Monday, August 16, 2010

Calling Plant Nerds

Less talk, more action? Scroll to the bottom for the bit about the petition.

The Problem
Russia is on the verge of bulldozing a major plant collection in Pavlovsk. According to the Guardian (initial story| follow-up), which has been following the story, this is the world's oldest germplasm collection, with the world's largest fruit collection. They claim, moreover, that over 90% of the plants in the collection are not found in any other plant collection. There are 100 varieties of gooseberries, of raspberries, and of cherries, 1,000 varieties of strawberries from 40 countries, apples from 35 countries, 893 varieties of blackcurrants from 30 countries, and plums from 12 countries (BBC,, Nature).

The Pavlovsk station--from the BBC, who got it from Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust

Why It Matters
One summer during college, I interned at a research center in Oregon that was affiliated with a germplasm collection center. When I was there, a couple of researchers had just returned from a major plant collection trip to China, where they gathered scores of rare and unusual species and varieties of Rubus (the blackberry and raspberry genus). There were thornless specimens, specimens with giant simple palmate leaves, and many other oddities, often unrecognizable to my eyes as a Rubus at all.

Why is this significant? Because about 30% of China's landmass is affected by desertification, and 36% of its virgin forests are under pressure. This is what plant germplasm collections do: perserve fragments of diversity in the form of seeds, tissue, and whole plants. They include ancestors or near-ancestors of cultivated crops as well a far-flung wild cousins.

This would be valuable even in a world rich with healthy, robust ecosystems that act as natural seed banks: from these strange relatives we can get new flavors, colors (like purple carrots), desirable traits (like thornlessness), hardiness, and disease resistance, among other qualities. The National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis made interesting and promising specimens available to the small fruit breeders at my research station, who worked on/funded research that would be useful to Oregon's farmers (mostly for freezing--the big money in fruit is in processing. If you want a good strawberry, choose a variety that was grown for freezing, not for fresh sale. Fresh fruit are bred for storage first; flavor is an ancillary consideration. Flavor and color are much more important to the processing industry.)

In our world, though, with its besieged wild places, germplasm collections are even more important as a hedge against extinction. This is why the uniqueness of the Pavlovsk collection makes its potential loss so alarming. It is impossible to know what challenges future generations will face--what diseases will threaten their crops, what meteorological catastrophes may occur, what technologies may require changes in how we raise plants or the kinds of plants we raise, or what new medical uses may be discovered for rare and wild plants. Germplasm is a sort of global nest egg--an insurance policy against the unknown.

For all of these reasons, the potential destruction of the Pavlovsk center (which apparently cannot readily be moved owing to the volume of live specimens) would be a catastrophe--things that are unique or extremely rare would be irrevocably lost--so that a bunch of robber baron oligarchs can have pool parties behind the closed gates of a new private housing development. (That last bit may be unfair. I don't actually know the income bracket of the prospective new homeowners--only that it is a private housing development.)

Do Something
To this end, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (an international organization that promotes crop diversity and food security) has put together a petition that you can sign to be submitted to the Russian government. There is also, for the tweeters among us, a movement afoot on Twitter to do... whatever it is Twitter does. This is described at the petition link above and in the second Guardian article.

Plant nerds and all people who like eating, please consider signing, tweeting, and generally making a rumpus for a worthwhile strawberry-lovin' cause.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails