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World Food Crops face Legal Challenge

The future of Europe’s largest genebank, near St Petersburg, has suffered a set-back with the adverse court ruling on 11th Aug, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

The city of St Petersburg has decided to hand over the world’s first and among the world’s largest collection of plant heritage to private contractors for property development. With last weeks’ court order upholding this decision, the matter is now with Russia’s President Medvedev. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, has organized a signature campaign (see http://bit.ly/PavlovskPetition) which seems to have been effective, at least in catching the president’s attention.

The Pavlovsk Experimental Station is a vast collection of world-wide crop diversity, apple trees from 35 countries, strawberry from 40 countries, black currant from 30 countries, plum and cherry plum from 12 countries, and honeysuckle from Russia and Canada.

The hundreds of hectares of fields at Pavlovsk Station contain more than 5,000 varieties, including 1,000 varieties of strawberries alone. Its crop collections are thought to possess a host of 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 are now growing.

The seedbank

This is a concept of storing seeds of different varieties, both to preserve varieties developed over millennia but now turning rare, and also as a safeguard against calamity, like disease or fire, that may destroy vital seed stock. The idea grew from the work of Nicolai Ivanovich Vavilov, the Russian geneticist and botanist who is known for his work on the centres origin of cultivated plants. In the course of his work, Vavilov organized expeditions and collected plant seeds from all over the world and, in 1926, set up the Pavlovsk repository near St Petersburg, now known as the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry.

The preservation of seeds at Pavlovsk is by continuously replanting seeds in well differentiated beds in the hundreds of hectares of fields. Many varieties of seeds need not be replanted as they can stay dormant for decades in a cool and dry environment, with little damage to their DNA.

They can thus remain viable and can be stored in seedbanks. Storage is improved by drying the seeds to have less moisture and keeping them in freezers. But still, DNA does degrade and after some years, the seeds need to be planted and fresh seeds preserved for a fresh round of storage. But there are varieties which cannot be preserved and must be continuously replanted to preserve the seed stock.

The seedbank, in fact, is a genebank, in that the seed contains the specific genetic characteristics of the plant. All natural plant varieties have evolved over millennia of adaptation and represent intellectual property that is impossible to replicate. Hybrids and genetically engineered varieties all depend on basic, naturally evolved seed stock. A collection of thousands of varieties of important species is thus both a safeguard as well as resource for breeding and transplantation.

Temperature, moisture and atmospheric conditions are likely to change in all areas of the world in the coming decades due to global warming. Even if we were able to contain population, it is only rapid and widespread replacement of local varieties with other varieties that are adapted to the changed conditions that could keep food production going even at current levels.

It is remarkable that Russian science, a century ago, realized the value of conserving biodiversity, mainly, at the time, to secure the farm produce on which the empire depended.

The concept has been replicated and there are now over 1300 seedbanks in the world. Modern installations include the Svalbard International Seed Vault, inside a mountain tunnel in a frozen island in Norway. Permafrost keeps the vault below the freezing point of water and the seeds are protected by 1-metre thick walls of steel-reinforced concrete, to withstand catastrophes, including nuclear war!

Threat at St Petersburg
Ironically, the first seedbank of them all, at St Petersburg, is now threatened with destruction to make room for constructing residential flats! As the city is expanding, the city fathers feel they need space more than they need berry and apple trees.

The Institute scientists and the Global Crop Diversity Trust (an organization working worldwide to preserve plant diversity) are now fighting a last ditch battle to save the second of the two plots being taken over. In December 2009, Russia's ministry of economic development handed two of the station's land sites to the Russian Housing Development Foundation.
The institute's scientists appealed against the decision, but the courts ruled against them and a first plot, about a fifth of the station, will soon be put on sale for property development. The decision about a second, larger plot, of the 11th of August 2010 has also gone against the Centre and now the matter hinges on the good sense of the Russian President.
The signature campaign by the Trust has surely been a major motivator and it does appear that once the importance of Pavlovsk is understood, its enormity of the loss it were destroyed would be realized. The Trust has appealed to all concerned with the welfare of the earth to join in the barrage or petitions, at it website.
"No country is self-reliant, in terms of having the diversity it needs now and certainly will need in the future, for breeding a variety of crops," says Cary Fowler, director of the Trust.
"Breeding is an ongoing activity because pests and diseases are always evolving and the climate is changing. We're always trying to make more productive, drought-tolerant and heat-resistant crops.

"This is the raw material for doing all of that - particularly with the changing climate. The biological resources conserved in one country could be very valuable to another country, another continent.
"We're all interdependent and that's why this unfolding tragedy at Pavlovsk is a concern to people outside Russia as well."

(the writer can be contacted at simplescience@gmail.com)


The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry still maintains one of the world's largest collections of plant genetic material. The Institute began as the Bureau of Applied Botany in 1894, and was reorganized in 1924 into the All-Union Research Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops, and in 1930 into the Research Institute of Plant Industry. Vavilov was the head of the institute from 1921 to 1940. In 1968 the institute was renamed after him in time for its 75th anniversary.
By 1940, Vavilov had accumulated a collection of 200,000 plant seeds from the Soviet Union and from abroad. Most of his genetic samples were seized by a German collecting command set up in 1943, and were transferred to the SS Institute for Plant Genetics, which had been established at the Lannach Castle near Graz, Austria. However, the command could only take samples stored within the territories occupied by the German armies, mainly in Ukraine and Crimea. The main gene bank in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) was not affected. The leader of the German command was Heinz Brucher, an SS officer who was also a plant genetics expert.
During the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, the Pavlovsk Station was isolated and had no access to food supplies. 12 Russian scientists who were trapped in the Station chose to starve to death, though they were surrounded by seeds of rice, corn, peas and wheat, which could have saved them.

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