Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Save our strawberries!

A couple of weeks ago I biked to my friend Preeti's place in Bethesda for dinner (and to meet her adorable new puppy). I wasn't there to talk about food justice or anything -- I swear -- but the post-dinner conversation turned to food policy as my friend told me about an amazing field-based plant gene bank that she'd learned of through her work, where a group near St. Petersburg maintains some crazy number of rare fruit varietals... a facility in imminent danger of being closed. I started following the story, incredulous that the Russian government was considering tearing down this priceless plant vault -- an international treasure, to say the least -- to build a few luxury homes. With the nonsensical methodology of a Palin campaign, it seems that there is a very real threat that the plant bank that survived the 900-day siege of Leningrad during WWII (when a dozen devoted scientists starved to death rather than eat the seeds and plants contained in the vault) is in danger of being demolished by a housing developer. I didn't know this kind of stuff happened outside of made-for-TV movies.

One would think that developers could, oh, I don't know, choose somewhere else in the gigantic country to build some houses -- Russia is not exactly a tiny place -- but no. One might suggest, as I did, to simply move all of the plants to a new location. I mean, we're talking about a century of plant stewardship and cultivation about to go down the tubes. Thousands of varieties that don't exist anywhere else on earth. Turns out that they can't simply be transferred to, say, round out the Svalbard seed vault. See, the problem is that many of the plants -- like the 1,000 varieties of strawberries -- reproduce not by seeds but by runners. They can't simply be moved. The process would be lengthy, expensive, and laborious, and the option was not on the table to begin with. Cripes, what can we do?

Last week's NY Times blog featured a story on the impending doom of the invaluable plant collection: "The director of the Pavlovsk station has said that bulldozers could be in the fields within three to four months if the court decision goes against him. And that, the trust says, would 'destroy almost a century of work and an irreplaceable biological heritage.'" (Three months! It's taken Monsanto decades to methodically destroy seed crop diversity around the world.) According to change.org, "all those thousands of varieties of crops — 90 percent of which are not found anywhere else in the world — will be bulldozed to make way for luxury homes. Genetically diverse and incredibly rare varieties of crops would fall victim to the ubiquitous McMansion, a tragedy of epic proportions."

The Russian court is expected to make its decision on Pavlovsk on August 11th. Tomorrow! I just signed the change.org petition asking President Dmitry Medvedev to protect Pavlovsk and the future of food. You can add your voice, too. Together, I hope we can save the strawberries.


Why crop diversity matters:
I don't know that I've written much on the blog about this issue, so if you're wondering why I am advocating for the preservation of a plant gene bank in Russia when my focus is sustainable food in America, well, let me just say that it's all related. Above and beyond the visual enjoyment of different blooms and gustatory pleasure of a breadth of flavors, we need to keep as many plant varieties in existence as possible, especially food plants, because they might literally save our lives one day. You see, each unique strain of tomato or corn or strawberry has a set of characteristics that makes it desirable under particular circumstances. Maybe it requires less water or is resistant to a particular plant blight or grows in poor soil. The best way to build a more secure food system that is resilient in the face of adverse growing conditions is to keep a lot of varieties around, since different strains thrive under different conditions. If we continue to lose these precious variants, not only will our food options be less interesting, we may lose the ability to grow food at all. What if Monsanto manages to get everyone in the world to grow a single variety of corn (patented by them, of course) and then a pest emerges that wipes out that single variety? There'd be a lot less high-fructose corn syrup on the market, but think about the other implications.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment! Just making sure this isn't spam.... Thanks for your patience. :)Ibti