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.


How long is a piece of string?

Just three decades after Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro first encountered the potato in the high Andes of Peru in 1532, the potato was already being grown in the Canary Islands. And it found its way to mainland Europe via the Canaries shortly afterwards [1].

The first known published illustration of the potato in Gerard’s Herball of 1597.

The potato was described by English herbalist John Gerard in his Herball published in 1597. In a revised version, published in 1633 over 20 years after his death, there is another beautiful woodcut of the potato, referred to Battata Virginiana or Virginian potatoes.

Potatoes became an important crop by the late 18th century, and particularly the staple of Ireland’s impoverished citizens in the years leading up to the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1840s.

Today, potatoes are one of the world’s most important crops, grown in every continent except Antarctica. Known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, it was given this name by the famous Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus in his 1753 magnum opus, Species Plantarum.

The potato and its wild relatives must be one of the most studied groups of crop plants. Not that I’m biased (having researched potatoes for more than 20 years).

Potato diversity and germplasm collections
Its clear that there is a wealth of information about the diversity within the section of the genus Solanum that encompasses the potato. They have been studied extensively from a taxonomic point of view, breeding efforts worldwide have incorporated genes from many wild species to enhance productivity, and important germplasm collections were set up decades ago to preserve this important diversity, to study it, and use it in potato breeding.

My former colleague (and fellow PhD student at Birmingham), Dr Zosimo Huaman, describes the management of CIP’s wild potato collection in Huancayo to members of the CGIAR’s Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources who held their annual meeting at CIP in 1996.

Among the most important collections are held at:

The wild relatives of the potato have one of the broadest geographical and ecological ranges among species that have been domesticated for human consumption. While the various forms of cultivated potatoes were domesticated in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, and on the coast of Chile, the wild species are found from the southwest USA (in the coniferous forests of Arizona, for instance) through Mexico and the countries of Central America to Panama, along the Andes south to Chile and northern Argentina, and south and east on to the plains of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Wild species are found in the coastal desert of Peru, in the cloud forests of central America to almost 3000 m, at the highest altitudes of the Andes, well over 4000 m, and also growing in the highly humid transition zone on the eastern side of the Andes dropping down to the lowland forests (known as the ‘eyebrow of the mountain’ or ceja de la montaña).

Here is just a very small sample of the diversity—and beauty—of wild potato species (photos courtesy of my friends at the Commonwealth Potato Collection).

How many potato species are there?
Well, it depends, to some extent, on one’s perspectives as a taxonomist, use of different species concepts, and the methods used to study species diversity, and also on the work that earlier taxonomists published.

Essentially, there are three basic taxonomic approaches:

  • Morphology: often based on the study of dried herbarium specimens collected in the wild. In the case of potatoes, this has led to the description of a multiplicity of species, with almost every variant being described as a separate species. This reliance on plant morphology was the approach taken by the 19th and early 20th century botanists.
  • Biosystematics: takes an experimental view of species diversity, of breeding behaviour and relationships, and very much based on collections in the field and the study of ecology, and growing samples in a uniform environment such as the study one of my PhD students, Susan Juned, made of Solanum chacoense, a species from Argentina and Paraguay.
  • Molecular biology: methods have become available in the last couple of decades to analyse the most basic variation in DNA, and helped to refine further how potato taxonomists view the diversity within the tuber-bearing Solanums, and the relationships between species.

While these different approaches still do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how many species there are, we know that taxonomists have described and named more than 200 species. To some extent it’s like asking how long is a piece of string. And that helps me to provide an analogy.

Take a piece of string. If you were to view this string along its length that, to your vision would be fore-shortened, it would be very difficult to say with any degree of certainty just how long the string actually was. However, if you increase the angle at which you view the string, until you are looking at right angles, your ability to estimate its length also increases. At right angles you can see the whole length, and measure it accurately in many different ways.

Taxonomic study is a bit like looking at the string from different angles. Each taxonomist builds on earlier studies, and describing new species or subsuming previously described ones into another species (as merely variants). This is one of the challenges of studying wild potato species: they are highly variable and show considerable phenotypic (or morphological) plasticity. It’s not always possible to study large numbers of plants under uniform conditions to reduce the variation caused by differences in habitats.

The 2n=3x=36 chromosomes of a triploid potato, from a root-tip squash in two cells.

