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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Jackson FINAL - Valuing Genebank Collections

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.

On political campaigns . . .

ballotbox copyI’m a bit of a news junkie, so I’ve been avidly following presidential election campaigns in three countries in online newspapers and on social media.

News from the US presidential election is never absent from the daily headlines, mainly because the two principal contenders on the Republican side, billionaire Donald Trump (or is that Donald Drumpf)¹ and evangelical Senator Ted Cruz, battling it out to win the nomination, increasingly descend to ever lower levels of political debate. Political debate? Their exchanges are not worthy of that epithet. Trump is hardly running an election campaign. I think it would be better to describe it as an election ego-trip.

You would hardly know there’s also an interesting contest on the Democrat side between former First Lady, New York Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. At least they seem to be having a sensible debate.

The other campaigns that interest me are taking place in Peru in April, and in the Philippines in May. Why? Because I have lived and worked in both those countries.

Reading about the three campaigns, two quotations come to mind:

  • Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite (Every nation gets the government it deserves) — attributed to Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821)
  • Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least — Robert Byrne

Goodness knows what sort of campaign there will be in the US after the party conventions if Trump really does become the Republican candidate. He’s both scary and a worry. What will happen if he is ‘denied’ the nomination, and how will his supporters react. The violence we have seen so far directed by these folks against anti-Trump protesters does not bode well for the future.

But there are scary things going on in the Cruz camp as well. He is a right-wing evangelical Christian. And I’ve recently seen footage of him sharing the stage with a fundamentalist Christian preacher who, through his language was inciting Christians to violence, death even, against homosexuals. Because it says so in the Bible.

On the Democrat side, I’m actually surprised how well Bernie Sanders is doing, although I can’t believe he can win the nomination. Nor can I see a 74 year old candidate moving on to be a successful president.

In Peru and the Philippines, some of the candidates are as old as Sanders, but the political situation there is very different from the USA.

The polls in Peru seem to be dominated by Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the disgraced and gaoled former President Alberto Fujimori (who I met in the Philippines during his visit to IRRI). But Fujimori – daughter is also a controversial politician, believed to have benefited personally from her father’s corrupt government. Nevertheless, she is predicted to win the first round of voting. Another discredited candidate is the APRA former president Alan García who served two terms already (1985-1990, 2006-2011).

In the Philippines, which has a party system even weaker than that in Peru, the lists of candidates for both president and vice-president are filled with controversial characters. The posts of President and Vice-President are voted for separately (not as a single ticket in the USA), and it’s often the case that elected candidates come from different political persuasions and diametrically-opposed political platforms.

The current Vice-President Jejomar Binay heads yet another political dynasty, and has been accused of overwhelming corruption. The Mayor of Davao City (in Mindanao) Rodrigo Duterte has served his city for more than two decades, successfully apparently, and regarded as a political ‘hard man’. How a Duterte Administration would pan out nationally is anyone’s guess. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is an outspoken – and (formerly) popular – international lawyer who, once she had declared her candidacy (despite being near death’s door from Stage 4 lung cancer only a short time before), was thought to be well placed to win the presidency. Until, that is, she chose Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (aka ‘Bongbong’) as her running mate for vice-president. Son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos (ousted in a popular uprising in 1986), Bongbong is widely regarded as corrupt and implicated in many of the worst human rights excesses of his father’s regime. Another, Senator Grace Poe, has had her candidacy questioned because of her nationality, having taken US citizenship at one time, which she has now renounced. Which leaves us with the ‘administration’ candidate and Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, Mar Roxas (a scion of yet another political dynasty). Is his wife Korina Sanchez a political liability??

So, in all three countries, the electorates are faced with choosing Presidents or Vice-Presidents from lists of some unsavory candidates, several of whom do not qualify (in my opinion) on ethical or moral grounds to ask for anyone’s vote, never mind political acumen or leadership potential, not even for the most humble elected post.

There will be bumpy political times and roads ahead in all three countries, whatever the election outcomes. Although not a General Election, we face an uncertain political (and economic) future here in the UK with the referendum on continuing membership of the European Union being held on 23 June. Political campaigning and false arguments have not brought out the best on either side of the referendum debate.

