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Reaping is harder than sowing...

When you think of seeds, you old-timers put away those album covers; we’re not talking about those seeds….

We’ve all heard of the Arctic seedbank on Svalbard in Norway, the repository of the agricultural world’s genetic material, designed to withstand global disasters. It’s the newest, and most high-tech, but it’s not the only such facility….Not all seeds are alike, and not all seeds can be stored in the same way.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, is the N. I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, [] the first such collection of seeds, representing the life’s work of Nikolai Vavilov, the father of crop diversity. Vavilov’s father, a Moscow merchant, had grown up on a farm and had first-hand experience of the devastating effects of crop failure and famine. Vavilov studied botany and travelled in Europe with the English scientist William Bateson, the first man to use the term “genetics” to describe the science that is so important to our notions of crop diversity.

In Kazakhstan, Vavilov discovered a huge variety of apple species and realised that he was in the cradle of the fruit, its area of origin. On every continent, he interviewed peasant farmers, confirming his theories that crop diversity is essential to preventing failure and famine.

Back in St. Petersburg, in an area outside the city near Catherine the Great’s Pavlovsk palace, he set up a research institute and repository for fruit varieties, eventually also collecting wheat, grains, berries, and other kinds of seeds. His research confirmed the veracity of Mendel’s theories based on peas, showing that certain traits pass down from one generation to another.

Vavilov’s professional rival was Trofim Lysenko, another Soviet scientist, but one who had Stalin’s ear. Lysenko, who came from peasant stock and was an enthusiastic Communist Party activist, repudiated Mendel’s theories and claimed that species of wheat, for example, would help each other to survive in the field. Lysenko’s theories stated that a plant’s acquired characteristics could be inherited, and therefore crops could be manipulated with permanent effect. This is untrue, but it fit with the new Soviet system and was therefore attractive to the state apparatus.

Stalin’s collectivization of Russian farms had led to cycles of famine, partly due to crop failure and partly because the peasants resented the loss of their individual plots and didn’t want to work on the larger agricultural projects. Crop yields suffered and people went hungry.

As Lysenko’s political star rose, Vavilov’s fell. Eventually, in 1940, while on a collecting trip in Ukraine, he was arrested by the KGB and disappeared. Although he was being held about a mile away from where they lived, his wife and children had no idea where he was. He was transferred to a labour camp in Siberia, and in 1943, worn out by a diet of frozen cabbage and mouldy bread, he died of starvation.

Sadly, his life’s work was also under threat. When the Nazis laid siege to Leningrad, Vavilov’s institute faced destruction from within and without: the city’s residents were starving and would have “harvested” the research crops. The invaders could have destroyed them or stolen them for their own scientific programs. Nine scientists locked themselves into the building and stayed there, caring for the crops without eating a single plant, until they too died of starvation.

When Khruschev took over in the 1950s, the geneticists were freed from prison, but Lysenko’s theories still held sway, not being discredited until well into the 1970s

Now, Vavilov’s plantation, which holds the genetic memory of most of Europe’s fruit and berry crops, is threatened again, this time from within. In 2010, the Russian government wanted to bulldoze the plants and sell off the land for luxury holiday houses for St Petersburg’s wealthy. International outcry has stopped the project for now, but it is uncertain how long it will last.

Lysenko’s specious science controlled agricultural research in the Soviet sphere for decades, contributing to cycles of crop failure and famine, both in the USSR and in its satellite economies and in China. Protecting the gene pool of our food plants, and therefore biodiversity, is crucial because inbreeding can make crops susceptible to disease and environmental challenges. It simply isn’t possible to manipulate plants externally: any lasting change must be genetic and we must preserve as much original genetic material as we possibly can to ensure the survival of our crucial food crops.

There are seedbanks in many areas of the world and not every collection is unique, which is a good thing because it means that some varieties are preserved in more than one place. The Svalbard facility [] is important because it preserves the seeds at a temperature below the freezing point of water without the need for mechanical refrigeration: Svalbard is just that cold.

But, as we said above, not all seeds can be stored this way. There are two types of seeds: orthodox and unorthodox or recalcitrant seeds. Orthodox seeds can be dried or frozen and stored, and then brought back to life and planted. Recalcitrant seeds cannot survive this treatment and therefore must be stored in plants. Avocado, lychee, acorns, cocoa, and rubber are among the seeds that will not survive freezing or drying. Maize, on the other hand, will last for several years, and a date palm was germinated after being stored for 2000 years in a tomb.

In Canada, for example, some of our national collection of seeds is stored in a facility in Saskatoon, but some berry and fruit crops are stored in the field. There are many smaller seed repositories throughout the world, including the heritage tomato collection of the Sisters of Providence of St Vincent de Paul []in Kingston, Ontario, and the Canadian Seed Library, [], a project intended to store heirloom seeds with individuals in order to protect them. In the UK, for example, the national collections of sweet peas is held by Roger Parsons' nursery in Chichester, West Sussex.

With material that is so important for human survival, we cannot put all our eggs, or in this case seeds, in one basket. The diversity of storage facilities is important: except for Svalbard and its natural refrigeration, in most places in the world freezing seeds relies on electricity or other sources of power. The more places seeds are stored, the greater their protection from natural disaster and human error.

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