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A pillar retires: farewell for Suketoshi Taba

tabaAt El Batán on 20 December 2011, CIMMYT staff, family, and friends joined specialists from Mexican universities and national research programs, Second Secretary Shin Taniguchi of the Japanese Embassy in Mexico, and farmers in a gala farewell luncheon for the retiring head of maize genetic resources, Suketoshi Taba, after an illustrious 36-year career at CIMMYT in the study, conservation, and use of maize diversity.

In the opening tribute to Taba, CIMMYT Director General Thomas Lumpkin credited his many years of participatory research with farmers to improve landraces for traits like yield and insect resistance, while preserving their grain quality for local food products. “This is work few breeders have done, and it’s greatly appreciated by CIMMYT,” said Lumpkin. Researchers Flavio Aragón, of Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture and Livestock Institute (INIFAP) and Humberto Castro of the Autonomous University of Chapingo—both of whom have worked shoulder to shoulder with Taba and farmers—recalled their long collaboration with the retiring scientist. Castro brought a commemorative plaque from the University and news of renewed funding for the project they had pursued.

A commemorative plaque from CIMMYT was also awarded by Lumpkin at the CIMMYT Christmas party on 16 December 2011. Lumpkin made reference to Taba’s successful coordination of work of national seed banks in 13 Latin American countries to rescue and regenerate more than 15,000 endangered seed collections of native maize races, as well as bringing to 27,000 the number of unique seed samples in CIMMYT’s maize germplasm bank. Staff from the Tlaltizapán research station came personally to present Taba with a plaque of appreciation from station personnel.

In his speech, Taba thanked all present and made special mention of his mentors, his team, and co-workers. “I could not have achieved anything without the hard work and support of colleagues,” he said. “I sincerely hope that CIMMYT will continue to focus on farmers in its work.”

Born on Okinawa just following World War II, Taba grew up on a farm there at a time when, in his words, “…there were no supermarkets, and we ate only what we could grow.” A particularly momentous year in his life was 1975, when he obtained a PhD in plant breeding at Kansas State University, got married, and arrived at CIMMYT as a post-doctoral fellow. After serving during 1977-86 as the center’s maize breeder for the Andean Region, Taba took up an appointment as head of maize genetic resources in 1987.

With wonderful dishes from CIMMYT’s food services unit and a background of spirited music from a local mariachi band, guests saw Taba receive a unique gift from the global maize program: an original watercolor painting by local artist and former CIMMYT staff member Linda Ainsworth. Withal, the fond wishes of those at the event, which went on into the evening with celebration and shared recollections, constitute a souvenir that Taba will take with him wherever he goes.

A frequent visitor to CIMMYT, retired University of Massachusetts at Boston Professor Garrison Wilkes, could not be present at the luncheon but sent Taba a letter which closed with the words: “Never have so many people who plant and consume maize, now and in the future, owed so much to a single person…We value what you have accomplished and future generations of humans will be more food secure because of your service.”