Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 15. In my father’s footsteps

Almost 50 years after my father visited Brazil, I made my first trip there in early 1979, when I attended a meeting of the Latin American Potato Association, ALAP. Its meeting that year was held in Poços de Caldas, in southwest Minas Gerais State, about 280 km north of São Paulo.

I was living in Costa Rica, and to fly to South America it was necessary to transit via Panama City. The itinerary took us from Panama to Bogotá in Colombia, then a Varig flight to Rio de Janeiro with an intermediate stop in Manaus on the Amazon in central northern Brazil. From Manaus, we flew south for hours to land in Rio in the early hours. It was that flight that made me appreciate just what a huge country Brazil is.

In Panama I’d joined up with other delegates to the same meeting, from Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. Our flight to Rio didn’t leave until the late evening so we had almost a whole day for some sight-seeing around Bogotá. One of the places we visited was an emerald dealer, where I couldn’t resist the temptation and bought a nice stone for my wife¹.

Colombian emeralds in Bogota

A Varig 727 on the tarmac at Rio de Janeiro. Varig ceased operations in 2006.

We arrived in Rio in the early morning, in time for the first air shuttle (Ponte Aérea or air bridge) flight from Rio de Janeiro’s Santos Dumont airport to São Paulo’s Congonhas airport, a journey of a little over an hour, affording some spectacular views of the coastline south of Rio. Then it was a four or five hour road trip from São Paulo to Poços de Caldas.

Poços de Caldas nestles in a valley in the surrounding rolling landscape. Very agricultural, and obviously an important potato growing area.

Heading back to Rio de Janeiro a week later, several of us decided to stop over there for about three nights, and explore this vibrant city.

The Sugar Loaf from Corcovado

Whether it was such a violent city then (or even when my father visited) as it is today, I have no recollection. We moved around the city seemingly oblivious to any such threats, spent an afternoon and evening on Copacabana beach, taking in all the ‘sights’: tangas to the left, tangas to the right!

But we also made the mandatory excursion to the top of the Sugarloaf, from where there were magnificent views north and south over the city and its beaches.

Also we made the climb by taxis to Corcovado, where the statue of Christ the Redeemer stands, on a 2328 ft granite peak, looking out to sea.

These next photos were taken by my father (who was a professional photographer) in Rio all those decades ago. How that city has grown in the intervening years, and even how much more since I first visited in 1979 as we saw during all the TV broadcasts from the 2016 Olympic Games.

There’s no doubt about it, Rio de Janeiro is one of the world’s iconic cities.

I’ve been back to Brazil just one other time. In 1997 I attended a CGIAR workshop on Ethics and Equity in Plant Genetic Resources², held in Foz do Iguaçu, close by the magnificent Iguaçu Falls. I then flew on to Brasilia, to negotiate participation of Brazilian institutes in a major rice biodiversity project there and in Goiânia, transiting through Rio de Janeiro on leaving the country.

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¹ It wasn’t until about 2005 or 2006 that this stone was finally made into a ring, flanked by a couple of diamonds that I’d picked up in Israel in 1982.

² (CGIAR) Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. 1997. Ethics and Equity in Plant Genetic Resources. Proceedings of a workshop to develop guidelines for the CGIAR, 21–25 April, Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. IPGRI, Rome.

In the blink of an eye, it seems, 50 years have passed

The first week of October 1967. 50 years ago, to the day and date. Monday 2 October.

I was setting off from my home in north Staffordshire to the port city of Southampton on the the UK’s south coast (via London for a couple of nights), to begin a three year BSc Combined Honours degree course in [Environmental] Botany and Geography at the university. I was about to become a Freshman or ‘Fresher’. Not only anticipating being away from home for the first time (although I’d always been sort of independent), I was looking forward to the excitement of ‘Freshers’ Week’ to make new friends, discovering new activities to take up.

On the afternoon of Wednesday 4 October, I joined the ‘Freshers’ Special’ from Waterloo Station in London, a train chartered by the Students’ Union, and met several fellow students in the same compartment who remained close friends throughout my time at Southampton. Unlike mainline rail services, our train stopped at the small suburban station at Swaythling, and hordes of Freshers were disgorged on to the platform and into buses to take them to their respective Hall of Residence, several of which were close-by.

