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Pavlovsk Experimental Station: Field Seed Bank Under Threat - Help Save It!
Amanda Reed, 20 Aug 10

Good news: Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has intervened in the case of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station. John Vidal at The Guardian reports:

The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has ordered an immediate inquiry into the potential destruction of the world's oldest seed bank following a court case and a Twitter campaign by Guardian readers and others.

The case is not yet closed however, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust is asking people to keep up their efforts in campaigning to save the seed bank.

For more information on the campaign to Save the Pavlovsk Experimental Station and how you can help see:

  • The Second Siege: Saving Seeds Revisited | Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, 18 Aug 10, for The Huffington Post:
    To some, it may be just a bunch of fruits and berries. Indeed, the developers argued that because the collection was "priceless" it was also "worthless." Even the "minor crop" collections housed at the Station, however, can be credited with generating gigantic, recurring economic returns. Some 60% of the black currant varieties grown in Russia, the world's largest producer, were developed at Pavlovsk. It's a crop that generates more than $400 million in farm sales annually in Russia. Throw in the collection's importance to apple and strawberry and the other crops, and the significance of Pavlovsk becomes evident.

    Despite the heroism during World War II, today the collection faces its most serious threat. It doesn't come from jack-booted Nazis and their bombs, or Stalin and his henchmen. It comes from real estate developers.

    Citing a new law that allows the takeover of public lands not "efficiently" used, a court turned over the land to developers this week. Unless the President or Prime Minister overturn the ruling, the developers will rip out the collection before the end of the year to construct houses.

    The struggle to save this biodiversity from extinction thus enters the political arena. There we have a real but fleeting chance.

    One can only hope that the Russian leadership will reverse the court if and when the Russian leadership actually hears about the threat to the Pavlovsk Station and realizes its importance.

    The Trust is a scientific not a political organization. But we cannot remain silent. We're betting you can't either. Never before in history will so much crop diversity be lost intentionally and avoidably as the day the bull-dozers roar into Pavlovsk.

    We believe the bull-dozers can be stopped. This seems the least that could be expected in 2010, the UN International Year of Biodiversity.

    You don't have to enlist in the army to fight this battle. You are not called upon die of starvation to protect these plants. But you can:
    * Sign this petition: http://bit.ly/PavlovskPetition
    * Write a letter to the President and Prime Minister (with a copy to the Russian ambassador in your country): http://eng.letters.kremlin.ru/
    * Tweet President Dmitry Medvedev: http://bit.ly/Pavlovsk
    * Forward this article to others, post it on your websites and blogs and encourage friends and contacts to take action.

For more on the Pavlovsk Experimental Station and how it is under threat see:

  • Development Threatens One of World’s Oldest Fruit Seed Collections | Paula Crossfield, 09 Aug 10, for Civil Eats:

    Perhaps one of the oldest in the world, the seed bank was started 84 years ago by Nikolai Vavilov, who died of starvation in one of Joseph Stalin’s labor camps in 1943. His seed bank was famously guarded by 12 scientists who eventually starved to death during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, despite the fact that they were surrounded by edible seeds. Now, a court will decide on Wednesday if the “priceless” collection of 4,000 varieties from all over the world–which includes 1,000 types of strawberries, and 100 varieties each of raspberries, gooseberries and cherries–will be handed over to the Russian Housing Development Foundation to be cleared for housing.

    Unlike the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which maintains an immense dormant seed collection, Pavlovsk Experimental Station is an field seed bank, which means that all of the seeds must be regularly planted and saved. Currently, tens of thousands of plants are in the ground, and scientists argue that it would take years to move without the risk of losing varieties.

    The erratic weather in Russia, as well as in much of the rest of the world, should be a wake up call reminding us why seed banks are so important: they give scientists the genetic material with which to develop varieties that can thrive in our planet’s changing climate. Ninety percent of the varieties in the Pavlovsk collection are unique–meaning that if its soil were turned under there, thousands of varieties of fruits and berries would be lost to the world.

  • Pavlovsk Seed Bank Faces Destruction | John Vidal, 08 Aug 10, for The Guardian:

    ...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.


For more on Nikolay Vavilov see:

  • Maintaining the Diversity of Food Crops: An Interview with Gary Paul Nabhan | Fred Bahnson, 26 Jul 10, for Worldwatch:
    Bahnson: Tell me about your latest book, Where Our Food Comes From—Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine. You went on quite an adventure to write this.

    Nabhan: The book is about the centers of food diversity—to remind us that although we may want to eat local, we’re also indebted to farming cultures in other parts of the world, parts from which our major food crops were historically derived. Maintaining the diversity of these food crops, taking care of the hotspots of food diversity, and ensuring that the indigenous stewards of those areas maintain control of their arable lands is very, very important.

    Nikolay Vavilov is one of my all-time heroes and perhaps the world’s greatest plant explorer. He was born in the 1890s, and about a century ago began to visit some 64 countries to document and gather seeds from those places. He built the first international seed bank—international in the sense that people from all countries had access to it and could draw seeds from it. Knowledge about those seeds came from the farmers in the countries of origin.

    Ironically, the man who taught us the most about where our food comes from starved to death in the Soviet Gulag. Stalin needed someone to scapegoat for the famine in the early 1930s that killed 3 or 4 million people. The famine resulted from yield declines that happened after the collectivization of farms in the Soviet Union.

    I’ve thought a lot about why Vavilov’s efforts failed. The political ecology of food production in Russia during that time was such that seed diversity alone could not revitalize agriculture. I think that’s true today, that seed diversity alone can’t make agriculture sustainable. You need diversity in the sizes of farms, diversity in the kinds of farmers we have, diversity in the scales of agricultural production, rather than just all small farms or all big factory farms.

    In a totalitarian state, seed diversity isn’t enough to save agriculture. And I don’t mean just totalitarian states based in communism, but totalitarianism in places with capitalistic ideologies. Unless there’s a good match between food justice, food equity, and food diversity, the food system won’t be healthy.

  • Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov in Worldchanging: A User's Guide to the 21st Century:

    The world owes a debt to Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. Well ahead of his time, Vavilov recognized the critical value of preserving agricultural biodiversity for human survival as early as the 1920’s. His worked was the origin of today's seed banks. Vavilov was an avid traveler, and he amassed the world's largest collection of seeds while researching the development of more productive genetic strains of vital species. In the 1930s and 40s, Vavilov faced extreme opposition by the Soviet government under Stalin. He was jailed in 1940, charged with “sabotaging agriculture” and promoting Mendelian genetics, which had been decried as “bourgeois” and “reactionary.” As the Russian agricultural legacy was destroyed, fellow scientists guarded Vavilov’s seed collection vigilantly, even during the Siege of Leningrad. They chose starvation over pillaging the food sources in the storehouse, and several of them died while guarding the seeds. Vavilov ultimately starved to death in prison. Today the N.I.Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry is still one of the largest seed banks in the world, though it is facing financial troubles. The Institute received a grant from the Global Crop Diversity Fund to ensure that its unique contents are properly regenerated and preserved.
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