Issues Magazine

Critical Situation for Pavlovsk Station

By Global Crop Diversity Trust

The international scientific community has called on the Russian President to halt the destruction of Pavlovsk Station – the Russian plant collection critical to the world.

Momentum behind a global effort to save Europe’s most important collection of fruits and berries reached a new level in early September as the Russian Housing Development Foundation (RZhS) postponed the sale of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station and announced the formation of an independent international commission to evaluate the presence of unique plant specimens housed there.

This major development comes on the heels of mounting pressure from some of the world’s most distinguished scientists, who have written letters personally calling on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to overturn a court decision allowing the RZhS to auction off the land for the construction of luxury apartments.

The DIVERSITAS scientific program, an international network of the world’s leading biodiversity scientists, under the auspices of the International Council for Science and UNESCO, sent a letter to the President signed by its Chair and Executive Director on behalf of its thousands of members. The US Committee of DIVERSITAS, hosted by the National Academy of Sciences, sent its own letter, signed by 12 of the world’s leading scientists. The International Society for Horticultural Science, the world’s leading independent organisation of horticultural scientists representing members in some 150 countries, wrote a letter on behalf of the 3600 participants of the 28th International Horticultural Congress. A letter was also sent to the President by six prominent botanists from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Bioversity International and the United Nations Environment Programme have all weighed in.

“The more than 6000 varieties of fruits, berries, grasses and grains are the lasting legacy of a collection effort made painstakingly over the course of 80 years that has survived wars, famines and droughts to remain where it stands today: 90% of the varieties at Pavolvsk no longer exist anywhere in the world outside of the station’s grounds,” states one letter.

“Maintained and governed under Russian sovereignty, the collections at Pavlovsk are a global heritage that you have sheltered for over a century,” states another letter. “We were gratified to learn of your personal interest in this issue and urge you in the strongest possible terms to renew your nation’s commitment to protect this genetic treasure on behalf of the world’s peoples.”

On 31 August, the Pavlovsk Experimental Station received an unscheduled visit for an accounting audit by representatives from the Russian Public Chamber, Accounts Chamber, and the RZhS. In a statement, the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry reported that the inspection “was a result of instruction given by Dmitry Medvedev for this situation to be scrutinised. After visiting two plots the commission was convinced that, indeed, the disputed plots harbour plants that make a part of the Vavilov collection of plant genetic resources. As a result of field inspection … representatives of the RZhS Fund stated they will postpone an auction for an uncertain period.”

On 7 September, Russian news outlets reported that the postponement will last until the end of October. There was no news of any decision when Issues went to press.

Letters urged the president to preserve the Pavlovsk collection and “honor the legacy … of the 12 scientists who oversaw Pavlovsk during the Seige of Leningrad and made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the collection.”

“Without such collections, the possibilities for advanced plant breeding are restricted, and our capacity to adapt to the rapid environmental changes caused by globalisation and climate change is greatly reduced,” said another letter.

Economic Value

Rejecting the Kafkaesque logic of developers who attempted to conclude that the “priceless” nature of the collections meant they were “worthless”, the letters emphasise the concrete economic risks of destroying unique genetic resources and the economic importance of the collection, which contains 1000 varieties of strawberries from over 40 different countries, most of which are found nowhere else in the world.

The scientists pointed out that there is already strong evidence that land suitable for strawberry cultivation will decrease as global winter temperatures continue to rise, and the Russian varieties from this station are exceptionally hardy and disease-resistant. Similarly, Russia is the world’s leading producer of blackcurrants, a crop with a US$430 million/year profit. Sixty per cent of the varieties grown in Russia were bred at the Pavlovsk station. Currants represent only 900 of the thousands of valuable fruits and berries stored at Pavlovsk.

“It’s not often that the global scientific community comes together in this way,” said Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. “We are not politicians; we are scientists best placed to recognise the urgent importance of saving Pavlovsk Station. We’re going to keep up the effort to save this botanical treasure. And the news about the international commission is an extremely positive development. It provides transparency to the process and ensures that decisions about the fate of the collection will be made with solid scientific input.”