Seeds of Time: Film and Discussion

UMass Sustainable Food and Farming (SFF) is hosting a three part PUBLIC and FREE film series to provide a community space where students can critically engage in issues surrounding the food system.  Each film is followed by a panel discussion featuring local individuals within the field.

seedsOn March 9th, 6-8pm in the W.E.B Dubois Library, Floor 19 Room 1920, SFF will be screening the documentary “Seeds of Time” followed by a panelist discussion at 7:30pm featuring professor of Economics, James Boyce, along with other individuals from the community.

Film Synopsis
A perfect storm is brewing as agriculture pioneer Cary Fowler races against time to protect the future of our food. Seed banks around the world are crumbling, crop failures are producing starvation and rioting, and the accelerating effects of climate change are affecting farmers globally. Communities of indigenous Peruvian farmers are already suffering those effects, as they try desperately to save over 1,500 varieties of native potato in their fields. But with little time to waste, both Fowler and the farmers embark on passionate and personal journeys that may save the one resource we cannot live without: our seeds.


10,000 years ago the biggest revolution in human history occurred: we became agrarians. We ceased hunting and gathering and began to farm, breeding and domesticating plants that have resulted in the crops we eat today. But the genetic diversity of these domesticated crops, which were developed over millennia, is vanishing today. And the consequences of this loss could be dire.

As the production of high yielding, uniform varieties has increased, diversity has declined. For example, in U.S. vegetable crops we now have less than seven percent of the diversity that existed just a century ago. We are confronted with the global pressures of feeding a growing population, in a time when staple crops face new threats from disease and changing climates.

Crop diversity pioneer Cary Fowler travels the world, educating the public about the dire consequences of our inaction. Along with his team at The Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, Cary struggles to re-invent a global food system so that it can, in his words: “last forever.” Cary aims to safeguard the last place that much of our diversity is left in tact: in the world’s vulnerable gene banks.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, a group of indigenous Peruvian farmers work to preserve over 1,500 native varieties of potato in their fields. Through the guidance of activist Alejandro Argumedo and the help of the International Potato Center gene bank in Lima, several communities join forces to create a new conservation grounds called “The Potato Park.”

But not all is well in this haven for diversity. The Andes Mountains, our planet’s most diverse region for potatoes, is already seeing the crippling effects of climate change. Potato production has risen more than 500 feet in altitude over the last 30 years, leaving varieties at lower elevations unable to produce. With erratic weather patterns already eroding biodiversity, what is to be done when these farmers can no longer continue moving “up”?

With a passion few possess, Cary set out to build the world’s first global seed vault – a seed collection on a scale larger than any other. The vault, located in Norway, is an unprecedented insurance policy for the crop diversity of the world. In an extraordinary gesture of support, the farmers of the Potato Park become the first indigenous community to send samples of their potato diversity to the vault for safekeeping.

But as the stakes of maintaining a secure global food system continue to rise, adaptation will become a requisite for our own survival. How can we best maintain the diversity that still exists for our food crops? How do we create new diversity to adapt our fields to a changing climate? The answers are as complex as the system they intend to fix. And it will require a combination of efforts: from scientists, plant breeders, researchers, farmers, politicians, and even gardeners.



20 thoughts on “Seeds of Time: Film and Discussion”

  1. When I began reading this blog it sounded to me like the intro to an apocalyptic story- crop failure, famine, rioting, etc. It’s alarming that this is actually the situation we are faced at the preset, and even more alarming is that so few people find a problem with this. The lack of transparency with food production and the gaps in general education of the populas as to where food comes from and what the impacts are paint a very dismal picture. That said, the ability of small groups of passionate individuals such as Cary Fowler to initiate such large scale projects for change and security is an optimistic look into what our future could become. Thanks to Fowler’s efforts, the Nordic seed bank currently hosts approximately 930,820 seeds from all over the world. On a different note, the loss of such diversity is not only s concern to me in environmental regards, but also a cultural one. I have traveled to Peru twice and gotten a good taste of the culture there and as funny as it sounds, how proud they are of their potatoes. The change in climate and increasing inability to grow cultural crops is a saddening look into what could become of thousand year old cultures and more. I have no doubt that human beings have all the necessary ingredients to turn things around and with perseverance and passion our future can become a much different reality that what it looks to become presently.

  2. This sounds really interesting, and I’m disappointed that I was unable to make it to the screening. The seed vault seems like a brilliant idea, especially for the agrarian livelihood of future generations. I wish that there were more workshops and education published to encourage small-scale farmers and gardeners to practice seed saving and seed diversification. We’ve had a few hosted by SFF students, but more would definitely be useful!

