The seed vault "ark" in Svalbard, Norway.
The seed vault “ark” in Svalbard, Norway.
Seeds of Time

The Nobel Peace Prize winner and Irish conciliator John Hume once observed that when people are divided, victories are not solutions.

The insight works just as well for modern agriculture as it did in the context of the Irish troubles, and Cary Fowler, an evangelist for seeds, repeats the observation part way through the new documentary, Seeds of Time. “Victories and solutions are not the same thing,” Fowler says, “and, I think, too often people try to win without actually looking to create solutions.”

The documentary, directed by Sandy McLeod, is a portrait of Fowler — one that also provides an object lesson in what it looks like to search for genuine solutions.

It’s a welcome change in tone. As eaters have moved farther from the places where their food grows, a lot of the media about farming has taken the form of exposés, alerting us to the hard realities of agriculture. There’s a place for exposés, but if we spend all our time talking about the people who are doing agriculture wrong, we may forget that no one has figured out a way to truly do it right.

We don’t yet have a formula for farming that will allow us to deal with a number of converging crises. Fowler ticks these off: population growth, energy limitations, the development and paving over of fertile land, water limitations, low stockpiles of food, and then of course, there’s “climate change, which is probably the single greatest challenge agriculture has ever faced.”

The solution, or part of the solution, Fowler says, lies in the biological diversity of seeds. He sees a future in which we modify the crops we’re using to suit environmental conditions. We generally do just the opposite, modifying the environment to suit the high-yielding seed: When there’s insect pressure, we spray; when it’s too dry, we irrigate. But if we can tap the vast genetic memory of plants, perhaps we can find genes that evolved elegant responses to those stresses.

It’s not a new idea, but it is one that we tend to forget. “Most of us take seeds for granted,” Fowler says. “We take agriculture for granted.”

But there’s also a long tradition of people who comprehend the importance of crop diversity: The film follows Fowler to the Vavilov Seed Institute, where researchers died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad, rather than eating the wheat, rice, and potatoes they guarded. Today, many seed repositories face greater threats from extreme weather. Thousands of varieties in Thailand were wiped out when the floods of 2011 inundated a gene bank, and Typhoon Haiyan destroyed many more in the Philippines.

Cary Fowler
Cary Fowler.

Like its subject, Seeds of Time searches for solutions instead of picking fights. Fowler points out, without malice, that modern agriculture lost most of its seed diversity as it became more productive. As part of the solution, he successfully campaigned for the establishment of a seed “ark” in Svalbard, Norway, designed to withstand whatever the climate can throw at it.

There’s also another way to conserve crops besides freezing them in a gene bank, Fowler points out: You can conserve them in your garden, outside. When you’re not too preoccupied by the fight for victory, you win the freedom to find solutions all around.