Fact Check: Did Russia Destroy One of World's Major Seed Banks in Ukraine?

Earlier this year, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and while Vladimir Putin's forces have largely retreated 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—had sustained weeks of heavy bombardment before Russian troops also withdrew from here in recent days.

But now reports have emerged that a significant scientific facility in the city has been destroyed by the Russians military.

A Ukrainian soldier in Kharkiv outskirts
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 its volume and diversity, located in Kharkiv—was destroyed by Russian shelling.

The facility, which is part of the Plant Production institute's National Center for Plant Genetic Resources of Ukraine (PGRU), 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 army had destroyed the gene bank, while showing footage of himself in a severely damaged building.

In the description of the video, Avramenko said: "By purposeful bombing, the Russian army 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 into ashes by Russian military attacks.

"It was a world-class collection with some varieties being several hundred year old, ancient ones, 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 repeated by some local Ukrainian media outlets and the Twitter account of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"In #Kharkiv, due to the #Russian shelling, the one and only #Ukrainian Gene Bank of plants was burned down," the ministry said in the tweet. "160K of seed samples have been wiped out, including unique ones that wonʼt be restored."

The Facts

Despite the initial sombre reports, some official sources later 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 samples that were being prepared for planting, but that the main collection, was located elsewhere and was "unscathed."

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

Vangheluwe said Avramenko's video apparently shows another research station, "which was effectively bombed, and planting for seed sale was interrupted."

"However, it has nothing to do with the gene bank conserved material," he said. "Conserved seeds are secured under a bunker and the main institution has not been affected."

Newsweek has contacted the Plant Production institute, Sergey Avramenko and the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.

The Ruling

Fact Check - Half True

Half True.

While some seed samples have indeed been destroyed by Russian shelling of a research facility, the main gene bank collection appears to be still intact, according to several experts in the industry and local authorities.