Endangered Seeds in Russia

Main building of the Pavlovsk Research Station.  Photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust / Flickr

Main building of the Pavlovsk Research Station. Photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust / Flickr

“I hope the Russians love their children too,” crooned Sting in his 1985 song Russians.  The Cold War may be over but we still wonder if the Russians love their children.  If they did, why would they be disregarding the value of genetic diversity and tripping over themselves to close down the Pavlovsk Research Station outside St. Petersburg, Russia, to sell the land to private developers?

According to Fred Pierce of the Yale Environmental 360, the Pavlovsk Research Station, part of the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, houses one of the world’s largest and oldest collections of seeds and planted crops,”roughly 90 percent of which are found in no other scientific collections in the world.”  The seed bank has a collection of over 325,000 seed samples. Seed variety, i.e., biodiversity, is essential for agriculture and food production and our continued ability to feed ourselves.  A National Geographic report, discussing concerns about the declining seed diversity due to climate change noted that “[u]nless answers are found quickly to strengthen the genetic base of our food in accelerating climate change, our world could face mass starvation,” but pointing out that “[s]olutions to this crisis lie within Mother Nature herself in the form of diverse genes found in the wild ancestors of our staple foods…”

If the Vavilov seed bank is shut down and the land is sold to developers, everyone around the world would feel the loss.  Cary Fowler, an American conservationist who runs the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, Italy, says the loss of the collection would be “the largest intentional, preventable loss of crop diversity in my lifetime.”

Here is something else to chew on.  Transgenic crops, a.k.a., GMOs, also contribute to the decline of crop biodiversity, already endangered by the climate change and large-scale commercial farming, which, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates, has destroyed 75% of genetic diversity of agricultural crops in the last century.

One would think that the rapid global decline of seed diversity elevates the importance of the Vavilov Institute. But since at least December 9, 2009 the Russians were officially in hot pursuit for the land occupied by the Vavilov seed bank to sell to wealthy land owners.  At that time, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development handed over one-fifth of the station’s fields to the Federal Fund of Residential Real Estate Development that has authority to sell off state-owned agricultural property that is deteriorating in order to meet the demand for housing.  According to NPR, Russian government officials have visited the gardens and insisted they see little value, while suggesting the institute should just move its collection elsewhere.

Independent Russian news  and media outlets, report, however, that the Russian government’s determination smacks of closed door deals and behind the scenes machinations. Corruption in Russia?! *Unheard of.*

And while the station is “undeniably dilapidated,” caused by ever declining funds, the seed bank still commands undeniable importance in a world of ever declining genetic seed diversity.

Besides the importance of  preserving a seed bank that houses, for example, currants from 30 countries (black – 870 varieties, red – 232 varieties), and strawberries from 40 countries (986 varities) – the richest in the world–there is also a lot of cultural and historical significance tied to the seed bank.  “Vavilov [who traveled to five different continents] was the first guy to appreciate the need to capture genetic diversity from different locations.”  Founded in 1926, it is one of 11 seed banks that Vavilov created across the former Soviet Union.  During the Second World War, when the Germans waged their blockade against the citizens of Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), the Vavilov Institute scientists, refusing to consume their collection, starved to death protecting the collection.

All of that, however, could be lost if the Russians decide to sell off the land.  That decision has been stayed for now, mainly, after the international community, scientists in particularly, raised an uproar when wind of Russian government’s decision blew west.  Tweets to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, petitions, and widely reported stories in well known western news organizations halted the government’s auctions, originally slated to begin on September 23, 2010, pending further government investigation.

While the future of the seed bank remains unknown, optimism for its continued existence is running low. Given that thus far the conduct of the Russian government was less than stellar (and overtly interested in selling off the land) the pending hiatus could be nothing more than a stall and delay tactic to shift the international focus elsewhere before the auction goes forward.  That, or the declining funds, may spell doom for the future of the seed bank.