This month in IRRI history: October

Author // Gene Hettel Categories // IRRI History

Historically, October has been the busiest month on the IRRI calendar by far! I can attest to this because it took me the longest time to prepare this October segment of my 12-month blog series.

For many years, since 1972, the 10th month of the year was usually (in the later years) the time for the CGIAR’s International Centers Week, initially held in Washington, D.C., but later, at some exotic world location. IRRI management always attended these meetings and usually, other staff members did too—especially those who had won many of the CGIAR annual prizes and awards for work well done (see mention of them in this blog). Also, since 1987, October has usually been World Food Prize month and, in at least 10 instances (over 28 years since the Prize’s inception in 1987), the winner or co-winners have had an IRRI connection!

October is also the month when Lyndon Johnson visited IRRI, the only U.S. president to have done so far. President Barack Obama has little over a year left to become the second one to visit. If he came in 2016, it would mark the 50th anniversary of the LBJ visit. I hope you enjoy this installment!

IRRI’s work featured in National Geographic

ngs alternate gene

On 1 October 2014, IRRI was featured in the October issue of National Geographic magazine in an article on the next Green Revolution by regular NGS contributor Tim Folger. Some of the IRRI staff quoted were IRRI DG Robert Zeigler, breeder Glenn Gregorio, and C4 project leader Paul Quick.

The Next Green Revolution on the National GeographicSince rice yields have typically improved by just under 1% a year, Glenn stated, “We want to raise that to 2%.” The world’s population growth rate, now 1.14% a year, is projected to slow down to 0.5% by 2050.”

Regarding the Institute’s most ambitious project, which aims to transform rice fundamentally by converting it from a C3 to a C4 photosynthetic plant and perhaps increase yields dramatically to as high as 50% Paul stated that "the plan is to convert rice into a C4 crop by manipulating its own genes." He added that C4 photosynthesis, unlike submergence tolerance in Sub1 rice, is controlled by many genes and not just one, which makes it a challenging trait to introduce. “On the other hand,” he stated, “it has evolved independently 62 times. This suggests it can’t be that difficult to do.” However, Paul added, “We think it will take a minimum of 15 years to do this. We’re in year four.”

Since only a few rice varieties at IRRI are GM in the sense that they contain a gene transferred from a different species, Bob stated, “IRRI creates GM varieties only as a last resort when it can’t find the desired trait in rice itself.”

The author, Tim Folger, went on to describe our outgoing director general as “white-bearded and avuncular, a self-described old lefty, who believes the public debate over genetically modified crops has become horribly muddled.” Bob stated, “When I was starting out in the ’60s, a lot of us got into genetic engineering because we thought we could do a lot of good for the world. We thought these tools are fantastic! We do feel a bit betrayed by the environmental movement, I can tell you that. If you want to have a conversation about what the role of large corporations should be in our food supply, we can have that conversation—it’s really important. But it’s not the same conversation about whether we should use these tools of genetics to improve our crops. They’re both important, but let’s not confound them.”

NatGeo writer Tim Folger with Aurora Hettel, Rice Today managing editor Lanie Reyes, and Training Center consultant in science and education communication Janelle Jung

Tim Folger and Aurora Hettel in BanaueMy wife Aurora and I enjoyed entertaining the New Mexico-based NGS writer Tim Folger at our house (photo with Aurora, Rice Today managing editor Lanie Reyes, 2nd from right, and Janelle Jung, Training Center consultant in science and education communication), when he came to IRRI in February 2014 to do interviews and gather information for the story. Aurora also took him on a field trip to Banaue (photo).

I have always dreamed of writing for National Geographic so I was curious how he became a multiple-cover story contributor to the magazine. A writer with an impressive profile, he said that he tried for years to get noticed by the NGS editors by sending them story ideas, but without any success. Then, out of the blue, they approached him with an idea to do a story on tsunamis, which ultimately was published in Febuary 2012. I was surprised to find out that Tim did not travel—or even cross paths—with Craig Cutler, the photographer for the Green Revolution story. He came long after Tim had departed for Tanzania to cover the Africa part of the piece. That apparently is SOP for writer-photographer tandems doing NGS stories. I found that strange, but obviously a formula that works!

