Remembering Nikolai Vavilov: Understated heroism of agricultural scientist.

January this year marked the 80th death anniversary of pioneering agricultural scientist Nikolai Vavilov. He was known for his work on discovering the origins of our most common food crops, which makes his death, from starvation in a Russian prison in 1943, all the more bitterly tragic. Born in 1887, Vavilov was among the first generation of scientists to work with knowledge of Mendel’s laws of genetics, which were worked out in the early 19th century, but only rediscovered at its end. Scientists realised that the existing food crops, which came from generations of selective breeding, probably still had ancestors in the wild with genes that could help breed new disease-resistant varieties or those which adapted for new climates.

Vavilov took the lead in expeditions that crossed the world, to find these wild ancestors, and also varieties of food plants that had been preserved at a local level, and which could be used to breed new varieties. It was a search that took him, and scientists inspired by him, to Persia and the Pamir mountains in search of the ancestors of lentils and chickpeas, Kazakhstan for the oldest apple trees, the Middle East for ancient wheat, the Andes for heirloom potatoes, Mexico for the maize, and many more places for many other crops.

Vavilov used this data to identify centres of exceptional biodiversity, which needed to be preserved and studied. He also accumulated the seeds, fruits and tubers that were being collected into a bank for plant genetic material which he established near Leningrad. It was work that brought him in touch with botanists around the world, who acclaimed his work as vital for the future of mankind. But trouble was brewing back home.

The forced collectivisation of farms had been disastrous for the Soviet Union , causing huge crop failures. As with all authoritarian regimes, the real cause could not be acknowledged, but a scapegoat was needed, and who better than the best known Soviet agricultural scientist? Joseph Stalin demanded to know why Comrade Vavilov was travelling the world rather focussing on raising crop yields. Gary Paul Nabhan, in Where Our Food Comes From, his account of Vavilov’s expeditions, writes that he once had the bad luck “ of nearly running Stalin down as they both turned the corner of a government hallway coming from opposite directions”.

It was a bad omen, but the reality was that Vavilov’s method of searching for plants, identifying their best traits, and then selectively breeding them and waiting to see how they grew, was always going to be too slow for Stalin. The dictator wanted a botanical equivalent for his drastic experiments with the Soviet people, and he found it with the theories of Trofim Lysenko, who advocated intensive, crowded cultivation of plants, and administration of shocks, like heating seeds, with the idea that the stresses would speed change. Lysenko was put in charge of Soviet agriculture and Vavilov was arrested on a final collecting trip to western Ukraine.

Nabhan writes that he may have been deliberately imprisoned with a mentally disturbed man, who stole his food and hastened his end. But Lysenko’s theories ultimately failed, while Vavilov’s methods survived — as did his seed bank, thanks to his devoted scientists who preserved it through the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Several died of starvation rather than eat the food they were preserving, a story told in Elise Blackwell’s harrowing novel Hunger. And in a world where climate change and other disasters threaten food supplies, Vavilov’s work is more vital than ever.

Last year, this column explained how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted the world’s sunflower oil supplies because this was where sunflowers with high oil yields were first bred, and their cultivation popularised, by Russian scientist VS Pustovoit. But Nabhan’s book explains that Pustovoit worked with American varieties collected and given to him by Vavilov. It is just another example of the world’s debt to Vavilov, and the importance of scientific resistance to authoritarians.

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