Blog Devra Jarvis: thoughts and thanks after 25 years with the Alliance

This spring, Dr. Devra Jarvis retired as a Principal Scientist and Team Leader for Agrobiodiversity in Production Systems at the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT. In this blog, she reflects on her quarter-century of research on crop genetic diversity and in situ conservation, sharing her thoughts on progress so far, highlights of her career and the work we still need to do.

Beginnings in In Situ Conservation

In 1996, I was hired for the new position of ‘In Situ Scientist’ to build a global program on ‘In Situ conservation On Farm and In situ Conservation of Crop Wild Relatives’ within the Plant Genetic Resources Program of our organization, then known as IPGRI.[1]

The team to which I belonged was exceptionally diverse in terms of disciplines and country of origin, with Toby Hodgkin the Director, a plant breeder from the UK, George Ayad the genetic diversity expert from Egypt, Pablo Eyzaguirre the anthropology, socioeconomics, and institutions expert from Chile, Abdou-Salam Ouédraogo the forest genetic diversity expert from Burkina Faso, and myself, an American woman plant ecologist/palynologist, specializing in ecological systems of China.

In the early 1990s, it had become clear that ex situ facilities could not accommodate the full range of useful diversity and do not conserve dynamic processes of crop evolution and farmer management. Although the newly formed Convention on Biological Diversity was committed to in situ conservation, the science and practice of how to actually implement it was missing. And so, I was hired to advance the quest to determine if farmers were still maintaining diversity on farm, and if so why; to explore how research could support farmers’ different production and cultural needs under changing environmental and sociocultural conditions.

My first task was to develop a collaborative partnerships with over 60 institutions worldwide to develop a research programme across nine countries, bringing together experts in ecology, botany, genetics, agronomy, plant breeding, anthropology, economics and policy. Over 20 years, the project team worked with partners from low-income and more advanced economies with the common goal of providing tools and methods for understanding and tapping the potential of crop genetic diversity on farm.

My mission as In Situ Scientist was not only to create and lead our on farm program, but also to create and lead a program on the in situ conservation of crop wild relatives (CWR). Together Toby Hodgkin and I wrote the Global Crop Wild Relatives Project for the Global Environmental Facility under the UN Environmental Program. For the first time, the GEF in 1999 invested over US$6 million to implement a project on crop wild relatives, and this became the foundation for our still ongoing work on crop wild relatives, developed into an extensive CWR program by Ehsan Dulloo and Imke Thormann.

In those initial years, the ‘In Situ family’ as we called ourselves, working closely with our national partners, started to spread the word about the importance of understanding the de facto drivers in situ conservation and why farmers still valued and chose to hang on to these precious resources. Early and generous support came from the Swiss, Dutch, Canadian, German and Peruvian governments, who boldly invested US$ 8 million in the global project, together with in kind inputs from the participating national partners, the ‘Strengthening the Scientific Basis for In Situ Conservation On farm’. Over the next decade, other international donors and national governments stepped up to invest over US$ 20 million in our global on-farm work, carried out in eight countries: Nepal, Vietnam, Peru, Mexico, Hungary, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Morocco.

What we achieved

The investment paid off; our team created a network with of partners from over 60 national and non-government research and development institutes to assess crop genetic diversity and understand who manages this diversity and its maintenance on farm, clearly advancing the scientific evidence that crop diversity is central to issues in agroecology, nutrition, seed supply systems, market and non-market economic forces, policy environments and institutions.  These results and partnerships gave rise to numerous new projects on these topics, helping us better understand how increasing the amount of crop genetic diversity in farmers’ fields can improve livelihoods in terms of productivity, reduced chemical inputs, better nutrition and income, and increased agency of farmers over their resources and decisions.  

Thousands of farmers, extension workers, and lower and higher education students were trained; global indicators were developed to measure the amount and distribution of crop genetic diversity on farm; and national and international bodies worked together to modify policies to better conserve and use agricultural biodiversity.

Three seminal publications in multiple languages

In 2000, our ‘In Situ family’ produced a Training Guide for In Situ Conservation On Farm published by IPGRI and translated into French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian.

