Seeds of hope and despair

Photo: A fragile global resource: Ross Johns (right) visits the Vavilov Research Institute"s original oat collection.

GRDC board member Ross Johns recently visited Russia to study first-hand the state of the Vavilov plant genetics collection, and also the burgeoning grains industry in the Ukraine. He reports that both represent exciting prospects, but need first to overcome seriously decayed infrastructure.

Photo: A fragile global resource: Ross Johns (right) visits the Vavilov Research Institute"s original oat collection.

The Vavilov Research Institute in St Petersburg, Russia, is one of the world"s most important repositories of plant genetic resources, but it is in a rundown and fragile condition.

This intriguing agricultural resource, with its extraordinary history of human vision and courage, is important for Australian agriculture and for world food security, but it needs considerable international support to secure its potential value.

Just arriving in Russia gives you an insight into how much work is ahead of the country and its research institutions. Russia is clearly very poor, the infrastructure in a terrible state, and many people seem to lack drive.

At the Vavilov itself, the buildings that house the collection are old and in disrepair - in fact you would think there had been no paint manufactured in Russia for about 50 years. The floorboards are worn through and the heating system only works occasionally.

The storage technology installed at the institute requires seed to be frequently regenerated, a process that takes time and money. Some lines have already been lost because stored seed was no longer viable.

One measure of the institute"s position is its annual budget - just $3.1 million (62 million roubles). Of this, $1.2 million is spent on regeneration and $970,000 on preservation, leaving just $875,000 for pure research.

This said, the scientists at the Vavilov are as dedicated a group as you would find anywhere. They work hard for very little pay - in fact about half the average Russian salary, and 40 percent of this disappears in the rent they pay for old Soviet-style block accommodation.

In some ways, and no doubt they would prefer it otherwise, the staff are carrying on a tradition of dedication against all odds.

The institute"s seed collections were largely built by Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian biologist, botanist and geneticist, who scoured five continents in the 1920s and 1930s for wild and cultivated corn, potato tubers, grains, beans, fodder, fruits and vegetable seeds.

However, under Stalin, genetics was seen as a science that supported "inborn class differences". Vavilov became a victim of the purges, and died in prison in 1943.

Two years earlier, during the German army"s siege of Leningrad, the institute"s scientists burned everything they could find to keep the collection from freezing in the unheated, dark building. It is said that while guarding the collection, some scientists starved to death rather than eat the packets of rice, corn and other seeds in their desks.

The institute and its history is a grim encounter for a first-time visitor, especially a graingrower with, potentially, an important stake in the institute"s well-being.

However, improvements are happening, with international help. The GRDC last year made an initial commitment of $1.6 million to the Global Conservation Trust (GCT), a $US260 million global effort to protect the Vavilov"s collections of crop plant germplasm. The Australian Government, through AusAID, is contributing a further $16.5 million.

The GRDC also sponsors the Vavilov- Frankel Fellowship to commemorate both Nikolai Vavilov and Otto Frankel, who in the 1960s continued Vavilov"s campaign against "genetic erosion" in plant industries. As one of the early chiefs of CSIRO Plant Industry, Frankel helped position Australia at the forefront of crop genetics.

The current fellowship recipient is a young Russian scientist, Tamar Jinjikhadze, who has come to Australia for 12 months to investigate new sources of rust resistance.

Of equal interest to the Vavilov"s role in Australian crop development is the cropping activity around the Black Sea - a region with enormous production potential, and which is also attracting increasing investment in storage, handling and processing capacity.

Ukraine cropping is based on the remains of large-scale collective farms. One visit was to a 4500ha property producing about 12,000 tonnes of grain a year. This operation employs 65 people, extraordinarily high by Australian standards, and it stores its harvest on farm for later delivery or sale when market conditions suit.

It was a well-run operation with exceptional weed control and crop management techniques.

Storage and handling facilities were also impressive. Three major seaports visited in the Ukraine - Odessa, Kherson and Illichivsk - all had new storage and ship loaders installed alongside the old state-run ship loaders. Water depth is very good and all ports are capable of loading panamax vessels.

Most grain is transported to port by road and rail, although a significant tonnage is also carried by river barge. This Volga river traffic can collect grain from 2500 kilometres inland and discharge on the Black Sea, or continue across the Caspian Sea to discharge directly in Iran, a large grain importer.

The visit confirmed reports outlined in the "Single Vision" Australian Grains Industry Strategy 2005- 2025, that this region has the potential to be a large and low-cost producer of grain in the future.

From an Australian producer point of view, the impact of increased Black Sea production will be greatest in some of our established Middle Eastern markets.

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