'Seed: The Untold Story': Film Review

Seed - Still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Collective Eye Films
A handsome and nutrient-rich look at efforts to preserve food-system biodiversity.

Marisa Tomei is an exec producer of Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz's look at efforts to save the seeds of ancient plants.

An eco-doc centered on the glories of diversity in the world's population of edible plants, Seed: The Untold Story contains just enough gourmet touches to draw foodies into the audience alongside the usual environmentalist crowd. Its puzzling title notwithstanding (these stories have been told elsewhere, in broader-interest enviro films and in targeted docs like 2013's Seeds of Time), Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz's engaging and polished film covers many bases without feeling flighty; home auds should respond well after a niche theatrical run.

Hewing more or less to a familiar three-act doc format, the directors give sense-exciting introductions first, then introduce a villain, then wrap up with heroes fighting the good fight. Veteran viewers of docs in this field will already know many of the players, but the pic does paint a more expansive picture than we may have known, especially with regard to seed-saving efforts around the world.

After telling us that 94 percent of plant seed varieties were lost over the 20th century, the film introduces us to those fighting to save every bit of that remaining six percent. We meet not just the institutional players (on a trip to Svalbard, the site of Norway's famous "frozen garden of Eden"), but scrappy DIY types. Emigdio Ballon, of New Mexico's Tesuque Pueblo, builds a collection of exotic seeds in a U-Haul-sized trailer; white-haired hippie Will Bonsall of the Scatterseed Project displays seeds whose many hues and textures are "like a jewelry store"; Joe Simcox travels the planet in what he admits might be an "unhinged" search for new edible plants.

After treating us to some lovely macro photography and time-lapse footage of seeds doing their thing in the soil, the directors introduce the well-known specter of genetically modified crops. There may be no one in the theater who doesn't already know of the troubles Monsanto has made for farmers who don't want to buy their engineered seeds, but Siegel and Betz package those stories up with a quick history of hybrid seeds and the Green Revolution. They also go to Hawaii's island of Kauai, where biotech companies like Dow have fought tooth and nail against laws that would force them to reveal what they're spraying on experimental fields. Neighbors, who say the chemicals are killing them and disfiguring their newborns, desperately want to know.

Some familiar champions come in at this point, pointing toward a less corporate-owned future. Jane Goodall, recalling how former Monsanto lawyer Clarence Thomas cast a deciding vote to allow the company's patents on living things, argues that "you can't own nature"; in India, Navdanya co-founder Vandana Shiva reports on her efforts to fight this ownership by saving the seeds of unmodified crops. Comparing her group's efforts to Gandhi's homespun-cloth campaign, and clearly speaking for many in the film, she says, "the seed will be the spinning wheel of our times."


Production company: Collective Eye Films

Directors-Producers-Editors: Taggart Siegel, Jon Betz

Executive producers: Marisa Tomei, Marc Turtletaub

Phil Fairclough

Director of photography: Taggart Siegel

Composers: Garth Stevenson, Benjy Wertheimer, Gaea

94 minutes