This was followed in 2006 by the Columbia University Press book Managing Biodiversity in Agricultural Ecosystems, inspired by discussions at a meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), ad advisory body to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which linked our crop genetic diversity on-farm work with livestock, aquatic and associate pollinator and below ground diversity.  Managing Biodiversity was translated  into Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, and also into Korean by our Korean Senior Research Fellow Dr Myoung-Rae Cho, together with his colleagues at the National Academy of Agricultural Science, RDA Korea. 

In 2016, we transformed the original Training Guide to In Situ Conservation On farm into a formal university text book published by Yale University Press, Crop Genetic Diversity in the Field and on the Farm: Principles and Applications in Research Practices, which is now available in Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Chinese, with Russian on its way.

These three agrobiodiversity methodology books were complemented by numerous other peer-reviewed and IPGRI publications. 

Great oaks from little acorns grow

What continues to give me profound satisfaction today is how the knowledge base and partnerships, which was built together with our colleagues and national partners during the original Global In Situ On farm initiative, became the basis for numerous initiatives still progressing in the Alliance.

Our team was instrumental in setting the agenda for the new work program on agricultural biodiversity of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2000 (Decision V/5).

At a country level, our project activities led to in situ conservation and on-farm management of crop genetic diversity being integrated into the national and/or provincial plans in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Hungary, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Peru and Vietnam. But perhaps the greatest legacy was that it laid the foundations for much of our future research agenda supporting farmers who use traditional crop varieties in sustainable agricultural production and agroecological resilience.

Research areas that grew from this original project covered: tropical fruit trees; diversity for pest and disease management; genetic resources policy; fruit trees in Central Asia; date palm in North Africa; and bananas in the Great Lake states.

Looking back over the last 25 years, there are several things I am proud of:

I was able to give support to promoting scholars in the global South, both regional staff and national partners, to be considered equal partners and leaders in our collaborative work.  Second, I am proud to have been a role model for women in science and for women in decision making roles, and to influence women to take leadership positions. Third, I was able to mentor staff members and assist them in furthering their careers, many of whom are still associated with the Alliance.  

I have had the pleasure of seeing the changes that occurred through the work of our national partners.  There has been a paradigm shift that productivity does not have to follow uniformity and corporate agriculture, but that improved livelihoods of smallholder farmers can be achieved through the assessment and use of intraspecific diversity coupled with supporting local control over resources. I am proud that many of the national research colleagues of the In Situ On Farm project and satellite activities that blossomed out of the In situ/On Farm Family have continued to work in the field of conservation and use of crop genetic diversity; many are now have important officials in Ministries, Universities and Academies and development organizations around the world.  After so many years we continue to remain part of this global family and stay in touch.

Immediate priorities and the future

I believe that the use of intra-specific diversity and its management is key to our capacity to feed and restore our planet. 

To do this, we must continue to create innovative research partnerships to link components of biological diversity relevant to food and agriculture — the variability of crops, livestock, aquatic systems, pollinators, and soil microorganisms. We need to actively provide farmers worldwide with data on crop varieties and animal breeds, their functional traits, and places where to get this information and materials.  National and international research and development organizations must be brought together with civil society and indigenous peoples groups to share knowledge and experiences that can improve agrobiodiversity maintenance and use.  The knowledge and the tools already exist to use crop agrobiodiversity to improve agricultural productivity, diversify income and nutritional sources, reduce migration and adapt to climate change. But we need to teach this knowledge in our schools: our elementary schools, our high schools and our colleges. I am currently working to establish a global Federation of Teachers to achieve this: educators who have practical experience in using increased intra-specific crop diversity in agronomic management practices to guide curriculum development and improvement.


People of the in situ biodiversity management family: Thank you!

I owe a great debt to my first IPGRI Supervisor, Toby Hodgkin who continued to mentor and promote my work during the last 25 years. Several other mentors stand out: Tony Brown, our Honorary Research Fellow in population genetics for over 25 years; my original Genetic Diversity group colleagues at HQ: George Ayad; Pablo Eyzaguirre for broadening my knowledge on the role of communities and institutions, while never letting me forget that in my first presentation for the job at IPGRI I talked about how rocks in the field can improve crop productivity; and Abdou-Salam Ouédraogo, who took care to look after me on our first field visit to his home country of Burkina Faso. I wish to thank Jan Engels, my second supervisor who was always supportive of my projects and for me to balance family life with work; Bhuwon Sthapit for his friendship, knowledge and guidance all the years together; and Paola De Santis for her continued support, encouragement and guidance both inside and outside our work environment. I want to thank Masa Iwanaga who always supported my ideas when he was our Deputy Director General of Programs, and who made his decision to hire me in 1996 only after making sure I really spoke Chinese by testing if I could read about sweet potato in the language. I can never forget Dick van Sloten, our Assistant Director General, who in the first month after I joined IPGRI took me with him on donor visits and showed me how scientific input is used to mobilize resources from potential donors; and Geoff Hawtin for his continuous interest in the work I was managing, even after he left us as Director General.

There are a few members of the donor community that I would also like to thank for supporting my projects over the years. The first is Christina Grieder, formally of SDC, who after ten years of funding ‘Strengthening the Scientific Basis of In Situ Conservation On Farm’ asked me, “Now that you have all these data, how will you apply them to development projects?” From this question arose the development of our framework in 2011, which is designed as a heuristic to guide interventions that use crop genetic diversity to improve livelihoods, essentially linking intraspecific crop diversity assessment to actual development actions.

Our UNEP GEF projects benefited immensely from the support of Marieta Sakalian, and our IFAD projects would not have been possible without the encouragement and help of Rima Alcadi, Malu Ndavi, and Wafaa ElKhoury. I wish also to thank Stephen Brush, who set the In Situ stage for me in the first place. To this group I also add my thanks to Linda Collette, formerly head of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, David Cooper of the CBD Secretariat, and Mark Zimsky of the GEF Secretariat, for their belief and encouragement in my program of work.

There are so many national partners with whom I worked with closely and whose support, intellectual input and collaborative spirit made our program possible. I mention here only themembers in the original nine country IPGRI in situ family”: as there were so many others, too numerous to mention, who came after. The original in situ partners included: Burkina Faso: Didier Balma, Mamounata Belem, Madibaye Djimadoum, Issa Drabo, Omer Kabore, Tiganadaba Lodun, Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo, Jérémy Ouedraogo, Mahamadi Ouedraogo, Oumar Ouedraogo, Mahamadou Sawadogo, Bernadette Some, Leopold Some, Jean-Baptiste Tignegre, Roger Zangre, Jean-Didier Zongo; Ethiopia: Zemede Asfaw, Abebe Demissie, Tesema Tanto; Hungary: Györgyi Bela, Ágnes Gyovai, László Holly, István Már, György Pataki; Mexico: Luis Arias-Reyes, Luis Burgos-May, Tania Carolina Camacho-Villa, Jaime Canul-Kú, Fernando Castillo-Gonzalez, Esmeralda Cázares-Sánchez, Jose Luis Chavez-Servia, Teresa Duch-Carballo, Jorge Duch-Gary, Víctor Manuel Interián-Kú, Luis Latournerie-Moreno, Diana Lope-Alzina, Fidel Márquez-Sánchez, Carmen Morales-Valderrama, Rafael Ortega-Paczka, Juan Rodriguez, Enrique Sauri-Duch, José Vidal Cob-Uicab, Elaine Yupit-Moo; Morocco: Ahmed Amri, Mustapha Arbaoui, Riad Balghi, Loubna Belqadi, Ahmed Birouk, Abdelaziz Bouisgaren, Mariam El Badraoui, Noureddine El Ouadghiri, Maria El Ouatil, Brahim Ezzahiri, Daoud Fanissi, Lamia Ghaouti, Abouchrif Hrou, Mohammed Mahdi, Hamdoun Mellas, Fattima Nassif, Keltoum Rh’Rib, Mohammed Sadiki, Seddik Saidi, Mouna Taghouti, Amar Tahiri, Bouchta Taik; Nepal: Annu Adhikari, Niranjan Adhikari, Resham Amagain, Jwala Bajracharya, Bimal Baniya, Krishna Baral, Bharat Bhandari, Bedanand Chaudhary, Pashupati Chaudhary, Devendra Gauchan, Salik Ram Gupta, Sanjaya Gyawali, Bal Krishna Joshi, Madhav Joshi, Ashok Mudwori, Diwakar Paudel, Indra Paudel, Ram Rana, Hom Nath Regmi, Deepak Rijal, K. K. Sherchand, Pitambar Shrestha, Pratap Shrestha, Surendra Shrestha, Deepa Singh, Abishkar Subedi, Anil Subedi, Sriram Subedi, Sharmila Sunwar, R. K. Tiwai, M. P. Upadhyaya, R. B. Yadav; Peru: María Arroyo, Luis Collado-Panduro, Alfredo Riesco, Ricardo Sevilla-Panizo, Roberto Valdivia; Turkey: Alptekin Karagoz, Ayfer Tan; Vietnam: Nguyen Tat Canh, Pham Hung Cuong, Din Vao Dao, Nguyen Ngoc De, Nguyen Phung Ha, Nguyen Thi-Ngoc Hue, La Tuan Nghia, Nguyen Huu Nghia, Dan Van Nien, Tran Van On, Huynh Quang Tin, Luu Ngoc Trinh, Ha Dinh Tuan, Truong Van Tuyen.

