Thursday, March 1, 2018

Saved Seeds... A Gift

A worker sorting and saving seeds at the Vavilov institute
A week ago we thought Spring had arrived then last Thursday Winter reappeared with a vengeance. Sleet and thunder snow, a rare occurrence, was followed by a welcome albeit cold rain, with many receiving over an inch. As the weather warmed over the weekend, the greening of the garden began, sending shivers of delight to the gardener’s heart.

Last week an important announcement for mankind was made very quietly, lost among frivolous news. I have written before about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway and this week it will open so scientists can add 60,000 new seeds to the existing collection of millions. The vault, located at the coldest point on the planet is referred to as the Doomsday Vault. It houses seeds from all parts of the world which contain seed biodiversity that will assure mankind’s survival. Should a man made or natural disaster wipe out existing crops, seeds from the vault may be called upon to begin agriculture once again. Syria is an example as chemical bombing has rendered former agricultural land a barren desert… it will need new seeds at some time.

The concept of a modern seed vault became a reality as warfare during WWII caused famine across Europe. No stranger to famine, Europe had suffered many before, losing thousands of people to starvation. In St. Petersburg, a family of scientists had studied plant genetics and decided that preservation of seeds was paramount, for without them famine was inevitable. A Seed Institute was founded by a man named Nikolai Vavilov and his collection of seeds became the largest in the world.

When German forces began a 900 day bombardment, blocking food and supplies to the city of St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) Vavilov was targeted, arrested, and tortured because of his work. The Germans wished to confiscate the contents of the Seed Institute to preserve their ‘scorched earth’ policy which would leave their Russian rivals no way to recover from the war. Refusing to cooperate, Vavilov died in prison of torture and starvation.  

 Following his death, his staff persevered in secret counting, sorting and storing seeds. Even when discovered, arrested, and tortured, all refused to reveal the hidden location of the seed vault. Although they too were starving none of them consumed the seeds in their care. Following the War, when the vault was discovered and opened, the body of one the scientists was found slumped over the bags of rice seed he was guarding… they were safely sealed.

 Nobility is the highest calling and those who value humanity over their own survival deserve honor. Throughout history, gardeners have proven their love of mankind and this story illustrates it beautifully.