Expert speaks on how to save unique Russian fruit, berry crop collection (Update 1)

The land contains a unique crop collection established by academician Nikolai Vavilov

11/08/2010                                                       © RIA Novosti. Valery Titiyevsky

The collection of plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station near St. Petersburg in northern Russia should not be lost as the station struggles in court to retain two land plots with fruit and berry crops, Biodiversity International research center director general Emile Frison said.

The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry and its Pavlovsk station are trying to retain land that has already been given to a housing construction development fund by the Russian State Property Management Agency.

The land contains a unique crop collection established by academician Nikolai Vavilov, and the station hopes it will be allowed to continue using the land. A regular court session on the issue will take place on Wednesday.

“The importance of Pavlovsk and all collections of genetic diversity lies not in the past but in the future. How will Russian agriculture cope if this year’s heat wave becomes the normal pattern for the future?” Frison told RIA Novosti.

“It is impossible to predict which particular bits of the collection will be needed in future; what is certain is that it will be needed,” he said.

A scorching heat wave has gripped much of western Russia since mid-June, sparking wildfires and causing the worst drought in decades.

Acting station director Fyodor Mikhovich said the collection’s loss “may become a world tragedy, as many rare specimens of fruit crops that cannot be seen in wildlife will be lost for good.”

The housing construction development fund that received the disputed land plots told RIA Novosti that only half of the second plot was planted with “fruit and berry trees and bushes that were in an abandoned state.”

But Mikhovich denied the statements, saying he and his colleagues are ready to convince any commission that the land plots were planted with crops.

Frison also said blue honeysuckle, studied as part of a project by Biodiversity International, the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry (VIR) and the Gabriel Lippman Center for Public Research in Luxemburg, is especially valuable.

“One of the most interesting is blue honeysuckle, also known as honey berry or haskap. Research has shown that the plants, which can withstand considerable frost and drought, produce fruit that is among the richest in the world for a whole range of important health-giving micronutrients,” Frison said.

“The Pavlovsk collection conserves varieties and wild relatives that are extinct elsewhere. Almost all of these – more than 90% – are not available in other collections. If they are destroyed at Pavlovsk, they are gone forever,” he said.

“The primary difficulty is that fruits and berries do not breed true from seed. It is the individual plants that matter, and that need to be preserved. This means multiplying each of the plants, which would require a purpose-built nursery and could take up to five years,” the expert said.

“The plants would have to be tested for diseases and a suitable alternative location found and prepared. Then, once the plants have been established at the new location, each one needs to be compared with the original to ensure that it is genetically identical in all respects. This could take another 5-7 years,” he said, adding that the cost of “preserving” the collection could be $0.5 million.

“For these reasons it is probably best not to even consider moving the collection. It gives false hope that the priceless treasures of Pavlovsk can be saved if the forthcoming court decision goes against the VIR. The best way to save the collection is to halt the transfer of the land,” Frison said.

MOSCOW, August 11 (RIA Novosti)