Saturday, September 18, 2010

Will Tweet for Food

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA -- The most important seed bank in the world is currently endangered by real estate developers. A Twitter campaign has won a temporary reprieve for the seed bank, but more help is needed. The future of humankind could be at stake. No joke.

Here's the story. The Pavlovsk Experimental Station was founded in 1927 by the brilliant botanist and plant geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov (my secret crush), with the goal of collecting a large amount of plant genetic material to better feed Russia and the rest of the world. Vavilov traveled the world collecting plants while developing a theory on the origins of cultivated crop plants that is still important to botanists, crop scientists, plant geographers, and ethnobotanists. Vavilov carefully chose the location for its soil and climate because it is a living seed bank. The seeds are "grown out" to keep the strains alive and grow the collection. If seeds aren't grown out, the DNA will eventually 

Nikolai Vavilov

die. Vavilov invented the very idea of seed banks. There are now more than 1,000 seed banks around the world, but Pavlovsk is the most important one, because it has more seeds than anyone of all types of plants. It is especially important for its collection of 5,000 types of fruits and berries, 90% of which are extinct, except for the collections at Vavlosk Station. 

Under Stalin, Vavilov himself was persecuted and imprisoned. His crime was that he was more loyal to science than to politics and that he was from the bourgoisie. His parents were merchants, and he was an educated person. A high crime, indeed. He also criticized Stalin's favorite scientist. whose views regarding evolution turned out to be dead wrong. In 1940, Staling imprisoned Vavilov for these "crimes".  Three years later, Vavilov died in prison, of malnutrition.  Eventually, he was vindicated. The government even issued a postage stamp in his honor. 

The scientists who work at Vavlosk Station have always been deeply committed to their work. By the time Vavilov was imprisoned, he and his colleagues had already collected seeds from more than 200,000 plant varieties. During WWII, while Vavilov languished in prison, the scientists at Pavlovsk continued their work. Even during the 900-day siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg was called Leningrad during the Soviet era), the scientists heroically managed to keep Pavlovsk Station's work alive. Twelve of the scientists starved to death during the siege, surrounded by edible plants and seeds. They refused to eat their work. 

Rare berries at Pavlovsk

Pavlovsk has already saved the world, in a sense. After a drought in Ethiopia, and war in the Balkans wiped out crops, seeds from Pavlovsk helped farmers plant new crops to feed the populace.  In future years, with the threat of global climate change, the old crops may fail, and genetic material from seed banks such as Pavlovsk will be needed to find new crops that will thrive under different climatic conditions. Ironically enough, it's already happening. Russia is currently undergoing a terrible drought that has killed off most of the wheat crop. Already, Prime Minister Putin has issued an order to stop all wheat exports from Russia. It's time to plant the winter wheat, and farmers are trying to do so in dry soil with no promise of rain. The crop scientists at Pavlovsk, with their enormous seed collection, might be able to find a strain of wheat that can thrive in the new dry conditions. 

But Pavlovsk itself is threatened with extinction. It's a story worthy of Kafka himself. Pavlovsk Experimental Station is owned by the Russian government, on government-owned land. And even though it is the original seed bank and the most important seed bank in the world, the Russian government has refused to do the paperwork necessary to make it part of the global network of seed banks. The budget has been cut almost every year. 

Because of the budget cuts, Pavlovsk has been forced to lay people off, and the once-beautiful gardens have deteriorated. The important plants are still healthy and robust, but there are also a lot of weeds and a generally unkempt look about the place. The government that cut the budget now says that "obviously" the people who work there just don't care about the place. Nothing could be further from the truth.  They just don't have the money for such frills as paying for gardeners to do the weeding. 

Enter the Department of Housing. Now, housing is a big deal in Russia, and the Pavlovsk Experimental Station happens to be on some prime real estate (which was not the case when it was first established. It was out in the countryside.)  The government wants to turn the land over to a real estate developer to build luxury housing. The value of Pavlovsk is irrelevant to these people. In terms of the value of a priceless seed bank, here is their response, (loosely translated)--  "If it is priceless, that means one cannot set a price. So priceless is the same as worthless. It has no value. It has no worth."  I told you. Kafka-esque. 

The Department of Housing said that Pavlovsk Station could be moved. The scientists say that would take ten years, because of the mature living plants in the collection. Luckily, there is a strong connection between Pavlovsk and Kew Botanical Gardens, near London, England. The scientists at Kew put out the call. In response, the Global Crop Diversity Trust started a Twitter campaign to save Pavlovsk. Over 30,000 tweets were sent, and one week later, President Medvedev tweeted back! Pavlosvsk was given a one month reprieve, and Medvedev called for an investigation. 


JodieMo said...

All I can say It is terrifying to know that some of the leaders of the world's largest countries, who could easily impact the well-being of the world, are such idiots.

Jeremy said...

I don't suppose you have references to the story of seeds going to Ethiopia and the Balkans, please?

Deb Duchon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deb Duchon said...

Jodie - You are s-o-o-o-o right. It's amazing that our species has survived.
Thanks for commenting.

Deb Duchon said...

Jeremy - I got that information from a post in The Atlantic.

Jeremy said...

Thanks Deb.

That link is very slightly wrong. The correct link is

Deb Duchon said...

Jeremy - thank you for the correction. I hope it was helpful to you.