I’d accepted a place in South Stoneham House (becoming Vice President of the Junior Common Room in my second year in autumn 1968), comprising a sixteen floor tower (now condemned for habitation as there’s a lot of asbestos) alongside a rather elegant Queen Anne mansion built in 1708.

I later discovered that the grounds had been landscaped by Capability Brown. Quite a revelation considering my interest in these things nowadays associated with my membership of the National Trust. It’s sad to know what has happened to South Stoneham in the last decade or so.

I had a room on the sixth floor, with a view overlooking Woodmill Lane to the west, towards the university, approximately 1.2 miles and 25 minutes away on foot. In the next room to mine, or perhaps two doors away, I met John Grainger who was also signed up for the same course as me. John had grown up in Kenya where his father worked as an entomologist. Now that sounded quite exotic to me.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I met the other students who had enrolled for Combined Honours as well as single honours courses in botany or geography, and others who were taking one of these as a two-year subsidiary or one-year ancillary subject.

We were five Combined Honours students: Stuart Christophers from Devon, Jane Elliman from Stroud in Gloucestershire, another whose name was Michael (I forget his surname; he came from Birmingham), John and me. Failing his exams at the end of the first year in early summer 1968, Michael was asked to withdraw, as were about one third of the botany class, leaving fewer than twenty students to head off to an end-of-year field course in Co. Clare, Ireland.

End of first year field course in Co. Clare, 27 July 1968. Dept of Botany lecturers Alan Myers and Leslie Watson are on the left. Beside them is Jenny ? Back row, L-R: Chris ? (on shoulders), Paul Freestone, Gloria Davies, John Grainger, Peter Winfield. Middle row: Nick Lawrence (crouching), Alan Mackie, Margaret Barran, Diana Caryl, John Jackson (Zoology with Botany subsidiary), Stuart Christophers. Front row: Jill Andison, Janet Beasley, Patricia Banner, Mary Goddard, Jane Elliman, Chris Kirby.

As ‘Combined’ students we had, of course, roots in both departments, and tutors in both as well: Dr Joyce ‘Blossom’ Lambert (an eminent quantitative ecologist) in Botany, and Dr Brian Birch, among others, in Geography. However, because of the course structure, we actually had many more contact hours in botany, and for my part, I felt that this was my ‘home department’.

Three years passed quickly and (mainly) happily. The odd pull at the old heart strings, falling in and out of love. I took up folk dancing, and started a Morris dancing team, The Red Stags, that continues today but outside the university as a mixed male-female side dancing Border Morris.

And so, in late May 1970 (the day after the Late Spring Bank Holiday), we sat (and passed) our final exams (Finals), left Southampton, and basically lost contact with each other.

In developing this blog, I decided to try and track down my ‘Combined’ colleagues John, Stuart, and Jane. Quite quickly I found an email address for Stuart and sent a message, introducing myself. We exchanged several emails, and he told me a little of what he had been up to during the intervening years.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to find any contact information for John, although I did come across references to a ‘John Grainger’ who had been involved in wildlife conservation in the Middle East, primarily Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The profile seemed right. I knew that John had stayed on at Southampton to complete a PhD in ecology. Beyond that – nothing! Then, out of the blue in late 2015, John contacted me after he’d come across my blog and posts that I had written about Southampton. We’ve been in touch ever since.

To date, I’ve had no luck tracking down Jane.

Why choose Southampton?
Southampton was a small university in the late 1960s, maybe fewer than 5000 undergraduates. There was no medical faculty, and everything was centred on the Highfield campus. I recently asked John why he decided to study at Southampton. Like me, it seems it was almost by chance. We both sat the same A level exams: biology, geography, and English literature, and we both applied for quite a wide range of university courses. He got a place at Southampton through clearing; I had been offered a provisional place (Southampton had been my third or fourth choice), and my exam results were sufficiently good for the university to confirm that offer. I’d been very impressed with the university when I went for an interview in February. Instinctively, I knew that I could settle and be happy at Southampton, and early on had decided I would take up the offer if I met the grade.

John and I are very much in agreement: Southampton was the making of us. We enjoyed three years academics and social life. It gave us space to grow up, develop friendships, and relationships. As John so nicely put it: . . . thank you Southampton University – you launched me.