Furthermore potatoes have considerable chromosomal variation, with a base number of x=12, with diploids (2n=24) the most frequent, and mostly self-incompatible (i.e. they cannot self fertilise), infertile triploids (2n=36, including two cultivated species), tetraploids with 2n=48 (mostly self-fertile, and including the cultivated Solanum tuberosum of world-wide agriculture), some pentaploids (2n=60; including one cultivated form), and a few hexaploids with 2n=72. Wild potatoes are uncommonly promiscuous when grown together under experimental conditions, and will inter-cross readily (they are bee-pollinated), yet hybrids often do not survive beyond the second generation in the wild. Many species are separated by ecology, and generally do not come into contact with each other, thus maintaining their species identity.

Nevertheless, this is what makes the study of potatoes and wild species so very interesting, and that captured my interest directly for over two decades, and continues to do so, even though I moved on to the study of other crops like rice and grain legumes.

The potato taxonomists
Many botanists have taken an interest in wild potatoes. During the 19th century, the Swiss-French botanist Alphonse de Candolle (d. 1893) named a number of species, as did François Berthault (d. 1916). But the first decades of the 20th century leading up to the Second World War saw a lot of collecting and taxonomic description. In Germany, Friedrich August Georg Bitter, who specialised in the genus Solanum, described and named many species. However, it was the involvement of several Russian botanists and geneticists, under the leadership of Nicolai Vavilov, that saw an expansion in the collection of potatoes throughout the Americas, but a systematic evaluation of this germplasm leading to even more species being described.

SM Bukasov

Two names come to mind, in particular: SM Bukasov and VS Juzepczuk. They were active during the 1920s and 30s, taking part in several missions to South America, and developing further the concept of potato species. But much of their work was based on morphological comparison leading to the identification of even small variants as new species.

In August 1938, a young Cambridge graduate, Jack Hawkes, traveled to Leningrad in Russia to meet and discuss with Bukasov and Juzepczuk (and Vavilov himself) in preparation for the 1938-39 British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America (which Jack has described in his 2004 memoir Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes [2]).

A young Jack Hawkes (second from right) stands outside a church near Lake Titicaca in northern Bolivia, alongside expedition leader Edward Balls (second from the left).

Jack Hawkes

That collecting expedition, and the subsequent studies (which led to Hawkes being awarded his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1941 for a thesis Cytogenetic studies on South American potatoes supervised by renowned potato scientist Sir Redcliffe N Salaman), was the launch pad, so to speak, of potato taxonomy research for the rest of the 20th century, in which Hawkes became one of the leading exponents.

After Cambridge, Hawkes spent some years in Colombia (where he no doubt continued his studies of wild potatoes) but it was on his return to the UK in 1952 when appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Botany at The University of Birmingham (where he was to remain until his retirement in 1982) that his potato studies flourished, leading him to publish in 1956 his first taxonomic revision of the tuber-bearing Solanums (with a second edition appearing in 1963).

In 1990, he published his final synopsis of the tuber-bearing Solanums [3]; that taxonomic treatment is the one followed by the curators of the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

Jack’s approach to potato taxonomy was based on a thorough study of morphology backed up by rigorous crossing experiments, and a cytogenetic and sometimes serological evaluation of species relationships.

I first met Jack in February 1970 when he interviewed me for a place on his newly-founded MSc course on plant genetic resources, joining the course later that same year. In September 1971 I became one of Jack’s PhD students, joining others who were looking at the origin and evolution of the cultivated species [4].

Donovan S CorrellIn these revisions he was also taking into account the work of US botanist, Donovan S Correll who published his own potato monograph in 1962 [5], as well as three important South American botanists with whom he would collaborate from time-to-time: Professor César Vargas from the National University of Cuzco; Professor Martín Cárdenas from Cochabamba in Bolivia; and Professor Carlos Ochoa, originally from Cuzco, who was a professor at the Universidad Nacional Agraria (UNA) in La Molina, Lima and, around 1975 or so, joined the International Potato Center across the street from the UNA.

L-R: Danish botanist J Peter Hjerting, Martin Cardenas, and Jack Hawkes in Cochabamba.

