Global Crop Diversity Threatened: Pavlovsk Experimental Station Facing Closure

| 8/24/2010 2:44:51 PM

Tags: rare plants, fruit trees, berries, seed banks, biodiversity,

In the early part of the twentieth century, an adventurous Russian agricultural scientist set out on an expedition to Iran. His goal: to begin a collection of seeds from across the world to better feed the people of his own country. Hundreds of trips and many years later, Nikolai Vavilov had not only succeeded in establishing a world-renowned seed collection, he had also revolutionized global understanding of plant and agricultural diversity and origins. The N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, located in Petersburg, Russia, serves as the home for the hundreds of thousands of seed and plant varieties Vavilov collected.

Vavilov Institute 

This seed bank’s holdings have survived trial after tribulation, even outlasting the siege of Leningrad thanks to the dedicated commitment of scientists willing to starve to death to protect the invaluable collection. A recent ruling by the Russian Supreme Arbitration Court, however, threatens to result in the destruction of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station — home to Vavilov’s rare berry and fruit tree collection. Will all, then, have been for naught?

Brief History

The Pavlovsk Experimental Station was founded by Vavilov in 1927, and now hosts the largest holding of rare berries and fruit trees in all of Europe. The site boasts a repository of over 5,000 varieties, 90 percent of which can be found nowhere else. The importance of the station’s assets are underlined in an article by Elise Blackwell recently published in the Atlantic. “After drought wiped out important varieties of Ethiopian food crops and war did the same in parts of the Balkan Peninsula,” she notes, “it was seeds from the Vavilov Institute that permitted replanting.”

Comprised of an experimental farm, a quarantine nursery and greenhouses, the station is responsible for the maintenance of many plants that are too difficult to grow directly from seed, meaning they cannot be preserved as frozen seeds in a typical seed bank. This also means that the station’s stores cannot be easily moved and kept elsewhere: It would be nearly impossible, and incredibly time-consuming, to dig up and re-root the thousands of rare apple, pear, berry and cherry species to new ground. 

Legal Battle

The future existence of the station is now in jeopardy following a ruling by the Russian Supreme Arbitration Court in favor of the Russian Housing Development Foundation’s (RHDF) desire to transform the site into a housing development. Due to the station’s non-profit status, it has fallen victim to RDHF’s charge to find and privatize unprofitable public lands. Having already lost an initial appeal case at the Supreme Court level, the site has less than a month to appeal to the High Court to overturn the ruling. If the higher appeal is again unsuccessful, the thousands of plant species at the station will be bulldozed under, many lost forever.

t brandt
9/10/2010 11:03:13 PM

I apologize for bringing a little science to this poetry slam, but-- "rare species" is another way of saying "low fitness level." If its genetic complement had good fitness, the species wouldn't be rare. Don't forget that extinction is the inevitable destination of all species. Crop species are not natural, but artificially selected anyways. The collection has academic interest, tobe sure, but obviously little practical value or else it would be paying for itself.

9/7/2010 1:40:21 AM

Why not get in touch with those people (was it in Latvia?) who organized the unique event to clean up the whole country in one day (they included the media, networking etc), i'm pretty sure they could organize something quickly to save this. And of course... get funding...

joan johnson_2
9/4/2010 4:30:03 PM

You should talk to several large newspapers, spread the news and try to find a wealthy sponsor or several wealthy sponsors. I am sure that someone would be interested in this valuable asset. If I had the money I would sponsor it myself, but there are a lot of people into earth preservation that have money. They might be able to buy time and purchase a property to relocate the collection. Why does the government need this particular spot for their housing development? Maybe they are just secretly selling the seeds to Mansano. Anyway, if you can get a collection of people to protest and raise a racket, maybe you will catch the eye of someone wealthy enough to rescue the plants/seeds.

sarah hill
8/28/2010 10:47:04 PM

The simplest solution would have been if the Research Station had been able to raise the capital to purchase the land. Although whether this would have allowed, I don't know. Scientific funding, including this area, has seen large cuts recently. If the decision is not overturned, & the future of the station secured, attempts to ensure the continued survival of the species & varieties will be hampered by financial constraints; equally, time constraints may preclude rescue or preservation attempts. If you have 600 varieties of (E.g.) apple-trees (which do not come true from seed), you are risking it if you have only one of each variant. You begin to get an idea of the space required...if you are going to attempt to propogate or graft the whole collection, the resources & staff needed to complete such a project are not in place. So much of this collection is a field collection rather than seed, because many of the plants do not produce identical genetic copies from seed. Even with seed-banks, the seed needs to be planted & grown at intervals as it deteriorates, & loses its viability. Part of the value of the collection is that the plants are locally adapted. So many people I have spoken to have no concept of why this collection is important & valuable, or even necessary; most have no idea that at least 70% of the variety in crop species (FAO) has been lost in the past few decades, some estimates place the loss as high as 95%. If these varieties are lost, it's permanent.

jennifer steele
8/28/2010 11:32:46 AM

Of course, George. But, even though grafting may be faster and probably safer for the moment than digging up the trees, it is still a matter of time. Grafting takes time and the incredible amount of manpower that this will/would take is daunting at best. Grafts have to be cut, preserved, etc. Suitable trees have to be found to graft to. Every single slip has to be logged and documented. And that's not even considering the biosecurity issue of the whole thing. I hope they are already working on it, but they will still lose countless species to error and stress. Of course this should be a lesson, too. This is a huge undertaking and really maybe the whole operation should be spread out for the safety of the whole. There could have been stations in other places, even other countries where and emergency evacuation could have been staged to. Live and learn, though. We tend to think that if it is important to us, it is important to everyone.

8/25/2010 1:13:07 AM

Since digging up and replanting these trees would take too much time, wouldn't it be beneficial to try getting a few cuttings from existing trees to try to start new ones? Also, as a last resort, wouldn't it be better to graft a few cuttings onto other similar species located elsewhere, rather than lose these rare species altogether?

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