“If all human life depends on plants, doesn’t it make sense that perhaps we should try to save them?”
Scientists surely understand. Recent years have seen several large-scale efforts to preserve the genetic diversity of the plants on our planet as it suffers from climate change and habitat loss. For example, two years ago the Norwegians opened the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on Spitzbergen, a place so cold the seeds would remain preserved for weeks even in the absence of power. It has now become the worlds most diverse collection of crop seeds. The rationale and activities of the largest seed bank, the Millenium Seed Bank in England, is described in an informative TED talk: Jonathan Drori: Why we’re storing billions of seeds.
But the first plant genebank was created in Russia, near St. Petersburg, in 1926. The Pavlovsk Experiment Station contains the world’s first and largest field genebank for fruits and berries. The importance of these fields and the variety of plants grown there is such that during the Seige of Leningrad, the scientists tending the plants decided it was preferable to starve themselves to death rather than eat the plants in their care. Now Pavlovsk is under attack again, this time not by Nazis, but by property developers who plan to destroy the beds and build housing. Unfortunately, the plants and varieties grown there cannot be moved easily and do not grow true from seeds.
Last Christmas, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development conveyed the land to the Federal Fund for Real Estate Development, despite an appeal by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. So far the Russian government has been tone deaf to protests from scientists and citizens. The question is, will the governmental powers show the courage of their forefathers to view the senseless destruction for what it is and preserve the national genetic heritage for their descendants? The news so far is not promising.
A similar story has been ongoing outside Moscow, as environmentalists try to save the old growth Khimki forest from developers. Rather than route a new Moscow-Leningrad highway along the old railroad line, developers want to detour through the forest because they can develop the areas beside the road. Never mind that the forest is a protected area with high biodiversity.
The forest also helps reduce the “urban heat island” effect present in major cities, which can raise the temperature as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit over surrounding areas. The average Muscovite does not have to be reminded of what is at stake, as they swelter through an unprecedented heat wave and suffer smoke from fires in surrounding areas. Perhaps the environmental cost will prompt the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is providing construction credits, to drop its support for the project.
But the question here is the the same as with Pavlovsk: Are those in power really free to destroy the people’s environmental heritage for no reason other than to line the pockets of the wealthy? Even our city life is still closely dependent on Nature. Let us find a way to live as gently as we can on this Earth, cherishing our plant life just as we cherish our own. If that means that the rich must find some non-destructive way to make their millions, then so be it.