Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
During World War II, in the fall of 1941, German forces advancing across the Soviet Union surrounded the city of Leningrad in a grievous siege that left about 1 million people dead.
Although antitank fortifications and the city’s defenders kept the invaders at bay for 28 months, dwindling food supplies eventually tipped its residents toward the brink of starvation. In the heart of the city, malnourished botanists hunkered down inside the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry. They fought off ravenous rats and suppressed their own hunger to protect a vast collection of seeds from around the world. When the bombs finally stopped raining down in what is now St. Petersburg, several of the institute’s workers had starved to death rather than consume the seeds that would preserve plant diversity for future generations. Their act of sacrifice is still remembered as a gift for humanity.
I learned about this extraordinary historical account while doing research during my Knight Science Journalism Project Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a year when a pandemic provoked a crisis of dire societal consequences that still linger, the fellowship couldn’t have come at a better time. It allowed me to spend the latter part of 2020 focused on doing research for my ongoing project about the origin and evolution of corn.
Corn seeds were among the collection that Nikolai I. Vavilov, a Russian biologist, botanist, and geneticist, was largely credited with creating at the institute. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the scientist and his team scoured five continents to collect different plant varieties for what he envisioned as a global seed bank that could help fight world hunger. But Vavilov, like other Soviet scientists, in time fell out of favor with the totalitarian government and died in prison before the war ended in 1945.
Although Vavilov didn’t live to see it, his namesake institute grew to become one of the world’s premier seed banks seeking to preserve the genetic diversity of plants in cool, dry, and dark places. The largest is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault between mainland Norway and the North Pole, built inside a mountain in 2008 to store backup seed samples from all over the planet and ensure a food supply for humanity if calamity hits. Nicknamed the Doomsday Vault, it has collected about 1 million varieties of crops from almost every country in the world, and can withstand earthquakes, bombings, and other threats.
Seed conservation isn’t just limited to large seed banks, though. Over the years, as crop diversity has declined sharply — a decline the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization attributes to such factors as unsustainable agricultural practices, urbanization, and industrialization — smaller seed banks have become increasingly important for communities working to build food security. The practice, part of a growing movement, is not so much new as a modern iteration of a custom that goes all the way back to the world’s early farmers, who saved the best seeds one year to plant their crops the next.
At the Vavilov Institute and around the world, the work of its founder lives on and the sacrifice of those who perished has not been forgotten. The plant genetic resources that institute workers died protecting would go on to breed crops that now feed millions of people.
Lourdes Medrano is a freelance journalist based in Southern Arizona. Her reporting often focuses on matters relevant to both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, including immigration and environmental issues.