One Man's Sacrifice To Save The World's Seeds


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Categories: On The Farm

During the siege of Leningrad, a group of Russian botanists holed up in a secret vault starved to death rather than consume the greatest collection of seeds they were guarding for a post-apocalyptic world. Worse, Nikolay Vavilov, the man who had collected the seeds, also died of hunger in Stalin’s gulag.

People in besieged Leningrad taking water from shell-holes. Source: RIA Novosti

In September 1941, when German forces began their siege of Leningrad, choking food supply to the city’s two million residents, one group of people preferred to starve to death despite having plenty of ‘food.’

As the invading Germans poured into the city (now St Petersburg), scientists and workers at the Institute of Plant Industry barricaded themselves inside their vaults. They weren’t trying to save their lives but rather the future of humanity. For, they had the unenviable task of protecting the greatest seed collection in the world from both hungry Soviet citizens and the rampaging German Army.

As the siege dragged out for 900 days, one by one these heroic men started dying of hunger. And yet not one of them touched the treasure trove of seeds they were guarding – literally with their lives.

That’s not where the cruel irony ends. The man who had been responsible for this great collection of seeds, Nikolay Vavilov, Russian geneticist and plant geographer, lay dying of starvation in a Soviet prison in Saratov.


Seeding the future

Vavilov had travelled five continents to study the global food ecosystem. Calling it a “mission for all humanity’’, he conducted experiments in genetic breeding to increase farm productivity. Even as Russia was undergoing revolutions, anarchy and famines, he went about storing seeds at the Institute of Plant Industry.

Vavilov dreamed of a utopian future in which new agricultural practices and science could one day create super plants that would grow in any environment, thus ending world hunger.

“He was one of the first scientists to really listen to farmers – traditional farmers, peasant farmers around the world – and why they felt seed diversity was important in their fields,” says Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobiologist.

Nabhan who has chronicled Vavilov's life in ‘Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine’, continues: “All of our notions about biological diversity and needing diversity of foods on our plates to keep us healthy sprung from his work 80 years ago. If justice be done, he would be as famous as Darwin or Luther Burbank.”

Nikolay Vavolpv. Source: wikipedia.org

Stalin’s scapegoat

There wasn’t much justice going around in Joseph Stalin’s time. Vavilov wanted to increase farm productivity to eliminate recurring Russian famines. Early on, he defended the Mendelian theory that genes are passed on unchanged from one generation to the next. He became the main opponent of Stalin’s favoured scientist, the Ukrainian Trofim Lysenko.


Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics and developed a pseudo-scientific movement called Lysenkoism. His quack theories about improved crop yields earned Stalin’s support, following the famine and loss of productivity resulting from forced collectivization in several regions of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. In fact, Lysenko’s influence on Stalin ensured that scientific dissent from his theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was formally outlawed in 1948.

Stalin's collectivisation of private farms had led to reduced yields across the Soviet Union. The dictator now needed a scapegoat for his failure and the famine. He chose Vavilov. In Stalin’s warped view, Vavilov’s was responsible for the famines because his process of carefully selecting the best specimens of plants would take numerous years to bear fruit.

Vavilov was collecting seeds on Russia’s borders when he was picked up by secret service agents. Amidst the chaos of World War II, no one, including his son and his wife, knew where he was.

Author Geoff Hall writes in ‘Reading Nikolay Vavilov’: Before his show trial, Stalin’s police, seeking a confession, had subjected Vavilov to 1,700 hours of brutal interrogation over 400 sessions, some lasting 13 hours, carried out by an officer known for his extreme methods. Before his arrest, during the long rise in influence of Lysenko, beginning in the 1920s, Vavilov, unlike Galileo, had refused to repudiate his beliefs, saying, “We shall go into the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions”.

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