New Documentary Looks Deep Inside the ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault

‘Seeds of Time’ tells the story of Cary Fowler’s drive to create a backup for global agriculture.
A woman plants seeds in Mesa, Colorado. (Photo: robbreece/Getty Images)
May 22, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When Oscar-nominated director Sandy McLeod told her lawyer she wanted her next film to be about seeds, he thought he had misheard her.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry—I understood you to say you wanted to make a film about seeds? Would you mind spelling that out for me?’ ”

That something so small could be the subject of the filmmaker’s feature debut, Seeds of Time, which opens in New York on Friday, was incomprehensible. “He was in complete and utter disbelief,” she said.

Such is the lot of the humble seed, which, like good health, is easy to take for granted until something goes off the rails. Suddenly, simply breathing is labored; suddenly, the ability to feed the world’s population is in jeopardy.

“It’s sort of an invisible thing,” McLeod said. “Until it’s visible.”

For McLeod, seeds became visible—and impossible to ignore—after two friends sent her the same New Yorker article describing Cary Fowler’s work creating the world’s ultimate seed library. North of the Arctic Circle, burrowed deep inside a frozen mountain beneath the thick permafrost in Svalbard, Norway, Fowler’s team stacks boxes filled with seeds from all over the world: peas from Nigeria, corn from Mexico, fava beans from Syria. The entrance to the vault is designed to withstand bomb blasts and earthquakes. Hence its most popular nickname: the “doomsday” seed vault.

The facility “functions like a big insurance policy for the world,” Fowler explains in the film. Unlike a regional seed bank, which collects plant varieties and wild-crop relatives important to local agriculture, Svalbard’s goal is to store duplicates of the collections stored at the 1,750 seed banks around the world. Think of it as agriculture’s external hard drive—a backup that, since opening in 2008, has collected 865,000 samples from around the world.

RELATED: This Is the Closest You May Ever Get to the "Doomsday" Seed Vault

“The biological foundation for agriculture is the diversity that exists in each of the different crops, and that diversity is embodied in each of the different seeds,” Fowler continues. “The fate of humankind is resting on these genetic resources. So nothing could be more important.”

The last study on crop diversity in the United States was conducted in 1983. It found that since 1903, niney-three percent of known fruits and vegetable varieties have disappeared. With industrial farms growing vast tracts of single crop varieties, Fowler explains, environmental disaster could cause “mass extinction of crop diversity around the world” and “catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine.”

Local seed banks could help facilitate a recovery from such a disaster, but near-term strife, like a civil war or a fire, can put those resources at risk. Take the ICARDA seed bank outside of Aleppo, