Outside the EU . . . even before Brexit

Imagine a little corner of Birmingham, just a couple of miles southwest of the city center. Edgbaston, B15 to be precise. The campus of The University of Birmingham; actually Winterbourne Gardens that were for many decades managed as the botanic garden of the Department of Botany / Plant Biology.

As a graduate student there in the early 1970s I was assigned laboratory space at Winterbourne, and grew experimental plants in the greenhouses and field. Then for a decade from 1981, I taught in the same department, and for a short while had an office at Winterbourne. And for several years continued to teach graduate students there about the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the very reason why I had ended up in Birmingham originally in September 1970.

Potatoes at Birmingham
It was at Birmingham that I first became involved with potatoes, a crop I researched for the next 20 years, completing my PhD (as did many others) under the supervision of Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on the genetic resources and taxonomy of the various cultivated potatoes and related wild species from the Americas. Jack began his potato career in 1939, joining Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, led by Edward Balls. Jack recounted his memories of that expedition in Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes, published in 2003.

29 March 1939: Bolivia, dept. La Paz, near Lake Titicaca, Tiahuanaco. L to R: boy, Edward Balls, Jack Hawkes, driver.

The origins of the Commonwealth Potato Collection
Returning to Cambridge, just as the Second World War broke out, Jack completed his PhD under the renowned potato breeder Sir Redcliffe Salaman, who had established the Potato Virus Research Institute, where the Empire Potato Collection was set up, and after its transfer to the John Innes Centre in Hertfordshire, it became the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) under the management of institute director Kenneth S Dodds (who published several keys papers on the genetics of potatoes).

Bolivian botanist Prof Martin Cardenas (left) and Kenneth Dodds (right). Jack Hawkes named the diploid potato Solanum cardenasii after his good friend Martin Cardenas. It is now regarded simply as a form of the cultivated species S. phureja.

Hawkes’ taxonomic studies led to revisions of the tuber-bearing Solanums, first in 1963 and in a later book published in 1990 almost a decade after he had retired. You can see my battered copy of the 1963 publication below.

Dalton Glendinning

The CPC was transferred to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh in the 1960s under the direction of Professor Norman Simmonds (who examined my MSc thesis). In the early 1970s the CPC was managed by Dalton Glendinning, and between November 1972 and July 1973 my wife Steph was a research assistant with the CPC at Pentlandfield. When the SPBS merged with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in 1981 to form the Scottish Crops Research Institute (SCRI) the CPC moved to Invergowrie, just west of Dundee on Tayside. The CPC is still held at Invergowrie, but now under the auspices of the James Hutton Institute following the merger in 2011 of SCRI with Aberdeen’s Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.

Today, the CPC is one of the most important and active genetic resources collections in the UK. In importance, it stands alongside the United States Potato Genebank at Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin, and the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, where I worked for more than eight years from January 1973.

Hawkes continued in retirement to visit the CPC (and Sturgeon Bay) to lend his expertise for the identification of wild potato species. His 1990 revision is the taxonomy still used at the CPC.

So what has this got to do with the EU?
For more than a decade after the UK joined the EU (EEC as it was then in 1973) until that late 1980s, that corner of Birmingham was effectively outside the EU with regard to some plant quarantine regulations. In order to continue studying potatoes from living plants, Jack Hawkes was given permission by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to import potatoes—as botanical or true seeds (TPS)—from South America, without them passing through a centralised quarantine facility in the UK. However, the plants had to be raised in a specially-designated greenhouse, with limited personnel access, and subject to unannounced inspections. In granting permission to grow these potatoes in Birmingham, in the heart of a major industrial conurbation, MAFF officials deemed the risk very slight indeed that any nasty diseases (mainly viruses) that potato seeds might harbour would escape into the environment, and contaminate commercial potato fields.

Jack retired in 1982, and I took up the potato research baton, so to speak, having been appointed lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology at Birmingham after leaving CIP in April 1981. One of my research projects, funded quite handsomely—by 1980s standards—by the Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development, DFID) in 1984, investigated the potential of growing potatoes from TPS developed through single seed descent in diploid potatoes (that have 24 chromosomes compared with the 48 of the commercial varieties we buy in the supermarket). To cut a long story short, we were not able to establish this project at Winterbourne, even though there was space. That was because of the quarantine restrictions related to the wild species collections were held and were growing on a regular basis. So we reached an agreement with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) at Trumpington, Cambridge to set up the project there, building a very fine glasshouse for our work.

Then Margaret Thatcher’s government intervened! In 1987, the PBI was sold to Unilever plc, although the basic research on cytogenetics, molecular genetics, and plant pathology were not privatised, but transferred to the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Consequently our TPS project had to vacate the Cambridge site. But to where could it go, as ODA had agreed a second three-year phase? The only solution was to bring it back to Birmingham, but that meant divesting ourselves of the Hawkes collection. And that is what we did. However, we didn’t just put the seed packets in the incinerator. I contacted the folks at the CPC and asked them if they would accept the Hawkes collection. Which is exactly what happened, and this valuable germplasm found a worthy home in Scotland.

In any case, I had not been able to secure any research funds to work with the Hawkes collection, although I did supervise some MSc dissertations looking at resistance to potato cyst nematode in Bolivian wild species. And Jack and I published an important paper together on the taxonomy and evolution of potatoes based on our biosystematics research.

A dynamic germplasm collection
It really is gratifying to see a collection like the CPC being actively worked on by geneticists and breeders. Especially as I do have sort of a connection with the collection. It currently comprises about 1500 accessions of 80 wild and cultivated species.

Sources of resistance to potato cyst nematode in wild potatoes, particularly Solanum vernei from Argentina, have been transferred into commercial varieties and made a major impact in potato agriculture in this country.

Safeguarded at Svalbard
Just a couple of weeks ago, seed samples of the CPC were sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) for long-term conservation. CPC manager Gaynor McKenzie (in red) and CPC staff Jane Robertson made the long trek north to carry the precious potato seeds to the vault.

Potato reproduces vegetatively through tubers, but also sexually and produces berries like small tomatoes – although they always remain green and are very bitter, non-edible.

We rarely see berries after flowering on potatoes in this country. But they are commonly formed on wild potatoes and the varieties cultivated by farmers throughout the Andes. Just to give an indication of just how prolific they are let me recount a small piece of research that one of my former colleagues carried out at CIP in the 1970s. Noting that many cultivated varieties produced an abundance of berries, he was interested to know if tuber yields could be increased if flowers were removed from potato plants before they formed berries. Using the Peruvian variety Renacimiento (which means rebirth) he showed that yields did indeed increase in plots where the flowers were removed. In contrast, potatoes that developed berries produced the equivalent of 20 tons of berries per hectare! Some fertility. And we can take advantage of that fertility to breed new varieties by transferring genes between different strains, but also storing them at low temperature for long-term conservation in genebanks like Svalbard. It’s not possible to store tubers at low temperature.

Here are a few more photos from the deposit of the CPC in the SGSV.

I am grateful to the James Hutton Institute for permission to use these photos in my blog, and many of the other potato photographs displayed in this post.

 

There’s more to genetic resources than Svalbard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IR Varieties_TOC.indd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[1] Blackbox storage is described thus on the Crop Trust website (https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/): “The depositors who will deposit material will do so consistently with relevant national and international law. The Seed Vault will only agree to receive seeds that are shared under the Multilateral System or under Article 15 of the International Treaty or seeds that have originated in the country of the depositor.

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

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

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

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

Genebanking, East Africa style

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

20161011-002-icraf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

irri004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Genebanking Down Under

I have just returned Australia, a round trip of almost 21,500 miles, to attend the Annual Genebanks Meeting of the CGIAR’s Genebanks CRP. I was in Australia for only four nights! I travelled there with my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd. Considering the distance I think I coped with the travel reasonably well, no jet-lag to speak of, although I was just tired from the length of each flight. There’s no doubt that travelling business class with Emirates took away much of the ‘travel pain’, with three of the sectors (DXB-MEL, MEL-DXB, and DXB-BHX) operated with the A380-800.

20161104-001-australia

Brian and me enjoying a wee dram in the A380 upper-deck lounge on the flight from Melbourne to Dubai, all 14 hours plus.

Arrival in Australia
We landed in Melbourne early on the Sunday morning. I was just thankful to be there. Our trip down-under had not be confirmed until a week before we were due to travel on Friday 28 October. I immediately applied for a free visa (yes, even UK citizens need a visa for Australia) through the official Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) website. It indicated that most visas are granted in one working day. Since it was a Friday when I applied, I didn’t expect to receive my visa until Monday morning, UK time when offices in Tasmania would already be closed.

Well, to cut a long story short, I still hadn’t heard back from the DIBP on Thursday, the day before I was scheduled to travel. Talk about stress! So I bit the bullet and applied for an ETA (electronic travel authorisation) through an agency, and paid for the Fast Track (20 minute) service. And less than 30 minutes later I had my travel authorisation. Weird. I did wonder if this was a scam, but when I checked in at the departure gate at BHX to board the flight to Dubai, the system initially denied me permission to board, but once my passport details were entered into the system, there was my authorisation.

On landing in Dubai on the Saturday morning (29 October), I checked my emails, and there was a message from the DIBP with my ‘official’ visa approval. I had no issues at all when we went through immigration in Melbourne.