Vargas published a number of species descriptions in the 1950s, but made his most significant contribution in his two part monographs, Las Papas Sudperuanas published in 1949 and 1956. I met Vargas on a couple of occasions, first in January 1973 just after I’d joined CIP as Associate Taxonomist. And a second time in February 1974 when I was passing through Cuzco with Dr Peter Gibbs from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Peter was making a study of incompatibility among different forms of the Andean tuber crop, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), and had joined me on an excursion to Cuyo-Cuyo in the Department of Puno. Vargas’s daughter Martha was studying for her MSc degree under Peter’s supervision at St Andrews.

With Prof Cesar Vargas at his home in Urubamba, near Cuzco

It was Carlos Ochoa, however, whose studies of potatoes and their relatives rivalled (and in some respects eclipsed) those of Jack Hawkes. They were quite intense taxonomic rivals, with a not-altogether harmonious relationship at times. Carlos certainly played his taxonomic cards very close to his chest.

Me consulting with Carlos Ochoa concerning the identity of some triploid potatoes, in one the screenhouses at the International Potato Center in 1974.

But the fact that he grew up in the Andes and had, from an early age, taken an interest in the diversity of this quintessential Andean crop and its wild relatives, led him to dedicate his life to uncovering the diversity of potatoes in his homeland. He was also a potato breeder and released some of the most important varieties in Peru, such as Renacimiento, Yungay, and Tomasa Condemayta.

In this video (in Spanish, and broadcast on Peruvian TV on his death in 2008) he talks about his early life in Cuzco, the pressures on him to study medicine or become a lawyer, and how he found his true vocation: the study of wild potatoes.

Setting potato taxonomy and germplasm exploration priorities at CIP
Forty-five years ago this week, CIP convened the first planning workshop on the exploration and taxonomy of potatoes [6], inviting a group of taxonomists and potato breeders to meet in Lima and mull over the ‘state of play’ taking into consideration what taxonomic research had already been accomplished, what was in the pipeline, and what CIP’s germplasm exploration policy (especially in Peru) should be. I attended that meeting (as an observer), having landed in Lima just a few days earlier.

On the taxonomic side were Jack Hawkes, Carlos Ochoa, and Donald Ugent who was a ethnobotany professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Richard Tarn, a potato breeder from Agriculture Canada at Fredericton, New Brinswick, had completed his PhD under Jack’s supervision at Birmingham. Frank Haynes, a professor of genetics and potato breeder at North Carolina State University (and long-time friend and colleague of CIP’s first Director General, Richard Sawyer) and Roger Rowe [7], then curator of the USDA’s potato collection at Sturgeon Bay (who would join CIP in July 1973 as the Head of Breeding and Genetics, and become my PhD co-supervisor) were the other participants.

Workshop participants looking at CIPs germplasm collection in the field at Huancayo (3000 m) in central Peru. L-R: David Baumann (CIP field manager), Frank Haynes, Jack Hawkes, Roger Rowe, and Don Ugent.

In 1969, Jack had published (with his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting [8]) a monograph of the potatoes of southern cone countries of South America [9], and by the time of the CIP 1973 workshop was well into research on the potatoes of Bolivia [10], leading publication of a monograph in 1989.

Peter Hjerting collecting Solanum chacoense in Bolivia in 1980. Standing next to him is Ing. Israel Aviles, a Bolivian member of the expedition. Their driver looks on.

What I’ve never been able to fathom after all these years is why Ochoa decided to write his own monograph of the Bolivian species rather than concentrating in the first instance on the Peruvian species. Nevertheless Ochoa did produce his own fine monograph in 1990 [11], beautifully illustrated with some fine watercolours by CIP plant pathologist Franz Frey. This was followed by an equally magnificent volume on the potatoes of Peru in 2004 [12], also illustrated by Frey.

Throughout his expeditions and research, Ochoa was supported by several assistants, the most notable being Ing. Alberto Salas. Now in his mid-70s, he has been collecting wild potatoes for five decades.

I knew Alberto when I first joined CIP in 1973, and it was a delight to meet him again (although he had retired) during my visit to CIP in July 2016.

Taking up the baton
With retirement, Hawkes and Ochoa passed the potato taxonomy baton to a new generation of researchers, principally David Spooner, a USDA scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who made several collecting trips throughout the Americas.

David Spooner

David’s research took potato systematics to a new level, employing the developing molecular and genomic approaches, and use of different classes of markers to help him refine his understanding of the diversity of the tuber-bearing Solanums, building of course on the very solid Hawkes and Ochoa foundations.

