Did Russia destroy one of the world’s leading seed banks in Ukraine?

Earlier this year, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and while Vladimir Putin’s forces have largely withdrawn from the north of the country and around the capital, kyiv, they are now focusing their offensive on the east.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, suffered weeks of heavy shelling before Russian troops also withdrew from here in recent days.

But now reports have surfaced that the Russian military has destroyed a major scientific facility in the city.

A Ukrainian soldier on the outskirts of Kharkiv
A Ukrainian army soldier walks past a burning natural gas terminal on May 13, 2022 on the northern outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
John Moore/Getty Images

the claim

Reports have emerged online that Ukraine’s national plant gene bank, one of the largest in the world in terms of volume and diversity, located in Kharkiv, was destroyed by Russian bombing.

The facility, which is part of the National Center for Plant Genetic Resources of Ukraine (PGRU) of the Institute of Plant Production, had collected more than 150,000 specimens belonging to hundreds of plant and crop species as of 2021.

But on May 14, a PGRU scientist, Sergey Avramenko, posted a video on his YouTube channel, in which he claimed that the Russian military had destroyed the gene bank, while showing images of himself in a severely damaged building.

In the video description, Avramenko said: “By intentional bombing, the Russian military destroyed the world’s plant gene pool in Ukraine. Tens of thousands of plant varieties from around the world have ceased to exist.”

In the video itself, Avramenko said “everything” had been turned to ash by Russian military strikes.

“It was a world-class collection with some varieties that were several hundred years old, old, and we will hardly be able to restore them,” he said in the video.

Avramenko’s claim that the gene bank had been destroyed was also echoed by some local Ukrainian media and the Twitter account of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.

“In #Kharkiv, due to the bombardment from #Russia, the only plant gene bank in #Ukraine was burned down,” the ministry said in the tweet. “160,000 seed samples have been removed, including the only ones that will not be restored.”

The facts

Despite initial grim reports, some official sources then disputed the claim that the entire gene bank was destroyed. The official Twitter account for the city of Kharkiv, for example, said shelling by Russian forces had destroyed some specimens that were being prepared for planting, but that the main collection was located elsewhere and “unharmed.”

While some of the destroyed work samples may have been lost forever, the main collection, housed in underground vaults, appears to be safe, for now, according to other sources such as Nick Vangheluwe of Euroseed—a trade association for the European seed industry—and Lise Lykke Steffensen, Director of NordGenwhich manages the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Vangheluwe said Avramenko’s video apparently shows another research station, “which was effectively bombed and planting was halted for seed sales.”

“However, it has nothing to do with the material held in the gene bank,” he said. “The preserved seeds are secured under a bunker and the main institution has not been affected.”

news week has contacted the Institute of Plant Production, Sergey Avramenko and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine for comment.

failure

Fact check: half truth

Half true.

While some seed samples have been destroyed by the Russian bombing of a research facility, the genebank’s main collection appears to still be intact, according to several industry experts and local authorities.

FACT CHECK BY Newsweek

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