¹ See the full 22 minute video here.

Nature abhors a vacuum . . .

PACIFIC_Royal.inddI’m thoroughly enjoying Simon Winchester’s Pacific – the Ocean of the Future (published in 2015 by William Collins, ISBN 978-0-00-755075-3), which I received for Christmas 2015. I already mentioned it in a recent post.

With a Prologue (The lonely sea and the sky), an author’s note (On carbon), and an epilogue (The call of the running tide), the chapters are ten essays on a range of topics about the Pacific Ocean, its geography, politics, and history since 1 January 1950 (Before Present):

  • Chapter 1: The great thermonuclear sea (all about the series of atomic bomb test at many locations in the Pacific in the 1950s)
  • Chapter 2: Mr Ibuka’s radio revolution (Sony and the transistor revolution)
  • Chapter 3: The ecstasies of wave riding (the rise of surfing culture, from Hawaii to California)
  • Chapter 4: A dire and dangerous irritation (North Korea)
  • Chapter 5: Farewell, all my friends and foes (the end of colonialism)
  • Chapter 6: Echoes of distant thunder (the Pacific and world weather)
  • Chapter 7: How goes the lucky country? (Australia)
  • Chapter 8: The fires in the deep (deep ocean exploration)
  • Chapter 9: A fragile and uncertain sea (climate change and other environmental challenges)
  • Chapter 10: Of masters and commanders (the emergence/resurgence of China)

It was Chapter 5 on the end of colonialism that fired the neurons in my brain, resurrecting several memories from the deep recesses of my mind. It began with an account of the Cunard ocean liner, RMS Queen Elizabeth and her demise after catching fire (in what appears to have been a deliberate act of sabotage) in Hong Kong harbor. The head of the company that had bought the QE, Tung Chee Hwa, became the first Chinese-appointed chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region after the Union Jack was lowered on 30 June 1997 and British rule came to an end.

The essay in Chapter 6 described how the Pacific Ocean influences weather systems right across the globe. Pacific Ocean weather is something in both its glory and at its most ferocious I came to appreciate and experience during my 19 years in the Philippines.

But it was the tenth essay, about the geopolitics of the South China Sea, that made me sit up and really take notice. Hardly a week goes by without some report in the media about the territorial claims to the islands of and expansion into the South China Sea by the People’s Republic of China. Absurdly (but not obviously from a Chinese perspective) China has laid claim to almost all the South China Sea, riding roughshod over the legitimate (and, it has to be said, the conflicting claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia). But even a cursory glance at a map of the South China Sea shows just how outrageous China’s claims and actions are.


China has even taken to building outposts on a number of islands, reefs and atolls, obviously destined to become military bases with sophisticated defences and airfields to take the biggest planes.


Chinese claims
While China’s claims to the South China Sea stretch back to the end of the Second World War, it’s only in the past 25 years that this regional expansion has increased, and both the civil and military mobilized to achieve its aims. For the first time in 2006, evidence of China’s blue water navy aspirations and expanding naval capabilities was seen when a Chinese submarine sailed unnoticed within a few miles of a US carrier fleet. Over the years there have been a number of close encounters of the military kind. So far, both countries have managed to keep a lid on these confrontations escalating into a ‘shooting war’. But for how long?

Now, until I read Winchester’s account in Chapter 10, I had not put two and two together, even though I lived in the Philippines for almost two decades. Two events—one natural, one political—occurred in 1991, and subsequent analysis allows me to ask one of the important ‘What ifs’ of Southeast Asia history. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruption I’m just beginning to understand the inter-connectivity of the events of that year. Part of this will not make particularly comfortable reading for many Filipinos, I fear. Nevertheless it’s an interesting perspective on what events encouraged the Chinese to assert themselves as they have done, much to the chagrin of her neighbours. Not that China is concerned it seems, about their counter claims, or that much of the area they claim as sovereign territory is viewed as international waters or airspace. A UN international tribunal in The Hague, to which the Philippines had taken its case, ruled against China. But that will make no difference. China does not recognize the tribunal. Economic prowess and military might are what count.