Although no longer working on potatoes (his most recent focus on carrots supported the PhD thesis of Carlos Arbizu, Jr, the son of one of my PhD students at Birmingham in the 1980s), David’s scientific output on potatoes has been prodigious. With molecular insights supporting more traditional methods he has proposed a 50% reduction in the number of potato species from the more than 200 listed in Hawkes’s 1990 publication.

Is this the end of the potato taxonomy story? Probably for the time-being. It’s unlikely that anyone will pursue these studies to the same depth as Hawkes and Hjerting, Ochoa, or Spooner. Nevertheless, as the curators of the Commonwealth Potato Collection have done, most potato researchers will take a pragmatic approach and fix on a particular taxonomic treatment on which to base their management or use of germplasm. Taxonomy is one of those disciplines in which subjective interpretations (obviously based on empirical studies of diversity) can lead to contrary classifications. What is a distinct species to one taxonomist may be merely a variant to another. Undoubtedly these different taxonomic treatments of the tuber-bearing Solanums have permitted us to have a much better appreciation of just how long ‘the potato piece of string’ really is.


[1] Hawkes, JG & J Francisco-Ortega, 1993. The early history of the potato in Europe. Euphytica 70, 1-7.

[2] Hawkes, JG, 2004. Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes – Memories of the British Empire Potato Collectiing Expedition to South America 1938-1939. Wageningen, the Netherlands. ISBN: 90-901802-4.

[3] Hawkes, JG, 1990. The Potato – Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London.

[4] Since I was working on the origin and evolution of a cultivated species of potato for my PhD, I made only one short collecting trip for wild species with Jack in early 1975, to the Departments of Huanuco, Cerro de Pasco, and Lima. On his trips to Peru between 1973 and 1975 he would join me in the field to look at the germplasm I was studying and give me the benefit of his potato wisdom.

[5] Correll, DS, 1962. The Potato and its Wild Relatives. Contributions from the Texas Research Fiundation 4, pp. 606. Texas Research Foundation, Renner, Texas.

[6] International Potato Center, 1973. Report of the Workshop on Germplasm Exploration and Taxonomy of Potatoes. Lima, Peru. 35 pp.

[7] I’ve kept in touch with Roger and his wife Norma all these years. After I left CIP in 1981, Roger moved to East Africa to work with the animal diseases center that became ILRI after its merger with another CGIAR livestock center in Ethiopia. He was DDG-Research at CIMMYT in Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While I was at IRRI, he was based in Cairo working for the CGIAR center that became WorldFish (with its headquarters in Penang, Malaysia). Before it moved to Malaysia, ICLARM as it then was had its offices in Manila, and we would see Roger in the Philippines from time-to-time. It was great to meet up with Roger and Norma again in July 2016 when I was in Lima for the genebank review that I led.

[8] From what I can determine through a Google search, as of January 2018, Peter celebrated his 100th birthday in 2017. He has a Mexican tetraploid (2n=4x=48) species named after him, Solanum hjertingii. When I was at Birmingham in the 1980s I had two PhD students, Lynne Woodwards and Ian Gubb who studied this species because its tubers lack so-called enzymatic blackening, a trait that could be very useful in potato breeding.

[9] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting, 1969. The Potatoes of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – A Biosystematic Study. Annals of Botany Memoirs No. 3. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[10] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting, 1989. The Potatoes of Bolivia – Their Breeding Value and Evolutionary Relationships. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[11] Ochoa, CM, 1990. The Potatoes of South America: Bolivia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[12] Ochoa, CM, 2004. The Potatoes of South America: Peru. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru.

Laos – jewel in the rice biodiversity crown

From 1995 to late 2000, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) through its Genetic Resources Center (GRC, now the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center) coordinated a project to collect and conserve the genetic diversity of rice varieties that smallholder farmers have nourished for generations in Asia and Africa. The collecting program also targeted many of the wild species relatives of cultivated rice found in those continents as well as Latin America.

With a grant of more than USD3 million from the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) the project made significant collections of rice varieties and wild species at a time when, in general, there was a moratorium on germplasm exploration worldwide. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force at the end of December 1993, and many countries were developing and putting in place policies concerning access to germplasm. Many were reluctant to allow access to non-nationals, or even exchange germplasm internationally. It’s not insignificant then that IRRI was able to mount such a project with the full cooperation of almost 30 countries, and many collecting expeditions were made, many of them including IRRI staff.

