Dear Readers, I am only part way through this book, but I wanted to share with you a story from it that I found extremely moving. Saladino is writing about various foodstuffs that are becoming extinct as we tend more and more towards a global monoculture – all of our bananas are clones of one variety, for example, and our cereals and other staple foods are barely any better. The author describes how, within living memory, different regions would have unique cereals, vegetables and fruit that grew happily in the local microhabitats, but how nowadays four companies control global cereal production, providing seeds that are hybrids and so don’t breed ‘true’, meaning that farmers have to buy new seeds every year, instead of saving them as they used to. Many of these varieties require much more fertiliser and pesticide than the original plants. The same goes for domestic animals, where again the multitude of breeds specific to a particular part of the world are disappearing – it’s estimated that 95% of America’s dairy herd are Holsteins, for example, and I suspect that the numbers are not much more diverse in the UK.
So far, so depressingly familiar. What I didn’t know, though, was the story of visionary Nikolai Vavilov (1887 – 1943), who, as Saladino explains, was the first scientist to make the link between food security and plant diversity.
Vavilov coined the term ‘centres of origin’, believing that all the crops that feed us today originated as wild plants somewhere in the world, and that a plant’s origin is where its diversity will be greatest. That diversity will include plants that have pest resistance, or drought tolerance, or a multitude of other genetic attributes that might save us in the event of catastrophe.
One of these centres of origin was the ‘East Asian centre’, where Vavilov estimated 20 per cent of the world’s cultivated flora had evolved (including millet and soybeans). Another was the Inter-Asiatic, where wheat, rye and most of our fruit came from. The Central American centre was home to beans, pumpkins, cocoa, corn and avocados.
To check his theory, Vavilov travelled for 25 years on 180 expeditions, spending much of the 1920s and 1930s on horseback, travelling through the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Iran and Korea, across Spain, Algeria and Eritrea, and then on to Central and South America. Vavilov and his colleagues, working tirelessly, collected over 150,000 seed samples, and housed them in the world’s first seed bank, in what was then St Petersburg.
Vavilov realised that many of the habitats that the plants were taking from were disappearing due to urbanisation, industrialisation and increasingly intense agriculture. He recognised the risks inherent in monoculture – the Irish Potato Famine had showed what could happen if just one variety of a plant was relied upon for sustenance, and there had been crop failures in Russia that had led to widespread loss of life.
Alas, Vavilov found himself on the wrong side of a bitter feud during the late 1930s. Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko had a theory that plants could be ‘educated’ and forced to be more resilient if exposed to harsh conditions, a belief that had more to do with Communist ideology than genetics. Vavilov fell out of favour with Stalin and was sent to a prison camp in Siberia.
His seed collection came close to being lost during the 28-month long Siege of Leningrad (St Petersburg) in 1942-44. The Soviets had plans for protecting the works of art at the Hermitage, but didn’t see the point in protecting the seedbank. The Nazis saw it as a possible source of food for the Russians, and planned to target it. But Vavilov’s fellow scientists had been so inspired by him that they moved hundreds of boxes of seeds to a basement and took shifts inside the dark building, in sub-zero temperatures, to protect the collection.
As Saladino says, what happened next is well known to botanists, but it’s a story that we should all know. In his words:
“Surrounded by seeds they could have eaten, the caretakers of the collection faced hunger rather than jeopardise the genetic resource. By the end of the 900-day siege, in the spring of 1944, nine of them had died, including the curator of the rice collection. He was found at his desk surrounded by bags of rice. ‘We were the students of Vavilov’, one survivor said, explaining their heroic efforts to protect the seeds. By then, Vavilov was already dead. In 1943, at the age of 55, he was claimed by the very thing that he had spent his life working to prevent – starvation. He died in a Soviet prison and was buried in an unmarked grave”.(Page 54)
In these times of changing climate, it is more important than ever to respect and nurture biodiversity. Putting all our eggs in one basket has never looked like a more stupid tactic. Vavilov was a true visionary, and was ‘rehabilitated’ in 1955, with the seed collection that his colleagues saved in St Petersburg now bearing his name. He also has a crater on the far side of the moon named for him and his brother. Let’s hope that the ideas that he championed, which have already resulted in seedbanks all over the world, will continue to gain traction. Goodness knows, we need all the diversity that we can get.
‘Eating to Extinction’ is a wonderful book, full of interesting and thought-provoking stories. I’m sure I’ll return to it in a later post.