Guest Columnist

John Richard Schrock


     When I walk the streets of Yangling in west-central China, there is an array of kiwifruit for sale alongside the sidewalks: large to small, from yellow to green to nearly black inside, and from tart to sweet. Most Westerners associate kiwifruit with New Zealand. The fruit did originate in China as primarily a medical plant, but it was in early 1900s New Zealand that a standard variety became food.

    You may like your Columbian coffee from South America, but the origin of coffee is in Ethiopia in Africa. And only after early Spanish explorers journeyed to South and Central America and brought back the potato, tomato, sweet potato and corn (maize) did those foods then exist in Europe.

    Today, these centers are called “Vavilov centers” where the majority of food crops originated: China, India, Indochina, Afghanistan, the Near East, Mediterranean, Ethiopia, Southern Mexico and South America. Russian Nikolai Vavilov (1887–1943) traveled the world, and brought back seeds to form the largest seed bank of the world in Leningrad where he was the director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences from 1924 to 1935. This was not just a museum collection but an active seed bank that had to be continually regrown to maintain viable seeds. 

    Vavilov saw how these areas of first cultivation were not only the centers of evolutionary origin but also held the greatest diversity of plant genetics. He also knew about the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845–1849. The potatoes brought back from South America were a narrow strain of big potato with no genetic resistance to late blight, a fungal disease that destroys both the leaves and root tubers (potatoes).  
In those years, over a million Irish died and another million migrated, mostly to the U.S.

    Vavilov knew that the much wider potato genetics, including disease resistance, existed in specimens back at their origin in Peru, and this diversity needed to be preserved in order to prevent such famines. Vavilov’s father lived during crop failures and food rationing, and Vavilov devoted his life to gathering seeds worldwide and studying to improve crop production to prevent future famines.
    Vavilov was also an early expert on genetics. As a young student, he travelled to Europe and from 1913 to 1914 collaborated with British biologist William Bateson who led the advancement of the  science of genetics. Thus Vavilov was not only a follower of Mendel’s work, but a world-recognized leader in plant genetics.

    Lenin had no problem with Vavilov’s genetic-based plant breeding. But his successor, Joseph Stalin did. Adopting Lysenko’s anti-genetic ideas, Stalin agreed to the demotion of Vavilov and promotion of Lysenko. On 6 August 6, 1940, Vavilov was arrested while on an expedition to Ukraine. In July 1941, he was sentenced to death, but in 1942 his sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison. He died in prison in 1943 under harsh conditions.

    Nevertheless, World War II was underway and the 900-day (September 8, 1941–January 27, 1944)  Siege of Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) was underway. Fourteen scientists held out at the Institute that now contained the largest seed bank in the world. It included the stock that Russia would critically need to rebuild farming after the war. Another name for seeds is “food” and the remaining population of Leningrad were encircled and starving. 632,000 died of starvation. But they never touched the seed bank. The siege was lifted in January 1944 and 80% of the seed bank eventually germinated.

    Scientists in Russia and throughout the world today consider what happened to Vavilov to have been a great tragedy. In 1955, he was retroactively pardoned by Nikita Khrushchev and is now hailed as a hero of Soviet science, being pictured on a Soviet stamp in 1987.

    In 2008, Peter Pringle wrote “The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov,” published by Simon & Schuster. This very easy-to-read and factual narrative provides far more context than the short summary I present here. And it presents the terrible consequences when politics drives false science, as we now face today.

    On October 15, 1985, the PBS series NOVA aired “Seeds of Tomorrow” that explained the continuing need for seed banks. Today there are about 1,500 seed banks worldwide, with the world’s largest germplasm center being the Svalbard Global Seed Vault located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen about 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Vavilov would be proud.