August 9, 2010
The concept of collecting and protecting seeds and plants for research and to preserve biodiversity got its start in Russia. Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov created the world’s first seed bank, collecting fruit and vegetable seeds from across five continents during the 1920s and 30s. By World War II, the bank numbered 200,000 species. During the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, from 1941 to 1943, the botanists caring for the collection (Vavilov had been arrested by the KGB the year before and taken to a concentration camp, where he later died) refused to eat the seeds and starved to death.
The seed bank now includes hundreds of acres of field collections that contain more than 5,000 varieties of fruits, 90 percent of which can be found only at that location. There are apples, raspberries, and currants. Nearly a thousand varieties of strawberries alone. But that vast store of biodiversity could be lost in months, replaced with tracts of private homes, if developers win a court case this week.
Last December, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development sanctioned the transfer of part of the land occupied by the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, which houses the fruit collection, to a real estate development fund “on the grounds that the fields are allegedly not economically viable and are hampering the economic development of the region,” reports the St. Petersburg Times. New houses have more worth than fields devoted to science in this calculation.
“This casual decision to destroy Pavlovsk Station would forever tarnish a cause that generations of Russian plant scientists have lived and, quite literally died to protect,” said Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the organization that c0-manages the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a.k.a. the “doomsday vault.”
The fate of the Pavlovsk collection will be decided in court—the first hearing is on Wednesday. (UPDATE: The court rejected the appeal from the Pavlovsk Station to halt the takeover, according to ScienceInsider. The first plot could be auctioned off as early as September 23.) Real estate developers have argued that since the collection is “priceless,” it has no monetary value and, in addition, that the collection doesn’t officially exist because it was never registered. Scientists disagree. Strawberry breeder Jim Hancock of Michigan State University, for example, told the Independent that the loss of the collection would be a “major tragedy” as it houses many strawberry varieties that are particularly hardy and disease-resistant.
If the experimental station loses the land on which the collection resides, it will likely be lost forever. Bulldozers could arrive in just three or four months, not enough time to move thousands of trees and other plants. Collection and quarantine regulations would prevent the plants from being sent to other countries quickly. Saving the seeds alone is not a viable option, either, as many would not survive the freezing process and, thus, it would be impossible to save them in the Svalbard Vault.
Collections like these are important not only for research. They are a way of protecting ourselves from plant diseases, natural disasters, wars or anything else that might wipe out the plant species that we depend on for food, fuel, clothing, etc. Russia is a big place. Can’t they build homes somewhere else?
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