Film Review: Seed: The Untold Story

Interviews interspersed with imaginative animation drive this documentary about biodiversity, corporate agriculture and the future of the world's food supply.
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In Seed: The Untold Story, veteran filmmakers Jon Betz and Taggert Siegel come down firmly on the side of organic farming, seed banks, and disentangling the businesses of bioengineering companies, pesticide production and patenting genetically modified crops from the politics of American agricultural policy. Their argument encompasses a wide range of interviews with individuals as different as Dr. Jane Goodall and Suman, a young Indian woman whose ground-up embrace of natural farming—the way families in her community had done for generations before businessmen persuaded them to switch to hybrid seeds that failed catastrophically—has the sort of narrative arc that enchants major studio animators looking to make a difference by promoting diversity and positive images of non-princessy girls.

That's not inherently a criticism, and the film's polish is an asset, given that documentaries by their nature—serious—face an uphill battle in a theatrical market where action, sex appeal and big-money campaigns drive box office. And while the story of an increasing lack of genetic diversity in the natural and cultivated world having the potential for catastrophic consequences isn't "untold" in the strictest sense of that word, you can't really blame the filmmakers for going for the grabber: The complex series of causes and effects is the stuff of wonky articles that even the best-intentioned readers often abandon after a few pages.

The film's hard hurdle to clear is that many—perhaps most—longtime seed-savers speak of their mission in terms that inevitably evoke faith. One characterizes himself as the Biblical Noah, not choosing what to save, but simply loading everything onto the "ark" in hopes of insuring an inclusive future of people and seeds. Given the passion that seed-savers exude, it's not hard to think of them as a little nutty...well-intentioned, yes, but still a touch crazy.

The frightening beauty of Seed is the clarity with which it defines the mission of seed-savers—maintaining agricultural diversity for future generations, whatever the world they inherit; it’s bluntly persuasive. After all, as one interviewee asserts, it only took reliance on a handful of potato strains, all vulnerable to the same blight, to trigger the four-year famine that killed some two million Irish men, women and children between 1845 and 1849. The film’s potency lies in the way it combines its disparate elements into a tapestry that blends hard science, spirituality and rugged individualism.

That said, Seed is also eerily whimsical in its shots of seeds eerily roused to life as they're shaken in a shallow pan or seedlings forcing their way up through the dirt until they can unfurl in the light. In these sequences it recalls Monteith McCollum's 2001 documentary Hybrid, which examines the life of his grandfather, Milford Beeghly, who devoted his life developing hybrid strains of seed corn; Hybrid shares the same appreciation of nature as a kaleidoscopic mirror of human desire and ambition.

Seed is, ultimately, preaching to the converted, and non-converts may chafe at the extensive footage dedicated to animists and traditional worshippers of nature spirits. But ultimately the film presents a strong case that modern men and women ignore the power of nature at their peril, and do themselves a disservice when they put their faith exclusively in modern laboratory science, rather than combining it with the practical strategies that allowed generations of naked apes to survive millennia of plagues, famine, fire, floods, ice and droughts.

Perhaps, it seems to suggest, this is why people everywhere tend to greenery, whether kitchen plots, family farms, community gardens or windowsill pots of herbs and decorative plants. It's written in our DNA.

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