The Collector

Nikolaj Ivanovich Vavilov, Russian botanist, geneticist and seed hunter, is a dead-set legend. His life story, let alone his achievements, should be more widely known. Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan reckons, ‘All of our notions about biological diversity and needing diversity of foods on our plates to keep us healthy sprung from his work eighty years ago. If justice be done, he would be as famous as Darwin.’

The story of Vavilov is marked by scientific discovery and sacrifice: born in Moscow in 1887 and steeped in his father’s tales of crop failure and famine, he set out in the early part of the 20th century to improve the lot of the people by breeding for resilience in key crops. After an education in botany, mycology, plant pathology and genetics, he travelled the globe, amassing the world’s largest collection of plant seeds. Long before many other scientists, Vavilov paid attention to the creeping loss of valuable plant species, of protecting ecology and diversity to support sustainable agriculture. He understood the link between plant diversity and food security. With access to a variety of genotypes, Vavilov and his fellow breeders could breed for, and aggregate, desirable traits to achieve high yield and quality by enabling crops to thrive in challenging conditions.

On more than a hundred expeditions from 1916 to 1936, Vavilov travelled throughout Asia, the Americas and elsewhere, collecting thousands of lines of seeds from which a thousand more could be bred. He gathered wheat, beans, poppies, oats, coffee, corn, rice, tea, fruit, vegetables, herbs, roots, rhizobia and more. He took notes on plants, language and culture, amassing a treasure trove of botanical and linguistic information.

Adventure abounds. Vavilov led caravans of fellow botanists on horseback, worked with local guides, and taught himself local dialects. At one point, returning from a spell in the Wakhan Valley, he fell between the carriages of an Afghan locomotive, holding himself up at the armpits until pulled to safety. Another time, his plane crashed in the Sahara and lions encircled the wreckage until he was rescued. Further east, he woke in Abyssinia with scorpions and spiders overrunning his tent. More than once he was detained as a spy and his local guides disappeared. He was hard-working and alive with the task at hand, swiftly gathering others to his cause.

VAVILOV ESTABLISHED the world’s largest seed bank and a network of agricultural research teams at ‘experimental stations’ across the newly minted Soviet Union. Today, his original collection remains the core of the gene bank at the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry in St Petersburg, where thousands of lines of key crops and rare plants are conserved and accessed by breeders worldwide.

Among his other scientific contributions was the definition and identification of ‘Centres of Origin’. Now also known as ‘Vavilov Centres’, they are the regions globally where key plants were first domesticated and – as proven by Vavilov – where epic plant diversity still remains in wild ancestors and landraces (populations of seed saved from year to year over centuries by successive generations specifically adapted to local conditions). These days in Russia, he’s lauded as a hero of the Soviet era, a few rungs down from the first man in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Both have impact craters named for them on the dark side of the moon.

But Vavilov’s legacy was not always so stellar. Indeed, it is miraculous his seed collection survived at all.

FOR OVER A DECADE, Vavilov was director of the All-Russian Plant Breeding Institute and President of the Lenin Agriculture Academy, but not everyone appreciated his understanding of the new field of genetics, nor his penchant for sharing knowledge with other scientists around the world. Political repression and anti-science sentiment grew during the rule of Stalin, curtailing Vavilov’s expeditions and breeding efforts. Vavilov’s protégé, biologist and fervent communist Trofim Lysenko, disagreed with his former mentor’s pursuit of improved genetics and Darwin’s precepts of natural selection. Rather, he believed that crops would improve if exposed to the ‘right’ environment, just as Soviet citizens would advance, once exposed to the ‘right’ ideology. (While the field of epigenetics suggests that genes can be ‘turned on’ by the environment, these genes have to be there to begin with.) Vavilov challenged these assertions, but the careerist Lysenko had the ear of Stalin. Backed up with bodgy evidence, the pseudoscience of Lysenkoism began to dominate the discourse. Lysenko was promoted, Vavilov demoted. He was publicly shamed and scapegoated as the cause of rationing. Vavilov was arrested, accused of espionage and sabotage, and locked up in solitary confinement to await sentence.

Lysenko’s star rose ever higher during Stalin’s rule. As historian and molecular geneticist Vadim Birstein puts it, his ‘crackpot prescriptions for quick agricultural gains appealed to Stalin’s desire for simple solutions’. As it turns out, the offspring of peas soaked in ice do not become tolerant of the cold – this was an experiment only Lysenko found to produce satisfactory evidence. Lysenkoism was disastrous for Soviet agriculture, eventually killing millions through famine – ideology couldn’t overcome biology. As referenced recently by Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, commenting on former US President Donald Trump’s censure of climate change statistics, Lysenkoism is now synonymous with the deliberate perversion of scientific fact to further political motives.

Like thousands of scientists during Stalin’s rule, Vavilov was sentenced to death in 1941. A year later, sensing execution of a lauded citizen might be a PR problem, Stalin commuted the sentence to twenty years’ labour in a Gulag work camp. In 1943, Vavilov died of dystrophy: an extreme state of starvation where the body eats itself and becomes so malnourished it can no longer glean nutrition from food. What we now know of dystrophy is founded in studies by Vavilov’s fellow imprisoned scientists, and Nazi research undertaken in death camps.

Prison mugshot of Nikolaj Vavilov, 1942.