My story after 1970
After Southampton, I moved to the University of Birmingham in September 1970, completing a MSc in conservation and use of plant genetic resources in 1971, then a PhD under potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes in 1975. Thus began a career lasting more than 40 years, working primarily on potatoes and rice.

By January 1973 I’d moved to Peru to work in international agricultural research for development at the International Potato Center (CIP), remaining in Peru until 1975, and moving to Costa Rica between 1976 and 1981. Although it was not my training, I did some significant work on a bacterial pathogen of potatoes in Costa Rica.

I moved back to the UK in March 1981, and from April I taught at the University of Birmingham in the Dept. of Plant Biology (formerly botany) for ten years.

By 1991, I was becoming restless, and looking for new opportunities. So I upped sticks and moved with my family to the Philippines in July 1991 to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), firstly as Head of the Genetic Resources Center until 2001, and thereafter until my retirement in April 2010 as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

In the Philippines, I learned to scuba dive, and made over 360 dives off the south coast of Luzon, one of the most biodiverse marine environments in the country, in Asia even.

Retirement is sweet! Back in the UK since 2010, my wife Steph and I have become avid National Trusters (and seeing much more of the UK than we had for many years); and my blog absorbs probably more time than it should. I’ve organized two major international rice congresses in Vietnam in 2010 and Thailand in 2014 and just completed a one year review of the international genebanks of eleven CGIAR centers.

Steph and me at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland in mid-September 2017

I was made an OBE in the 2012 New Year’s Honours for services to international food science, and attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace in February 2012.

Receiving my gong from HRH The Prince of Wales (L); with Philippa and Steph after the ceremony in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace (R)

Steph and I met at Birmingham when she joined the genetic resources MSc course in 1971. We married in Lima in October 1973 and are the proud parents of two daughters. Hannah (b. 1978 in Costa Rica) is married to Michael, lives in St Paul, Minnesota, and works as a group director for a company designing human capital and training solutions. Philippa (b. 1982), married to Andi, lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, and is Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University. Both are PhD psychologists! We are now grandparents to four wonderful children: Callum (7) and Zoë (5) in Minnesota; and Elvis (6) and Felix (4) in Newcastle.

Our first full family get-together in the New Forest in July 2016. Standing: Michael and Andi. Sitting, L-R: Callum, Hannah, Zoë, Mike, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa

Stuart’s story (in his own words, 2013)
I spent my first year after Southampton teaching English in Sweden and the following year doing a Masters at Liverpool University. From there I joined Nickersons, a Lincolnshire-based plant breeding/seeds business, acquired by Shell and now part of the French Group Limagrain. 

In 1984 I returned to my native Devon to run a wholesale seeds company that fortunately, as the industry rationalised, had an interest in seed-based pet and animal feeds. Just prior to coming home to Devon I was based near York working with a micronutrient specialist. A colleague of mine there was Robin Eastwood¹ who certainly knew of you. Robin tragically was killed in a road accident while doing consultancy work in Nigeria.

This is my third year of retirement. We sold on our business which had become centred around wild bird care seven years ago now and I stayed on with the new owners for four years until it was time to go !

Stuart has a son and daughter (probably about the same as my two daughters) and three grandchildren.

John’s story
John stayed on at Southampton and in 1977 was awarded his PhD for a study that used clustering techniques to structure and analyse grey scale data from scanned aerial photographs to assess their use in large-scale vegetation survey. In 1975 he married his girlfriend from undergraduate days, Teresa. After completing his PhD, John and Teresa moved to Iran, where he took up a British Council funded lecturing post at the University of Tehran’s Higher School of Forestry and Range Management in Gorgan, on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea.

Alice, Teresa, and John at the Hejaz railway in Saudi Arabia, c. 1981/82.

By early 1979 they were caught up in the Iranian Revolution, and had to make a hurried escape from the country, landing up eventually in Saudi Arabia in February 1980, where John joined the Institute of Meteorology and Arid Land Studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. Between Iran and Saudi Arabia there was an ‘enforced’ period of leisure in the UK, where their daughter Alice was born in December 1979.

John’s work in Jeddah included establishing an herbarium, researching traditional range conservation practices (hima system), and exploring places with intact habitats and interesting biodiversity. This is when his career-long interest in and contributions to wildlife management took hold, and in 1987 he joined a Saudi Commission for wildlife conservation. The work included an ambitious programme of establishing protected areas and breeding endangered native wildlife species for re-introduction – particularly Arabian oryx, gazelles and houbara bustards. The photos below show some of the areas John visited in Saudi Arabia, often with air logistical support from the Saudi military. 

