In the beginning of spring, dacha owners, who are now frightened by the prices on the Russian food market, become more active as usual. If prices in stores become unaffordable, people will have to survive again with the help of the gardening like in the 1990s.
What will we feed the people with?
According to farmers, Russia does not have its own seeds and has to buy them abroad for foreign currency. The chances are that this will eventually lead to higher prices for vegetables in stores.
“What are we going to feed the people with?” asked Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko at the December 24, 2021 session of the Federation Council during the senators' consideration of the, in general, non-resonant bill on seed growing in Russia. She assessed the work of the Ministry of Education and Science and the Ministry of Agriculture as “unsatisfactory.” Back in 2017, these two ministries were instructed to address the issue of seed import substitution.
Matvienko was outraged by the almost complete absence of domestic seed stock. “The situation is simply catastrophic in terms of seed production. Why the Ministry of Agriculture deals with it without “energy”? Domestic seed production has been completely ruined since the 1990s <...> I am not talking about corn, potatoes, and wheat! But when I visited a greenhouse farm in one of the regions and was told that parsley, dill and lettuce are also imported seeds, it really became the last straw,” the media wrote, citing Matvienko.
The story of the last ten years
In 2011, the “Strategy for the development of breeding and seed production until 2020” was adopted. It was assumed that by 2020, the provision of domestic seeds would be at least 75%.
In 2011, provision with domestic seeds was 35% of domestic seed material for sugar beet, 47% for potatoes, and 66% for corn.
Now the situation is as follows: 0.8% of domestic seeds for sugar beet, 12% of planting material for potatoes, and 46% for corn. The number of crops has reached zero, i.e. there are no Russian seeds left.
According to information of Minister of Agriculture Dmitry Patrushev, the amount of domestic seeds cannot seriously compete with imported ones due to the lack of modern infrastructure and material and technical base of seed farms and selection centers. The share of sugar beet hybrids seeds of foreign selection generally reaches 98%.
“Today we buy seeds abroad because all seed stocks were destroyed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and seed production stations were closed,” said Arkady Dudov, a farmer from Volgograd. “It will take decades to revive all this.”
Now Russia uses Dutch and American seeds. They sell us hybrids which we grow but we cannot get a pure-line selection out of these fruits right away. It will take five years. Seven years ago, I was concerned about this problem and got the first seeds and the first results. But at the local level it is not supported in any way, on the contrary, they stifle us with all sorts of inspections.”
The cost of seed testing has always been borne by the state, said Vyacheslav Vasilenko, Deputy Chairman of the Legislative Assembly of Rostov region, Doctor of Agricultural Sciences, and Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Funds, fuel, fertilizers and equipment were allocated for it,” he said. “Now, it is proposed to do all this at the expense of breeders. But they hardly have enough money for breeding work itself and for breeding these new varieties and hybrids. The cost of testing will be an intolerant burden. It should remain a responsibility of the state.”
Between 10 and 14 million tonnes of different seeds are used annually in Russia. For example, within 700 thousand tones are used in the Rostov region. According to Vasilenko, part of these seeds should be reserved in the insurance fund, and it is not such a big burden. No one says that these seeds should be distributed to farmers for free in case of emergency. No, they should be sold, but there should be the fund itself, the stock of seeds.
Seed Fund of the USSR
The collection of the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg stores unique samples of seeds of many agricultural plants, collected for 114 years, starting from 1904. From 1923 to 1940, up to the arrest and death of Nikolai Vavilov in the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD; the interior ministry of the Soviet Union – ed.note) Vavilov and his colleagues made 180 expeditions, 40 of them to 65 countries. As a result, in 1940, the world's richest collection of cultivated plants was collected, with more than 250,000 specimens.
The priceless collection was meticulously cared for. It was not eaten even during the darkest days of the Leningrad blockade’s hunger, when people had to chew belts with carpenter's glue to survive. Twenty-eight employees of the Institute died of starvation, but not a single grain or potato tuber was lost.
The Institute's collection was actively replenished even after the Second World War. There are seeds of agricultural plant varieties from around the world, and many of these plants have long been absent from the world.
To solve the problem of long-term storage the storage of seeds of the world collection of the Vavilov Institute, Kuban genetic seed bank, was built in 1976. A small one-story building stands on an artificially created hill. Bunkers for long-term storage of seeds are underground and go deep into the ground for two floors.
Now, the Kuban Genetic Seed Bank, like other budgetary organizations, drags out a miserable existence. The walls of the underground floors have not been repaired since they were built. Scientific research is not financed. Money is allocated only for salaries and electricity.
However, it is important to deal with everything, including the preservation of the collection, by allocating sufficient funding for care and reproduction. The thing is that some seeds have a certain shelf life, after which they do not sprout. So, they need to be planted to get fresh seeds. To do so, it is necessary to allocate facilities and pay people decent wages.
It is hard to estimate the significance of this collection for the world, all the more so for Russia. This is not just a collection of seeds. This is a collection of genetic information, accumulated over the years of breeding cultivars, which is necessary to maintain old varieties and create new ones.
What comes next?
According to Alexei Shemetov, vice-president of Eco-culture Holding, the quality of domestic seed material is still lower than imported so far. In addition, most of the seeds for protected ground are still imported to Russia, mainly from the Netherlands. Because of this, the volume of vegetable production and its final cost are highly dependent on the ruble exchange rate and the export potential of the supplier countries.
However, agrarians believe that if vegetables become more expensive in the nearest future, it will not be because of seeds. According to Rector of Volgograd State Agrarian University Vitaly Tseplyaev, farmers were buying at the old exchange rates.
“Speaking of the current year, all vegetable growers in the Volgograd region are already provided with seeds. Seedlings are already being planted. Seeds were purchased earlier. The preparatory season starts in the previous year. Contracts are signed in November-December. There is a problem with seeds, and the truth must be told on that matter. Many scientists are engaged in breeding and seed production of vegetable crops. But it is not quite right to say that the lack of seeds will make vegetables more expensive. We already have vegetable crops planted in greenhouses in the region,” Tseplyaev said.
Vladimir Loboyko, doctor of technical sciences, honored ecologist of the Russian Federation, also believes that the problem of seeds in the country is already being solved. Maybe not as fast, but still.
“The Ministry of Agriculture set the task two years ago that we need to cultivate our own seeds for vegetable crops, among other things. Agrarian universities responded quickly. New varieties began to appear, such as Novichok and Volgograd tomatoes. As far as I know, farmers were provided with these seeds very successfully. In my opinion, this year our vegetable growers and breeders will be able to continue producing these seeds,” Loboyko said.
He believes that the sanctions will only help the agricultural sector and stimulate its development. “Wheat prices have already gone up, as well as corn prices,” Loboyko said. “In general, recent years show that we do not have big problems in agriculture.
“There were slight problems with vegetable oil, for example, but we timely imposed restrictions on markups for resellers, and oil has stayed afloat. There were also problems with borsch set as prices skyrocketed in a short time. But we coped with it. We raised the reserves and provided cities and the countryside with these vegetables. To my thinking, our Mother Russia will withstand any examinations and sanctions. Moreover, thanks to the sanctions, our agriculture is developing.”
However, despite all government measures to support seed breeding, this sector will long suffer the failures of several post-Soviet decades. Above all, in the scientific basis, without which modern breeding is unthinkable.
To benefit from the recent achievements in seed breeding, it is necessary to restore the former systematic approach. Without this, Russian seed production in many segments will continue to depend on imports, even despite new projects.