Russian seed bank loses court hearing
by Rachel Bernstein / August 12, 2010

A Russian seed bank preserving more than 5,000 rare fruits and ornamental plants, including unique varieties of strawberries, plums, pears, apples and currants, moved one step closer to demolition after losing a court hearing Wednesday, in which rights to the federally-owned land were granted to a government housing development agency. The Vavilov Research Institute, which manages the bank as well as 11 other crop development and conservation facilities across Russia, immediately filed an appeal. Another hearing will follow in about a month, at which point the land’s future will be finalized. It is unlikely, however, that the ruling will be changed, said Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organization based in Rome that has led an effort to save the site. Even Sergey Alexanian, deputy director of foreign relations at the Vavilov Institute, acknowledged that the Russian Housing Development Foundation is legally in the right.

The seed bank’s final hope is to win the support of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who have the power to overrule the court’s decision. So far, though, neither has responded to letters. “This is a bad day,” Fowler said. The seed bank, at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station about 20 miles outside St. Petersburg, is one of about 1,400 such facilities worldwide, each with its own unique collection of plants. The varieties they maintain are used by breeders to develop new strains, and also may be accessed after natural disasters to replenish crops. The Pavlovsk facility earned a special place in Russian history during the World War II siege of the city, then called Leningrad, when 12 scientists chose to starve to death rather than eat the precious seeds.

Tamara Yashkina, a researcher at the Vavilov research institute that runs the seed bank outside St. Petersburg, sorts through oat seeds. {photo by Vyacheslav Yevdokimov}

PRIVATE HOMES vs PUBLIC GOOD,0,5738442.story
Development plans threaten Russia seed bank for unique fruit varieties
by Rachel Bernstein / August 10, 2010

A tug of war between scientists and government real estate developers in Russia will determine the global future of almost 1,000 strawberry varieties, along with hundreds of strains of berries, apples, pears and plums. The threatened plants are part of a collection of rare berries and other fruits growing at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, a seed bank that blankets over 200 acres of prime land about 20 miles outside St. Petersburg; 90% of the bank’s more than 5,000 plant varietals are found nowhere else. The station was founded in 1926 by Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who is considered the father of the modern seed bank. During the World War II siege of Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was formerly called, 12 scientists at the station died of starvation rather than eat the seeds they had worked to save. Now, however, the Russian Housing Development Foundation, a government agency founded in 2008 to repurpose inefficiently used agricultural land for housing, wants to do just that with the experimental station. A government hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday morning, and the ruling is expected to favor the housing developers, especially since the federal government owns the land. “Legally, they are in the right,” said Sergey Alexanian, deputy director for foreign relations at the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, which manages 12 crop development and conservation facilities across Russia, including the one facing the current threat. “But from the, can we say, moral point of view, it’s impossible to destroy the collection.”

Many Russian and international scientists use the Pavlovsk station plants as raw materials for developing new varieties, creating crops that are more productive, for example, or better adapted to a warming climate. “Saving varieties is critical for breeding,” said Kent Bradford, a plant scientist at UC Davis. “When breeders are faced with a new issue, like a disease or growing in a new area, they need to go back to that diversity to see which ones are resistant or have traits that they like.” The Pavlovsk facility is one of about 1,400 such operations in the world, operated by governments as well as universities and research institutes; their simple goal is to protect plant biodiversity. Many are in developed nations with well-established funding and are thus relatively protected, but some in less developed or more strife-torn nations are threatened or have already been destroyed by war or lack of money.

Each facility generally specializes in crops native to its region or that grow well in its climate, while others, such as the Tomato Genetics Resource Center at UC Davis, focus on particular types of plants. The best known is probably the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the remote Norwegian island of Spitzbergen in the Arctic, which keeps frozen seeds as backup for collections around the world, but that facility’s stores are far from complete. Moreover, not all plants can grow from frozen seeds — such as most of those at the Russian station. Furthermore, there is little possibility of relocating the Russian facility. An appropriate backup site isn’t available, and moving all the plants would be expensive and labor-intensive. “These are not some boxes to move to another location; these are trees,” Alexanian said. In short, if the fields are razed, the particular varietals that grow there will be gone forever. “There’s no backup for this collection, and that’s the real tragedy of it all,” said Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organization whose mission is to conserve worldwide crop diversity. “This is extinction on a scale that I’ve not seen in my professional lifetime, and it can’t be replaced.”

Pavlovsk seed bank faces destruction
by John Vidal / 8 August 2010

Twelve Russian scientists famously chose to starve to death rather than eat the unique collection of seeds and plants they were protecting for humanity during the 900-day siege of Leningrad in the second world war. But the world’s first global seed bank now faces destruction once more, to make way for a private housing estate. The fate of the Pavlovsk agricultural station outside St Petersburg will be decided in the courts this week. If, as expected, the case goes against it then the collection of plants built up over 85 years could be destroyed within months.

At stake, say Russian and British campaigners for the station, is not just scientific history but one of the world’s largest collection of strawberries, blackcurrants, apples and cherries. Pavlovsk contains more than 5,000 varieties of seeds and berries from dozens of countries, including more than 100 varieties each of gooseberries and raspberries. More than 90% of the plants are found in no other research collection or seed bank. Its seeds and berries are thought to possess traits that could be crucial to maintaining productive fruit harvests in many parts of the world as climate change and a rising tide of disease, pests and drought weaken the varieties farmers now grow. As it is predominantly a field collection, Pavlovsk cannot be moved. Experts estimate that even if another site were available nearby, it would take many years to relocate the plants.

In what appears Kafkaesque logic, the property developers argue that because the station contains a “priceless collection”, no monetary value can be assigned to it and so it is worthless. In another nod to Kafka, the government’s federal fund of residential real estate development has argued that the collection was never registered and thus does not officially exist. “It is a bitter irony that the single most deliberately destructive act against crop diversity could be about to happen in the country that invented the modern seed bank,” said Cary Fowler, of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. “Russia taught the world about the importance of crop collections for the future of agriculture. A decision to destroy Pavlovsk would forever tarnish a cause that generations of Russian plant scientists have lived and, quite literally, died, to protect.”

The station was established in 1926 by Nikolai Vavilov, the man credited with creating the idea of seed banks as repositories of plant diversity that could be used to breed new varieties in response to threats to food production. During the siege of Leningrad, 12 scientists chose to starve while protecting the diversity amassed by Vavilov, even though the seeds of rice, peas, corn and wheat that they were protecting could have sustained them. Vavilov died of malnutrition in prison in 1943, having criticised the anti-genetic concepts of Trofim Lysenko. But Russia has since elevated him to hero status.


Nikolai I. Vavilov was born into the family of a merchant in Moscow on November 25, 1887. In 1911, having graduated from the Agricultural Institute, Vavilov continued to work at the Department of Agriculture Proper headed by Prof. Pryanishnikov. In 1911-1912 Vavilov did practical work at the Bureau for Applied Botany and at the Bureau of Mycology and Phytopathology of the Agricultural Scientific Committee. In 1913-1914, Vavilov traveled to Europe where he studied plant immunity, mostly with Prof. W. Bateson, a co-founder of the science of genetics. In autumn 1917 the Head of the Bureau for Applied Botany Robert. E. Regel (1867-1920) supported the nomination of N.I.Vavilov, a young professor from the Saratov Higher Agricultural Courses, as Deputy Head of the Bureau. As Regel wrote in his reference letter, “In the person of Vavilov we will employ … a talented young scientist who would become the pride of national science”. Regel’s prediction turned out to be true. Since then, all Vavilov’s life and creative work have been inseparable from the world’s largest crop research institute, into which he transformed the Bureau in the 1920-30’s. Vavilov continued his investigations in Saratov where he has awarded the title of Professor of the Saratov University in 1918. During the Civil War, from 1918 to 1920, Saratov became the scientific stronghold for the Department of Applied Botany (Bureau till 1917). In 1920 Vavilov was elected head of the Department, and soon moved to Petrograd (St.Petersburg now) together with his students and associates. In 1924, the Department was transformed into the Institute of Applied Botany and new Crops (VIR since 1930), and occupied the position of the central nationwide institution responsible for collecting the world plant diversity and studying it for the purposes of plant breeding.

Vavilov is recognized as the foremost plant geographer of contemporary times. To explore the major agricultural centers in this country and abroad, Vavilov organized and took part in over 100 collecting missions. His major foreign expeditions included those to Iran (1916), the United States, Central and South America (1921, 1930, 1932), the Mediterranean and Ethiopia (1926-1927). For his expedition to Afghanistan in 1924 Vavilov was awarded the N.M.Przhevalskii Gold Medal of the Russian Geographic Society. From 1931 to 1940 Vavilov was its president. These missions and the determined search for plants were based on the Vavilov’s concepts in the sphere of evolutionary genetics, i.e. the Law of Homologous Series in Variation (1920) and the theory of the Centers of Origin of Cultivated Plants (1926). N.I.Vavilov was a prominent organizer of science. In the period from 1922 to 1929 he headed the Institute of Experimental Agronomy (the former ASC) which developed in 1930 into the V.I.Lenin All-Union Academy of Agriculture; from 1930 to 1935 Vavilov was its first president. From 1930 to 1940 he was director of the Institute of Genetics. Vavilov organized and participated in significant home and international scientific meetings and congresses on botany, genetics and plant breeding, agricultural economy, and the history of science. All around the world N.I.Vavilov has gained respect and renown; he was elected member of many academies of sciences and various foreign scientific societies.

Vavilov, the symbol of glory of the national science, is at the same time the symbol of its tragedy. As early as in the beginning of the 1930’s his scientific programs were being deprived of governmental support. In the stifling atmosphere of a totalitarian state, the institute headed by Vavilov turned into a resistance point to the pseudo-scientific concepts of Trofim D.Lysenco. As a result of this controversy, Vavilov was arrested in August 1940, and his closest associates were also sacked and imprisoned. Vavilov’s life ceased in the city where his star had once risen. He died in the Saratov prison of dystrophia on 26 January 1943 and was buried in a common prison grave. Nevertheless, the memory of Vavilov has been preserved by his followers. During that tragic period they kept on gathering Vavilov’s manuscripts, documents and pictures. Since mid-50’s, after the official rehabilitation of Vavilov, hundreds of books and articles devoted to his life and scientific accomplishments have been published. Memorial displays have been opened in Moscow, St.Petersburg, Saratov and Poltava. The name of Vavilov is born by the Russian Society of Geneticists and Breeders, the Institute of General Genetics of the Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Plant Industry, and the Saratov Agricultural Institute.

One of the 893 blackcurrant varieties in the threatened collection.

Why Pavlovsk Station matters
by Cary Fowler / July 26, 2010

The Pavlovsk Station matters because humanity needs crops to survive. As the climate changes and new threats to existing crop varieties appear, the ones we have now need to adapt, and the diversity found at the Pavlovsk Station provides this adaptation potential for a broad range of fruits and berries. We need to grow new breeds of all kinds of crops — grains, fruits, vegetables — to feed ourselves and our children. To do that, we need the rich diversity of characteristics like those found at Pavlovsk. It’s one of the oldest collections of fruit and berry diversity in the world, and the largest in Europe. Its strawberry collection alone contains almost a thousand varieties hailing from 40 countries. Pavlovsk Station can’t be moved. Transferring the collection to another site — even if one were available, which it’s not — would take years. If the demolition moves forward, the Trust will do what we can to mount a rescue expedition. But frankly, we will not be able to save much. The job is technically complicated and time-consuming, and quarantine regulations will slow the process down further.

What’s next?
We’re doing what we can at the Global Crop Diversity Trust. We will try to save as much diversity as possible in partnership with the dedicated staff at Pavlovsk. In the meantime, we need to bring attention to the issue, here and abroad. President Medvedev just joined Twitter last month during his trip to the United States, and he only gets 50 or so messages directed at him a day.

Medvedev’s Twitter Account : @KremlinRussia_E Mr. President, protect #Pavlovsk Station!

It may be just a start. But if we can get enough tweets, we’re hoping that someone at the Kremlin will take notice and help us save Pavlovsk Station and protect our food supply for future generations.

Crop diversity is dying
by Elisabeth Rosenthal / August 18, 2005

José Esquinas-Alcázar regards the corn laid out in rows with the love and admiration that sommeliers reserve for bottles in a fine wine cellar. To the untrained eye, it is a collection of misshapen ears: Long, short, blue, yellow, white, spotted, covered in dirt. “Look at this beauty!” he exclaims. “Some are good for starch, some for popcorn. Some grow in the cold. Some are good fried, some broiled. The taste for each is completely different. “Diversity is what makes us happy, gives us choice and keeps us free. And it’s tragic because this is what we are losing.” Esquinas, a top official at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, has spent decades campaigning to preserve plants that are used for food, which are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. Last year, his efforts culminated in the adoption of the United Nations Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which requires countries to preserve existing crops and creates an international system for sharing crops and plant genes. But much has already been lost.