  3. I really enjoyed this documentary and agree with the basic idea that saving seed is important for preserving crop diversity and the cultural significance around certain crops. However, I was not a huge fan of the way in which this documentary was made, I felt it focused too much on the personal life of Cary Fowler. Certainly his story was inspiring but seemed a little unrelated to the overall topic of the documentary. On an unrelated note, I found it interesting how the Global Crop Diversity Trust is actively seeking out ancestral plants of the common domesticated varieties we know today so as to breed varieties that can better withstand our changing climate. It’s certainly comforting to know that there are people out there taking steps to prepare for the worst to make sure we won’t lose the biodiversity that is so important and vital to a healthy planet.

  4. This documentary was truly eye-opening because sometimes there is a false sense of security from gene banks. Each character’s passion for seeds and the diversity and value they hold was inspiring. I could barely watch when the woman had to announce that their seed bank had lost hundreds of seeds. Seeds are so important to the existence and resilience of agriculture. Preserving the diversity that they hold is far more precious than diamonds. And yet, gene banks are not always safe. They are also vulnerable to catastrophic events and must be heavily protected. It broke my heart to hear about the seeds that were lost. What this film emphasized for me was that we each have a role in preserving diversity. Seed saving can be done at a large scale, but it leaves all of the eggs in one basket per say. If we can spread seed saving and each do our part, it will be a far more resilient system.

  5. I’m really happy that I was able to see this film. It was the perfect mix of “we’re doomed” and “just kidding there is still totally hope.” I loved seeing the clash of ancient culture with modern when it came to the Peruvian potato farmers working with the potato lab in the united states to preserve ancient lines of potato. I’m really happy that humans have the Svalbard seed bank but i still feel like its not enough. There is so much genetic diversity that is being lost to climate change and selective breeding.

  6. The concept of “The Potato Park” is a remarkable one and greatly needed to safeguard the genetic diversity of our plants. With the changing climate, however, I wonder how it is helpful to have seed varieties that can no longer be grown where they have historically been grown and cultivated, when farmers can no longer move up the mountain. The idea of safekeeping our genetic plant diversity is really interesting and the stakes are high and I would be interested to see how or it the project were to expand further.

  7. I was unable to make it to the film screening, but this is how I feel after reading the synopsis for it. Seeds are the lifeblood of our population without seeds we wouldn’t be able to grow the food that we need to survive. Climate change is altering humanities growing processes and making it ever more difficult to grow a diverse selection of crops. Climate change is definitely a key player in the reduction of diversity in our crops, but so are the crop choices that humans are making. Consumers demand uniformity and have this image of a “perfect” piece of produce in their mind and they will only buy that specific piece. For example, I recently learned that Cavendish bananas (1 of 1,000 varieties) is the most commonly grown. Due to the fact that it can withstand being exported extremely well and it produces that “perfect” banana. Choosing to mass-produce only one of 1,000 varieties is directly contributing to the loss of seed diversity. I think that a global seed bank is of great importance and a wonderful idea.

  8. This documentary illustrated the urgency of conserving crop diversity well. I felt that the issue was discussed in an accessible yet holistic way. Declining crop diversity was described in a scientific, historical, and even spiritual context. Cary Fowler, the main spokesperson, described how lots of important seed-saving and gene bank work was being done in developing countries and by indigenous communities that are even more vulnerable to climate change events. I was able to resonate not only with the scientific data supporting seed-saving and crop diversity, but also with the more spiritual affirmation: that we derive identity, memory, history, and culture from this botanical diversity. I believe this documentary pushes its audience to understand that protecting crop diversity will not only salvage our food supply and environment, but salvage the identity of our very diverse human civilization.

  9. I am disappointed that I was unable to make the screening of Seeds of Time. However I enjoyed a Ted talk by Cary Fowler, that I encourage others who where unable to make it to watch as well. (
    Fowler’s work is incredibly impressive, it is inspiring to follow his journey to help agriculture adapt. Seed saving is crucial in our ever changing environment in order to sustain crop diversity. With everything going on in our crazy world it is important not to take agriculture for granted. The steps we take to grow food for our world today will significantly affect the future of food, farming and ultimately the environment.

  10. The Seeds of Time documentary really opened my eyes to the scope of the seed saving and gene bank operations across the globe. I am most impressed with the efforts to create living seed banks like that of “Potato Park.” While seeds in storage are really important, continuously growing a wide range of varieties strengthens the connection between varieties and farmers. It was really grounding to hear why the Peruvian farmers were working the Trust and seed banks. Food, ancestors, and education of future generations are enough reasons to cherish biodiversity before even looking at the whole picture of the world and climate change.

