It was 40 years ago today . . .

News item in The Birmingham Post, 2 January 1973

News item in The Birmingham Post, 2 January 1973

One evening in February 1971 I received a phone call from Professor Jack Hawkes who was head of the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham, and Course Director for the MSc on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources. I’d begun my studies at Birmingham in September 1970 after graduating some months earlier from the University of Southampton with a BSc in environmental botany and geography. He asked me if I was interested in working in Peru for a year. Well, it had been my ambition for many years to visit Peru, and here was my chance.

Jack was a world-renowned authority on the potato, its taxonomy and origins in the Andes of South America. And on the day that he phoned me, he had just returned from a two month expedition to Bolivia to collect samples of wild potato species. He had been joined on that expedition by his close collaborator from Denmark, Dr Peter Hjerting, and one of his PhD students, Phillip Cribb (who went on to become an orchid expert at the Royal Botanic Gardens – Kew).

Dr Richard L Sawyer, Director General of CIP, 1971-1991

Dr Richard L Sawyer, Director General of CIP, 1971-1991

The expedition also received logistical support from the North Carolina State University-Peru USAID project, led at that time by Dr Richard Sawyer who would go on to found and become the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) in October 1971.

Peruvian potato expert, Dr Zosimo Huaman

While in Lima at the start and end of the expedition, Jack has stayed with Richard and his wife Norma. Richard talked of his vision to found CIP, and that he wanted to send a young Peruvian to study on the MSc course at Birmingham. That was Zosimo Huaman, who would go on to complete his PhD with Jack, and stay with CIP for the next 20 or more years. Zosimo was helping to manage a collection of native varieties of potato from Peru that the USAID project had taken over, and which would pass to CIP once that institute was open for business.

But if Zosimo went off to the UK, who would look after the potato collection? Richard asked Jack if he knew of anyone from Birmingham who might be interested in going out to Peru, just for a year, while Zosimo was completing his master’s studies. ‘I think I know just the person’, was Jack’s reply. And that’s how Jack came to phone me that February evening over 40 years ago.

But it wasn’t quite that simple.

There was the question of funding to support my year-long appointment, and Richard Sawyer was hoping that the British government, through the then Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development – DfID) might cough up the support. The intention was for me to complete my MSc and fly out to Peru in September 1971. In the event, however, my departure was delayed until January 1973.

By February 1971, an initiative was already under way that would lead to the formation of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) later that same year, and the ODA was contemplating two issues: whether to join the CGIAR, and whether to fund a position at CIP on a bilateral basis, or on a multilateral basis if it became a member of the CGIAR. But that decision would not be made before my expected move to Peru in September.

At what became a pivotal meeting in London in mid-1971, Jack argued – convincingly as it turned out – that he’d identified a suitable candidate, me, to join CIP’s genetic resources program, and that if some funding support was not found quickly, I’d likely find a job elsewhere. And so ODA agreed to support me at Birmingham on a Junior Research Fellowship for 15 months until December 1972, and that if negotiations to join the CGIAR went smoothly, I could expect to join CIP in January 1973. In the interim, Richard Sawyer did come through Birmingham and I had the chance to meet him, and for him to give me the once over. All seemed set for a January 1973 move to Peru, and I settled down to begin a PhD study under Jack’s supervision, working on the group of triploid potatoes known as Solanum x chaucha.

Mike discussing potato taxonomy with renowned Peruvian potato expert, Prof. Carlos Ochoa

Steph checking potatoes in the CIP germplasm collection in one of the screenhouses at La Molina

Although I went on to the CIP payroll on 1 January 1973, I didn’t fly out to Peru until the 4th (a Thursday). After spending Christmas with my parents in Leek, then a couple of days in London with my girlfriend Stephanie (who joined me in Peru in July 1973, where we were married in October, and she joined CIP’s staff as well) I spent a couple of nights in Birmingham with Jack and his wife Barbara before we set out on the long journey to Lima.

In those days, the ‘direct’ route to Peru from the UK was with BOAC from London-Heathrow, with three intermediate stops: in St John’s, Antigua in the Caribbean; in Caracas, Venezuela; and finally in Bogotá, Colombia. We finally arrived in Lima late at night, were met at Jorge Chavez airport by plant pathologist Ed French, and whisked off to our respective lodgings: me to the Pension Beech on Los Libertadores in the San Isidro district of Lima, and Jack to stay with the Sawyers. Thus began my association with CIP – for the next eight and a half years (I moved to Costa Rica in April 1976), and with the CGIAR until my retirement in 2010.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Birmingham genetic resources MSc course in 1989. R to L: Trevor Williams, Jim Callow (Mason Professor of Botany), Jack Hawkes, Brian Ford-Lloyd, Mike Jackson, not sure

After CIP I returned to the UK to teach at the University of Birmingham. By then, many of the overseas MSc students were being supported by another of the CGIAR institutes, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, IBPGR (later to become the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, IPGRI, then Bioversity International) based in Rome. A former Birmingham faculty member, Dr Trevor Williams (who had supervised my master’s thesis) was the first Director General of IBPGR. I maintained my links with CIP, and for a number of years had a joint research project with it and the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge on true potato seed. I also took part in a very detailed project review for CIP in about 1988.

In 1991 I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, which was founded in 1960, and is the oldest of the 15 centers that are part of the CGIAR Consortium. I was head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center for 10 years, followed by almost nine as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

The CGIAR gave me a great career. I was able to work for excellent scientific research organizations that had noble goals to reduce rural poverty, increase food security, ensure better nutrition and health, and manage resources sustainably. As a small cog in a big wheel it’s hard to fathom what contribution you might be making. But I often thought that if people were going to bed less hungry each night, then we were making a difference. This does not diminish the scale of the continuing problems of poverty and food security problems in the developing world, which are all-too-often exacerbated by civil strife and conflict in some of the most vulnerable societies. Nevertheless, I feel privileged to have played my part, however small. It was my work with the CGIAR that led to my appointment as an OBE by HM The Queen in 2012, for services to international food science.