In 1992, he was recruited by IUCN to lead a protected area development project in Ghana where he spent an exhausting but exhilarating 28 months doing management planning surveys of eight protected areas including Mole National Park. Then in 1996, the Zoological Society of London appointed him as  the project manager for a five year, €6 million EU-funded project in South Sinai to establish and develop the Saint Katherine Protectorate. John stayed until 2003, but by then, Teresa and he had separated; Alice had gained a good degree from St Andrew’s University in Scotland.

With a range of other assignments, and taking some time out between in Croatia, South Africa and other places, he was back in Egypt by 2005 to head up a project aimed at enhancing the institutional capacity of the Nature Conservation Sector for planning and implementing nature conservation activities. By 2010, and happily settled with a new partner, Suzanne, John moved to South Africa for several years, returning to Somerset in the past year. Suzanne and John were married in 2014. Retirement brings extra time for pastimes such as sculpting (many stunning pieces can be seen on his website), and some continuing consultancies in the wildlife management sector.

But I can’t conclude this brief account of John’s career without mentioning his thoughts on what being at Southampton meant to him: I have many reasons to be grateful to Southampton University – the degree involved me in the nascent environmental movement and provided me with the general tools and qualifications to participate professionally in the field. It was I think in the years that I was a postgraduate that I learned the true value of being at university and to become intellectually curious.

John sent me a more detailed account of his post-Southampton career that you can read here.

What next?
Fifty fruitful years. Time has flown by. I wonder what others from our cohort got up to? I have some limited information:

  • Allan Mackie went into brewing, and he and I used to meet up regularly in Birmingham when I was a graduate student there.
  • Peter Winfield joined what is now the Department for Agriculture & Fisheries for Scotland at East Craigs in Edinburgh.
  • Diana Caryl married barrister Geoffrey Rowland (now Sir Geoffrey) who she met at Southampton, and moved to Guernsey, where Geoff served as the Bailiff between 2005 and 2012. She has been active with the plant heritage of that island.
  • Mary Goddard completed a PhD at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge (awarded by the University of Cambridge), and married Dr Don MacDonald from the university’s Dept. of Genetics.
  • Zoologist John Jackson (who took the subsidiary botany course for two years) completed a Southampton PhD on deer ecology in the New Forest, and spent many years in Argentina working as a wildlife coordinator for INTA, the national agricultural research institute.

The others? Perhaps someone will read this blog and fill in some details. As to geography, I have no contacts whatsoever.

However, through one of the earliest posts on this blog, Proud to be a botanist, which I wrote in April 2012, I was contacted by taxonomist Les Watson, who was one of the staff who took us on the first year field course to Co. Clare, and by graduate student Bob Mepham, who had taught a catch-up chemistry course to students like John Grainger and me, as we hadn’t studied that at A Level, and which was a requirement to enter the Single Honours course in botany. Another botany graduate, Brian Johnson, two years ahead of me and who sold me some books he no longer needed, also commented on one post about a field course in Norfolk.

I’m ever hopeful that others will make contact.

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¹Robin Eastwood had completed the Birmingham MSc course in the early 1970s when I had already left for Peru. If memory serves me right, Robin did start a PhD, and was around the department when I returned from Lima in Spring 1975 to submit my PhD dissertation.

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.

 

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.

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.

Through hard work, great things are achieved

BirminghamUniversityCrestPer Ardua Ad Alta

That’s the motto of The University of Birmingham, and ‘these sentiments sum up the spirit of Birmingham and illustrate the attitude of the people who have shaped both the city and the University.’

Almost 50 years ago, I had no inkling that I would have more than half a lifetime’s association with this university. Receiving its royal charter in 1900 (although the university was a successor to several institutions founded in the 19th century as early as 1828), Birmingham is the archetypal ‘redbrick university‘, located on its own campus in Edgbaston, about 3 miles southwest of Birmingham city center.


