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.
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?
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.
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.
The Global Crop Diversity Trust has started a petition asking Russia’s President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to prevent the destruction of the Pavlovsk Experiment Station. Sign on to show your support of global food diversity and preservation.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.
Photo by Flickr/Petr Kosina