This just in from Our Man on Nevsky Prospekt with the thermal underwear and the Kevlar vest.
Do 4,700 berry plants, belonging to 542 species, 165 genera and 48 families have a value that is greater than what you’d pay for the land they’re sitting on? The question may not be stated so boldly in the project document. After all, that was written long before the recent problems at Pavlovsk, but answering that question is basically the objective of a project  that is drawing to a close with a two-day meeting in St Petersburg this week.
We heard today from Pablo Eyzaguirre of Bioversity that according to the World Bank the Russian Federation foregoes $300 billion in national income due to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and the like. As Arten Sorokin, head of VIR’s fruit and berry department, pointed out, at least a partial solution to that would be for each Russian to eat twice as much fresh fruit and berries. These are a part of Russian foodways that is being overtaken by the global shift to “modern” diets, to disastrous effect. How can the genebank help to turn back the tide of Coca Cola and Big Macs?
Well, clearly, an important first step is to quantify — and publicise — the nutritional value of the different species and accessions it has been maintaining so painstakingly and laboriously for years and decades, work that is now threatened. For the berry plants in question are indeed those at VIR’s Pavlovsk Research Station. Project staff have been measuring things like the mineral nutrient and antioxidant content and sugar profiles of the berries, as well as the genetic diversity of the collections (using microsatellites). The project has focused on blackcurrant (Ribes), blue honeysuckle (Lonicera) and Raspberry (Rubus). There are respectively 870, 46 and 153 different samples of these berries at Pavlovsk, and a few more in other VIR genebanks in other parts of the country, collected from throughout the former Soviet Union and beyond. Isabelle Lefevre summarized the results of the past three years of lab work. 
It turns out that there are big differences between the genera in all the nutritional qualities measured, but in no case was there a clear correspondence between groups of genetically similar accessions of a given species and groups of biochemically similar accessions of that species. There is as much variation in nutritional quality within genetic groups as between.
There was some discussion of whether using ecogeographic groups rather than genetic groups would give a better correspondence with the biochemical profiles. But the results as they currently stand mean that two nutritionally “good” accessions are no likelier than any others to be genetically similar. So one could promote multiple varieties high in nutritional quality without worrying overmuch about narrowing the genetic base of the crop. Also, for blackcurrant at any rate, anthocyanin content was correlated with high mineral levels, so one could theoretically select the nutritionally “good” varieties on colour.
But, as Jessica Fanzo, a nutritionist at Bioversity, pointed out there are of course a number of steps before a genetic resource becomes a nutritional resource. Place of cultivation, processing, and bio-availability all have to have their say. But the project team did put together by the end of the first day the elements of a message that could be of great interest to the wider group that will assemble tomorrow for the second day of the meeting, and which will include the media. In essence, a serving of some berries provides a level of antioxidants known to have protective properties with regard to heart disease and some cancers.
That relatively simple message about the value of the collection needs to be seen in wider context, however. It isn’t enough to turn around and save only the nutritionally good accessions, because there are still many question for the full collection to answer. How well do they grow? Which are more adaptable? Are adaptability and, say, nutritional value found in the same samples, or is breeding going be needed? You can surely think of others.
Nevertheless, there is a clear message. Some of the accessions investigated by the project are nutritionally much more valuable than others. Thanks to the project, we know which berries they are. Thanks to Pavlovsk, we have the berries. On that basis alone, surely they’re more valuable than the land they occupy on the outskirts of St Petersburg. Let’s hope that the project team is successful in getting that policy message across tomorrow.
- Conservation, characterization and evaluation for nutrition and health of vegetatively propagated crop collections at the Vavilov Institute, a partnership between VIR, the Centre de Recherche Public–Gabriel Lippmann in Luxembourg and Bioversity International. [↩]
- And look what I found: Investigation of genetic diversity in Russian collections of raspberry and blue honeysuckle. [↩]