The events of 1991
In 1991, Mt Pinatubo awoke from its slumber of many centuries, and erupted on 15 June in a climactic explosion, depositing ash over a huge area. This dire situation was further exacerbated because Typhoon Yunya (Diding in the Philippines) hit Luzon on precisely the same day. Within spitting distance of Pinatubo were located two of the US’s most important overseas military bases: Clark Field, nestling at the foot of the volcano near Angeles City, and Subic Bay, home to the US Seventh Fleet, and one of the most important naval facilities that the US had access to anywhere. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruption I’m just beginning to understand the inter-connectivity of different events of that year.

Mt Pinatubo (from Clark Air Base) erupting on 12 June 1991, three days before the climactic eruption that led to the abandonment of the airbase in November that year.

At Clark it became clear within a day or two of the eruption, and covered in feet of volcanic ash, that the airbase would have to be abandoned. Aircraft had been flown out beforehand and personnel successfully evacuated to Subic. In November 1991 the US Air Force closed Clark¹.

At the end of 1991 there was perhaps an even more event, political this time, that has perhaps contributed more to the present South China Sea situation than the Pinatubo eruption ever did. In an increasingly nationalistic Senate, the future of an American presence in the Philippines was being debated. The Senate rejected a treaty that would have extended use of Subic Bay because of concerns over the presence of nuclear weapons (which the US would not reveal). Finally at the end of December 1991, the then president Cory Aquino informed the US government that US forces would have to leave the Philippines by the end of 1992. The US Navy pulled out in November 1992.

And into the vacuum left by the US departure cleverly stepped the Chinese, sensing the opportunity to fulfill their long-standing regional geopolitical ambitions. The rest is history; the Chinese are now well and truly entrenched in the South China Sea, and will not be easily budged. There is, however, another interesting twist to the story. In January 2016, the Philippines Supreme Court approved the return of US troops to bases in the Philippines, as a counter to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. What goes around comes around?

What if?
What if Pinatubo had never blown her top on that fateful June day in 1991? What if the US had been more forthcoming about the status of nuclear weapons during the finely balanced base renewal negotiations in 1991? What if the Philippines Senate had not openly expressed its rejection of the treaty in a display of anti-colonialism? What if the US navy had never left?

Would the Chinese have been off the mark with such alacrity, developing its own blue water navy, and (with contempt, many would say) revealing its true regional hegemonic ambitions? Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. The Chinese have been only too happy to fill the military vacuum.

Let us hope that the war of words being fought over the South China Sea never evolves into a ‘hot war’. Notwithstanding Chinese intransigence and, it has to be said, overt hostility at times, it may depend in some degree on who occupies the White House after next November’s presidential election in the US. The jingoistic foreign policy rhetoric of a couple of the Republican candidates does not give me much cause for optimism.

¹ In the intervening years, it should be noted, Clark has been refurbished and reopened as Clark International Airport. Were it closer to Manila, and connected with better transport links, Clark could well have become Manila’s principal airport, relieving congestion at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, close-by Manila’s business district of Makati.

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.

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.

Santa’s the name, ho-ho-hoing’s the game

I’ve a secret to reveal. Shhhh!


Ho ho ho!

I’m Santa Claus, and I have the evidence to prove it.¹

Over the years I have taken up the mantle each December to bring joy and happiness to the children at the International Staff Housing community at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, the Philippines.

Actually, I did my first turn, so to speak, in 2002; and each year thereafter until 2009. I retired from IRRI in April 2010.

I had a great deal of fun over the years assuming the persona of Santa Claus and, as far as I could tell, most of the children (of neighbors and their domestic helpers) never did figure out who was the person inside the Santa suit.

IRRI is a multi-national, multi-ethnic, and multi-religion community from all around the world. And it didn’t matter whether you came from a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist background, the children always found magic in Santa’s arrival and the giving and receiving of presents.

My early attempts at ‘being Santa’ certainly needed improvement – too heavy on the rouge. And in the early days I needed some extra padding, which I eventually dispensed with as my natural girth expanded. The beard was all mine, however, and I used to cease trimming it from about the beginning of October onwards. However, some additional white makeup was needed . By the end of 2008, I think I’d developed a much more convincing character.

