Scientists will likely be forced to say "Do svidaniya" to a massive cache of rare genetic samples. Image credit:
With a single decision yesterday, Russia's Supreme Arbitration Court put the Pavlovsk Experimental Station—home to more than 5,000 rare and unique plant samples—in jeopardy. Under the ruling, the land on which the non-profit facility sits would be sold to commercial developers who are expected to bulldoze the buildings to make room for housing.The move to redevelop the facility was initiated by the Russian Housing Development Foundation, a government agency charged with the task of privatizing state-owned properties that are being operated unprofitably. The station's non-profit status made it vulnerable under this definition.
Though the decision came as no surprise to advocate's of the facility's preservation, many feel that it's classification as "unprofitable" fails to see the real value of the collection.
The facility, which houses genetic samples of plants that are difficult or impossible to grow from seed, represents an archive of dozens of varieties of economically important berries, including strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and blackcurrants. Blackcurrants alone generate US$430 million in annual revenue for farmers in Russia.
Of the 5,000 specimens in the repository, nearly 90 percent exist nowhere else on earth. Mike Ambrose, manager of the plant genetic collections at the John Innes Centre in the UK, explained:
Think of them as crown jewels. You don't simply melt them down! And of course, in practical terms, 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.
Throwing the samples away makes global berry crops—which represent hundreds of millions of dollars—vulnerable to a changing climate and disease.
Practical limitations and international quarantine rules mean that the bank cannot simply be moved to another location. Though an appeal has been filed with a higher court, the chances of having the ruling overturned are slim. "Our real hope," Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, says, "lies with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, who could both override the decision of the courts."
Short of such a mandate, bulldozers could be poised to move in as little as three months.
In that time, Fowler says, it is imperative that as many people mobilize to storm the Kremlin—either in person or through Twitter. It may be the only hope for this unique cache of biological diversity.
Read more about seed banks:
Massive Russian Seed Bank of Berries at Risk of Demolition
The World's Largest Seed Bank: Next Bank to Fail?
Norway Seed Bank: A Hedge Against Food Loss
Putting Something Away for a Rainy Day: New Seed and Gene Banks in Turkey