After Court Rejects Appeal, Russian Crop Collection Faces Destruction

MOSCOW—A unique collection of European fruit and berry crops could be destroyed after a court in Russia gave permission today for land at a research institute in St. Petersburg to be turned into a housing estate. Moscow's arbitration court rejected an appeal by the Pavlovsk Experiment Station—part of the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry—to halt the takeover, meaning one of the two plots under threat could be auctioned off to property developers as early as 23 September.

Biodiversity experts have criticized the construction plans, saying they will devastate a priceless collection that cannot be moved in time. More than 90% of the station's 5000 plants—including almost 1000 varieties of strawberries and hundreds of strains of fruit and berries that are extinct in the wild—are thought to be unavailable elsewhere.

The Vavilov Institute issued a statement after today's ruling saying it would pursue a final appeal to the federal arbitration court over the 90 hectares of plots concerned, but campaigners have expressed little hope of victory. "To move the collection of fruits, berries, and ornamental plants would take at least 10 to 15 years," Fyodor Mikhovich, director of the research station, told Rosbalt news agency. "Nobody's going to wait that long to build houses [on the plots]. They'll want to do everything immediately."

The state-owned land is to be passed to the Russian Housing Development Foundation, which was created in 2008 to transform underused agricultural land into construction sites for affordable family housing. The foundation has claimed that part of the land where the research station is based is abandoned. Mikhovich denied that today, saying: "The plots are effectively used. Our collection is alive, we are studying it, and it is flourishing."

The Pavlovsk Experiment Station, which is Europe's largest collection of fruits and berries, was established in 1926 by Nikolai Vavilov, the Russian botanist and geneticist who pioneered the concept of seed banks as repositories of crop diversity in case of threats to food production. Twelve scientists at his institute famously starved to death during the siege of Leningrad in World War II rather than eat samples of rice, peas, corn, and wheat that they were protecting.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust has said the planned bulldozing of the field collection will "forever tarnish a cause that generations of Russian plant scientists have lived and, quite literally, died to protect." Cary Fowler, executive director of the trust, said today: "We will not be giving up and will be fighting hard to reverse this decision."