Here I am in 2003 (heavy on the rouge) . . .

. . . and in 2004 (toned down somewhat).

By 2005, I think I’d developed the makeup pretty well.

Santa with two little Japanese fans, in 2005.

But there was still room for improvement, and once I’d decided in 2006 that Santa needed a new suit of clothes, my ‘interpretation’ thereafter was quite convincing.


Santa’s Japanese fans had grown somewhat, and joined by a brother, in 2008.


With ‘Mrs Santa’, in 2008.

Over the years, I arrived at the Christmas party—at the swimming pool, House No. 1 (of the Director General),  or the Guest House—on a variety of transports. In 2002 it was on the back of a motorcycle driven by my colleague Rob Raab from IRRI’s Training Center. For several years, it was a nicely decorated tricycle, then a jeepney and, for a couple of years, a ‘Philippine reindeer’, aka a carabao.

Of course, when it came to handing out presents, I had the best seat in the house, on the front row of course. It was such a delight to see the expectation and joy on so many young (and not so young) faces.

Well, my Santa days came to end. They were one of my more pleasurable commitments during my second decade at IRRI. And of course by then I’d grown somewhat more stout, my hair had turned almost white, and my whiskers as well.

Once my Santa duties were over, I’d leave the party using my appointed transport, go home, shower, and return to the celebrations sans make-up and Santa clothes. The children were none the wiser of my role, because I’d always started out at the party before going home to metamorphose into Santa.


¹ Most of the photos courtesy of the Santa paparazzi (aka Gene Hettel). smiley face copy


Sky-high paddies . . .

No, this is not about inebriated Irishmen.

It’s a celebration of the ingenuity of human agricultural innovation in northern Luzon in the Philippines where, over the course of several centuries, local indigenous communities tamed the steep valleys to grow paddy rice in irrigated fields high in the mountains (about 1500 m above sea level) and, employing a sophisticated hydrology, to supply water to the terraces and drain them before harvest: the rice terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras, which received UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1995.


Rice terraces in Banaue, Ifugao Province

In March 2009, Steph and me, along with my staff in the Program Planning & Communications (DPPC) office at IRRI—Corinta, Zeny, Yeyet, Vel, and Eric—made a five day, 1000 km trip (see map) north to Ifugao and Mountain Provinces to see these world famous terraces. There is a cluster of five sets of terraces designated under UNESCO, all in Ifugao Province.


L to R: Corinta, Zeny, Rolly (IRRI driver), Vel, Yeyet, Eric, and me – enjoying a San Miguel sundowner near Sagada, Mountain Province.

A long road trip north
We knew it would be a day-long journey from Los Baños to Banaue. Although the first part of the journey to the Science City of Muñoz in Nueva Ecija Province took in divided highways, there were two main ‘obstacles’ in our path. First we had to cross the length of Manila from the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) to the north one (NLEX), a part of the journey fraught with delays and congestion if you hit the traffic at the wrong time. I guess we didn’t fair to badly. Then, once off the main highways, there’s the ever-present frustration of following jeepneys and tricycles that potter along at their own speeds, oblivious to other road users, and which stop continually to pick up and drop off passengers. So even a short journey on a single carriageway road can take forever (or so it seems).

In Muñoz, we visited and had lunch at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) which is the country’s leading research organization on rice, and IRRI’s principal partner for all-things-rice in the Philippines.

After a courtesy visit with the PhilRice Executive Director, we toured several laboratories, and the rice genebank that collaborates closely with the International Rice Genebank at IRRI. In fact, IRRI holds a duplicate sample of much of the PhilRice collection.

The majesty of Batad
From PhilRice it was a long climb of several hours into the mountains, and we arrived to our hotel in Banaue just as the sun was setting. It was an early start the next morning, because we visited the impressive rice terraces at Batad, more than an hour from Banaue by jeepney, and then another couple of hours downhill on foot to reach one of the villages from where there is an impressive vista over the amphitheater of terraces stretched across the hillside.


The rice terraces at Batad.

In 2006, Biggs Javellana, one of IRRI’s photographers at that time, flew over over Ifugao and took a superb collection of aerial photographs.