Vavilov’s work appeared lost. During World War Two and the siege of Leningrad, the priceless art in the Hermitage was moved to distant parts of the country by the State, but 187,000 varieties of seeds (of which 40,000 were from food crops) at the plant breeding institute were not. Stalin’s disregard for the resource wasn’t shared by Hitler, who assembled an elite Nazi commando squad to find and pilfer the collection. The research scientists, still working at the institute through bombs, cold and hunger, sought to protect their old boss’s collection and its potential to support a more resilient future. They devised ways to protect the seeds and tubers – from the cold, the Germans, the city’s starving inhabitants and each other. They kept the thousands of lines under lock and key in various buildings, with no-one allowed time alone with each cache. They sent a cross-section of seed to Estonia and Lithuania, but it was captured by the Nazis in Ukraine (itself perhaps the greatest prize in global grain trade) and ferried to Germany. Another tranche was sent to the Urals and lost.

By the spring of 1942, the botanists, fearful that some of the seeds would lose viability, tilled, sowed, tended and harvested a selection of lines on scraps of land on the city’s outskirts, taking turns to guard the crops as they matured amid daily shelling.

Leningrad remained isolated and under blockade for 872 days, bombarded daily and frozen over three times. As the siege ground on and famine descended, city squares were planted with cabbages, cannibalism abounded and bread was made from sawdust. Nine of Vavilov’s colleagues remained, including Georgi Kriyer, keeper of the medicinal plant collection, Alexander Stchukin, keeper of the peanut collection and Olga Voskresenskaya, keeper of the potato collection.

They moved the most precious material to a single room and slept with it in shifts, continuing to protect it from Nazis and local marauders. Through a potent blend of patriotism, fear, peer pressure, regard for their old boss and sheer bloody mindedness, they refrained from eating any part of the collection while the entire city was ravaged by hunger. By the end of the siege, a million civilian inhabitants had died.

Surrounded by packets and drawers of corn, wheat, beans, potatoes, rice, peanuts and a cornucopia of other edible plants, the nine remaining botanists starved to death.

VAVILOV’S SEED COLLECTION has been replicated several times and much of it is now held in other seed collections around the globe, including the ‘Doomsday’ Vault in Svalbard and the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham, Victoria, the third largest cereals collection in the world. But to truly conserve diversity it must be nurtured, not held in a sub-zero vault. A diversity of species and a diversity of genetics within species must be grown. Thirty thousand plant species have been identified as edible, but ninety-five per cent of the world’s food is derived from only thirty. Further, only three – wheat, maize and rice – account for fifty-six per cent of the kilojoules humanity consumes. Within these crops we’ve been exploiting a dangerously narrow band of genetics in the decades since the Green Revolution of the 1960s. The other edible plants are termed ‘neglected and under-utilised crops’ and, as such, we are not only wasting a valuable agricultural resource, but the food preparations, knowledge and culture attached to these plants is quickly disappearing.

All is not lost. There is resurgent interest in diverse genetics, and breeders big and small are scrambling to re-diversify our key crops in order to avoid the risks that monocultures present. This includes introgressions of wild relatives with beneficial genotypes, and the development of genetically diverse in-field ‘populations’ that confer resilience through diversity itself. There is still much to explore. For example, most of the wild relatives of rice and another key cereal, sorghum, are found in northern Australia, although none are currently used in cultivation. Who knows what traits might be found to help define a more resilient future? Perhaps if we persist in breeding from a diversity of material, the extensive chemical inputs and long global supply chains our current agriculture relies upon will be significantly reduced – a more sustainable future is in reach. As late nature writer and novelist Barry Lopez pointed out, ‘Diversity is not a characteristic of life, it is a condition necessary for life. Like air and water.’

IN THE PAST SIX YEARS, my partner Emma and I have grown hundreds of different wheats or wheat relatives on our farm – rare modern and heritage lines, ancient grains, landraces, genetic oddities and newer innovations like perennials. We tend a modest library of grains that is particularly beautiful because of its diversity; the huge variance in physical forms and the knowledge that many of the lines represent genetics and qualities not in the commodity system. Our collection numbers in the hundreds and represents a logistical nightmare, but it is dwarfed by the Vavilov collection. Knowing of the effort that goes into our lines, it’s mind-boggling to think of the work that went into collecting, documenting and propagating seed from all over the world, for decades.

I’ve always pictured Vavilov chest-deep in the stepped wheat fields of the Wakhan Valley at the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, where he undertook three expeditions in the 1920s. In my mind he wears a three-piece woollen suit – nearly all photos show him in one – but he’s more likely in loose pants, leather gaiters, linen shirt and broad-brim hat, bags of plant samples slung at his belt. A nerdy, botanical Indianovich Jones. Surrounding him is the full grandeur of life on Earth. Wakhi wheat fields at the time were far from monocultures of narrow genetics introduced from elsewhere. Each field comprised populations that were the result of intergenerational seed saving, interminglings of landraces and wild ancestor wheats. The fields there are diverse to this day.

There are few plants as beautiful as wheat, en masse or individually. As Dr Stephen Jones from Washington State University’s Bread Lab points out, ‘The great Impressionists didn’t paint lettuce.’ For me, the greatest part of that beauty is diversity. We have hundreds of types of wheat growing in our trial plots. Each time I visit, I am calmed to be among such beauty. Plants that are beardless, long awned or covered in tiny velveteen hairs. Waxy ones, slim ones, chunky ones, ones that are black, gold or red. Some have a sort of lax vibe, others upright. Some are strappy in their growth or have fine straw. A few are profuse with spherical seed, others with long humped grain or a blue aleurone layer. The diversity of just this one plant dwarfs the diversity in humanity. Imagine what complexity resides across all other species.

EVERY YEAR, Emma and I sow a small plot of Triticum vavilovii, a genetic oddity displaying a rare branching head. It has no obvious functional purpose for us, but we grow it because it reminds us of Vavilov and his fellow botanists, and because it is beautiful.

Time is short, time is short and there is so much to do. One must hurry. – Nikolaj Vavilov. (b. Moscow, 1887 – d. Saratov Gulag, 1943)