A second round-up of events today at the meeting about the crop diversity collections of the Pavlovsk Experiment Station, which are threatened with destruction for housing
The second day of the meeting  was a chance for the project team to provide some context for their work of the past 3 years, for an audience which on this occasion included not just VIR staff, as on the previous day, but researchers from agricultural universities and the Institute of Botany, a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture from Moscow, and the local media.
First, Professor Nikolay Dzyubenko, the director of VIR, gave an overview of the history of the institute and its achievements. Despite a tight budget, the institute perseveres in its collecting, evaluation, distribution, breeding and research work. For example, almost 4,000 accessions were added to the collection in 2010 as a result of collecting in Russia and some neighbouring countries; 15,000 accessions were evaluated; and about 20,000 distributed, mainly to breeding institutes around Russia. We were reminded that the Russian Minister of Agriculture told the world at a high-level meeting on food security at FAO in November 2009 that VIR’s collection was available for use by the world’s plant breeders in their efforts to adapt crops to climate change. Next year will be the 125th anniversary of Vavilov’s birth, and celebrations are being planned.
The celebrations, however, are bound to have a hollow ring to them if the problems that the Pavlovsk Station has been experiencing of late are not resolved.
We heard the latest news from Artem Sorokin, who also outlined the history and make-up of the collection. A moratorium is now in place, as of 9 December 2010, on any commercial development of the site. And the composition of the expert commission that will decide on the future of the station has apparently been agreed. It looks like they may visit the station in May. Still all to play for. In parallel, VIR is working with the Ministry of Agriculture on the text of a law on plant genetic resources that will seek to settle the legal standing of germplasm collections, and put their funding on a more secure footing.
Luigi Guarino of the Global Crop Diversity Trust attempted to put the work of VIR in a wider institutional context. The Trust has been very active in an international campaign to support VIR’s efforts to save Pavlovsk. The length and breadth of expertise at VIR, and the historical importance, uniqueness, size and diversity of the collections it manages, strongly suggest that it could — and should — play a regional, and indeed global, role in the long-term conservation and availability of crop diversity. The best way it can show its readiness and ability to do this is by sharing data through such platforms as Eurisco and Genesys. And by placing its collections in the Multilateral System of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. We were assured during the Q&A that VIR is working hard for Russian ratification of the Treaty.
Finally, Jessica Fanzo, Bioversity’s nutritionist, provided a frightening summary of Russian health. In 2001, the latest year for which she could find solid data, 10% of Russian children were malnourished, and 50% of adults overweight or obese. That’s a stunning double burden, driven by the unrelenting “modernization”, and concomitant simplification, of diets. Fanzo quoted the Federal Consumer Protection Service as saying that Russia is losing its culinary traditions. And with them, she added, its health. That’s why projects such as the one just ended are so important. This new research on the nutritional quality of some of the berries in the Pavlovsk collection represents a new sort of collaboration, between genebanks and nutritionists, which will hopefully help forge new connections, between local plant genetic resources and better nutrition.
There was much spirited discussion of this topic, which obviously struck a chord with the participants, who bombarded Jessica with requests for nutritional advice. One response stuck in my mind. Jessica was asked whether one couldn’t get all the vitamins and minerals one needs from pills. She said yes, but you have to get everything else from food, so why not the vitamins as well, by choosing your food better?
Much remains to be done in making that connection between local berries and better nutrition in Russia. Research will be needed on bioavailability, on the health impact of increased consumption, and on the best ways to approach promotion. But the first link in the chain is in place, in that we now have a clear idea of the great nutritional value of many of the accessions in the Pavlovsk collection. What a tragedy it would be if the collection were to be lost now, just as we begin to truly understand how valuable it could be to Russia, and indeed the world. That, at any rate, is the gist of the statement that will come out of the meeting, and the message that the journalists present will hopefully take back to their readers, and everybody back to their families.