Key seed bank may be uprooted

SUN JOURNAL

Russia: The world's oldest and second-largest seed repository, an irreplaceable genetic archive of food crops, could be in danger as the government threatens to evict it.

April 27, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Filed away in oak cabinets and steel freezers in these dusty rooms are some of the secrets that could enable the world to feed its multiplying billions despite pestilence, disease and climate change.

With headquarters in a grand and gloomy czarist ministry building, the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry is home to the oldest and second-largest seed bank on the planet, an irreplaceable genetic archive of food crops, about a quarter of them extinct.

Thanks to the Vavilov staff, this scientific hoard has survived revolution, purges and Josef Stalin's hostility to genetic science.

During Germany's 900-day siege of Leningrad, some researchers died of starvation rather than eat tons of potatoes, nuts, peas, corn and wheat in their archives.

`Terrible situation'

Now, institute officials are battling what its director calls a "terrible situation," possible eviction from the institute's headquarters and another aging building on St. Isaac's Square in the center of old St. Petersburg.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov issued a decree in December claiming ownership of the buildings, situated on some of the city's most valuable real estate.

Vavilov officials call it a land grab. "They want to confiscate our buildings," says Viktor Dragavtsev, a wheat researcher and director of the institute. In 1992, he says, President Boris N. Yeltsin transferred ownership of the buildings to the institute.

The institute has completed construction of cold rooms for long-term seed storage and several liquid nitrogen-cooled tanks to preserve plants at 238 below zero.

"It's a pity that we just managed to install all of them, and this talk of removal has started," says Galina Filipenko, the sad-eyed scientist in charge of long-term seed storage. "It is not reasonable to spend all this money on equipment and start moving."

Some American scientists are also worried. "The United States is a major stakeholder in what happens to the institute," says Peter Bretting, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's program leader in plant germ plasm and genomes. "It's a very valuable collection. We really don't know what the plans are."

The Russian government has talked for several years about building a modern seed bank in Pushkin, a St. Petersburg suburb, and moving the Vavilov there. Viktor Khrekov, spokesman for the Presidential Property Department, says no final decisions have been made about relocation but that, one way or the other, there is no threat to the Vavilov's future.

"We are not going to throw away the scientists and their collection," he says.

Still, researchers here are uneasy. After enduring decades of repression and corruption, most Russians are skeptical of government promises.

Some doubt the government will come up with the $70 million needed to build a modern seed bank. Several seem reluctant to vacate the premises where so many of their predecessors suffered and died.

"These folks went through hell and high water," says Henry L. Shands, director of the world's largest gene bank, the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, in Fort Collins, Colo. Now, he says, his Russian colleagues fear that "the government is going to undo all that they did."

Vavilov scientists have long been pioneers. Forty years ago, they ran one of a handful of seed banks. Today, 1,300 such repositories are scattered around the world, sheltering 6 million seeds and other gene-bearing bits of plants and animals.

These banks seek to halt what scientists call "genetic erosion." That's the disappearance of most crop varieties from market shelves, squeezed out by the widespread use of a few high-yield commercial strains developed during the Green Revolution.

Most seed banks specialize in local crops. The Vavilov collection's age, worldwide scope and size - it contains about 330,000 distinct genetic strains of 532 cultivated species - rank it among the world's three or four most important, experts say.

Two-thirds of grain crops and half of the vegetables in the former Soviet Union are descended from plants studied here. More than 80 percent of Russia's potatoes were developed from the Vavilov's collection.

The institute has been in a precarious state since 1989, as the Soviet economy staggered toward collapse. Each year since, the institute has been forced to scrounge enough money to pay its 1,000 employees, run its 14 regional research stations and cultivate 70,000 plants to regenerate their seeds.

Its fruit orchards in the countryside, home to 35,000 varieties, are withering from neglect. Junior scientists are paid $50 a month.

Former Vice President Al Gore, concerned about the threatened loss of the collection, arranged for the delivery of 26 military surplus refrigerators to the institute in the mid-1990s and channeled more than $2 million of U.S. Agency for International Development money to the Vavilov.

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