We’ve all seen images of polar bears clinging to floating ice – a warning of impending climate doom – but I bet few of us have encountered ads pleading for the (less cuddly) genetic diversity of crops. Our failure to give crop diversity the respect it deserves is why one man, Cary Fowler, took it upon himself to collect and preserve every variety of seed agriculture has to offer.
“Nothing could be more important,” says Fowler. In Seeds of Time, a new documentary from Academy Award nominated director Sandy McLeod, the urgency of preserving biodiversity in agriculture is clear: over less than a century, our rich heritage of crop diversity has been diminished by today’s reliance on monoculture, the likelihood of crop failures has never been higher, and we aren’t really paying attention. A 1983 study of US crop diversity, the film reports, showed an alarming decline in crop diversity, noting that 93 percent of known produce varieties had gone extinct over the past century alone.
Civilization is built on the unnatural system of agriculture, which itself is held up on a safety net of biological diversity, explains Cary Fowler, voicing over a captivating visual of wildly diverse seed structures twirling across the screen. Humans have undervalued and misunderstood this fundamental precept of biological survival in their pursuit of short-term productivity, and modern science cannot make up for the loss.
Seeds of Time neatly ties Fowler’s personal background to our plight as a species. After two bouts with cancer, his sense of temporality has allowed him to better appreciate the fragility of our civilization as a system reliant on adaptive agriculture. Resolved to make the most of his life as a survivor, Fowler became the Executive Director at Global Crop Diversity Trust in 2005 with the recognition that agriculture won’t adapt to environmental pressures or climate change on its own – as a human system, it requires human stewardship. He made it his mission to preserve one of our best tools for adaptation, seed diversity.
Seeds of Time follows Fowler on trips around the world to show us firsthand what it takes to procure and protect seeds that embody the past and future of agriculture. Beautiful flyover shots of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the frozen seed bank he helped to secure in Norway, provide a striking, existential look at our human predicament, and the film’s grasp of the historical and current impacts on seed banking is well worth the 77 minute watch. It’s impossible not to admire the work of the forward-thinking seed banking heroes in the film. Fowler’s story shines as a beacon among the many efforts of crop diversity preservation throughout history. From starving seed savers in Leningrad during World War II to environmental and civil catastrophes in developing nations today, the struggle to preserve crop diversity in a world blind to its mistakes is ongoing.
"One of the reasons that Cary’s story was so compelling to me," says director Sandy McLeod, "is that I can’t really think of another human being who has done something almost single-handedly that effects every single person on this planet. When we look at our plates, we don’t see the people’s names that saved the seeds that represent the foods that we eat. But Cary like a modern day Vavilov saw that the world was losing it’s food seeds at a dramatic rate and was able to help us save what was left of those seeds. He saw something that needed to be changed and he did something about it. And I am really glad that he did."
In addition to Fowler’s story, Seeds of Time examines the impact of seed saving on people around the world. The film explores the deep connections other cultures have with varieties of different plant species, like the 200-plus potato varieties farmed in the Peruvian Andes. Cultural diversity is intimately tied to food, which draws from the richness of regional crops, so abandoning crop diversity in modern agriculture has threatened cultures that have been forced to change the way they eat. Seed libraries and exchanges are establishing a culture of preservation, growing diverse crops each season to share and continue the development of seed diversity. If you visit your local farmers’ market, or locate a seed library on the Seeds of Time website to grow your own, you will find heirlooms fruits and vegetables that preserve the diversity and flavors of crops that have fallen out of favor with large-scale industrial agricultural producers.
Seeds of Time is a learning experience and adventure into the foundations and future of our civilization. It reminds us that the future is intimately tied to our past and the tools we provide for ourselves today. Now that Cary Fowler and other seed savers have paved a way to seed preservation, we may feel that our individual efforts to preserve our heritage are superfluous – but watching Seeds of Time, it’s apparent that individual efforts are everything.
Check out Seeds of Time screenings near you! GRACE Communications Foundation and Seeds of Time have partnered to show the recently released The Meatrix: Relaunched at the Seeds of Time east and west coast premieres happening in New York on May 22nd, and Los Angeles on May 29th.