A Career Devoted to Wheat

Thomas Payne trained as a plant breeder and became a leader in the global genebank community. In a career he compares with the diplomatic corps, his work to conserve and share the benefits of wheat have taken him around the world.

As he retires this month after over 30 years of dedication at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico, Payne looks back at his fascinating career.

How did you become a genebank manager?

It was kind of serendipitous. There seems to me to be two types of genebank managers. The first type are individuals that have formal training in genetic resources and really understand the principles behind the conservation of genetic diversity. The other type is more oriented towards the use of materials, like a plant breeder or plant pathologist. I fall into the second category. Both types are important because they have different perspectives. The first group looks at very long-range needs and the ecological approaches towards conservation. The second group, the one I’m in, looks at the value of a collection in the short term.

What have been some of the biggest highlights of your career?

Being able to support and provide genetic diversity to researchers around the world has really been fulfilling. Some of these researchers have enormous resources available and still find value in the materials that CIMMYT distributes. Equally, there are a number of research programs around the world that don’t have lavish budgets or armies of staff, but nevertheless make enormous local impacts.

You’ve spent much of your career focused on wheat. What makes wheat special?

Wheat is probably the staple crop with the greatest diversity of culinary uses. Bread is made from wheat; there are cookies, crackers, noodles, pasta, baklava, dumplings—Germany makes wheat beer. I come from Nebraska in the United States, and wheat is an important crop there. But in Turkey, and in the Middle East and Central Asia, wheat has deep cultural significance. The crop itself or food prepared from it is considered sacred. Of course, here in Mexico it’s not wheat that is centrally important, but maize. But this work has really impressed upon me the central importance of these staple crops to different cultures.

How did it feel to be awarded the Frank N. Meyer medal for Plant Genetic Resources?

It was humbling to receive that recognition. But I hope that it was in recognition of all CGIAR and other genebank managers around the world. The role of genebank managers is not only to conserve genetic diversity, but also to raise awareness of the importance of genetic diversity and biodiversity in nature. What we hold in genebanks is just a very small sample of the diversity that exists outside them. Unfortunately, that diversity is decreasing because of many factors—climate change, of course, is at the forefront. But urbanization, the growth of cities, and the displacement of agricultural land are also significant. We hear that advances in technology will save us and that genebanks may not be necessary eventually. But I think that’s still a distant future. Genebanks and genebank managers need to be steady in their resolve to conserve the crops that we are so dependent on.

As a leader in the genebank community what kind of changes have you seen in the field?

I’ve always thought the most valued germplasm is the germplasm that we know most about. Today, we’re able to generate vast amounts of information about the samples held in genebanks. Now, the challenge is how to use all of that information responsibly. It’s exciting to think about unleashing artificial intelligence on datasets that describe genetic resources. It will allow wheat researchers to compare their crop with rice and rice geneticists to compare their crop to bananas. It’s not that we’re planning to create banana–rice hybrids, but the genes underlining so many functions in plants are probably common among crops and species. There’s great potential for further improving crops by understanding the fundamental basis of the genetic diversity that’s held in genebanks.

What advice do you have for genebank managers today and in the future?

One of the challenges for new genebank managers is that they inherit the collection as it exists at that moment. I would offer a word of caution, though, about dramatically changing the composition of a collection because there were probably sound reasons why the current materials were included. It’s important that genebank composition remains dynamic but also that we better understand what is in current collections. Then we can use that diversity in a much more targeted manner.

How are you going to be spending your time during your retirement?

I’m hoping to visit the United States and other parts of the world that I didn’t see during the past 30 years. I’ve been lucky because my job has allowed me to visit many countries—of course, always places that grow wheat. So, this is an opportunity for me is to visit some places that don’t grow wheat. I’ve also thought I would like to be either a breeder or a hobby collector of a diversity for a particular plant. My yard here in Mexico is not very large so I’ll have to pick the plant wisely. I’ve seen hundreds of different plants, flowers, vegetables, and fruits in my career. The diversity in nature and that of cultivated plants is just so vast, it’s mind boggling. Picking a plant I want to specialize in collecting might be impossible. But the quest continues.