Strawberry Fields Face Threat of Destruction
Published: July 16, 2010 (Issue # 1592)
Russian property developers are preparing to destroy the world’s largest and most valuable field collection of genetically diverse fruits and berries — including almost 1,000 types of strawberries from 40 countries — from which commercially grown varieties are derived.
The site, which belongs to the Vavilov Horticultural Research Institute, is home to more than 4,000 varieties of fruits and berries, some of which have become extinct in their natural environments. It now looks set to be used for the construction of holiday homes.
Developers received access to the site when the St. Petersburg Horticulture Institute lost the land following the rejection of an appeal against a decree of the Russian Ministry for Economic Development in Moscow’s Arbitration Court earlier this week.
Experts say the Pavlosk Research station, comprising 910,000 square meters, is the largest genetic field bank in Europe. According to Mikhovich, just one of the plots of land at the site contains more than 5,000 samples of rare plants from all over the globe.
Moscow’s Arbitration Court ruled that the institute must hand the land over to the Residential Construction Development Fund. The institute’s acting director at the facility, Fyodor Mikhovich, said the task of transferring the specimen would be impossible, even if they were given three years instead of the three months that they have been granted for the task. He said that the consequences of the move would be devastating, and that in order to properly carry out the move at least 15 years would be needed.
The institute has stressed that the research conducted at the facility is of great use in research into the treatment of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
The institute has filed another appeal against the verdict, but analysts says its chances are poor. The court hearing that will decide the fate of the land is scheduled for Aug. 11. Researchers and environmentalists alike are campaigning around the globe, urging influential organizations such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, to intervene at the highest level and halt the destruction of the Pavlosk collection.
In December 2009, the Russian Ministry for Economic Development issued a decree ordering the institute to vacate the land on the grounds that the fields are allegedly not economically viable and are hampering the economic development of the region.
“The real issue is that the monetary value of the collection is impossible to define,” Mikhovich said. “Who on earth can tell what the value of a specific unique sample of a plant or a berry is? And we have large numbers of them. This makes the collection priceless, but doesn’t help us to win trials, where decisions are based on precise calculations.”
According to Biodiversity International, a Rome-based organization that works to support the improved use and conservation of agricultural diversity, the destruction of the Pavlosk Research station’s cultivated fruits and berry fields will deprive the world’s breeders of a unique source of genetic biodiversity needed to develop varieties that are better adapted to climate change as global food production moves north.
“Strawberry breeders, in particular, say the Russian varieties are exceptionally hardy and disease resistant,” said Pascal Marbois, a spokesman for Biodiversity International. “There is strong scientific evidence that land suitable for strawberry cultivation will decrease as global winter temperatures rise.”
Bioversity International says research it conducted with its partners on the Pavlosk collections shows that key species in the collection contain important phytochemicals for glycemic control and anti-oxidants, as well as being exceptionally rich sources of vitamins and micronutrients. “We have evidence that these important genetic resources, which will be lost forever, could contribute to healthier diets,” said Dr. Emile Frison, director general of Bioversity International.
“Russia is sitting on a global gold reserve of far greater value to the whole of humanity than holiday homes for a few lucky individuals.”