Tribute to Phil Rowe

Anne Vézina Monday, 29 July 2013

Mark Rowe, the son of Phil Rowe, recounts how his father convinced his mother to move to Honduras two months after the 1969 Football War between Honduras and El Salvador. He told her that they would only be there for two years. Little did he know at the time that the job of banana breeder that he was about to accept with United Fruit (later known as Chiquita) would define the rest of his life, let alone that people would still be talking about him years after his death.

From right to left, Phil Rowe's son Mark, with his wife and two of his three children, and his brother Scott.

The portrait that emerged from the Tribute to Phil Rowe, which was attended by 150 people at Earth University in Costa Rica, is one of a dedicated and hard-working scientist and of a caring and generous man. His friends and family described how people seeking his help would line up at his door. And help he did, whether it was in the form of advice, food or financial assistance. His former colleagues and fellow scientists also pointed out how he remained humble, even as his notoriety grew.

A turning point in that respect is 1984, when Chiquita donated its breeding programme to FHIA, the Spanish acronym of the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research. The years that followed saw the release of several of Phil’s creations, the high-yielding disease-resistant FHIA hybrids, in Africa Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The most enthusiastic adoption of FHIA hybrids has been in Cuba. Since the arrival of black leaf streak in the 1980s, two-thirds of the Cavendish-growing areas are now growing FHIA hybrids, not to mention the cooking FHIA hybrids that have largely replaced the equally susceptible Plantains. As one speaker said, “Phil Rowe loved Cuba and Cuba loved him”. He even risked being prosecuted by the American government by travelling to the island without permission.

The Hondurans also loved Phil. When he died in 2001, a columnist at the daily newspaper Tiempo wrote: “We have lost the best American who ever came to Honduras”.

In an IDRC video on Goldfinger, Phil once summed up the frustrations of being a banana breeder as having to work with a plant that has no seeds to get it to produce seeds in order to develop a plant with no seeds. Unlike many scientists, however, he did not see biotechnology as the solution to this problem, as he explained at length in the first issue of the ProMusa newsletter. For him, breeding bananas was as much an art as a science.

The tribute also marked the launch of a fundraising campaign to endow a scholarship in honour of Phil Rowe, coordinated by Luis Pocasangre, a professor at Earth University and former colleague of Phil at FHIA. The scholarship will be given every year to the son or daughter of a banana plantation field worker from the Latin America and Caribbean region. No doubt Phil would have approved.

P.S. The presentations have been made available on the Earth website.