Historically, humans utilized more than 7,000 plant species to meet their basic food needs, Esquinas says. Today, due to the limitations of modern large-scale, mechanized farming, only 150 plant species are under cultivation, and the majority of humans live on only 12 plant species, according to research by the Food and Agriculture Organization. Most types of food, for example the tomato, consist of several different species, and each species may contain dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties. In the last century, dozens of varieties of corn, wheat and potato have disappeared. “This is not nearly as sexy as a panda going extinct, but the losses are far more dangerous for our survival,” Esquinas said in his office on the outskirts of Rome. The result for humans is a more one-dimensional diet, where tomatoes look and taste the same and only one type of corn or potato may be available on supermarket shelves.

The consequences are potentially dire: As species drop out, the world loses the genetic diversity that has allowed farmers and scientists to breed new types of seed crops that can adapt to changing conditions – a hotter, drier growing season, for example, or the invasion of a new bacterial pest. “If you have climate change or environmental change, you need to search through those plants to find one that is adapted to the new conditions,” he said. The loss of food plant species is directly related to the 20th century “green revolution,” in which farmers adopted streamlined agricultural techniques to increase production of food. To maximize crop yields, they chose a few high-yield, uniform crops that grew predictably and could be planted and harvested mechanically. With irrigation, mechanization, fertilizers and pesticides at their disposal, farmers in developed nations were able to maintain control over growing conditions.

The result was plentiful food, but far less variety in the types of seeds and foods planted – which, occasionally, led to disastrous vulnerability. In 1970, for example, more than half of the corn crop in the southern United States succumbed to an unusual fungus because the corn was all grown from one seed type that is particularly susceptible to that disease. While modern farmers tend to favor a few crops, traditional small-scale farmers took the opposite approach: maintaining and growing a wide variety of crops and seeds in order to survive, since they had little control over things like soil, weather, and pests. To ensure there was food on the table, their best bet was to plant a range of crops – some that thrived in heat and others that could withstand cold, for example.

Their storehouses and fields were (and are) the world’s gold mine of plant genetic resources. Indeed, after the unusual fungus damaged the U.S. corn crop in 1970, scientists modified the U.S. corn seed with a gene borrowed from a type of African maize that was resistant to the fungus. But this kind of resource is being lost as land is urbanized and as traditional farming practices in Latin America and Africa fall by the wayside. Esquinas ticks off crops that have disappeared from the world’s fields: Of the nearly 8,000 varieties of apple that grew in the United States at the turn of the century, more than 95 percent no longer exist. In Mexico, only 20 percent of the corn types recorded in 1930 can now be found. Only 10 percent of the 10,000 wheat varieties grown in China in 1949 remain in use.

Paying homage to the bounty and variety of nature has been a lifelong obsession for Esquinas, who grew up in a Spanish family that had farmed for generations. In the late 1960s, he did his doctoral research on genetic diversity of the Spanish melon, traveling by bus, foot and horse to collect 370 varieties of seed from small farmers all over Spain. Later, he grew the fruits and characterized the physical and chemical differences between melon types, creating a melon family tree. More recently, at the anthropological museum in Cairo, he focused on a particular treasure from the tomb of King Tut, one that other tourists might have overlooked among the precious trinkets and gold: a small partitioned box holding more than 25 varieties of barley seed, each in its own compartment. “They recognized that these seeds were a treasure,” Esquinas says. “My conclusion as a plant geneticist is that he was buried with all these seeds because he didn’t know what kind of soil and humidity or rain there would be in the underworld!”

Today, Esquinas’s mission is to ensure that food plants are protected, both in “banks” and in the field, so that the bounty of nature – and the genetic diversity behind it – is preserved. Since many crops have already disappeared in the West, farmers in the developing world must be compensated for maintaining and sharing their plant varieties, he says. When Esquinas was collecting melon seeds, he accompanied a farmer to a remote village by donkey, where he was presented with seeds for a melon that the farmer insisted was exceptionally hearty. When he analyzed the seed back in the lab, he discovered that it was resistant to many diseases, and genes from that melon have since been introduced into numerous commercial fruits. Various institutes and universities around the world maintain seed collections. The French National Institute for Agricultural Research, for example, maintains 4,000 lines of maize. But Esquinas says that a more systematic effort is needed. Maintaining diversity in food is not just about survival, but also about the quality of life, and people must be taught to appreciate it, he said. In the past two decades, “People have learned to drink wine – to notice the distinctions: this one is smoky or sweet and that one aromatic,” he said. “But all food has variety – rice has it, potatoes have it. You don’t know a good wine the first time you drink. We need to develop our taste for foods like these, too.”

A display showing grains, honey, vegetables and fruits produced by Indian farmers in a region where traditional crop diversity is still intact.