A Kenyan woman visits an exhibit on the importance of conserving Africa’s native livestock and forage resources. The livestock exhibit, along with other exhibits on the importance of conserving Africa’s food crop resources, was part of an event held in Nairobi at the National Museum to celebrate International Biodiversity Day on 22 May 2010. (Photo credit: ILRI / Samuel Mungai)
The 15 centres belonging to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, including the Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), are passionate advocates and conservationists of plant and animal genetic material that is indigenous in developing countries, much of which is in danger of being thrown into the dustbin of history as these countries modernize.
Perhaps no recent story embodies the polar-opposite interests that can arise between conservationists (of our genetic heritage) and developers (of our urban environments as well as rural agricultural systems) as succinctly as the story running in this week’s Economist, which tells of a plant genebank outside St Petersburg, and all its stored living genetic materials, being threatened by destruction by a bulldozer for the sake of urban development.
As the Economist article points out, it didn’t used to be this way.
‘Russia’s greatest plant scientists died of starvation rather than eat their collection. . . . By 1941, the Soviet Union had established an enormous gene bank of plants containing 187,000 varieties at the Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). When the city was blockaded by the Germans, so important was the collection some of the scientists gave their lives to save it.
‘. . . Such sacrifice is worth remembering, because at a court hearing in Moscow next Wednesday, real estate developers will find out whether they are allowed to bulldoze part of the institute’s living collection held at the Pavolvsk Experimental Station, just outside of St Petersburg. The institute contains thousands of varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries and many other crops, 90% of which are not found anywhere else in the world.
‘. . . Scientists died to protect the diversity that is needed to breed new varieties of plant that can cope with changing conditions, such as drought. They knew that this diversity is an essential weapon in the fight the hunger, malnutrition and mass starvation.
‘Of course the collection could be moved. But this would take over a decade of careful planning and a lot of money—something that the developers of luxury housing have little interest in. With all Russia’s oil wealth, it must be easy for the government to forget where food comes from. Perhaps the drought will act as a timely reminder that not only can oil not be eaten, and hunger must continue to be fought with every weapon available.’
More . . . (Economist: Seeds of change, 6 August 2010)