“Seed: The Untold Story” – Spread it far

"Seed: The Untold Story." Photo courtesy of Collective Eye Films.
"Seed: The Untold Story." Photo courtesy of Collective Eye Films.

“Seed: The Untold Story.” Photo courtesy of Collective Eye Films.

“Seed – The Untold Story,” a thoughtful documentary by Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz, presents the history of seed collection, dissemination and its priority in the food chain.

Seeds are everywhere – look around you. Taken for granted by the majority of us, they are the fundamental building blocks of human sustenance. Our very lives depend on them and yet, like much else on earth we are spending that currency faster than we can mint it. Inspired by an article in National Geographic, the directors were shocked to learn that in the last century 96 percent of vegetable seed varieties have disappeared. In the 19th century, the wholesale destruction of Ireland’s single crop, the potato, caused a famine that killed over a million people and precipitated the mass migration to the United States. It is feared that the loss of seed diversity will have similar dire consequences for the world population at some all too near point in the future. As the directors point out, “Without seed diversity, crop diseases rise and empires fall.”

Siegel and Betz have assembled wonderful, quirky, intelligent and somewhat off-the-grid characters who have taken up the cause of accumulating, cataloguing and storing seeds, creating seed banks around the world. The Native Americans have a passionate interest in acquiring seeds as these organisms are part and parcel of their cultural history and represent talismans in their indigenous religions. Farmers and homesteaders, some of whom were involved in the commune movement in the 60s and 70s, diligently work to propagate new species from the seeds they have been collecting for decades. Indian researchers discuss the importance of maintaining the pureness that is found in nature.

But what begins as a lovely, historic and moving story of food, culture and history soon devolves into a diatribe against big agro and chemical companies. That is not to say that there is not cause to worry about the shadow dealings that have resulted in a lack of product diversity and the negative effects on humans when chemical spraying goes unchecked. The unfortunate result is that “Seed: The Untold Story” becomes a polemic, using broad strokes to convey their enmity towards corporate America, specifically Monsanto.

More importantly, the directors should have spent more time in dispassionately educating the audience about genetic patenting. According to the film, and this may or may not be true, Monsanto, using genetic modification and a Supreme Court ruling that allowed them to patent seeds when a minor change is made to the DNA structure, now owns the rights to most seed varieties. Most interesting, and poorly illustrated in the film, was a legal case of a farmer who was sued for inadvertently using a modified seed variant that had floated into his field.

Native Hawaiians are interviewed who have suffered the ill effects of toxic spraying. But, as in so many other instances where “cancer pods” are claimed, the evidence is anecdotal. Sympathy, of course, lies with the victims but a more dispassionate presentation of the facts, along with scientific evidence would have a more lasting effect. Further, spraying, as relates to the preservation of seeds, is a side issue, at best, diverting our attention and manipulating our emotions inelegantly. If Siegel and Betz want to make a case for the evils of crop spraying, then that is a subject for another day.

Their foray into the agricultural practices of small farmers in India who put themselves in debt to obtain genetically modified seed for their fields is, again, off point (or at least what I thought the point was). This contributes to their contentious view on the evils of giant corporations such as Monsanto but adds nothing to their basic premise on the preservation of seeds. Here they present a sweet story of a sister and brother at odds on running their family farm. He goes into debt to obtain the modified seed while she lobbies for the use of organic seed and growing techniques. He wins; drought wipes out their crop and his fortune; she finally has her say. But, again, if this was going to be a paean to organic farming, then make it one and don’t pretend that it’s still a history of the collection and preservation of the most elemental of foodstuffs, the seed.

Polemics rely on emotion and passion, and while they can be very effective, they often raise doubts about how accurate the portrayal of the other side is. I am no fan of Monsanto and am well aware of the specious arguments that have, to date, worked on suing small farmers over their inadvertent use of patented seeds. Nevertheless, Siegel and Betz undercut the narrative of the importance of seed collection by embarking on a black and white scenario that veers off point too often. They make no apologies for calling this a story of good versus evil.

A more studied presentation of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), the science of how hybrid corn was produced, and the rapid expansion of corporate agriculture were given very little time. There is always another side to the story; there is always nuance. Genetic engineering, left out of the discussion, may end up being more a savior of mankind than its destruction. The Hawaiian story arc about chemical spraying, loss of indigenous land (which was lost before Dole or big agro entered the picture) is strictly emotional. Even Michael Moore makes an effort (no matter how marginal) to interview the antagonists of the position he takes. And now there’s someone new to hate, the makers of baby aspirin, after the $56 billion merger of Bayer and Monsanto.

Thankfully, Siegel and Betz return to the history of seeds and the protagonists who are making every effort to safeguard their continued life. For me, it was the people who made this story watchable. Who knew the minute seed was truly the mother lode? I do now.

Opening Friday September 30 at the Laemmle Monica.








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