The rice terraces at Batad from the air. The photograph above was taken from the cluster of houses at center top in this photo.

In 2008, one of the main articles in Rice Today featured Biggs’ photos, and other older ones taken by eminent anthropologist Harold Conklin, Crosby Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University, who had studied the Ifugao for many decades. Just click on the Rice Today cover below to read the article. You can also browse the original photos (and others) here.

Ifugao from the air (RT7)_Page_01

I wasn’t too concerned about the hike to the Batad terraces from the parking area, although it was a long way down.

I was more concerned about the climb back up. But having gone all that distance I wasn’t going to miss out, and with encouragement from Steph and everyone else (and a few helpful shoulders to lean on occasionally) I made it down and up again. And it was certainly worth the effort.

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On the north side of Banaue, on our way to Sagada, Mountain Province on the third day of our trip, we stopped to look back down the valley, and admire the beauty of sky reflected in the flooded rice terraces, recently planted with young seedlings. There really is a majesty in rice agriculture under these circumstances.

Along the route to Sagada there are other rice terraces, at Bay-Yo Barangay near Bontoc in Mountain Province, and just south of Bontoc itself. Sagada is surrounded by quite extensive terraces.

There’s lot to see in Sagada, including weaving for which the town is famous. And the indigenous ‘hanging burials’ with coffins left on the sides of limestone cliffs, or piled up in the many caves that dot the landscape.

The return journey to Los Baños took 17 hours, including comfort stops on the way, lunch in Baguio and dinner near Manila. I think we were all relieved to be back home, but very contented that we had made the trip. It took Steph and me 18 years almost before we actually made the effort.


The heritage of rice agriculture in the Philippine Cordilleras
But what is also special about the rice terraces of Ifugao (and the other sites) is that they are still farmed in the same way, and the communities still practice many of the same rice ceremonies and rituals they have for generations. But rather than me try to explain what this is all about, I will leave it to Aurora (wife of my good friend and former IRRI colleague Gene Hettel) who hails from Banaue and is a proud member of the Ifugao community, to explain in her own words in this video (made by Gene).

Heirloom rice varieties
The farmers also plant traditional rice varieties that they have also cherished for generations. With the pressures of modern agricultural technologies and new varieties, there is always a danger that these varieties will be lost, notwithstanding that they are safely conserved in the PhilRice and IRRI genebanks (and duplicated in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault). If the farmers stop growing them these rice varieties will disappear from everyday agriculture. They have to make a living, and although most varieties are grown for home use, there has recently been an effort to bring them to a wider rice-consuming public. With the Philippine Department of Agriculture, IRRI has initiated an heirloom rice project that aims ‘to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of heirloom or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems.’ Details of the project can be found here.


An exceptional CEO: Bob Zeigler, IRRI Director General, 2005-2015

When the Director General of one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes talks about poverty and food security, and what has to change, the global development community better take note. The Director General of IRRI—the International Rice Research Institute, located in Los Baños, the Philippines—has a unique perspective on these issues, since rice is the most important staple crop on the planet, and the basis of food security for more than half the world’s population who eat rice at least once a day. And rice agriculture is also the livelihood for millions of farmers and their families worldwide. When rice prospers, so do they. They feed their families, they send their children to school. The converse, alas, is also true.


For the past decade, IRRI has been led by a remarkable scientist, someone I am honored to call a friend, and a close colleague for many years. In mid-December, however, Dr Robert ‘Bob’ Zeigler will step down as CEO and Director General of IRRI, a position he has held since March 2005. Bob is IRRI’s ninth Director General. And of all those who have held this position, he perhaps has been uniquely qualified, because of his practical experience of working in many developing countries, his in-depth understanding of international agricultural research funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and his profound knowledge of rice agriculture.

A passion for science
Bob hails from the USA, and completed his BS degree in biological sciences at the University of Illinois in 1972, followed by an MS from the University of Oregon in forest ecology in 1978. He joined the Peace Corps and spent a couple of years in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and it was there that his passion for plant pathology was ignited. He returned to Cornell University to work for his PhD in 1982 on cassava diseases under the guidance of renowned plant pathologist Dr H David Thurston. For his PhD research, Bob also spent time at a sister center, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia that has an important global cassava research program, and germplasm collection. After his PhD Bob returned to Africa, working in the national maize program in Burundi.

