at ICRAF (meetings were held at a lodge near Mt. Kenya), and at CIP where we had opportunity of visiting the field genebanks for potatoes and Andean roots and tubers at Huancayo, 3100 m, in central Peru.

The System-wide Genetic Resources Program
The formation of the SGRP was an outcome of a review of the CGIAR’s genebank system in 1994. It became the only program of the CGIAR in which all 16 centers at that time (ISNAR, the International Services for National Agricultural Research, based in The Hague, Netherlands closed its doors in March 2004) participated, bringing in trees and fish, agricultural systems where different types of germplasm should be deployed, and various policy aspects of germplasm conservation costs, intellectual property, and use.

In 1995 the health of the genebanks was assessed in another review, and recommendations made to upgrade infrastructure and techical guidelines and procedures. In our evaluation of the Genebanks CRP in 2016/17 some of these had only recently been addressed once the secure funding through the CRP had provided centers with sufficient external support.

SGRP and the ICWG-GR were major players at the FAO International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources held in Leipzig in 1997.

Under the auspices of the SGRP two important books were published in 1997 and 2004 respectively. The first, Biodiversity in Trust, written by 69 genebank managers, plant breeders and others working with germplasm in the CGIAR centers, and documenting the conservation and use status of 21 species or groups of species, was an important assessment of the status of the CGIAR genebank collections and their use, an important contribution not only in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity, but also as a contribution to FAO’s own monitoring of PGRFA that eventually led to the International Treaty in 2004.

The second, Saving Seeds, was a joint publication of IFPRI and the SGRP, and was the first comprehensive study to calculate the real costs of conserving seed collections of crop genetic resources. Costing the genebanks still bedevils the CGIAR, and it still has not been possible to arrive at a costing system that reflects both the heterogeneity of conservation approaches and how the different centers operate in their home countries, their organizational structures, and different costs basis. One model does not fit all.

In 1996/97 I’d been impressed by some research from the John Innes Institute in the UK about gene ‘homology’ or synteny among different cereal crops. I started developing some ideas about how this might be applied to the evaluation of genebank collections. In 1998, the ICWG-GR gave me the go-ahead—and a healthy budget— to organize an international workshop on Genebanks and Comparative Genetics that I’d been planning. With the help of Joel Cohen at ISNAR, we held a workshop there in ISNAR in August 1999, and to which we invited all the genebank managers, staff working at the centers on germplasm, and many of the leading lights from around the world in crop molecular biology and genomics, a total of more than 50 participants.

This was a pioneer event for the CGIAR, and certainly the CGIAR genebank community was way ahead of others in the centers in thinking through the possibilities for genomics, comparative genetics, and bioinformatics for crop improvement. Click here to read a summary of the workshop findings published in the SGRP Annual Report for 1999.

The workshop was also highlighted in Promethean Science, a 41 page position paper published in 2000 on the the importance of agricultural biotechnology, authored by former CGIAR Chair and World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin and Gabrielle Persley, a senior strategic science leader who has worked with some of the world’s leading agricultural research and development agencies. They address address the importance of characterizing biodiversity (and the workshop) in pages 21-23.

Although there was limited uptake of the findings from the workshop by individual centers (at IRRI for instance, breeders and molecular biologists certainly gave the impression that us genebankers has strayed into their turf, trodden on their toes so-to-speak, even though they had been invited to the workshop but not chosen to attend), the CGIAR had, within a year or so, taken on board some of the findings from the workshop, and developed a collective vision related to genomics and bioinformatics. Thus, the Generation Challenge Program (GCP) was launched, addressing many of the topics and findings that were covered by our workshop. So our SGRP/ICWG-GR effort was not in vain. In fact, one of the workshop participants, Bob Zeigler, became the first director of the GCP. Bob had been a head of one of IRRI’s research programs from 1992 until he left in about 1998 to become chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University. He returned to IRRI in 2004 as Director General!

Moving forward
Now the Genebanks CRP has been superseded by the Genebank Platform since the beginning of the year. The genebanks have certainly benefited from the secure funding that, after many years of dithering, the CGIAR finally allocated. The additional and external support from the Crop Trust has been the essential element to enable the genebanks to move forward.

In terms of data management, Genesys has gone way beyond the SGRP’s SINGER data management system, and now includes data on almost 3,602,000 accessions held in 434 institutes. Recently, DOIs have been added to more than 180,000 of these accessions.

One of the gems of the Genebanks CRP, which continues in the Genebank Platform, is delivery and implementation of a Quality Management System (QMS), which has two overarching objectives. QMS defines the necessary activities to ensure that genebanks meet all policy and technical standards and outlines ways to achieve continual quality improvement in the genebank’s administrative, technical and operational performance. As a result, it allows genebank users, regulatory bodies and donors to recognize and confirm the competence, effectiveness and efficiency of Platform genebanks.

The QMS applies to all genebank operations, staff capacity and succession, infrastructure and work environments, equipment, information technology and data management, user satisfaction, risk management and operational policies.

The Platform has again drawn in the policy elements of germplasm conservation and use, as it used to be under the SGRP (but ‘ignored’ under the Genebanks CRP), and equally importantly, the essential elements of germplasm health and exchange, to ensure the safe transfer of germplasm around the world.

Yes, I believe that as far as the CGIAR genebanks are concerned, genetic resources are in safe(r) hands. I cannot speak for genebanks elsewhere, although many are also maintained to a high standard. Unfortunately that’s not always the case, and I do sometimes wonder if there are simply too many genebanks or germplasm collections for their own good.

But that’s the stuff of another blog post once I’ve thought through all the implications of the various threads that are tangled in my mind right now.


¹ Research centers of the CGIAR (* genebank)

  • International Potato Center (CIP), Lima, Peru*
  • International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Cali, Colombia*
  • International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT), Texcoco, nr. Mexico DF, Mexico*
  • Bioversity International, Rome, Italy*
  • International Center for Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Lebanon and Morocco*
  • AfricaRice (WARDA), Bouaké / Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire*
  • International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Nigeria*
  • International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Nairobi, Kenya*
  • World Agroforestry Centre (WARDA), Nairobi, Kenya*
  • International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, India*
  • International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Baños, Philippines*
  • Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia
  • WorldFish, Penang, Malaysia
  • International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Colombo, Sri Lanka
  • International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, DC, USA

² The objectives of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture are the conservation and sustainable use of all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security.

³ ILCA was merged in January 1995 with the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases, based in Nairobi, Kenya, to form the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) with two campuses in Nairobi and Addis Ababa. The forages genebank is located at the Addis campus. A new genebank building was opened earlier this year.

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.