About five or six hours after departing Dubai I woke up and needed to visit the toilet. By then, we’d hit rough air (somewhere off the coast of south India) and the cabin crew wouldn’t let me out of my seat. So I had to sit uncomfortably cross-legged until the seat belt signs had been turned off.

The meeting that Brian and I were to attend was held in Horsham, a small town with a population of around 14,000, half distance between Melbourne and Adelaide in western Victoria. We met up with the rest of the genebank managers group at an airport hotel. They were all headed for a tour of the lovely Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria in Melbourne (that Steph and I had visited in January 2004). Instead Brian and I were able to take a half day room, have a shower and get our heads down for a few hours before leaving on the 3½ hour coach trip to Horsham.

The AGM was hosted in Horsham at the Grains Innovation Park, an agricultural research station on the western limits of the town, and the location of the Australian Grains Genebank.

Australia’s genebanks
Until quite recently, Australia did not have any federal genebanks, rather genetic resources conservation was the responsibility of various state agencies. Having no federal coordination in this respect, it was difficult for Australia to comply fully with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. So two national genebanks were set up. Horsham is the home of the Australian Grains Genebank (AGG), a state-of-the art facility built in the last couple of years, and headed by Dr Sally Norton. The other genebank (that we didn’t visit) is the Australian Pastures Genebank (APG) located in Adelaide. However, the leader of that genebank, Mr Steve Hughes and some of his colleagues did attend the open second half of the meeting held in Melbourne.

agg002During one of the meeting breaks, Sally Norton took us on a tour of the genebank. The AGG ‘underpins the development of new, more productive temperate and tropical grain crop varieties for Australia . . . to acquire, conserve, maintain stocks of viable seed, and distribute seed of diverse germplasm to Australia plant research and breeding programs.’ Click on the flyer image to open a PDF version.

The genebank has an impress collection of cereals, pulses, and oilseeds, almost 119,000 accessions in total, of which >5000 are unique (that is, as far as can be determined, they do not exist in any other genebank collection).

The genebank has impressive interconnected facilities: a laboratory for seed sorting and cleaning, a drying room with controlled temperature and relative humidity to dry seeds to an acceptable equilibrium moisture content, and several cold stores, all at -20C.

We spent two days in closed meetings, during which Brian and I sat quietly at the back of the room, intently listening to the discussions about the Genebanks CRP, its progress and achievements, and plans for the next phase beginning in 2017.

On the Wednesday, we had a tour of other facilities at the Grains Innovation Park, before setting off to Melbourne for a break at Brambuk, the National Park & Cultural Center in the Grampians National Park, a BBQ lunch and the chance to get up close and personal with some native Australian wildlife.

ppv002Another facility that has recently opened at Horsham is Plant Phenomics Victoria.

It’s one thing to conserve seeds of potentially useful varieties and wild species. It’s another to discover if they have traits useful for breeders to increase productivity. The study of plants for drought or heat tolerance, for example has certainly moved into the 21st century. Not only can drones (and other pieces of clever kit) be used to record in real time the responses of individual plants and even whole crops in the field, but sophisticated equipment can be used to measure plants every few minutes or more frequently. And at Horsham, Plant Phenomics Victoria is a AUD7 million initiative with greenhouses, growth chambers and a state-of-the-art automated high-throughput phenotyping system (that is, for measuring how the plants look and grow). Just check out what this facility can be used for by clicking on the image on the left and opening a PDF flyer. Pots move along various conveyor belts, are photographed, weighed, water use and temperature measured – all automatically. Very impressive.

Up close with a koala
We had a great time getting to know a koala (named Bruce – what else?), a young kangaroo, dingo, crocodile, echidna, and python, and a toothy wombat at Brambuk. I’ve never touched a snake before – somewhat of a phobia for me. But I decided to have the python draped around my neck, and help hold a jumpy crocodile. Thank goodness its jaw was held shut! Then it was back on the coach to Melbourne.

Brian and I stayed on for one more day, departing on the Thursday evening, having missed a bush meat (kangaroo and crocodile, among others) BBQ in Melbourne. Our flight departed at 22:35, and we landed, on time at BHX just after 11:30 on Friday morning. It was interesting landing at BHX in an A380, a service that Emirates launched earlier this year, replacing the Boeing Triple 7 on that midday service. Apparently Emirates will replace its evening service that we took to Dubai with another A380 in January. It just goes to show how profitable this BHX-DXB route has become.

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

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

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

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

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A drop of cognac.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Native potato varieties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Me and Daniel Debouck.

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Bean varieties.

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

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QMS manuals in the germplasm health laboratory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

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Ayla Sençer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

  

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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Jade Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Jackson
Valuing genebank collections

Åsmund Asdal (NordGen)
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Neil Munro (Garden Organic)
Heritage seed library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nicolay Vavilov is a hero of mine

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

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

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

How many crop varieties can you name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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