Rare Plant Collection Threatened by Development

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 19, 2010

As global warming continues to alter the Earth’s climate, the genetic diversity of food plants will become more and more important as a way to ensure survival for many crop species.  As climates change in countries all over the world, plants may react in unforeseen ways, and varieties that once thrived in a particular environment may no longer do well there.  Meanwhile global warming could cause the spread of plant diseases, posing challenges as farmers try to find more disease-resistant strains.  Now-obscure varieties of food plants, developed decades or centuries ago through years of methodical breeding, could help nations survive global warming by providing farmers with resistant genes to experiment with. 

But in the Russian village of Pavlovsk, close to the city of St. Petersburg, one of the world’s premiere strongholds of domestic plant diversity is now threatened with extinction.  The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, where scientists have bread rare and heirloom plant varieties for decades, is in danger of being auctioned off by the Russian government to real estate developers.

In a famous story from World War II, Russian scientists at the Vavilov Institute reportedly allowed themselves to starve to death rather than abandon their post guarding rare plant varieties against invading German forces.  Like scientists today, these researchers saw the Institute’s repository of plants a valuable resource for those seeking to develop new or better crops, and an asset for both Russia and global agriculture.  Yet in an age where agriculture is increasingly dominated by a few crop varieties mass-produced on industrial farms, collections like the Vavilov Institute’s are no longer as highly valued.  Now real estate companies are eyeing the lands around St. Petersburg, and have offered to buy up Institute land and convert it to housing developments.

As the Russian government moved to sell off the land last month, scientists and food diversity activists responded with international outrage.  Leading plant researchers from around the world criticized the idea of putting Vavilov’s plant collection in jeopardy, and Internet activists tweeted their concerns at Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.  The outcry was great enough that the Russian Housing Development Foundation has said it is postponing auctioning off the land, partly to collect more information about the Vavilov Institute’s value.  The auction could still take place as soon as October, unless Russia’s government makes a concrete commitment to preserving the land.

Scientists say ninety percent of the plant varieties at Vavilov are found nowhere else in the world, meaning significant genetic diversity would be lost if the land is destroyed.  Because many of the plants are deep-rooted trees and shrubs that cannot be safely moved, re-locating the collection does not seem to be a viable option.  Groups and individuals concerned about the possible loss of biodiversity are still pressuring the Russian government to protect the Vavilov Institute, and Care2.com has created a petition to President Medvedev, asking that the collection of rare plants be saved.

“As a result of public pressure, thousands of precious plants have been granted a temporary reprieve,” writes Jaelithe Judy of Care2.com.  “But there is still more work to be done.”  With the Russian government deciding how to respond to public criticism of the land auction, the next few weeks may decide the ultimate fate of the Vavilov Institute’s botanical gene bank. 

Photo credit: Luigi Guarino, and Luigi Guarino

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