Seed: The Untold Story is a beautiful film that was screened at East Hampton Cinema last week. It opens with self-described “hippy” Will Bonsall, who started the Scattered Seed Project Seed Bank at his Khadighar Farm in Industry, Maine.He admires a grainy photo of his great-grandparents who were also farmers and tells the camera that 99-percent of the seeds they planted are extinct. This thought set a motion in him to start saving seeds, thousands of seeds not available anywhere else. “Some on the verge of extinction.”
Dazzled by diversity, Mr. Bonsall has saved several hundred potato varieties in colors like purple, or black skin with yellow flesh and even “hot pink freaks.” Lumpers, a “big yielder,” in the 1830s and 1840s, was adapted for Ireland’s damp climate, but not late blight. The lumpy potato changed the course of history when the disease wiped out the country’s crop, causing millions of people to starve to death. Many emigrated.
“This is the variety that explains why ‘O’ is the biggest section of the South Boston phone directory,” he said, “Genetic diversity is the hedge between us and global famine.”
In a shocking montage, with macro shots of seeds flashing on the screen, the film notes, “We have lost 94-percent of our vegetable seed varieties in the 20th Century. The last study to count US seed diversity was conducted in 1983.”
Vegetables then emerge from a dark background to tell the story. There were 544 cabbage varieties, 28 varieties remain; 158 cauliflower, nine remain; 55 varieties of kohlrabi, 3 remain; 34 artichokes, 2 remain; 288 beets, 17 remain; 46 asparagus, one remains. Between 94 and 98 percent of carrots, celery, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, onions, peppers, radishes and watermelon have disappeared.
“The diversity of our seed stocks is as endangered as a panda or a golden eagle or a polar bear right now,” one expert said solemnly, “We have the largest seed shortage in history.”
Ten thousand years ago, corn was the first plant to be domesticated in the Oaxacan Valley of Mexico, igniting a sacred connection with seeds that fueled small tribes to grow to empires. It took 4,700 years for corn to reach the United States borders. Now the elastic and adaptive vegetable is grown on every continent.
The Hopi Indian Nation considers itself the “keepers of the corn,” sustaining them throughout history. “In the U.S., people are attracted to big and beautiful,” said one Hopi farmer in Arizona, “We don’t throw them away, we take care of them. We plant even small seeds.”
A seed saver from Native Seeds told a story his father had passed down to him. “If you have seeds in your pocket, you can walk and eat,” he said. “If you have money in your pocket, you can’t eat money.”
You can go to the Native Seeds Search Seed Bank website and buy vegetables with historic significance, including landrace and heirloom varieties of fava, lima, runner and tepary beans, broccoli, devil’s claw, okra, wildflowers, and even cotton, indigo and tobacco.
The Native Americans were the last stewards of the seeds. They take care of things we don’t. They currently have 2,000 “invaluable” varieties. However, seeds do have a life span and the farmers at Native Seeds try to grow everything out every ten years on their 60 acre farm in Tuscan.
Hopi grow corn with no irrigation and have gone through hard times. You can have all of the seeds in the world but without water, you have nothing. “All of our ceremonies are for rain,” said the Hopi farmer.
At the other end of the scale, a typhoon wiped out a seed bank in the Philippines. Another problem is that seed banks are vulnerable to terrorists attack. Seed banks in Iraq were destroyed and some worry that a hit on a domestic seed bank could wreak havoc as we try to reverse the seed shortage caused by huge corporations such as Monsanto, Dupont and Dow Chemical.
According to the film, these companies relentlessly lobby the government and according to the film, “put their people in government.” People like Michael Taylor, Tom Vilsack and even Thomas Clarence, worked for agro-giants and have held or currently hold top agricultural decision-making positions in our government.
What most would call “conflicts of interest” is how the corporations were able to patent seeds. Putting a patent on life pretty much goes against “Section 101” of the laws that govern patents. Seeds should not be patented, but they are.
Not only that, if a farmer’s crop is contaminated by a neighboring GMO field, the company who owns the patent for that seed, such as Monsanto, will sue the farmer whose seeds were contaminated. Then farmers are forced to buy the GMO seeds.
“We have lost 270,000 farmers to suicide in India,” said Dr. Vandana Shiva, an author and activist. What has happened to agriculture in the last generation has brought farmers to their knees and locked them into debt with terms they cannot get out of and it is happening all over the world. Seeds are for corporations not farmers.
The former sugar industry of Hawaii left acres of fallow fields ripe for corporations to take over and experiment with GMO seeds. In the middle of the night, the biotech companies spray chemicals onto fields next to schools and neighborhoods in Kauai.
Kids were getting sick with asthma and other illnesses and people were dying of cancer at an alarming rate. Kauai homeowners asked the companies to tell them what they were spraying and Bill 2491 was passed, as a means to get disclosure and buffer zones between the transgenic seed experiments and schools. “It’s a disgrace to our culture,” said one Hawaiian activist, “Experiments blow into homes. We breathe the stuff. Cancer is rampant.”
The companies refused to comply and the people were denied the right to know what was potentially making many people sick. In turn, three of the biggest agrochemical companies sued Kauai County to spray next to schools without any buffers. It would seem they are given carte blanche to do as they please without even a vote.
There are 300,000 species of plants on planet, 30,000 are edible plants, 120 are used on a regular basis and most of humanity sustain on ten, according to the film. “It’s time to put human health over corporate wealth,” said Hawaiian activist Dustin Barka, who went on to help form the Kauai Food Forest.
Although the fight against the machine is a difficult one, people are taking a stand. Farmers in India are now refusing GMO seeds and starting again with small farms. Botanical explorers, brothers Patrick and Joe Simcox, have visited 1,000 countries, collecting countless rare seeds, time capsules that preserve the past for the future.
The Rocky Mountain Seed School is going back to the way things were done 10,000 years ago. “Our teachers are the plants,” said Dennis Klocek, a biodynamic teacher. “They are a form of reincarnation.” Seeds are a doorway between the life of the old plant and the gift of a new plant.