04 September 2010

Development lunacy in Russia

If you sometimes shake your head in dismay at the destruction of heritage for new development in this country, consider what's happening in Russia. Russian authorities plan to auction off the gardens of Pavlovsk Station to property developers. Pavlovsk Station, located near Saint Petersburg, is one of the largest, oldest and most important seed banks in the world, housing 12,000 varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, currants and other varieties of plants, many not found anywhere else in the world. Pavlovsk attracts scientists from around the globe seeking rare genetic material. Unlike frozen seed banks, living samples grow in its fields.

The timing of the sell-off, or sell-out, is interesting - a time when food supplies throughout the world are increasingly threatened by climate change and Russia has seen the worst drought in its history destroy much of its wheat harvest. Pavlovsk is a global, not just a Russian, treasure and its loss would be a blow to the world's scientific and agricultural communities, and result in a weakening of world food security.

The history of the seed bank and gardens is inspiring. It was founded by the brilliant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov in 1926, pioneer of the modern seed bank. During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, its scientists starved to death rather than eat the seeds that could have sustained them. Vavilov himself died of malnutrition in prison in 1943, having criticized Trofim Lysenko, Stalin's favourite agronomist. What a tragedy if their sacrifice were to be in vain, trashed by the greed and ignorance of the modern Russian state.

All is not yet lost, however. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has ordered an inquiry into the issue. A letter to the Russian ambassador might be timely. He can be found at:

Ambassador Georgiy Enverovich Mamedov
The Embassy of the Russian Federation
285 Charlotte Street
Ottawa ON  K1N 8L5

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