After three years, he joined CIAT as a senior plant pathologist and then became head of the rice program. IRRI recruited Bob in December 1991 to lead the Rainfed Lowland Rice Research Program, and I first met Bob around September of that year when he came for interview. I was also a newbie, having joined IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center just three months earlier. After a couple of years or so, he became leader of the Irrigated Rice Research Program. Much of his own research focused on the rice blast pathogen, Magnaporthe grisea, and I know he is particularly proud of the work he and his colleagues did on the population genetic structure of the pathogen.

As a program leader Bob visited all of the rice-growing countries in Asia, and with his experience in Latin America at CIAT, as well as working in Africa, he had a broad perspective on the challenges facing rice agriculture. And of all his eight predecessors as Director General of IRRI, Bob is the only one who made rice his career. This has given him the edge, I believe, to speak authoritatively about this important crop and rice research. His scientific credentials and passion for ‘doing the right science, and doing the science right‘ ensured that Bob was the candidate recruited as the next Director General when Ron Cantrell stepped down in 2004.

First departure from IRRI
Bob first left IRRI in 1998, and became professor and head of the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University. But he couldn’t stay away from international agriculture for long, and by 2004 he became Director of the CGIAR’s cross-cutting Generation Challenge Program (GCP). I like to think my colleagues and I in the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) had something to do with the founding of the GCP, since we held an interdisciplinary workshop in The Hague in September 1999 assessing the role of comparative genetics to study germplasm diversity. I invited Bob as one of the participants. Comparative genetics and its applications became one of the pillars of the GCP. And its was from the GCP that Bob returned to IRRI in March 2005 as the institute’s ninth Director General.

Back ‘home’ again
strategic_plan_cover_4a1f1e1b122f0c53ab77464b73eb40cbAnd it wasn’t long before his presence was felt. It’s not inappropriate to comment that IRRI had lost its way during the previous decade for various reasons. There was no clear research strategy nor direction. Strong leadership was in short supply. Bob soon put an end to that, convening an international expert group of stakeholders (rice researchers, rice research leaders from national programs, and donors) to help the institute chart a perspective for the next decade or so. In 2006 IRRI’s Strategic Plan (2007-2015), Bringing Hope, Improving Lives, was rolled out.

Bob wasn’t averse to tackling a number of staffing issues, even among the senior management team. And although the changes were uncomfortable for the individuals involved (and Bob himself), Bob built a strong team to support the finance, administration, and research challenges that he knew IRRI would face if it was to achieve its goals.

A born leader
Not every good scientist can become a good manager or research leader, but I do think that Bob was an exception. His major strength, as I see it, was to have a clear vision of what he wanted the institute to achieve, and to be able to explain to all stakeholders why this was important, what needed to be done or put in place, and how everyone could contribute. He nurtured an environment at IRRI where research flourished. Rice research was once again at the center of the international agricultural research agenda. Many visitors to the institute commented on the ‘science buzz’ around the institute. And if Bob felt he wasn’t equipped to tackle a particular situation, he sought—and took—advice. Perhaps uniquely among many of the Directors General of the CGIAR centers, Bob has this ability to listen, to argue fiercely if he thinks you are wrong or misguided. But once convinced of an argument, he accepts the alternatives and moves forward. However, he also admits when he gets something wrong, a very important attribute for any CEO.

Science at the heart of IRRI’s agenda
With Bob at the helm, IRRI’s research agenda expanded, as did the funding base, with significant funding coming from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for submergence tolerant rice, for C4 rice, and stressed rice environments. Under Bob’s guidance IRRI developed the first of the CGIAR research programs, GRiSP—the Global Rice Science Partnership. I think that name is instructive. Science and partnership are the key elements. Bob has vigorously defended IRRI’s research for development focus in the face of quite hostile criticism from some of his colleagues and peers among the CGIAR Center Directors. As Bob has rightly rebutted their ‘anti-science’ attacks, by explaining that submergence tolerant rice varieties for example (that are now benefiting millions of farmers in Asia) didn’t materialize as if by magic. There had been an 18 year intensive research program to identify the genetic base of submergence tolerance, and several years to transfer the genes into widely-adapted rice varieties before farmers even had the first seeds.