Standing on Vavilov’s shoulders . . .

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943). Not a name familiar to many people. Vavilov is, however, one of my scientific heroes.

Until I began graduate school in September 1970, when I joined the MSc course at the University of Birmingham on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, I’d never even heard of him. In fact, looking back, I’m rather surprised that his name didn’t crop up once during my undergraduate years. I’d been encouraged to apply for a place on the Birmingham course by a lecturer in genetics at Southampton University, Dr Joe Smartt. But Vavilov and his work was not on the curriculum of botany courses that I took.

In preparation for Birmingham, I’d been advised to purchase and absorb a book that was published earlier that year, edited by Sir Otto Frankel and Erna Bennett [1] on genetic resources, and dedicated to NI Vavilov. And I came across Vavilov’s name for the first time in the first line of the Preface written by Frankel, and in the first chapter on Genetic resources by Frankel and Bennett. I should state that this was at the beginning of the genetic resources movement, a term coined by Frankel and Bennett at the end of the 60s when they had mobilized efforts to collect and conserve the wealth of diversity of crop varieties (and their wild relatives) – often referred to as landraces – grown all around the world, but were in danger of being lost as newly-bred varieties were adopted by farmers. The so-called Green Revolution had begun to accelerate the replacement of the landrace varieties, particularly among cereals like wheat and rice.

Thus began my fascination with Vavilov’s work, and a career in genetic resources in a broad sense that was to last 40 years until my retirement in 2010.

Vavilov was a botanist, geneticist and plant breeder who rose to the top of agricultural research in the Soviet Union who, through his many expeditions around the world (described in the book Five Continents [2], published posthumously in English in 1997) assembled a vast array of diversity in many crop species. Vavilov developed two seminal theories of crop evolution, which have influenced the science of genetic resources ever since.

The first was his Centers of Diversity and Origin, in which he stated that “the place of origin of a species of a cultivated plant is to be found in the area which contains the largest number of genetic varieties of this plant.” While we now appreciate that this was an oversimplification, his ideas about the origin of crop diversity have been the foundation for much of the genetic resources exploration carried out in subsequent decades.

The second was his Law of Homologous Series in the Case of Variation, published in Russian in 1920 and in English in 1922. I applied this concept in my search for pest resistance in wild potatoes, which I presented at a Symposium organized by the Linnean Society of London and the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London in 1987 to celebrate the centenary of Vavilov’s birth [3].

Vavilov died of starvation in prison at the relatively young age of 55, following persecution under Stalin through the shenanigans of the charlatan Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko’s legacy also included the rejection of Mendelian genetics in the Soviet Union for many years. Eventually Vavilov was rehabilitated, long after his death, and he was commemorated on postage stamps at the time of his centennial.

Although never having the privilege of  knowing Vavilov, I do feel that I met him vicariously through three people I have known, who did meet him, and I worked with two of these for many years.

First, Sir Otto Frankel FRS, who I first met at a genetic resources meeting in Jakarta in the mid-80s, was an eminent wheat breeder and geneticist, and one of the founders of the genetic resources movement. Originally from Austria, he had escaped before the Nazis came to power, and moved to New Zealand and Australia afterwards. Frankel visited Vavilov in Leningrad (now St Petersburg again) in 1935.

Jack Hawkes, Mason Professor of Botany at the University of Birmingham and my PhD supervisor, travelled to Leningrad in 1938 to consult with Vavilov’s colleague, SM Bukasov, about the potatoes he had collected in South America. He wrote about his meeting with Vavilov, which he presented at the Vavilov Symposium referred to above [4].

John S Niederhauser was an eminent plant pathologist who spent many years researching the potato late blight fungus in Mexico. He was awarded the World Food Prize in 1990. I worked for several years with John in the 1970s when I was regional leader for the International Potato Center in Costa Rica, and we were developing and implementing what turned out to be the first consortium, PRECODEPA (Cooperative Regional Potato Program – in four Central American countries, Mexico and the Dominican Republic), of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). As a young man of about 17, so John told me, he’d asked a travel agent how far he would be able to travel (return) from San Francisco with the money he had available: Leningrad was the destination. Walking around a research garden there one day, he was approached by a kindly gentleman – Vavilov as it turned out – who offered him the chance to work for a few weeks harvesting germplasm evaluation trials on one of his institute’s research stations in the Soviet southeast.

What all three emphasised – in their writings or related to me personally – was Vavilov’s friendliness, generosity of spirit, his boundless energy, and above all, his humanity, and that he treated everyone as an equal, even young persons as Hawkes and Niederhauser were when they met him.

Vavilov’s legacy endures. He is recognized as one of the giants of 20th century biology. And he has been an inspiration for countless students of genetic resources conservation and use.

[1] Frankel, OH & E Bennett (eds), 1970. Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation. IBP Handbook No 11. International Biological Programme, London and Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford and Edinburgh. pp. 554. SBN 632 05730 0.

[2] Vavilov, NI, 1997. Five Continents. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy. pp. 198. ISBN 92-9043-302-7.

[3] Jackson, MT, 1990. Vavilov’s Law of Homologous Series – is it relevant to potatoes? Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 39, 17-25.

[4] Hawkes, JG, 1990. NI Vavilov – the man and his work. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 39, 3-6.