A single statistic is the first thing that really grabs viewers of the film Seed: The Untold Story. Portland, Oregon–based directors Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel report that 94 percent of the seed varieties have been lost since the early 20th century.
The film also cites a study revealing that since 1983 in the United States, 544 varieties of cabbage have disappeared. Over the same period 158 varieties of cauliflower have vanished, 34 varieties of artichokes no longer exist, and 46 varieties of asparagus are no longer available.
So why hasn’t a crisis of this magnitude attracted much media attention? In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Betz attributed it to an “information war” being waged by large chemical, agricultural, and industrial farming companies to promote genetically modified seeds as the solution to the world’s food and climate problems.
“It’s all about how we can engineer the seed to cure our problems in the future,” Betz said. “It’s at odds with the story we have in the film.”
Betz and Taggart take viewers on a journey around the world to show how traditional seed breeding and farmers’ ingenuity has been the best defence against famine for 12,000 years. And the directors introduce viewers to a global network of people who’ve dedicated their lives to collecting seeds to preserve diversity in the face of corporate efforts to promote monocultures by patenting their own seed varieties.
One of the leaders in this global movement is Indian writer and antiglobalization activist Vandana Shiva. She’s not a farmer, but she founded an organization called Navdanya, which has helped create 122 seed banks and trained more than 500,000 Indian farmers in “seed sovereignty”. (Shiva will speak in Vancouver on July 14 as part of the Indian Summer festival.)
“It’s clearly her lifelong passion to facilitate these networks of seed savers to give power back to the indigenous farmers,” Betz said.
Shiva has been incredibly outspoken over the suicides of approximately 300,000 farmers in India in the past 30 years. Seed: The Untold Story focuses on one young female seed saver in a farming family whose uncle was one of those who killed himself.
“She convinces her father and her brother to bring back this sort of heritage, heirloom-seed agriculture, and make a go of continuing in the tradition of the sustainable small famers in India,” Betz said. “It’s a really amazing, empowering story.”
The film opens with Maine farmer and seed storer Will Bonsall, whose long white beard wouldn’t seem out of place in biblical times. He likens himself to Noah. But rather than saving the animals, his mission is collecting seeds to prevent the extinction of more plant species.
“Hopefully, they’ll be saved,” Siegal told the Straight. “But you know, seeds are living embryos. They need to breathe and live and be planted again. His wisdom really tells us that we cannot just depend on these seed banks.”
The film also demonstrates the important role that indigenous people have played in preserving seeds over thousands of years. Corn originated in Oaxaca, the documentary reports, and was lovingly nurtured by Native Mexicans to succeed.
This prompted one U.S. saver profiled in the film, Bill McDormand, to say he’s amazed that corporations would claim to own seeds. That’s because when McDormand thinks of all the work that went into creating seeds, he says 99 percent of the royalties should go to indigenous people.
Siegel and Betz also collaborated on the 2010 documentary Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?, which showed how beekeepers, scientists, and activists were responding to the disappearance of the world’s pollinators. In that film and in Seed: The Untold Story, the camera becomes a personality, following charismatic characters on their journeys to address an environmental crises.
“That level of character development is crucial to a film like this,” Siegel explained.
To show how seeds germinate and blossom, the filmmakers grew corn in a Portland garage with soil encased in glass. With the help of time-lapse photography, viewers see the roots develop underground and the stalk sprout of the ground.
“It was absolutely miraculous to us,” Siegel said. “We didn’t rely on just buying stock footage.”
Seed: The Untold Story was only released at the end of March, but it’s already won two awards: the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Nashville Film Festival and the Best in Festival at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival.
“The challenge with any documentary is not just to raise awareness but to catalyze something so that the audience leaves the theatre feeling engaged,” Betz said. “So our mission with the film is to release it throughout the world in partnership with organizations who have been committed to this issue for decades.”
The directors hope their film will encourage people to get involved in supporting local seed banks and rolling back the power of corporations to dictate what food ends up on supper tables.
“We don’t think a top-down solution is going to be the answer to global problems,” Betz declared. “You have to have diversity. Seeds tell us you have to have diversity. The nature of agriculture in our history tells us we need to have diversity.”