As Head of GRC from 1991 to 2001, I developed the project concept and was responsible for its implementation, recruiting several staff to fill a number of important positions for germplasm collection, project management, and the research and training components. I have written about the project in more detail elsewhere in this blog.

One of the most important strategic decisions we took was to locate one staff member, Dr Seepana Appa Rao, in Laos (also known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) where IRRI already managed the Lao-IRRI project for the enhancement of the rice sector. This project was also funded by the SDC, so it was a natural fit to align the rice germplasm activities alongside, and to some extent within, the ongoing Lao-IRRI Project.

The leader of the Lao-IRRI Project was Australian agronomist, Dr John Schiller, who had spent about 30 years working in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and whose untimely death was announced just yesterday¹.

Until Appa Rao moved to Laos, very little germplasm exploration had taken place anywhere in the country. It was a total germplasm unknown, but with excellent collaboration with national counterparts, particularly Dr Chay Bounphanousay (now a senior figure in Lao agriculture), the whole of the country was explored and more than 13,000 samples of cultivated rice collected from the different farming systems, such as upland rice and rainfed lowland rice. A local genebank was constructed by the project, and duplicate samples were sent to IRRI for long-term storage as part of the International Rice Genebank Collection in GRC. Duplicate samples of these rice varieties were also sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault when IRRI made its various deposits in that permafrost facility inside the Arctic Circle.

Appa Rao and John Schiller (in the center) discussing Lao rice varieties. Im not sure who the person in the blue shirt is. In the background, IRRI scientist Eves Loresto describes rice diversity to her colleague, Mauricio Bellon.

Of particular interest is that Lao breeders immediately took an interest in the collected germplasm as it was brought back to the experiment station near the capital Vientiane, and multiplied in field plots prior to storage in the genebanks. There are few good examples where breeders have taken such an immediate interest in germplasm in this way. In so many countries, germplasm conservation and use activities are often quite separate, often in different institutions. In some Asian countries, rice genebanks are quite divorced from crop improvement, and breeders have no ready access to germplasm samples.

Appa Rao was an assiduous rice collector, and spent weeks at a time in the field, visiting the most remote localities. He has left us with a wonderful photographic record of rice in Laos, and I have included a fine selection below. We also published three peer-reviewed papers (search for Appa Rao’s name here) and seven of the 25 chapters in the seminal Rice in Laos edited by John and others. 

The rices from Laos now represent one of the largest components (maybe the largest) of the International Rice Genebank Collection. Many are unique to Laos, particularly the glutinous varieties.

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¹ Yesterday, I received an email from one of my former IRRI colleagues, Professor Melissa Fitzgerald who is now at the University of Queensland, with the very sad news that John Schiller had been found in his apartment just that morning. It’s believed he had passed away due to heart failure over the course of the weekend.

I first met John in November 1991, a few months after I’d joined IRRI. He and I were part of a group of IRRI scientists attending a management training course, held at a beach resort bear Nasugbu on the west coast of Luzon, south of Manila. The accommodation was in two bedroom apartments, and John and I shared one of those, so I got to know him quite well.

Our friendship blossomed from 1995 onwards when we implemented the rice biodiversity project, Appa Rao was based in Vientiane, and I would travel there two or three times a year. In February 1997, I had the opportunity of taking Steph with me on one trip, and that coincided with the arrival of another IRRI agronomist, Bruce Linquist (with his wife and small son) to join the Lao-IRRI Project. We were invited to the Lao traditional welcoming or Baci ceremony at John’s house, for the Linquists and Steph. I’d already received this ceremony on my first visit to Laos in 1995 or 1996.

John also arranged for Appa and Chay to show Steph and me something of the countryside around Vientiane. Here were are at the lookout over the Ang Nam Ngum Lake, just north of the capital, where we took a boat trip.

L to R: Mrs Appa Rao, Appa, Kongphanh Kanyavong, Chay Bounphanousay, Steph, and me.

After he retired from IRRI, John moved back to Brisbane, and was given an honorary fellowship at the University of Queensland. He continued to support training initiatives in Laos. As he himself said, his heart was with those people. But let John speak for himself.

My other close colleague and former head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, Gene Hettel, overnight wrote this eloquent and touching obituary about John and his work, that was published today on the IRRI News website. Just click on the image to read this in more detail.


Learning about crop wild relatives

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

Diversity in potatoes and rice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.