For the strawberries of the future and the memory of Vavilov
16 August 2010
The ABC show, The Collectors, is one of my favourites, but since it came back on air, something has been missing. Claudia, Gordon and Adrian are wonderful, of course, but they’re struggling to make it all spark in the absence of Andy Muirhead, who’s currently before the courts, the police alleging that he was a collector of something rather more sinister than small, globular, transistor radios.
Andy Muirhead is a biologist, stand-up comedian, radio presenter, and apparently a gentle, amiable, charming young man, but in early June he was charged with possessing child pornography. It all came as a terrible shock to over a million followers of the cult ABC show. The first they knew was that the show, suddenly, inexplicably, disappeared. And then Muirhead became an unperson.
A few days after Muirhead’s arrest at the ABC’s The Drum site, barrister Greg Barns wrote:
“By making Muirhead swiftly disappear from its airwaves, website and publicity machine in a manner that fairly harked back to the days when the KGB used to do similar things to those in the Kremlin who deviated from the norm or fell out of favour with the regime, the ABC is giving the impression that Muirhead is guilty of the offences with which he has been charged.”
Even worse, the ABC declined to say that Muirhead would get his position back if he was found innocent. It’s symptomatic of the ongoing decline in civil liberties.
By a strange coincidence, another collector, Nikolai Vavilov – a victim of the actual KGB – and his collection, of perhaps incalculable importance to the future of world agriculture, is under threat in far-away Pavlovsk, on the outskirts of St Petersburg.
The issue had Old Possum worried. For days, the ancient, grizzled, marsupial Marxist had been badgering any Brushtail Café regular who’d listen to sign a petition to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, no less, in defence of Vavilov’s priceless gene bank of fruit and berry plants which is under threat from a private housing development.
Last year the UN acknowledged that Vavilov’s collection was vital for international food security in the face of global warming by appealing to the Russian Government to include the collection in the world network of gene banks. The Russian agriculture minister gave a favourable response.
The world over, dodgy developers are the same ignorant bunch, and their methods are usually the same. On Christmas Day, 2009 (are these people advised by the NSW Property Council?) the Russian Federal Agency for Public Estate Management – an agency of the Russian Ministry of Economic Development – sanctioned the termination of a perpetual, irrevocable, tenure over land granted to the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry and handed it over to a bunch of home developers, giving the Institute just three months to rescue what they could of the unique collection of rare fruit and berry plants collected by Vavilov and his associates since 1926 – an impossible task.
Several generations of Russian scientists, with painstaking selfless effort have maintained Vavilov’s collections in viable condition and continued to add to them. They have built up Europe’s largest northwestern field gene bank of cultivated fruit and berry plants. There are, for example a thousand species of strawberry and over 600 varieties of apple. This genetic diversity is used by Russian researchers, and recognized and valued by the world’s scientific community.
But it’s more than just a collection of economically useful plants, it’s also a memorial to martyrs of science. Nikolai Vavilov himself fell victim to persecution by the odious Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favourite plant biologist and a notorious charlatan. He was arrested by the KGB in 1940 and died of malnutrition in prison in 1943. As the Nazis advanced across Russia, the SS seized as much of Vavilov’s collection as they could get their hands on, but the collection at the Pavlovsk Research Station survived the 900 day siege of Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then known). The scientists tending it could have survived quite nicely by eating the collection’s seed stock but rather than do so they starved. One is reputed to have died. Vavilov himself was posthumously rehabilitated in the early 1960s.
The scientists from the Vavilov Institute, bewildered by the Ministry of Economic Development’s failure to see the importance of the collection took the matter to the courts. In the light of climate change they noted “… functionaries from the Ministry of Economic Development are obviously unaware of such a serious challenge to the modern civilization. They seemed to think like that: ‘Let’s cut down the trees - out of sight, out of mind!’ We don’t know whether such bureaucratic reasoning was caused by incompetence or corruption but do hope that the court will be able to sort out this puzzle”.
Alas , the court did not. The decision went the Ministry of Economic Development’s way. An appeal to Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin is now the only recourse. You can do it online at: