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Critical plant bank in danger: “It’s a bad day for biodiversity”

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“These varieties represent literally millennia of collections by farmers and of plant evolution,” said Fregene

August 11, 2010  thescientist.com

Posted by Bob Grant

Plant scientists around the world are warning that hundreds of years of accumulated agricultural heritage are in danger of being plowed under after a Russian court ruled today (August 11) that the land occupied by a world-renowned plant bank on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg may be transferred to the Russian Housing Development Foundation, which plans to build houses on the site.

The fate of the collection at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, which includes more than 70 hectares planted with 5,500 different varieties of apples, pears, cherries, and numerous berry species — most of which occur nowhere else on Earth and were developed over hundreds of years by farmers in northern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia — was decided in Russia’s Supreme Arbitration Court at 10:30 AM, Moscow time.

“It’s a bad day for biodiversity,” said Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which has for months been trying to raise awareness of the dire situation at the decades-old collection. The collection of plants was started in 1926 by the father of seed banking, revered Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. “Unless somebody intervenes, we’re going to stand there at the gates and watch the bulldozers destroy thousands of varieties that are growing in a collection that dates back to 1926,” Fowler told The Scientist.

The Scientist‘s emails to both the Russian Ministry of Economic Development and the housing development foundation were not answered before publication.

Sergei Alexanian, vice director for foreign relations at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, which maintains the collection at Pavlovsk, toldThe Scientist that the institute immediately appealed the decision, which buys about one month while the court addresses the appeal. In that time, researchers at the Vavilov Institute and around the world will appeal to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — the only two people who have the authority to overturn the ruling — to save the collection. “It’s crazy to destroy the collection,” Alexanian said. “This collection belonged not only to the institute and the Russian people, but also to the world community. That’s why we want to appeal to their reason.”

“It’s a valuable and unique collection of strains, and its loss would be a serious blow to agriculture,” agreed Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Mike Ambrose, seed bank manager at John Innes Center in the UK, told The Scientist that the genetic diversity held in the Pavlovsk collection is irreplaceable. “These collections have survived World War II and very difficult times in the intervening years, and for them to be bulldozed down by a property developer would be a very sad fate, not just for Russia but for agriculture worldwide,” said Ambrose, who works frequently with scientists at the Vavilov Institute.

Alexanian was not sure how much money is devoted to maintaining the collection, but did say that the developer, the Housing Development Foundation, would pay 92 million rubles (more than USD $3 million) to acquire a special, five-year leasing license on the 70 hectares. After that five-year period, they’d have the opportunity to own the land outright.

The genetic wealth harbored in thousands of plants growing at Pavlovsk lies in untold numbers of mutations for drought tolerance, unique taste and growth characteristics, and propagation abilities that could help to improve crops on a global scale, according to Emile Frison, director general of the charity Bioversity International, devoted to agricultural biodiversity. Simply banking seeds from the collection’s plants is not an option: Most of the unique fruit plant strains do not reproduce asexually, and are pollinated by other strains, so their seeds do not necessarily yield adult plants that mirror the characteristics of the parent plant. For this reason, the only way to preserve the vast genetic diversity contained in the Pavlovsk is to keep the plants growing in the ground or to move them to a new site — a dicey and time-consuming proposition, as the perfect site would have to be found and planted only after years of grafting and then monitoring for suitable transplants.

The Russian Housing Development Foundation told BBC News that it plans to sell the land to developers that can build single family homes on the site. “Using the land for agricultural purposes will impede the future realization of the city’s plans to further develop [the city of] Saint Petersburg,” the foundation’s press officer told the BBC in an email.

With the month that the Vavilov Institute’s appeal buys, proponents of saving the collection plan to exert even more pressure on the highest levels of Russian government to act. Alexanian is hopeful that Medvedev and Putin, both from Saint Petersburg, will intercede. “They know very well the value of the institute and the collection,” he said. “I’m very optimistic.” And if the appeal fails, he and some of his Vavilov colleagues plan to strike and line up to block the bulldozers’ entry into the station.

Martin Fregene, director of the BioCassava Plus project at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, told The Scientist that losing the Pavlovsk collection would be a catastrophe. “These varieties represent literally millennia of collections by farmers and of plant evolution,” said Fregene, who has studied wild varieties of crop plants.

Fowler said that bulldozers could move in as soon as 3 to 4 months from now, if the Vavilov Insitute’s appeal is unsuccessful. “If we lose this appeal and if the president and prime minister don’t jump in in this coming month, we’ll be facing the largest one day loss of crop diversity in history probably,” he said.


One Response

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  1. I smell a rat. Why didn’t the real estate investors choose another location of prime real estate? Russia is pretty big and I’m sure there are other locations for their plans.

    However, if they are allowed to destroy the Vavilov Institute’s plant diversity, this will benefit the global corporations that support genetically engineered and patented seeds that they created and that often are “terminator seeds” which will not sprout from the genetically modified parent plants.

    Thus, they will eliminate competition. This is not the lowest level to which they have sunk. History is full of documented abuses they have wielded against the Living World and humanity.

    Elaine Charkowski

    August 24, 2010 at 12:38 pm

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