Science & Environment

Houses may replace Europe's largest collection of crops

A wild strawberry
Image caption There are over a thousand varieties of strawberries at the Pavlovsk station

New private homes could replace Europe's largest collection of fruits and berries, if a Russian court rules the land could be sold to property developers.

The Pavlovsk experimental station near the Russian city of St Petersburg is the biggest European field seed bank and one of the largest in the world.

Thousands of varieties of plants and crops there are found nowhere else.

The court hearing is scheduled for 11 August.

Recently, the Global Crop Diversity Trust appealed to the Russian authorities to save the collection, which many scientists call an irreplaceable biological heritage.

The Kremlin has not responded to the pleas, but the international community thinks it may yet do so at the hearing next week.

The court will then announce the decision regarding the earlier ruling of handing the station to the Russian Housing Development Foundation - a state body that decides whether public land can be used to build private homes.

A unique collection

The Pavlovsk experimental station is one of several such stations in Russia. It is affiliated to the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry.

Agricultural scientist Nikolai Vavilov built the seed bank - thought to be one of the oldest in the world - in 1926, to preserve biodiversity and enable the breeding of new crop varieties.

"The collection is a source of genes to develop many new varieties of fruits and berries, and it is also a huge cultural heritage," Sergey Alexanian, head of the Department of International Relations at the Vavilov Institute, told BBC News.

He said the Pavlovsk collection holds about 320,000 samples of fruits and berries - 100 varieties each of gooseberries, raspberries and cherries, and more than 1,000 varieties of strawberries. About 90% of the varieties of crops there are unique, he added.

In December 2009, Russia's ministry of economic development handed two of the station's land sites to the Russian Housing Development Foundation.

The institute's scientists went through the courts to appeal against that decision, but they lost their case and the land, which constitutes about a fifth of the station, will soon be put on sale. It is likely to be bought by a property developer.

The court is yet to decide the fate of the second, much bigger, site.

Image caption Soon, the crops here might have to give way to new homes

Cary Fowler, the director of the trust, said the unique seed bank was also important in making sure people had enough to eat - both now and in the future.

"No country is self-reliant, in terms of having the diversity it needs now and certainly will need in the future, for breeding a variety of crops," he told BBC News.

"Breeding is an ongoing activity because pests and diseases are always evolving and the climate is changing. We're always trying to make more productive, drought-tolerant and heat-resistant crops.

"This is the raw material for doing all of that - particularly with the changing climate. The biological resources conserved in one country could be very valuable to another country, another continent.

"We're all interdependent and that's why this unfolding tragedy at Pavlovsk is a concern to people outside Russia as well."

But the Housing Development Foundation told the BBC Saint Petersburg needed the land more than berries and apple trees.

"These sites are located in the area meant for new, individual, one-family homes," the foundation's press officer told the BBC in an email.

"Using the land for agricultural purposes will impede the future realisation of the city's plans to further develop [the city of] Saint Petersburg."

'Impossible to relocate'

One solution would be to relocate the valuable collection elsewhere, but Dr Fowler said this was impossible.

The Pavlovsk collection is unlike other seed banks around the world, where seeds are preserved by being dried and frozen, he explained.

The crops in the Russian experimental station are almost exclusively crops that have to be conserved them in the field, as living specimens.

"It's an entire garden, not just seeds; you can't relocate a garden," said Mr Alexanyan.

"And no one would take it anyway, as it is not a commercial venture - you can't sell this fruit and make money out of it."

He added that one way to save the collection would be for the institute to simply buy the sites, but said this was unrealistic.

"It's a huge amount of money," he said. "Right now, it's not the best time for the Russian science, financially speaking, so buying it would be ideal - but it's impossible."

Image caption Many unique varieties of berries might be lost, scientists say

Dr Fowler said that the risk of losing the collection was all too real.

"It's a struggle between 1,000 strawberry varieties versus the plans of developers, and I don't underestimate the threats," said Dr Fowler.

"If they move forward and bring bulldozers into this research station, the reality is that we're going to lose most of it.

"There are so many technical hurdles to overcome to rescue that collection quickly that I'm afraid we're going to be standing at the gate, watching extinction take place before our very eyes."

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