Now that all of CIMMYT’s new program directors have been officially installed, it is time to get acquainted with them, as well as their ideas and plans for the programs. This month we feature Jonathan Crouch, director of the Genetic Resources Program.
“Probably the best drought team in the world,” raves Jonathan Crouch, director of CIMMYT’s Genetic Resources Program, referring to his new CIMMYT colleagues. Ever since working in the Negev desert breeding heat and salinity tolerant potatoes, Crouch has been interested in harnessing biotechnologies for improving dryland agriculture. “There are many exciting advances in genomics that now offer the possibility of helping to breed better crops for these harsh environments” he says.
He started his career, however, in a very different environment, the swamps of West Africa, using tissue culture and molecular markers in the breeding of plantains and bananas at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria. Soon realizing that he needed more practical experience in plant breeding, he joined the private sector to set up a European canola breeding program. This gave him a better perspective of the realities of biotechnologies in modern crop breeding. From there, going to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), it was obvious that in many developing countries a chasm exists between the outputs of international public goods research and the inputs of private sector product development. “By working with the private sector, we hope to populate that gap with interdisciplinary scientists, who will bring prestige to this area of research,” says Crouch, who also champions a similar approach in his half-time position in the management group of the Generation Challenge Programme.
The Genetic Resources program aims to foster more diverse and intimate relationships with multinational corporations and small- and medium-sized enterprises. “We also want to build a strong product development pipeline from the genebank to the farmer. The Genetic Resources program will start the reaction, which will then reach farmers through our regional programs and national partners, giving them the traits and tools they need.”
This global research program houses three important aspects of CIMMYT’s work—the maize and wheat genebanks, the biotechnology group, and prebreeding activities, which create suitable starting material for plant breeding programs from tens of thousands of possible unimproved plants. Crouch is excited about this organizational unit, the first of its kind in the CGIAR: “It offers tremendous opportunities for capturing synergies in all disciplines. The regional programs identify priorities, such as drought tolerance, and we work on identifying novel useful genetic variation and the tools required to efficiently manipulate it.”
And considering he is building on CIMMYT’s existing legacy of quality biotechnological science, Crouch’s confidence in this program is not unfounded.