The Vavilov Seed Bank: A Critically Important Lesson For The Wine Industry

A story of heroism and biodiversity that is more important now than ever.

7/28/20235 min read

In 1941, as the Eastern Front offensive began surrounding Leningrad with German armed forces, the world’s most extensive seed collection found itself trapped within the city - over 200,000 samples of grains, fruits, vegetables and other crops gathered from around the globe by the Vavilov Seed Bank. This diversity represented decades of diligent collection expeditions by researchers seeking to locate and preserve unique cultivated plant varieties in order to bolster global food security against famine and crop failures.

The Vavilov Institute was founded in 1921 under pioneering botanist Nikolai Vavilov and had amassed samples through researchers traveling to over 50 countries to identify and collect little-known regional crop varieties and their wild relatives. This rare genetic material held invaluable potential to breed hardier, higher-yielding, more resilient new generations of crops. Safeguarding such agricultural biodiversity was regarded as essential to ensuring civilization would never again endure famines as catastrophic as those that had devastated Russia in the early 20th century, killing millions.

As the Siege of Leningrad tightened with the city fully blockaded by encircling German forces in September 1941, some staff at the Vavilov Institute requested evacuation along with other cultural treasures like artwork. But their plea was denied; with the Soviet Union famously opposed to research in modern genetics, the institute received very little support. Around the city, the German forces ironically implemented tactics the institute was striving to prevent: famine. The blockade prevented any food supplies from entering the city.

Refusing to abandon decades of passionate work assembling this singularly valuable living collection, a group of institute scientists made the devastating choice to barricade themselves inside the facility. They dedicated themselves to subsisting on only the barest of rations, enduring bitter cold, acute starvation and likely death, all to preserve the institute’s precious seed bank for future generations.

These brave scientists lived alone through the brutal, grueling 900-day Siege of Leningrad. By the time the blockade finally ended in January 1944, most had slowly perished from chronic malnutrition and illness over the preceding winter. Only one unnamed staff member survived to see the city liberated.

Throughout the siege’s privations and bombardments, the diverse seed collection miraculously endured thanks to the ultimate self-sacrifice of those who protected it. The perseverance of this scientific gift to future agricultural advancement and food security embodied heroic dedication to a mission larger than one’s own life.

This chilling historical episode spotlights the immense value of crop biodiversity and the extreme sacrifices required to safeguard such precious genetic heritage against seemingly insurmountable threats. These Vavilov botanists gave their very lives, never consuming the collection of beans and seeds, so that crop variability might be preserved through one of humanity’s darkest hours. They perished so that future generations might live on.

The tale profoundly resonates today, as lack of diversity poses escalating threats to food systems worldwide, including within vitally important crops like grapes. The modern wine industry epitomizes this dangerous trend of agricultural homogenization. Across nearly all major winegrowing regions globally, only a handful of popular grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir account for the vast majority of vineyards and production. That’s four varieties. Out of over 10,000 that are available to make grape wine.

This extreme consolidation down to a few “marketable” grapes and clones leaves global wine production highly vulnerable by severely limiting adaptability and resilience. Biodiversity serves as a form of insurance; mono-variety agriculture is by definition fragile. Epidemics readily ravage genetically uniform populations. The narrower a crop’s cultivated gene pool, the greater its precariousness.

Ireland’s devastating 19th-century Potato Famine stands as perhaps the most infamous historical example of the perils of agricultural homogenization. This tragedy was directly triggered by a single blight easily wiping out the lone potato variety then widely cultivated throughout the country. Yet the risks of genetic uniformity are not merely historical. The 1970 Southern Corn Leaf Blight destroyed 15% of the United States maize harvest by devastating genetically similar hybrid varieties lacking resistance.

And I'm sure we've all heard of phylloxera. After a huge portion of world vineyards were wiped out, our industry responded by embracing native and hybrid grape varieties to their fullest extent and finally moved away from worshiping only six French varieties, right? Nope... despite North American grapes being naturally resilient against the pest, all the US wine industry did was use native roots to continue planting and consuming Cabernet and Merlot in mass volumes.

Diversity provides protection against such catastrophic crop failures by introducing variability. With many distinct varieties in cultivation, single diseases or pests rarely impact all simultaneously. Chance alone leaves some individuals unaffected, allowing propagation of the overall population. Genetic variations that confer partial resistance are also statistically more likely to arise, enabling future selective breeding. Biodiversity enables adaptation.

As global environments transform with climate change, efforts to maintain and intelligently expand agricultural biodiversity will only increase in urgent importance. Even many lauded European Vitis vinifera grapes long considered ideally “noble” varieties will shift out of optimal growing conditions in various traditional wine-growing regions worldwide as ecosystems warm. Promoting expanded cultivation of more diverse grape varieties specifically selected for suitability to emerging localized conditions is becoming critical for truly sustainable viticulture on a hotter planet.

Collectively we can honor past sacrifices that preserved invaluable seed diversity by actively utilizing such heritage through modern breeding approaches, not merely passively storing genetics away in freezers. While safely maintaining seed collections is absolutely worthwhile, only actively circulating and thoughtfully studying biodiversity in fields and labs allows society to fully benefit from its protective potentials against looming food system shocks. And this can’t happen in wine without the consumer supporting these efforts through changes in purchasing habits.

Though the individual names and precise biographical details are lost to history, the legendary collective sacrifice of the Vavilov Institute’s botanists during the Siege of Leningrad in WWII remains powerfully instructive when pondering biodiversity’s modern significance. Their extraordinary dedication to safeguarding nature’s genetic library, even under the most desperate and bleak wartime circumstances imaginable, ultimately helped nourish future generations after immense tragedy.

Today, every breeding effort, consumer purchase, media portrayal or policy enactment represents an impactful opportunity to likewise steward biodiversity for an uncertain future. The essential crops feeding civilization depend fundamentally on maintaining such vision to cultivate resilience against rising environmental pressures. Through shared diligence across all levels of society, living legacies of crop diversity can and must be preserved.

Intentionally growing a wider array of grape varieties in vineyards or wheat and potato strains in fields may seem insignificant against the scale of challenges today’s world faces. Yet such actions connect vitally to deeper principles of stewardship and foresight. Biodiversity enables resilience and renewal. To remember the sacrifice personified by those nameless botanists who perished within Leningrad's frozen siege, we need only open more eyes to genetic diversity’s profound significance and plant each season’s harvest with hope for the future.

So where do we start?

Consumers - drink more native wine. Yes they will taste different, but variety and exploration are largely what make wine interesting, right?

Winemakers - do some research into what varieties are native to the region in which you are about to plant a vineyard. Sure you may have to put some more money behind marketing and education, but you are sowing success for your region’s future.

Somms and wine pros - you’re the organic part of the marketing and education mentioned above. Wineries won’t have to budget as much for marketing if you are buying and selling intentionally and responsibly.