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson visits IRRI

LBJ is briefed by IRRI DG Robert Chandler, Jr. Also listening are President Ferdinand Marcos (between the two) and off to the left are IRRI breeders Peter Jennings (standing) and Hank Beachell.

On 26 October 1966, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson visited IRRI. At left in the photo, LBJ is briefed by IRRI DG Robert Chandler, Jr. Also in the photo is President Ferdinand Marcos (between the two) and off to the left are IRRI breeders Peter Jennings (standing) and Hank Beachell. LBJ gave an inspiring speech that ended with the words, “You are pointing the way for all of Asia to follow and I hope they are looking. I hope they are listening. And I hope they are following.” You can watch a 1:47 video clip and also read the full transcript of his speech. In the photo of his speech presentation out in front of the IRRI plots, he is flanked by Philippine and U.S. First Ladies, respectively Imelda Marcos (left) and Ladybird Johnson.

LBJ speaking at IRRI

In my 20 July 2007 Pioneer Interview with Pete Jennings, IRRI’s first rice breeder, he recalled that day, now nearly 50 years ago: “Then we got the announcement that President Johnson was coming with President Marcos and their respective wives. Alright, get your shirt out and put the tie on. And indeed, the two presidents came. It was October 1966, and they came for the specific purpose of seeing the miracle rice, the Philippine jargon for IR8.

Well, this is just before lunch. Sometime around 11 o'clock in the morning, they show up. Someone had the foresight [Urbito Ongleo, IRRI photographer, 1961-89] to build a walking area into the field, right in front of the circle, which was between the then administration building [later Chandler Hall] and our laboratory building [later Hill Hall]. There was a plot of IR8 right there. The size of the walkway looked to me like an aircraft carrier. It was maybe 3 meters wide and perhaps 5–6 meters long. This was so the great man would not fall into the mud.

So, we trooped out there—first, Chandler, President Marcos, Beachell, myself, and, right behind me, Johnson. I was starting to walk onto the levee when I heard this deep southern drawl. He said, 'Boy!' I know he was talking to me. I answered, 'Sir.' And he repeats, "Boy, move over to one side; the photographers want to take my picture." When he said "boy" the first time, I thought he might be asking me how to get out of this mess in Vietnam or at least have a question about IR8. No, he wanted his photograph taken. So, the 'boy' moved over to one side. Listen further on YouTube.


World food prize logoOctober is World Food Prize Month and IRRI has a historic bond to this “Nobel Prize for Agriculture”

IRRI and WFPAs I wrote in the Jan.-March 2011 issue of Rice Today, there is a historic bond between IRRI and the World Food Prize (WFP) since its inception in 1987 to serve as a de facto “Nobel Prize for Agriculture” as urged by its major proponent, 1970 Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug. That is why during the WFP symposium on 13-15 October 2010 IRRI was recognized, not only for five decades of achievement, but also for our historic bond to 9 of 23 WFP laureates at that time.

During that 2010 symposium in Des Moines, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, recognized IRRI’s 50th anniversary that year and its long list of achievements. He particularly noted the nine WFP laureates (see the green box) who have worked, served, or studied at IRRI, or have partnered with the Institute over the years.

WFP October Gene RT Around World Hettel Abded Hossain 8Sept2015

Since then, we can make that number 10 with the 2015 WFP going to Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of BRAC, the world’s largest NGO.I had the honor of meeting with him in his 19th floor BRAC office in Dhaka on 8 September 2015 and giving him (center) and Mahabub Hossain, former head of IRRI’s Social Sciences Division, a photo-op with Rice Today magazine. Sir Fazle served on the IRRI Board of Trustees from 2001 through 2006. In my Pioneer interview with him in 2006, during the 2nd International Rice Congress in New Delhi, he said, “I think IRRI has a lot to do in the future. It met challenges in the first 50 years, but it will have even greater challenges in the next 50, including climate change and water shortages, which are going to affect agriculture, rice cultivation, and food production in our society.” Sir Fazle will receive his Prize during the upcoming festivities in Des Moines on 14-17 October.

