John Vidal, environment editor
guardian.co.uk , Sunday 8 August 2010 18.44 BSThttp://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/aug/08/pavlovsk-seed-bank-russia
‘Priceless collection’ in Russia was never registered so is therefore worthless and does not officially exist, say developers
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.