“I live in a crazy time.” ~ Anne Frank
Tomorrow is ANZAC Day. A day Australians and New Zealanders commemorate the 1915 landing at Gallipoli. But, we also remember all those who have participated in wars since, especially those who never came home.
Lest we forget.
The story I am telling today, is one I have wanted to write about for some time.
Because, as I grow older, history doesn’t seem to have happened all that long ago. Years from my teenaged, book-learning schoolgirl self, history has a new dimension, when viewed with an empathy that it seems only maturity can bring.
Once you have insight to the errors of history, it is unsettling when you can see the same mistakes being played out again, but with a different cast of characters.
And such, it was the story of Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, that inspired me to take my own seed collecting a little more seriously.
Because, Vavilov was probably much like my own great-grandmother. They both grew up in small rural townships that experienced food shortages, droughts and famines.
However, it’s likely this early experience of food insecurity is what inspired Vavilov to travel and collect seed from every corner of the globe. Seeds that were the result of thousands of years of agricultural adaptations. Drought resistance. Pest resistance. High yields and maximum nutrition. These seeds represented a diverse biological heritage that ensured locals had the best chance possible to grow crops adapted to their climate.
Over time, with the aim of securing the food safety of the future, Vavilov amassed the world’s largest collection of seeds in Leningrad (now St Petersberg).
While Vavilov’s mission had the potential to shape our world for the better, his timing was unfortunate. World War Two arrived.
By 1943, Hitler’s army had closed in on St. Petersburg where more than 700,000 people had already perished from hunger and disease. And while the Soviets had ordered the evacuation of art from the Hermitage, (as portrayed in Robert Edsel’s book and the movie, Monuments Men) they had otherwise done nothing to defend the 250,000 collection of seeds, roots, and fruits in the Vavilov Institute seed bank.
So a group of Vavilov’s fellow scientists squirreled away an assortment of seeds and moved them to the basement. Documents later revealed that Hitler had indeed established a commando unit to seize the seed bank, perhaps in a conspiracy to control the worlds food supply. Although already starving and malnourished, Vavilov’s colleagues arranged shifts and took turns to protect their seed bank from Hitler’s grasp. Their commitment was so great, that by the end of the siege in the spring of 1944, nine of the seed custodians had died of starvation, despite being surround by enough food to feed themselves. They refused to take from a legacy they were protecting for our future.
Vavilov himself met a similar sad, ironic fate. His life’s work and research caused him to fall on the wrong side of Stalin’s favour and in 1940 he was arrested, accused of destroying Soviet agriculture. He died from malnutrition, aged just 55, one year into serving 20 year sentence for his crimes.
Above is a picture of my own, Vavilov inspired seed bank, housed in a retired library card catalog.
It doesn’t take a genius to draw parallels between the actions of the Third Reich and the behaviour of the some of the world’s modern day seed companies. Seed patents. Terminator genes. Genetically modified, pesticide resistant strains. Limited varieties. All in an effort to control the supply and and manipulate the demand for seed and consequently, the food supply of the world.
And I wonder what Vavilov would make of our world today.
Because in the years since his death, and the post war “Green Revolution” UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports state that “the diversity of cultivated crops declined by 75% during the 20th Century and a third of today’s diversity could disappear by 2050”.
Or in other words, a kind of plant genocide is occurring at a rapid rate. Scientists call it genetic erosion.
The economic benefits of monocultural farming practices also create an enormous risk to food security. Monocultures are a form of agricultural roulette, when the farmers are betting it all on black. At almost every point in our history where humans have manipulated a narrowing of diversity, (and lose the punt) catastrophe follows. Examples abound. The Irish Potato Famine. Chairman Mao’s Four Pests Program. Panama disease, to name a few.
It seems to me that the lesson from history is clear. The force of life wants to express itself as broadly as possible.
Reduce diversity = Endanger life for all.
But there is good news. Thankfully, it seems the cause of Vavilov has not been forgotten, the institute he founded still exists, and his name restored. Vavilov also has many modern day champions to the cause of maintaining agricultural biodiversity. One of the most vocal and persistent would be Dr Vandana Shiva, who founded Navdanya in 1991 with the purpose of fighting what she calls “biopiracy” or the theft of seed heritage with the unethical use of patent law.
And then there’s you and me. We collect the best of our plants each season and save the seed, knowing that locally adapted seeds produce the most robust plants for our unique climate. We purchase seed from committed seed suppliers who are bringing heirloom varieties back from the brink of extinction. We eat varied diets, and source as much as possible from local suppliers.
We rebel against the industrialised food machine in our own way, and grow our own food at home.