“Most of us take seeds for granted. But the biological foundation for agriculture is the diversity that exists in each of the different crops—which is embodied in the different seeds. It’s the biological basis of our food production system. The fate of human kind is resting on these genetic resources, so nothing could be more important,” narrates Cary Fowler, former Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, in the 2013 film Seeds of Time. I first saw the documentary at its Telluride Mountainfilm Festival debut in May 2014.
What struck me the most about the film was the correlation between global food security and climate change—which to me, is something that can’t be afforded a debate.
Crop extinction and climate change
The film, produced and directed by Sandy Mcleod, tails Cary as he shares the story of his life’s devotion to seed sustainability. The most recent crop diversity study conducted in the U.S. (completed in 1983) revealed that 93 percent of the known fruit and vegetable varieties have gone extinct since 1903.
One distressing factor to this decline is our modern approach to agriculture, Cary explains. Crop growth doesn’t naturally occur in rows, or as a monoculture. We’ve been modifying the landscape to heed mass quantities of crops. Instead, we should focus on a sustainable approach, by adapting crop varieties to environments. In a monoculture, the loss of crop diversity increases the seeds’ susceptibility to new diseases or insect infestation, which can quickly create an epidemic.
Imagine if you have 20 different types of tomatoes growing in a plot and a new insect flies into town, but only causes sickness in one tomato. The other 19 will likely survive. If those 20 tomatoes are identical and therefore susceptible to infection, you will lose them all.
In Seeds of Time, we learn that the agricultural threats we face on a global level is alarming. Population growth, energy and water limitations, rising energy prices, development pressures and low stockpiles are just a few of impending consequences. However, the single greatest challenge against agriculture is climate change, Cary said.
How do crops adapt to rapidly changing conditions in their environment? Typically, those that are domesticated cannot. Crops that haven’t evolved with the genetic strength to withstand disease, drought and pests will more than likely go extinct.
Essentially, there are two methods to conserving crops. You can either freeze them in a genebank or plant them outside in a garden. In both cases, natural and political threats can still potentially wipe out the seeds. So, the more farmers or genebanks that back up their seeds, the better.
There are close to 1,400 genebanks around the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. But above all, the single largest and safest collection of the world’s crop diversity is held at Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which Cary led the opening of in 2008.
The vault, buried inside the coldest part of an arctic mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, is about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. The vault ensures the survival of seeds against both natural and manmade disasters, and in the event of a power outage, all of the duplicates will remain frozen. Peas, for example, can survive there for thousands of years, and the bank can store millions of seeds.
Peruvian potatoes and cultural heritage
One incredible present-day, on-the-ground effort documented by the film is of the Peruvians in the Sacred Valley. Climate change has progressively caused the valley’s potato variations to die off. While these communities have traditionally been politically divided, their shared desire to preserve their potato varieties has led them to peacefully unite and establish a holistic conservation effort.
Collectively, they gathered 1,400 varieties of potatoes and planted them in a shared garden. They also proposed a dynamic collaboration with Lima’s International Potato Center, asking for technical support to repatriate potato strands that have gone extinct in exchange for data collection on the evolution of the crops.
But, beyond food security, these cultures are motivated by preserving their heritage. “The value of the collaboration meant they could recapture the most important cultural traditions and teach them to their children,” said Pamela Anderson, Director General of the International Potato Center.
While the potato is their valuable food source it is also a window into social customs, marriage rituals and love stories. This story proves that no matter how you look at it, the seed is way more than just a seed.
Catch Seeds of Time at film festivals around the world this fall including:
Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, Santa Fe, New Mexico, October 18, 19
Festival Internazionale di Cinema @ Videodiversita, Trento, Italy—November 5 to 30
View additional film screenings at seedsoftimemove.com.