I am thankful for the help of all the scientific program support staff at HQ and the regions that made the scientific research of my team possible over the years: Loredana Maria, Sarah Hutchinson, Annie Huie, Carole Salas, Janet Whallin, Marta Giuliani, Allison Poulos, Elisabetta Rossetti, Nicole Demers, Olga Spellman, Fowzia Jaldin, Layla Daoud, and more recently Trang Nguyen, and for the regional program support staff that supported our team: Richa Gurung, Safal Khatiwada, Ambika Thapa, Yemi Regassa, Sonal Dsouza, Adib Mamelly, Suad Eid, Rashid Azimov, Qi Wei, and many others who are no longer with us. Special thanks for the scientific, technical and administrative support and initiatives of Loredana Maria who always made sure my administrative issues were always taken care of, and particularly thanks to Nadia Bergamini, Paola De Santis, and Rose Nankya, who are now scientific leaders and project and grant managers in their own right.

Finally, I want to sincerely express my appreciation to all the support staff outside of my teams at what is now the Alliance, whom I have interacted with, and bothered, over the years. I want to thank our travel support team: Silvia Restante, Bea Amara, Daniel Calendo, Edoardo Baietti and others who made sure I actual arrived and left the countries I was working in. The administrative support on the ground floor: Pino Mastroianni, Jacopo Parroni, Sara Piscopo, Deborah Gimona, Martina Falcetta, Stefan and Marian Grigoras, whose support enable me and my daughter to have our needed administrative documents and who made sure that my office always had everything I needed, not to mention letting me into the building when I forgot my building pass. Maria Garruccio and Francesca Giampieri, our librarians, who always found the references I needed and furthermore forced me to learn Mendeley, for which I am forever grateful. Helen Thompson in the Director General’s Office deserves my special thanks for supporting and promoting my work over the last 20 years. For our Finance and Budget staff, I mention those whom I worked most directly for many years, as there were many others in that group that supported my work: Josephine Luzon, Karen Harmann, Melanie Glover, Massimo Leuter, Laura Veurich, Roberta Castellani, Andrea Del Bianco, Federica Mannino, and Doreen Yerriah. I want to thank the support staff in HR under Ingrid Lambert, who never tired of me constantly visiting their offices: Lesley Tassinari and Gaynor Hart-Cicconi; and our IT staff, many of whom are no longer here: Dario Valerio, Fabrizio Anzalone, Silvia Ticconi, Simone Mori, Marco Frangella, Max Benocci, Matthew Ronci, Valerio Maiolini, and Tanko Abdulai. To all of you, and to the many other support staff who I probably missed to mention above, I wish to tell you all that I have always appreciated the fact that no matter how many times I bothered you with problems, or asked for your help, you were always were there to support me.

