View Full Version : Science? Who needs it

07-08-2010, 19:03
Seeds of change

Aug 6th 2010, 14:41 by N.L. | LONDON

RUSSIA'S greatest plant scientists died of starvation rather than eat their collection. But modern developers have different priorities. By 1941, the Soviet Union had established an enormous gene bank of plants containing 187,000 varieties at the Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). When the city was blockaded by the Germans, so important was the collection some of the scientists gave their lives to save it.

By January and February of 1942, temperatures had fallen to record lows of minus 36-40 degrees. Workers, numb with cold and emaciated from hunger, struggled to save the collection while bombs pounded nearby. And as the citizens of Leningrad began to starve, so did the plant scientists. In January, A.G. Stchukin, a specialist in groundnuts, died at his writing table. Then G.K. Kier, head of the herb laboratory fell, and after him D.S. Ivanov, a rice specialist. Afterwards workers found several thousand packs of rice in his collection that he had saved as he starved to death. The same fate befell L.M Rodina, the keeper of the oat collection. So many others died too. Around them were collections of peas, rice, corn and wheat.

Such sacrifice is worth remembering, because at a court hearing in Moscow next Wednesday, real estate developers will find out whether they are allowed to bulldoze part of the institute’s living collection held at the Pavolvsk Experimental Station, just outside of St Petersburg. The institute contains thousands of varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries and many other crops, 90% of which are not found anywhere else in the world.

It is Europe’s largest collection of fruits and berries. One variety of strawberry from Pavolvsk was grown for a while across most of Russia. Dr Sandra Knapp, merit researcher in botany at the Natural History Museum in London, said: "This collection is completely unique and a world treasure. Nikolai Vavilov and the Russian botanists collected in areas that are no longer accessible and in regions of high diversity of crop relatives. These collections are testament to the determination and dedication of Russia's crop geneticists, and represent a unique investment in the future of the food we eat." Scientists died to protect the diversity that is needed to breed new varieties of plant that can cope with changing conditions, such as drought. They knew that this diversity is an essential weapon in the fight the hunger, malnutrition and mass starvation.

Of course the collection could be moved. But this would take over a decade of careful planning and a lot of money—something that the developers of luxury housing have little interest in. With all Russia’s oil wealth, it must be easy for the government to forget where food comes from. Perhaps the drought will act as a timely reminder that not only can oil not be eaten, and hunger must continue to be fought with every weapon available.