First encounter in 1967

My first visit to the university was in May or June 1967—to sit an exam. Biology was one of the four subjects (with Geography, English Literature, and General Studies) I was studying for my Joint Matriculation Board Advanced Level high school certificate (essentially the university entrance requirement) here in the UK. We were only four or five biology students at my high school, St Joseph’s College in Trent Vale, Stoke-on-Trent (motto: Fideliter et Fortiter).

Now, I don’t remember (maybe I never knew) whether we were too few in number to sit our biology practical exam at the school, or all students everywhere had to attend an examination venue, but we set off by train from Stoke to Birmingham, and ended up at the School of Biological Sciences building. It was a new building then, and the (federal) School had only recently been formed from the four departments of Botany, Zoology & Comparative Physiology, Genetics, and Microbiology.

Just before 2 pm, the five of us—and about 100 other students—trooped into the main laboratory (that I subsequently came to know as the First Year Lab) on the second floor. Little did I know that just over three years later I’d be joining the Department of Botany as a graduate student, nor that 14 years later in 1981 I would join the faculty as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Nothing could have been further from my mind as I settled down to tackle a dissection of the vascular system of a rat, and the morphology of a gorse flower, among other tasks to attempt.

Birmingham was not on the list of universities to which I had applied in December 1966. I’d chosen King’s College, London (geography), Aberystwyth (zoology and geography), Southampton (botany and geography), York (biology), Queen Mary College, London (general biological sciences), and Newcastle (botany and geography). In the end, I chose Southampton, and spent three very happy if not entirely fruitful years there.

Entering the postgraduate world

Jack Hawkes

Jack Hawkes

The next time I visited Birmingham was in February 1970. I had applied to join the recently-founded postgraduate MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources. I was interviewed by Course Director and Head of the Department of Botany, Professor JG Hawkes and Senior Lecturer and plant ecologist, Dr Denis Wilkins.

Despite the grilling from both of  them, I must have made an impression because I was offered a place for the following September. The only problem: no support grant. Although Hawkes had applied for recognition by one of the research councils to provide postgraduate studentships, nothing had materialized when I applied (although he was successful the following year, and for many years afterwards providing studentships to British students). So, after graduation from Southampton in July 1970 I was on tenterhooks all summer as I tried to sort out a financial solution to attend the course. Finally, around mid-August, I had a phone call from Hawkes telling me that the university would provide a small support grant. It was only £380 for the whole year, to cover all my living expenses including rent. That’s the equivalent of about £5600 today. The university would pay my fees.

All set then. I found very comfortable bed-sit accommodation a couple of miles from the university, and turned up at the department in early September to begin my course, joining four other students (from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and Venezuela). It was during this one year course that I really learned how to study, and apart from my weekly Morris dancing night, I had few other distractions. It was study, study, study: and it paid off. The rest is history. I graduated in September 1971, by which time I’d been offered a one-year position at the newly-founded International Potato CenterCIP logo (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and I was all set for a career (I hoped) in the world of genetic resources and conservation. As it turned out, my travel to South America was delayed by more than a year during which time I registered for and commenced a PhD study on potatoes, finally landing in Lima in January 1973 and beginning a career in international agricultural research that lasted, on and off, until my retirement in 2010. I carried out most of my PhD research in Peru, and submitted my thesis in October 1975.

Jack Hawkes and me discussing landrace varieties of potatoes in the CIP potato germplasm collection, Huancayo, central Peru in early 1974.

Graduation December 1975. L to R: Jack Hawkes (who co-supervised my PhD), me, and Trevor Williams (who became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources). Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation.

Then I returned to Lima, spending another five years with CIP in Costa Rica carrying out research on bacterial diseases of potatoes among other things.

I should add that during the academic year 1971-72, a young woman, Stephanie Tribble, joined the MSc course. A few months later we became an ‘item’.

Steph’s MSc graduation at the University of Birmingham in December 1972, just weeks before I flew to South America and join the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru.

After graduation, she joined the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh, but joined me in Lima in July 1973. We married there in October, and she also had a position with CIP for the years we remained in Lima.

A faculty position
On 1 April 1981 I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology.