In the first three years (1996-1999) of the in situ project, we were joined by focal IPGRI staff to support the work in each region: Mikkel Grum, Julia N’dungu-Skilton, Dan Kiambi, Luigi Guarino, Issiaka Zoungrana, Bernadette Dossou, and Raymond Vodouhe in East and West sub-Saharan Africa; Bhuwon Sthapit (who passed away in 2017), Ken Riley, Prem Mathur, Paul Quek, V. Ramantha Rao and Zhou Ming-de in Asia and the Pacific Ocean; Stefano Padulosi, Rami Khalil, Suha Achtar (who was killed in Syria), Aicha Bammoun, Abdallah Bari, Abdullah Jaradat, Adnan Hadj Hassan, Muhabbat Turdieva, and Noureddine Nasr, in Central and West Asia and Northern Africa; David Williams, Jose Luis Chavez Servia, and Diana Lope-Alzina, and later Marleni Ramirez, in the Americas; Lorenzo Maggioni and Elinor Lipman in the Europe Group; Tony Brown in Australia, and Susan Bragdon, Melinda Smale, Judith Thompson, Nicky O’Neil, and Paola De Santis at HQ in Rome.

The project hosted many interns and BA, MSc, PhD thesis students in HQ: Camillo Catarci, Landon Myer, Amanda King, Heather Klemick, Deborah Nares, Reem Hajjar, Chiara Boni, Francois Gerson (with Pablo Eyzaguirre), Agnes Fonteneau and John Tuxill. The team also interacted with many staff from other thematic areas: Marlene Dieckmann for germplasm health, who was responsible for our joint work with FAO on the safe movement of germplasm; Florent Englemann, for ex situ and cryopreservation, Stefano Padulosi for NUS, Adriana Alercia for her important work on IPGRI Descriptors that still are the foundation for germplasm characterization today; Imke Thormann, Ehsan Dulloo and Jan Engels for ex situ assessments and complementary conservation; our colleagues in the informatics group, Thomas Metz and Milko Skofic, who helped develop our first on-farm database system; and our economists, Adam Drucker, Alessandra Giuliani, Daniela Horna, Elisabetta Gotor, and more lately Nicholas Tyack, who followed up on Melinda Smale’s original economic inputs to the on farm/in situ program.

The global On Farm work provided a framework to host numerous CAAS Chinese visiting scholars who came to HQ to work with our team: Gao Yuan, Qiu Caisheng, Zhang Bo, Wang Fuyou (with Michael Halewood) and Tu Min supported by CATAS; and for other students and scholars from around the world who came to HQ more recently in the last ten years to work with our ‘in situ family: Tesema Tanto for his work in Ethiopia, Marianna Fenzi for her work in France and Mexico, Jeffrey Walls for his work in Turkey, Claudia Heindorf for her work in Mexico, Sondos Rejeb for her work in Tunisia, and Elena Kapsomenou, Maria Holzinger, and Giulia Rota Nodari to support our global pest and disease work. I am sure I am missing many others.

Finally let me thank my mentees – including Paola De Santis, Nadia Bergamini, Keyu Bai, Rose Nankya, Muhabbat Turdieva, Devendra Gauchan, Sognigbe N’Danikou, Arshiya Noorani, Marta Giuliani, Loredana Maria, Diana Lope-Alzina, Elisabetta Rossetti, Agnes Fonteneau, and Carlo Fadda — all of whom have advanced in their careers under my research guidance and management style. I have learned from you all as you progressed in your careers, and for that I am grateful.

To all of the in situ/on farm family above – Thank you! Let me close this final note by wishing everyone a happy and healthy future.

[1] Initially established in 1974, Bioversity International was known as the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) until 2006. In 2019, Bioversity joined forces with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in a new Alliance.