  11. Forwarded from Narmeen Bugrara…. I wasn’t able to make it to the screening but Seeds of Time seems to discuss a crucial topic for
    food today. In one of my classes, we spent a lot of time discussing GMOs and debating their
    impacts. I learned a lot about how GM crops enable the monocultural system currently in place
    and stifle the immediate need for biodiversity that would improve the quality of our soil, and
    even our appreciation of food. It’s actually pretty painful to think that there were, until rather
    recently, almost 20,000 varieties of corn. Looking at pictures, they’re so beautiful! Blue, green,
    purple, red, and everything in between. Interestingly enough, I watched an episode of a show
    called Chef’s Table recently which follows the stories of some of the best restaurants in the
    world. This particular episode focused on the work of Virgilio Martinez, a native to Lima, Peru.
    His specialty is researching the incredible plant diversity of Peru and presenting largely unknown
    foods in a captivating way. He does extensive research with indigenous people of the Andes,
    exploring over a thousand varieties of potatoes and other crops. It was incredibly captivating to
    watch. It’s also heartwarming to know that as a world renowned chef, he’s able to instill a sense
    of amazement and alarm in an average foodie over the current state of crop uniformity. Once
    people can internalize the extent what we’re missing out on, the more impassioned I believe they
    can be. I hope to be able to watch Seeds of Time at some point because it seems really interesting
    and relevant to my passions.

  12. The film synopsis paints an inspiring picture of a very important movement that is largely unknown to the average person. The loss of genetic diversity from hybrids and a decline in farmers saving seed is a tragedy to the ecosystem. It is inspiring to see that there are people like Cary Fowler that are working hard to save genetic diversity through encouraging saving seed. In the face of climate change, crop resilience is one of our best defenses and saving seeds is the best way to build it. This film sounds fascinating and I must find a way to watch it on my own time.

  13. Seed saving is a critical component to sustainable agriculture that is often overlooked. Cary Fowler’s story is inspirational to say the least and reenforces the fact that passionate knowledgeable individuals can make an impact on the world. At the same time it shows how groups around the world can get together and work to achieve a common goal. My mind was blown seeing the conditions many seed vaults are in. I expected to see state of the art equipment not leaking pipes, failing cooling units, and running on bare minimum founds. I also liked how they showed farmers taking seed saving to their gardens and share them with other seed savers, in a sense turning gardens into sanctuaries for rare plants. An interesting approach that I hadn’t thought of before is helping plants adapt to the changing climate in similar ways we domesticated them by adding genes from wild relatives.

  14. This film addressed an important topic, but failed to drive home any concrete point. The focus on Svalbard would have been interesting in a documentary on that facility, but was confusing in a documentary about preserving agriculture through climate change. Merely preserving the scattered genetic information of the past has its place, but in the greater perspective of continuing agriculture it seems like the smallest piece of the puzzle. The documentary would have been more interesting and relevant had it focused on locally adapted agriculture. This approach could have incorporated use of gene banks by small seed breeders to bring in relevant genetics to overcome ecosystem challenges. As the film stands, the stored seeds seem more like a museum piece than anything that will ever be used.
    Instead of the disruptive and tedious scenery clips, the film could have worked towards a definite point. A good documentary should put a modern system into a historical context and convince the viewer that the system is important. This film failed to do that. I got the sense that preserving seeds is important but not why: instead it seemed like a more futile endeavor. Why put the time and resources into preserving genetics on a remote island in Norway for remote descendants that may or may not survive climate change, and those that do survive will have to do so without seeds the stored genetics for long enough to render the preserved seeds irrelevant. The basic premise of the documentary was flawed.
    More relevant and interesting would have been how people today are re-vitalizing old genetics (like those stored in gene banks) to produce crops able to survive climate change. If the documentary had captured a tenth of the passion and fervor of local plant breeders it would have been infinitely more compelling. Plant breeders, both backyard gardeners and commercial experimenters are the people who can introduce enough and relevant diversity to crop varieties to keep agriculture not just alive, but robust and thriving through climate change and whatever comes after.

  15. Watching the Seeds of Time video was very eye opening. It was relieving and concerning at the same time. It was nice to know there are people out there preparing for an agricultural disaster if one was to occur. But it was also concerning to know our farming practices and human habits are forcing us to take this more seriously with the threat of climate change increasing year by year and even monthly. Something I thought was interesting was the collaboration between the large organizations and scientists with the small rural communities. It was cool to see the seed savers gain very valuable genetic diversity from small farms who had been working to keep heirloom varieties for many generations. And on the other side of things, when the rural farmers lost a breed they had once used many years ago, the seed saving scientists were able to give back and share some of the older varieties with the rural farmers, allowing them to recover what they had lost! Glad this film is on Netflix, I will be showing it to many friends and family members.

