In July of 2015, I had a chance to visit the N. I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Institute is named for the man who transformed it into a center of plant research and the home of what was in his day the world’s largest collections of seeds, roots and fruits. It remains today as having one of the world’s largest collections of seeds and plant materials. For nearly 25 years, from 1916 to 1940, Dr. Vavilov traveled throughout the world collecting hundreds of thousands of different plant materials and seeds. In August of 1940, he was arrested and in 1941 sentenced to death because of the influence of his enemies with Stalin. This was mainly due to a jealous associate who wanted his job. His death sentence was reduced to 20 years in prison in 1942 but in 1943 he died of starvation.
This renowned plant scientist grew up in a poor Russian rural town plagued by food shortages, because of crop failures. This experience had a profound effect on him. It was his life’s work to end hunger through finding better plants for feeding the world. It is a great irony that the man whose life ambition was to end world hunger, himself died of starvation.
During the 28 month siege of Leningrad, the botanists who were still at the institute boxed up a cross section of seeds from the 250,000 remaining samples. They hid them in the basement of the institute and then took turns protecting them from rats and starving people who would have eaten them to survive if they had found out about the collection. Those guarding the seed bank also did not eat the seeds even though by the end of the siege in the spring of 1944, nine of them had died of starvation.
This institute played a significant role in the development of our Kamut® project. In the early days of our project, in the mid 1990’s, there were several different opinions concerning the correct classification of the ancient grain we were growing. I sent a sample to the Vavilov Research Institute for their opinion. They told me they thought the grain should be classified as durum egyptius (‘the durum of Egypt”) and even though that is not quite what the majority concluded in the end (khorasan wheat), they were the first to identify another very important characteristic of our ancient wheat. It is not a pure line but a mixture of closely related selections referred to as a land race. This was a very important help to our understanding of the true nature of the ancient wheat we market under the Kamut® trademark.
Today, even as in World War II when the scientists protected the collection against rats, the scientists today are protecting the collection and the fields where the collections are perpetuated against the contamination of GMO. Just as the rats would have destroyed the originally collection by eating it, GMO contamination would destroy the modern collection by an irreversible contamination of pure seeds with GMO traits.
When I arrived for my visit a the institute, I was wearing my “GMO free Zone” t-shirt. When the staff meeting with me saw it, they were quite excited to see an American making such a statement. They said they do not allow any GMOs in their collection or near the fields where they are regrowing their seeds.
I take my hat off and stand in reverence to those who, more than 70 years ago, gave their lives to protect the world’s greatest collection of seeds. I also take my hat off to those to continue to defend the purity of that collection today against the onslaught of GMO seeds that threaten to contaminate the crops of the entire planet.