St Petersburg, Russia
October 15, 2004
Source: Grain Zone -
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.
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.
A fragile global resource: Ross Johns
(right) visits the Vavilov Research Institute's original
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.
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.
Composition of Vavilov plant germplasm
barley and oats
size is still growing as collectors find
new land races and commercial crop
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
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
The institute and its history
is a grim encounter for a first-time visitor, especially a
graingrower with, potentially, an important stake in the
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
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.
Enormous potential: Ukrainian agronomist Zaychenko
Vyacheslav inspecting crops.
Interesting facilities: Loading ships in the Ukraine by
lifting rail wagons over the side of vessels.