We eat a tiny percentage of the global crops available to us. Today, about two thirds of the global plate comes from only three crops: wheat, rice and corn. Modern, industrial agriculture, in an effort to commodify crops has whittled down an enormous list of edible plants to a handful, and it has come at a cost, and in the last century, 94 percent of our seed varieties have disappeared.
Without seed diversity, our food supply is threatened, more prone to disease and destruction. “In an era of climate uncertainty, this dearth of diversity is a recipe for catastrophic crop failure and human suffering — not unlike the Great Famine of Ireland that saw the starvation of nearly a million people when their sole crop variety, a potato, was wiped out by blight,” say Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz, the filmmakers behind the documentary SEED: The Untold Story, covering the topic of seed diversity.
Currently screening on PBS’s Independent Lens until May 1, 2017, the hour-long documentary follows seed activists from New Mexico to India, focusing on how essential seeds, and seed diversity, is to our existence as human beings. “Genetic diversity is the hedge between us and global famine,” says Will Bonsall of the Scatterseed Project, one of the characters profiled in the film.
As we lose that diversity, we are more and more threatened. “The speed and scope of this loss of seeds is staggering, and its implications for our future are stark. As the renowned naturalist and author Gary Paul Nabhan puts it, “Many of our seeds today are as endangered as a panda or polar bear,” say Siegel and Betz. “In an era of climate uncertainty, this dearth of diversity is a recipe for catastrophic crop failure and human suffering — not unlike the Great Famine of Ireland that saw the starvation of nearly a million people when their sole crop variety, a potato, was wiped out by blight.” This is what makes the effort of people like Bonsall and other individuals and organizations working to preserve seeds. “With climate change and the consolidation and control of the seed industry, our seed stocks are more and more crucial to the future of our food,” say Siegel and Betz.
Photo courtesy of Collective Eye Films
For centuries, humans have been saving seeds. Yet today, more and more seeds are out of farmers’ control. According to the documentary, today, 90 percent of the seeds that we use for food is grown by chemical companies, companies who at the same time as growing our world’s food supply are also profiting off of selling pesticides and pharmaceuticals.
Dr. Vandana Shiva calls this control of the majority of the world’s seeds by corporations a “seed dictatorship.” According to Monsanto, around 350,000 farmers buy patented seeds from them every year in the United States. But when seeds are patented by corporations, it prevents farmers from saving and exchanging seeds; something that we as humans have been doing for thousands of years. “If you rely on someone else for your seed, it’s like relying on someone else for your soul,” says Bonsell in the film.
The documentary also highlights the work of several groups devoted to protecting seeds and heritage for indigenous groups, like the Tesuque Pueblo Farm in New Mexico. We are all born from seeds, and the stories told in the film are a reminder that seeds aren’t just essential to feeding us, they are a crucial part of our being and existence. “We lost our seeds, we lost our food,” says Emigido Ballon in the film. “When you’re losing the seeds, you’re losing completely your traditional way of eating.”
Up against multibillion dollar corporations can feel like a staggering task, but there are many ways for taking action. “Saving seed diversity starts with buying food and produce that is organically grown, fairly traded, and as local as possible. Visit your local farmers market to support small farmers. Buy those purple carrots and heirloom tomatoes, and keep diversity alive,” say Siegel and Betz. Individuals can also become seed keepers, growing organic heirloom seeds in your own garden and keeping them free from pesticides. Bill McDorman, one of the film’s characters, has created the Million New Seed Savers Campaign, encouraging people to join their own community of seed savers and be a part of the solution.
The beauty of a seed, after all, is that given the right conditions, it will grow again.
Photo courtesy of Collective Eye Films
SEED: The Untold Story
is currently available to stream online thanks to PBS’s Independent Lens through May 1, 2017. Watch it here.
Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, the founder of the print quarterly Comestible and runs Foodie Underground. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.