Over 300,000 species of living plants have been identified, and probably many more are not yet identified.

However, 80 percent of the calories consumed by the human race come from only 12 species. Much work is being done to preserve the genetic diversity of our food crops with seed banks, which are being used to breed improved crop varieties. But this has not always been the case.

In the early 1900s there were frequent crop failures in Russia, and subsequent famines. Nikolai Vavilov, the son of a textile merchant, took note of this as he studied at the Moscow Agricultural Institute, from which he graduated in 1911. He bred varieties of oats, barley and wheat more resistant to pathogens.

Vavilov studied the works of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel and set out on a career to improve crops with genetics. To do this, a large, diverse collection of wild and cultivated crop varieties were required, so he set out searching worldwide. His seed-collecting expeditions took him to every continent, 64 countries in all, often resulting in harrowing experiences. But he would not be deterred.

By 1935 Vavilov and his teams had collected over 150,000 varieties of crops and their wild relatives. He identified the “Centers Of Origins” of our major food crops where the most wild relatives, from which the crops were derived, are found. For example the Center of Origins of barley and wheat is in Asia Minor, that of the potato is in Chile, and of tomatoes and corn, Central America.

His main seed collection was housed in Leningrad, know as the VIR, with 36 other plant-breeding stations scattered across the USSR. But when World War II began, Germany invaded Russia and laid siege to Leningrad in 1941. The city was blockaded for almost 3 years, resulting in over 1.5 million deaths, many of starvation.

Vavilov’s team got some of the collection out before all routes were closed by the Germans. But a large part of the collection remained in 18 rooms in the heart of the besieged city. His dedicated team preserved and protected thousands of pounds of seeds and potatoes from German bombs and starving Russians.

Yet through all this, Vavilov himself had vanished. He was languishing in a Russian prison. The Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin decided that genetics was a “fake science”, set out to suppress it, and had Vavilov arrested. He was interrogated, tortured and forced to sign a confession. Vavilov was imprisoned for 3 years for his belief in science, and died in 1943.

Miraculously, much of Vavilov’s seed collection survived the war and Stalin’s suppression. Stalin died in 1953 but Soviet Agriculture had been set back 3 decades. In the early 1970s Soviet wheat crops failed and they had to buy 400 million bushels from the U.S. to avoid famine.

It is said Soviet crop failures and the wheat deal were factors in the fall of the USSR. The story of Nikolai Vavilov is an inspiration and a warning against denying science.

Ed Perkins farms in Athens County.

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