Russia launches inquiry into Pavlovsk seed bank after Twitter campaignAugust 18th, 2010
President Dmitry Medvedev orders immediate inquiry into potential destruction of world’s oldest seed bank
By John Vidal, environment editor
The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has ordered an immediate inquiry into the potential destruction of the world’s oldest seed bank following a court case and a Twitter campaign by Guardian readers and others.
The fate of the station appeared to be sealed last week when a court ruled in favour of the Pavlovsk research station and its surrounding farmland being turned into private housing. It holds the world’s largest fruit collections and was protected by 12 Russian scientists during the second world war who chose to starve to death rather than eat the unique collection of seeds and plants which they were guarding during the 900-day siege of Leningrad.
More than 90% of the plants are found in no other research collection or seed bank. Its seeds and berries are thought to posess traits that could be crucial to maintaining productive fruit harvests in many parts of the world as climate change and a rising tide of disease, pests and drought weaken the varieties farmers now grow. At stake, say campaigners for the station, are more than 5,000 varieties of seeds and berries from dozens of countries, including more than 100 varieties each of gooseberries and raspberries.
As it is predominantly a field collection, Pavlovsk cannot be moved. Experts estimate that even if another site were available nearby, it would take many years to relocate the plants.
The court ruling was instantly appealed, giving the station one month before development plans for a housing estate that would destroy the station can move forward. This judgment means the order can only be revoked through a direct command of the president or prime minister, Vladimir Putin.
The Civic Chamber, a Russian state institution with a remit to monitor parliament and the government, then sent a telegram to Medvedev to request a formal appeal to protect the collection. And numerous supporters of the research station have made their feelings felt on Twitter (using the #pavlovsk hashtag). On Friday, following a week of lobbying Medvedev tweeted back: “Received the Civic Chamber’s appeal over the Pavlov Experimental Station. Gave the instruction for this issue to be scrutinised.”
The campaign may have already achieved more than the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation which last year appealed unsuccessfully to the Russian government to include Pavlovsk in the global network of gene banks.
However, the ongoing heatwave is thought to have also put pressure on the government. Russian agricultural minister, Elena Borisovna Skrynnik, had fought for the station to be saved on the grounds that its heritage was crucial for food security as climate change grew more serious.
Much of the Russian wheat harvest has been destroyed in the last month by the heatwave, which has been linked to climate change.
Yesterday, the Crop Diversity Trust, which has been leading western attempts to save the station, urged people to continue to petition the Russian authorities. A statement on the trust’s website said: “Over the next four weeks, we will continue our fight to save Pavlovsk, and we need your help. We need to persuade the political authorities of the importance of the irreplaceable crop diversity growing at Pavlovsk station, and request that the judgment be revoked.”