These are just a few of the research innovations that have taken place with Bob at IRRI’s helm. No doubt there will be much more appearing in print in due course that will fill in many more of the details. I’ll let Bob tell us a few things in his own words, just published in the latest issue of Rice Today.

Public recognition
Over the past 10 years Bob has been invited to speak at many international meetings, including the World Economic Forum held each year in Davos. He’s appeared on numerous television broadcasts and news programs. His contributions to rice science have been recognized with numerous awards and honorary doctorates. Just last week he received from the Government of the Philippines its highest honour awarded to a foreign national—the Order of Sikatuna, Grand Cross (Rank of Datu), Gold Distinction (Katangiang Ginto).

A downturn . . . but continuing strength
It must be rather disappointing for Bob to leave IRRI just as the funding support for the centers has once again hit the buffers, and led to a trimming of IRRI’s research and staff. But even with these setbacks, Bob leaves a strong institute that can and will withstand such setbacks. Incoming Director General Matthew Morell, the current Deputy Director General for Research, has big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, I’m sure that the underlying strength of IRRI will enable Matthew to move IRRI once again towards the important goals of supporting rice farmers, enhancing food security, and reducing poverty. Rice research is closely aligned with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, as it will be with the recently-agreed Sustainable Development Goals. In fact it’s hard to contemplate the successful delivery of these goals without rice being part of the equation.


Bob Zeigler and Mike Jackson after the unveiling of one of two historical markers at IRRI, on 14 April 2010, IRRI’s 50th anniversary.

Thank you
So let me take this opportunity of thanking Bob for his friendship and collegiality over many years, and to wish him and Crissan many years of happy retirement back in Portland, OR. However, I’m sure it won’t be long before he is lured out of retirement in some capacity or other to continue contributing his intellect, experience, and broad perspectives to the global development agenda.

A few anecdotes
But I can’t end this blog post without telling a ‘tale’ or two.

Bob has a great sense of humor, often self-deprecating. Unfortunately this is not always understood by everyone. But I certainly appreciated it, as I’m much the same.

Not long after Bob joined IRRI he took up scuba diving, as did I. And we have, over the years, made some great dives together at Anilao, Batangas. Here are a few memorable photos from a great dive we made at the ‘coral garden’ site, to the south of Sombrero Island in April 2005.

In the 1990s, Bob rode the IRRI Staff bus to and from Staff Housing each day. The ten or so minute drive down to the research center was a good opportunity to catch up on gossip, check a few things with colleagues before everyone disappeared into their offices, or simply to exchange some friendly banter. On two occasions, Bob was the ‘victim’ of some leg-pulling from his colleagues, me included.

I don’t remember which year it was, but Bob had been asked to chair the committee organizing the biennial International Rice Research Conference that would be held at IRRI HQ. The guest speaker was President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, and it was Bob’s responsibility to introduce him. For several weeks Bob would be greeted with the sound advice from his colleagues each time he took the bus: “Remember“, they exhorted him, “It’s President Marcos. Marcos!” In the event, Bob cleverly avoided any embarrassment, simply introducing him as ‘Mr President’.

On a couple of occasions, Bob and I were members of the ‘IRRI Strolling Players’, taking part in a pantomime (usually three performances) in the institute’s auditorium. In 1995 the theme was Robin Hood and His Merry Men. I played a rather camp Prince John; Bob was Friar Tuck.

Bob had the awkward line at some point in the play: “My, that’s a cunning stunt“. And you can imagine the bus banter around that. “Remember Bob, you say it’s a ‘cunning stunt’!” Fortunately Bob was not susceptible to Spoonerisms.

Both Bob and I have contributed over the years to the Christmas festivities at Staff Housing by taking on the role of Santa (hush, don’t tell anyone).

It was fun working with Bob. He set a challenging agenda that staff responded to. It’s not for nothing that IRRI has continued to retain its high reputation for science and scientific impact. And for the past decade IRRI has indeed been fortunate to have Bob in charge.