WFP SwaminathanOf course, most appropriately, M.S. Swaminathan, then IRRI director general, won the first World Food Prize, then sponsored by General Foods, on 6 October 1987, for spearheading the introduction of high-yielding wheat and rice varieties to India’s farmers. The prize in those days was awarded in Washington, D.C. This past 7 August, Dr. Swaminathan celebrated his 90th birthday at his M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation headquarters in Chennai, India. See my tribute to this good friend in my April blog.

WFP ChandlerRobert F. Chandler, Jr., IRRI’s first director general, won the 2nd WFP in 1988, although it was held on 7 June in Washington D.C. In any event, he won in recognition of his leadership in founding IRRI, which ultimately spurred an international network of agricultural research centers, under the umbrella of the CGIAR. His work truly touched all corners of the globe, from Asia and the Far East to Africa and Latin America. View the nice 7:47 video that was produced for the occasion. See also my tribute to Dr. Chandler in my September blog.

WFP Khush BeachellEight years later, on 18 October 1996, Gurdev Khush, IRRI principal plant breeder, and Henry M. Beachell, former IRRI plant breeder, shared the 1996 World Food Prize in Des Moines.


As the WFP web site states: “The Green Revolution in rice farming began in late 1963, at the third plant in row 288 on an experimental field operated by IRRI. It was there that Hank Beachell saw exactly what he was looking for: a short, thick-stemmed, sturdy rice plant that would respond more effectively to the application of fertilizer, mature early, and yield much more than the traditional varieties.

Three decades later, that and future advances in rice breeding made by Dr. Beachell and fellow research colleague, Dr. Khush, won both men the 1996 WFP for their contributions to ensuring that growing populations in Asia and around the world would be supported by sufficient food supplies.”

Of course, you may have read in my July blog, which IRRI DG Bob Zeigler and I put forth, that we thought the beginning of the 1st Green Revolution took place a bit earlier—in July 1963—when Pete Jennings, had an “epiphany” as he visited the experimental rice plots on the Institute’s research farm and observed tall plants and short plants in a ratio of 3:1—classic Mendelian inheritance—indicating that he had just discovered a single recessive gene for shortness (later called sd1-d).

This does not discount Hank’s later selection of the third plant in row 288, which was incredibly important as well. I think it just goes to show the incredible teamwork that goes into achieving such an important discovery as the semidwarf IR8 plant type; this means including T.T. Chang, who provided the parental varieties from Taiwan for Peter and Hank to work with. Read more about T.T.’s achievements and legacy in my March blog.

John DenverAn interesting side note to the 1996 World Food Prize Program, which recognized Hank and Gurdev, is that singer John Denver entertained the audience with three moving songs. He is among my all-time favorite singers who sadly died almost exactly a year later in an airplane accident. You can listen and watch by going to my playlist on YouTube


The next IRRI staff member to garner the WFP was Andrew Colin McClung who won the 2006 WFP because of his soils research in Brazil that allowed the opening of the Cerrado, an area larger than the total cropland of the United States, to intensive agricultural production—and it has stood the test of time. He had already conducted this research by the time he came to IRRI in 1967 as the Institute's first assistant director (1964-66) and second associate director (1967-71). As associate director, he was responsible for IRRI's training and international outreach activities. He passed away at age 92 earlier this year (2 February) in Groton, New York.

