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What is the Relevance of Vavilov in the Year 2010?

Ed. note: Gary Nabhan was recently given the honor of presenting the biennial Vavilov Memorial Lecture in Moscow and offering a similar lecture in Saint Petersburg, and was further honored with the gift of the Vavilov Medal. These are his reflections after years of retracing Vavilov through the centers of food diversity, while writing the book Where Our Food Comes From, and after spending time with the staff of the Vavilov General Genetics Institute in Moscow, and VIR in Saint Petersburg. 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. I have also spoken with his surviving descendants: his own living son, Yuri; and VIR’s director, Nikolay, who continues to manage the tremendous scientific effort begun many decades ago. They remain committed to Nikolay Vavilov’s vision, but why? Political and economic support for such conservation has waxed and waned over the years, and there are always new challenges and frustrations. Oddly, it seems that a certain emotional, philosophical and perhaps spiritual commitment to this work has seldom waned among its participants. One quickly realizes that these people are not necessarily in it for the money, the social approval of professional peers, nor the fame, if any! Instead, they find something inherently and immensely satisfying about saving the remaining living riches of the world’s agricultural landscapes and cultures: the seeds, fruits and roots which feed us. They are working for a higher purposes, for the good of humanity, and if the work is done properly, the good of the earth itself. 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.