  16. The Seeds of Time film was interesting to me. I’ve seen similar documentaries, and I have heard of this same seed vault before. I have been interested in the idea of a post-apocalypse for a long time, and I think this film drew upon that mythology. From playing Fallout, reading Revelations, the idea of an apocalypse has always intrigued me; it is also something that shadows the whole culture. People are afraid of nuclear holocaust, but this ecological crisis tells us that some big shift is going to happen. So there are some imaginative preparations being made for this event – these preparations all involve a great deal of long-term thinking. In the Seeds of Time, it is a very metaphorical preparation they are making: they are saving seeds, which are very small, but have great potential. This is of course a biblical image, and Cary does not shy away from this, acknowledging that in some ways they are “playing God”. This is a precarious situation for human beings, I think, and should not be taken lightly, but humbly.

  17. I have mixed feelings about Brooklyn Grange and its depiction in “Brooklyn Farm.” On one hand, it’s definitely a positive thing to be growing some of NYC’s vast demands for food within the city itself, and it’s nice to see the operation grow and remain able to financially support itself. However, I question the accessibility of the set-up and the food it produces, seeing as I struggled to find a single person of color involved and found the worker-owners’ privilege blinding. They were all of a type: clean-cut white Brooklyn hipsters who quit lucrative positions at tech start-ups to sell kale to crust punks at the farmer’s market. As someone with a close knowledge of New York City, this farm just smelled like gentrification to me, a new venture to attract young professionals along the lines of exposed-brick coffee shops and hot yoga studios. I couldn’t help but compare Brooklyn Grange to our local Gardening the Community, an urban farm operation that runs on grant money in vacant city lots as opposed to rented private rooftops that require investors’ start-up capital. I understand that not all food system progress has to be perfectly intersectionally radical, but I personally appreciate when innovative ideas can provide grassroots, not trickle-down, prosperity.

  18. I attended this film screening and it was awesome! I already knew a lot about the seed back on Svalbard but hearing and seeing the story of the man who worked to create it was very inspiring. I also really enjoyed the panel at the end although I had to leave early. We dug deep talking about ways to resist the diversity decline in agriculture and what to do to prepare for our changing climate. It is easy to get pessimistic about the state of the world and it was great to hear about simple, effective solutions that we all can take. Mainly this was saving seed and growing heirloom vegetables. The panelists fielded some difficult questions and overall it was a great experience.

  19. Seeds of Time was a fascinating film for me because it discussed and illustrated the unique ways that cultures across the globe interact with crop plants, feel the necessity of seed saving, and are creating systems to maintain their most vital plants. A set back of the film was the overemphasis of the main character, Carey Fowler’s, personal life story. It is significant to high light how I described him as a “main character” when in a documentary about seed saving I do not believe there should be a main person whose story is followed. I believe that seed saving is a greater community issue to tackle, and it would have been more pertinent and moving to hear from various cultural backgrounds rather than this one white, successful, male scientist. The juxtaposition of the “advanced” American scientific society and the Peruvian society left be feeling as though there was a disconnect, and as though there may have been a contemptuous aspect in comparing the two. I see the value in displaying the uniqueness of the two cultures and how they each interacted with the issue of climate change and biodiversity loss. However, something about comparing the two scenarios back-to-back made me feel emotionally closer to the American setting and farther from the Peruvian setting, which dips slightly into the realm of the “exotic” vs. the “advanced”. I believed that this film did not respectfully portray the intellectual strengths of the Peruvian community. I felt that positive emphasis was being placed upon the scientific, research based methods of the Americans, and this dismantled the credibility of the Peruvian point of view. In any case, witnessing the two cultural experiences was worth while. I just think that the filmmaking could have been stronger and less biases.

    Erin O’Brien

  20. The “Seeds of Time” documentary and discussion was very enlightening to me on the subject of where we get our seeds for agriculture, and what is now possible with the means of our new agricultural technology. Parts of this film that really stuck out to me were the meetings that took place, the storage area that has been built up north in a complete tundra area, and also the amount of organized seeds we the organization has in storage. It was shocking to me the amount of work the guy who was the focus of the documentary had to do in order to get his sees from this completely frozen storage space that has been built up north. I can not help but think about how far away the space is from anywhere where seeds of that kind will be planted. As much as I find it important to have a large storage space where we can keep all the seeds we need in order to feed a large amount of people, the space seemed like it is falling behind as far as how far technology has come for other fields of science, the project almost seemed hidden, when there should be warehouses with seeds all over the country.

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