Andrew McClungI never had the privilege of meeting Colin face-to-face, but I had a number of phone conversations with him from his home in New York. In 2010, I was preparing the poster heralding all of the WFP winners who have an IRRI connection—as I’m discussing in this piece—for display at that 2010 WFP symposium in Des Moines. I wanted to use a photo of Colin that showed what he looked like when he worked at IRRI in the 1960s. The only photo I could find was the low-res color one shown here that was on the WFP website depicting what he looked like now. In a search of the IRRI photo archives I could not find any images that definitively identified him. He looked a bit different in his younger years. We have mountains of black and white photos in the IRRI archives, but unfortunately many do not identify who is in those photos.

Andrew McClungColin thought it was strange that I could not find any photos of him from the period he was at IRRI, saying, “Chandler was traveling a lot then and I was often the senior IRRI officer in charge who had to meet and greet all the important dignitaries who were visiting the Institute back then. A photographer was always trailing me to get shots of the visitors.”

Colin sent me the black and white photo shown here with DG Bob Chandler. Then, I was able to identify scores of IRRI photos with him in them. I sent him a batch of thumbnails of these images so that he could identify—as many as possible—those persons in the photos with him. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could begin that project.

WFP yunusDr. Muhammad Yunus, IRRI Board member (1989-94), won the 1994 WFP for his original approach to promote the economic and social empowerment of the poorest citizens of Bangladesh, specifically women and children. Of course, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, for establishing the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1983, fueled by the belief that credit is a fundamental human right. His objective was to help poor people escape from poverty by providing loans on terms suitable to them and by teaching them a few sound financial principles so they could help themselves.

WFP SanchezThe remaining three WFP winners who were not IRRI staff members or BOT members, but who had strong connections with the Institute are: (1) Dr. Pedro A. Sanchez (2002 WFP), who did his PhD thesis work in soils at IRRI (1965-67) and was recognized for developing pioneering ways to restore some of the world’s poorest and most degraded WFP Jone Longpingsoils, while offering great hope to all those struggling to survive on marginal lands around the world; (2 and 3) Prof. Yuan Longping, director general of the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center, and Dr. Monty Jones, former senior rice breeder at WARDA (now AfricaRice). Both long-time IRRI partners, they shared the 2004 WFP for making independent miraculous breakthroughs that bettered the lives of countless human beings.

WFP RajaramBorlaugFieldOne more WFP winner whom I know quite well is last year’s 2014 winner, Sanjaya Rajaram. I worked quite closely with him during my days at CIMMYT as the Wheat Program editor from 1986 through 1994. Raj won the Prize for his scientific research that led to a prodigious increase in world wheat production—by more than 200 million tons—building upon the successes of the Green Revolution in wheat. The photo that WFP publicists have been using quite a bit is one I took of Raj and Norman Borlaug together in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico, back in 1994.


IRRI birds in October

Birds 2 Javan Pond Heron Birds 1 October Von Schrenks Bittern Birds 9 Pechora Pipit Birds 3 Pied Harrier Birds 4 Plain Bush hen Birds 8 White winged Tern Birds 6 Pectoral Sandpiper Birds 7 Red necked Phalarope Birds 5 Marsh Sandpiper

As I mentioned in my September blog, IRRI, located 50 kilometers south of Manila on the slopes of the dormant volcano Mt. Makiling in Los Baños, Laguna, has spent more than 50 years developing new rice varieties for poor farmers and studying different environmentally friendly and relatively pesticide-free methods of rice field management that farmers can use. The 209 hectares of rice fields on IRRI’s experiment farm form a mosaic patchwork of different crop stages and varying degrees of wetland habitats, which make them a bird paradise. For more general background on the birds of IRRI, see my September blog.

Around nine species that can be readily seen in October, but rarely during the rest of year include: Von Schrenck’s Bittern, Javan Pond Heron, Pied Harrier, Plain Bush-hen, Marsh Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, White-winged Tern, and the Pechora Pipit.


About the Author

Gene Hettel

Gene Hettel

Gene Hettel is an IRRI historian and editor-in-chief of Rice Today.

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