Scientists campaign to save Russian seed bank from destruction

A legendary seed bank in Russia – home to thousands of rare varieties of berries and fruits, including 1,000 kinds of strawberries – may be cleared to make way for luxury homes.

During the 900-day Seige of Leningrad in World War II, twelve Russian scientists died of starvation while guarding a rare collection of Russian seed diversity, seeds which could have sustained them. They were at Pavlovsk Experimental Station, which is home to Europe’s largest collection of fruit and berry varieties. Scientists say that the diversity contained within the 5,000 varieties of seeds and plants – 90% of which are found nowhere else in the world – is an essential storehouse for crop diversity. But all those carefully guarded genes are again under threat. This time, by a proposed housing development.

Earlier this year, a Russian court cleared the way for real estate developers to transform the plant institute’s orchards and gardens into plots forĀ  private luxury residences. Alarmed plant scientists immediately got up in arms about what they see as a potentially catastrophic loss of crop diversity. They believe the genes in these rare seeds hold the key to developing new varieties of plants that can help humans adapt to climate changes, and other threats to existing crops. It’s as if you had a giant toolbox for solving the world’s food problems, but you never know which tool you’ll need to use. It would be pretty shortsighted to throw out half of your tools.

Leading the charge against the station’s destruction is the founder of the Doomsday Seed Vault, Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Fowler is encouraging people around the world to tweet Russian President Medvedev with the message, “@KremlinRussia_E Mr. President, protect the future of food – save #Pavlovsk Station!” Eventually, the tweets elicited a return tweet from Medvedev, saying the issue would be “scrutinized.” He’s also collected 36,000 signatures on petitions. Several large scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Science committee, have sent letters urging the Russian government to step in and save the seed bank.

The international pressure has led to new hope for the station in the past few days. The plant institute was visited by government representatives on instructions from Medvedev, and they later announced that the auction of the land to developers will be postponed. They’re forming an independent commission of experts to evaluate the situation at Pavlovsk.

Fowler points out that it’s particularly ironic that the seed bank is threatened during the International Year of Biodiversity. “A year in which we are to celebrate and protect the amazing environmental and biological diversity surrounding us,” he wrote at the Huffington Post. “Let it also be the year in which we all stand up and stop the loss of one of the most amazing natural resources we have.”

Watch a report about the Palovsk Experimental Station:

Lindsay Patterson