Filmmaker documents why seed diversity is important for future food supply

WASHINGTON Since the early 20th century, the world has lost 94 percent of its seed diversity.

This photo taken March 31, 2009 shows exchanged okra seeds held by author Kelly Coyne, in her Echo Park home in Los Angeles. Authors Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, have written “Urban Homestead, Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City.” (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Damian Dovarganes)
This photo taken March 31, 2009 shows Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne caring for their garden that they’ve grown from seeds at their Echo Park home in Los Angeles. Knutzen recently attended a seed swap and sometimes swaps seeds with his mother’s neighbor. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Damian Dovarganes)
This photo taken March 31, 2009 shows exchanged okra, cosmos and mystery seeds from Erik Knutzen’s mom’s Greek neighbor are seen at his Echo Park home in Los Angeles. Knutzen recently attended a seed swap and sometimes swaps seeds with his mother’s neighbor. He focuses on growing more edible stuff and tries to have Mediterranean garden. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Damian Dovarganes)
This photo taken March 31, 2009 shows authors Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne caring for their sidewalk garden that they’ve grown from seeds at their Echo Park home in Los Angeles. Knutzen recently attended a seed swap and sometimes swaps seeds with his mother’s neighbor. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Damian Dovarganes)
This photo taken March 31, 2009 shows author Erik Knutzen showing Oasis laundry detergent, designed and tested to be biocompatible with plants and soil, as well as for the disposal of treated wastewater in aquatic ecosystems, he uses to wash his clothes so he’s able to use gray water to irrigate his garden that he’s grown from seeds at his Echo Park home in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Damian Dovarganes)
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If you’re not a gardener or a farmer, that statistic may not concern you — but filmmaker Taggart Siegel said it should.

“Few things on earth are as vital as seeds. We can’t live without them,” Siegel said.

Compared to 100 years ago, however, we’re living with far fewer. Back then, there were more than 500 varieties of cabbages. Now, there are 28, and the lack of vegetative variance has consequences that stretch beyond the dinner plate.

“Anything from climate change to survival all depends on what kind of seeds we have to keep everything moving forward,” Siegel added.

A growing movement to preserve seed diversity and reinstate a 12,000-year-old tradition of passing seeds to the next generation is underway in communities across the globe. It’s these “seed savers” that Siegel and co-director Jon Betz profile in their new documentary, “SEED: The Untold Story.”

At the core of the global seed collapse is the abdication of seed-saving to large agrochemical companies, such as Bayer and Monsanto, which now control more than two-thirds of the global seed market with mostly genetically modified and chemically dependent hybrid seeds.

“It became this thing where we have to go buy our seeds now,” Siegel said.

These mass-produced seeds, which companies forbid farmers to save and share, lack flavor, have less nutritional value and are not as adaptable to varying climates, compared to their thousand-year-old counterparts, Siegel added.

“We are more vulnerable to drought and climate change and things like that because we don’t have the seeds in the local communities to get us through these harsh conditions,” he said.

Mississippi soy farmer Homan McFarling, closes the cattle gate to his farm in South Lee County, near Tupelo, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 13, 2005. Monsanto Co.’s “seed police” snared McFarling in 1999, and the company is demanding he pay it hundreds of thousands of dollars for alleged technology piracy. McFarling’s sin? He saved seed from one harvest and replanted it the following season, a revered and ancient agricultural practice. McFarling, 62, who still grows soy on the family farm, is fighting the agribusiness giant in court. (AP Photo/C. Richard Cotton)

About 40 years ago, a cadre of growers alert to the flaws of modern farming reintroduced the ancient practice of seed saving to the everyday gardener.  

Now, at the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in Richmond, California, community members can “borrow” seeds to plant in their gardens at home. Once the seeds grow out, they are encouraged to bring back a few of the next generation’s seeds for someone else to borrow.

More than 500 libraries, like Richmond’s, as well as homegrown efforts to share seeds, are sprouting up across the country. Every year, the DC State Fair hosts a seed share for local gardeners; Washington Gardener also organizes an annual seed exchange.

Siegel said that because of efforts like those listed above, the documentary is less of a cautionary tale and more of a hopeful one.

“We don’t always have to be battling the big corporation. We can kind of go around that and support our local partner. Keep it about the sharing and positive outlook on saving these seeds that could go extinct if we don’t share them,” Siegel said.

“There’s really something exciting about planting a seed and watching it grow.”

“SEED: The Untold Story” premieres on Independent Lens Monday, April 17 from 10-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS. If you’re interested in finding a seed exchange, or starting your own, visit seedlibraries.net and seedsavers.org


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