Russian agricultural geneticist and biogeographer Nikolay Vavilov, is scientically famous for proposing that centres of endemism of crop relatives point to the origin of food crops, and being martyred by Soviet Lysenkoism. Furthermore, he established the Lenigrad seed bank that was maintained by its staff throughout World War 2’s 28-month Siege of Leningrad, despite their starvation.
American localvore, MacArthur Fellow and ethno-agro-ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan author of Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine reflects on What is the Relevance of Vavilov in the Year 2010?:
I sit overlooking Saint Isaac’s Square, a few hundred meters where Nikolay Vavilov managed the first and perhaps the most massive effort in human history to document and conserve the world’s food biodiversity. I have had the rare opportunity of seeing the seedbank in the basement of Vavilov’s institute, and of leafing through the herbarium where one can see the master’s hand on collections of plants from the deserts, the steppes and the rain forests. And I have seen the photos there of those who perished while protecting the seeds for the benefit of all of humankind.
If any scientist wished to be inspired to a higher cause, perhaps no one was more equipped to do so than Nikolay Vavilov. He was breathtakingly handsome and elegant yet field-worthy; he was visionary, yet articulate and a lover of detail; he was charismatic, tireless and intense, yet approachable. He would listen to farmer, muleskinner, camel drover and evolutionary biologist, and absorb their stories.
And yet, what ultimately inspires us today to continue with such efforts is not Vavilov’s ghost from the past, but the promise of a more equitable and nourishing food community for the future. We hope that our children and their children beyond them will eat well without damaging the very soil and soul of the earth itself.
And we know that in the recent past, some forms of agriculture have done such damage. Since Vavilov’s time, we have lost three-quarters of the former genetic base of our crops and livestock, squandering the diversity of flavors and fragrances by assuming that fossil fuel and fossil groundwater could be consumed without end to produce more food. Today, agriculture is responsible for generating half of the human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases to grow our food and fiber. We can do better. We can wean ourselves from our addictions to fossil fuel and groundwater, but only if we renew our commitment to wisely steward the natural resources and the cultural wisdom that has accumulated in our agricultural landscapes over the last ten millennia.
With rapid global climate change upon us, we need a greater diversity of seeds, breeds, fruits and roots out in our fields, adapting to the dynamic conditions there, more than ever before. Food diversity is no longer a luxury; its careful use and stewardship are once again a necessity if we are to feed future generations so that they can not survive but thrive. Vavilov pointed the way; we must not dwell so much on him as a signpost, but to where he was pointing.