Biodiversity Hangs in the Balance

Slow Food has joined the protest against the planned destruction of Europe’s largest repository of rare berries and fruit to make way for residential development. A Russian supreme court decision last week will allow the transfer of land from the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, a century-old gene bank that houses tens of thousands varieties of genetically diverse and rare crops, to the construction of luxury homes.

The ruling was instantly appealed, giving Pavlovsk Station a period of one month before any development plans can move forward. The judgment can still be revoked through a direct order from the office of the President or Prime Minister, and concerned organizations and individuals are already making their voices heard through an online petition and letters to the politicians.

The Pavlovsk Experimental Station is run by the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St Petersburg, and is well known to Slow Food who awarded its scientist Maria Girenko with the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity in 2000 for her experimental work on plant preservation.

Since its establishment in 1926, the station’s collection has grown steadily and today counts tens of thousands of living varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, currants and other crops, 90 % of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Many of the varieties are hard to breed from seeds and so cannot be stored frozen as in normal seed banks, surviving only as growing and breeding plants in the station’s fields.

“These field collections represent an outstanding international science resource,” says Mike Ambrose, manager of the plant genetic collections at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. “They are a living testimony to a rich agricultural heritage…Places like these are exactly where breeders and researchers today look for adaptation to climate change that is needed to improve the crops of tomorrow.”

The plant’s planned destruction is sparking fears for the future of food security, which is directly threatened by a loss of biodiversity. “Seed banks like Pavlovsk provide breeders with the genetic stocks to create new varieties of plants that can adapt to certain diseases, climatic changes, and environmental conditions,” said’s Sustainable Food Editor Sarah Parsons. “Experts expect seed vaults to play an especially important role in maintaining food production as environmental changes occur as a result of global warming. Destroying Pavlovsk’s tens of thousands of unique varieties of plants basically renders these crops extinct, removing them from the genetic pool plant breeders can use.”

Developers are arguing that because the collection at Pavlovsk has no monetary value assigned to it, and is considered “priceless”, it is therefore worthless.

The significance of biodiversity to the future of mankind has been long-known to the scientists at the Vavilov Institute. During the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II, 12 scientists chose to starve to death rather than eat the seeds and plants contained in Pavlovsk. Today their sacrifice may be rendered useless.

With one month to appeal, a number of organizations have stepped up calls to influence the decision of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin who can both still override the decision of the courts. The Global Crop Diversity Trust has spent months campaigning against the station’s destruction and along with is currently gathering support in an online petition.

The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity has joined the number of signatures on the petition and will be sending a joint letter along with Slow Food Russia to lobby the politicians to overturn the decision.

Click here to sign the petition and to send a letter to the Russian President

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