Richard Sawyer

By mid-1980, after almost five years in Costa Rica, I felt that I had achieved as much as I could there, and asked my Director General in Lima, Dr Richard Sawyer, for a transfer to a new position. In November, we moved back to Lima, and I was expecting to be posted either to Brazil or possibly to the Philippines. In the meantime, I had been alerted to a recently-established lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at Birmingham, and had been encouraged to apply¹. With encouragement from Richard Sawyer², and having been invited for interview, I made the trek back to the UK from Lima towards the end of January 1981. The interview process then was very different from what might be expected nowadays. No departmental seminar. Just a grilling from a panel chaired by the late Professor John Jinks, FRS, Dean of the Faculty of Science and head of the Department of Genetics. There were three staff from Plant Biology (Hawkes, Dennis Wilkins, and Brian Ford-Lloyd), and the head of the Department of Biochemistry and Deputy Dean, Professor Derek Walker.

We were three candidates. Each interview lasted about 45 minutes, and we all had to wait outside the interview room to learn who would be selected. I was interviewed last. Joining the other two candidates afterwards, we sat side-by-side, hardly exchanging a word between us, nervously waiting for one of us to be called back in to meet the panel. I was the lucky one. I was offered the position, accepted immediately, and a couple of days later flew back to Lima to break the news and make plans to start a new life with Steph and our daughter Hannah (then almost three) in Birmingham.

Over the 10 years I spent at Birmingham I never had the worry (or challenge) of teaching any First Year Course – thank goodness. But I did contribute a small module on agricultural systems to the Second Year common course (and became the Second Year Chair in the School of Biological Sciences), as well as sharing teaching of flowering plant taxonomy to plant biology stream students mtj-and-bfl-book-launchin the Second Year. With my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd (with whom I’ve published three books on genetic resources) I developed a Third Year module on genetic resources that seems to have been well-received (from some subsequent feedback I’ve received). I also contributed to a plant pathology module for Third Year students. But the bulk of my teaching was to MSc students on the graduate course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources – the very course I’d attended a decade earlier. My main focus was crop evolution, germplasm collecting, and agricultural systems, among others. And of course there was supervision of PhD and MSc student research projects.

One of the responsibilities I enjoyed was tutoring undergraduate students, and always had an open door if they needed to see me. It quite shocked me in the late 1990s when my elder daughter, then a student at Swansea University, told me that her tutors had very limited and defined access hours for students. Of course you can’t be on call all day, every day, but you have to be there if a student really need to see you. And my tutees knew that if my office door was open (as it mostly was) they were free to come in and see me.

Once the four departments of the School of Biological Sciences merged into a single department in 1988, I aligned myself with and joined the Plant Genetics Group, and found a better role for myself. I also joined and became Deputy Chair of a cross-disciplinary group called Environmental Research Management (ERM) whose aim was to promote the strength of environment-related research across the university. Through ERM I became acquainted with Professor Martin Parry, and together with Brian Ford-Lloyd we published a book on genetic resources and climate change in 1990, and another in 2014 after we had retired.

Moving on
Even though the prospect of promotion to Senior Lecturer was quite good (by 1989 I’d actually moved on to the Senior Lecturer pay scale), I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with university life by that time. Margaret Thatcher and her government had consistently assaulted the higher education sector, and in any case I couldn’t see things getting any better for some years to come. In this I was unfortunately proved correct. In September 1990 a circular dropped into my post, advertising a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. This was for a germplasm specialist and first head of the Genetic Resources Center. So I applied, was interviewed in January 1991, and accepted the position with a view to joining the institute from 1 July. They actually wanted me to start on 1 April. But as I explained—and IRRI Management accepted—I had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill at the university. In February I began to teach my third year module on genetic resources for the last time, and set the exams for all students to take in May and June. Once the marking and assessments had been completed, I was free to leave.

Friday 28 June was my last day, ending with a small farewell party in the School. I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. And, as they say, the rest is history. I never looked back. But now, retirement is sweet, as are my memories.

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¹ Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 and, recognizing that his departure would leave a big hole in the MSc teaching, the university approved the recruitment of a lecturer in plant genetic resources (with a focus on crop evolution, flowering plant taxonomy, and the like) essentially covering those areas where Jack had contributed.
² Dick Sawyer told me that applying for the Birmingham position was the right thing to do at that stage of my career. However, the day before I traveled to the UK he called me to his office to wish me well, and to let me know whichever way the interview went, he would have a new five-year contract waiting on his desk for me on my return. From my point of view (and I hope CIP’s) it was a win-win situation. Thus I left for the interview at Birmingham full of confidence.

 

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.