Vavilov’s Seed Collection


Maize diversity in Vavilov's office
Luigi Guarino, via Wikipedia

Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov dedicated his life to collecting and storing seeds, even during times of starvation. Ryan Geertsma and Robin Basselin look at this important work.

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Transcript


Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I'm Ryan Geertsma.

Voice 2 

And I'm Robin Basselin. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

The year is 1942. It is winter during World War II. German soldiers have surrounded the Russian city of Leningrad. They have blocked the roads to the city. It has been many months. The people of Leningrad cannot get what they need to survive. Without food, people are starving. Nikolai Vavilov is one of these starving people. Vavilov is a famous plant scientist. He has spent years collecting and studying crop seeds. His hope is to end hunger - to grow enough healthy food for his country and the world.

Voice 2 

At this time, Vavilov is in prison. But his students and friends continue his work. Like Vavilov, they are starving. But they decide to protect Vavilov’s important seed collection. They do not eat the seeds that could keep them alive.

Voice 1 

Why did Vavilov's students starve instead of eating the seeds? And why was a scientist who worked with plants in prison? Today's Spotlight is on the Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov.

Voice 2 

Nikolai Vavilov was a man with a surprising amount of energy and ambition. He had a clear purpose for his life and a strong desire for success. As a young boy, he knew he wanted to become a scientist. When he became one, he devoted his life to his work. Vavilov worked long hours. He would wake early in the morning, before anyone else. And then he would work late into the night. Vavilov was often bent over a book researching. But he also worked outside - with plants in the fields. And Vavilov travelled around the world - collecting seeds from faraway places.

Voice 1 

Vavilov had an unusual kind of ambition. He did not want to become rich or famous. His ambition was to use science to end hunger. To achieve this goal, he spent much of his life collecting and studying seeds. He believed that these seeds, with the help of modern science, could provide enough food for the whole world.

Voice 2 

Vavilov also wanted to bring honour and respect to his country. He wanted Russia to have the largest collection of seeds in the world. Vavilov knew that the life of a plant is contained in its seed. When he found strong, healthy plants, he saved their seeds. He studied the seeds to produce better crops. Vavilov risked his life many times in dangerous trips across many continents. He went looking for seeds in North and South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. When he found rare and valuable seeds, he brought them back to Russia. By the 1940s, Vavilov’s seed collection was the largest in the world.

Voice 1 

Vavilov’s desire to end hunger came from his own life experience. His family was from a small village of farmers. This village often suffered from lack of food, or famine. Many people died during these famines. Vavilov wanted to help the world avoid famine and starvation. Peter Pringle is a writer. He studied Vavilov's life and writings. In private writings, Vavilov wrote:

Voice 3 

"I will use my life to understand nature for the improvement of human life. I promise to work to help the poor."

Voice 2 

Vavilov's intelligence and ambition helped him achieve a very high position in Russia. At first, the government gave him much freedom to study and explore. But in 1922, this began to change. A new leader, named Joseph Stalin, gained control of the Russian government. Stalin made major changes to laws and the government system. He arrested and killed thousands of people, including many scientists.

Voice 1 

At first, Stalin let Vavilov continue his work. But, in 1932, Russia experienced an extreme famine. Five million people died from hunger. Stalin wanted Russia’s scientists to find a solution to famine immediately. He did not want to wait. Vavilov explained that developing new crops took years of care and research. But Stalin did not listen to Vavilov. He listened to a man named Trofim Lysenko. Vavilov did not agree with Lysenko’s theories. Lysenko claimed that he had a quick answer to the famine. So, Stalin chose Lysenko to replace Vavilov. But Lysenko was not well educated. And later, science proved his theories false.

Voice 2

For many years, Vavilov's high position among international scientists protected him. Stalin did not want to anger the international community. So, he let Vavilov remain free. But then World War II came. The international community was busy with the war. So, Stalin finally put Nikolai Vavilov in prison.

Voice 1 

This is where our Spotlight program began. The year was 1942. The German army had surrounded the Russian city of Leningrad. It was a siege. The Germans had blocked all food from going into the city. They planned to capture Leningrad and take control. But Vavilov's scientists guarded his important seed collection night and day. After many months, people began to starve. National Geographic reports:

Voice 4

"Although they suffered from hunger, the scientists refused to eat the seeds. They saw them as their country's future. By the end of the siege, in the spring of 1944, nine of the people guarding the seeds had died of starvation."

Voice 2 

Vavilov’s seeds remained safe. But after three years in prison, Nikolai Vavilov tragically died. Like so many other people in Leningrad, he died of starvation. When the war ended, scientists around the world learned what happened to Vavilov. The scientific community was deeply saddened. Even after his death, the scientific community gave Vavilov many international awards and honours.

Voice 1

Today, Russians consider Nikolai Vavilov a national hero. And his work remains important to science. In a famous scientific paper about Vavilov, two Russian authors praised his achievements. They wrote,

Voice 5 

"Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov is our national pride. He served his people with great love. He gave the full power of his 55 years to scientific truth, and to the free growth of science to help the world."

Voice 2 

Nikolai Vavilov died long ago. But his dream of a global seed collection is still alive. Today, scientists in Svalbard, Sweden keep copies of his seeds safe in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Listen for another Spotlight program on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. And learn how this seed collection is protecting the world’s seeds!

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Jennifer Hawkins. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, "Vavilov’s Seed Collection."

Voice 2  

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

Do you think it is important to protect and save seeds? Would you risk your life to protect them?

Comments


Avatar Spotlight
Luckyman...
said on March 31, 2014

He is a human hero.He gave a full power of his life for science truth. it is free of science. i admire him deeply.

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Ufer
said on April 03, 2014

Respect to all Russian scientist

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Jimmy Roberto Espinoza Mercado
said on April 03, 2014

We have not stopped our minds in the times where the starvation and the need, create the greatness to end the famine and honour the hero. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, the scientist who loved plants and the humanity too, the man who wanted to end the hunger in the world, the hero who gave the best of him. The scientist, who will always be the pride of the Russian people, has died; but his dreams, like the dreams of everyone who love the people, remain unbeaten against death. Thank you!

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Jaime Velasco Ordoñez
said on August 15, 2018

To be honest I consider that when someone achieve something so important that is becoming famous would have to be before died to when he or she receive de awards and a better deserved life.Sometimes life is unfair .

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Honneur
said on August 15, 2018

Vavilov, and the members of his crew, are mankind heroes. Happy is the country which has men and women like that, with knowledge and determination to serve their people. Happier will be the nations wich could have politicians thinking in the same template.
By the way, in Brasília, DF, there is a Bank of Seeds, colected and preserved by Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Company). I remember that it has seeds of 170 diferent wheat types and thousands of others plants.

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kenhieuloilam
said on August 17, 2018

We love beautiful good things in life. We love one another in life. We live our lives with love. Power of love helps us act. None of us does not experience difficulties in life. None of us does not experience sufferings in life. Love of each of us to beautiful good things is great. Love of each of us to one another is great. We love beautiful good things. We love one another. We live our lives for beautiful good things. We die for beautiful good things.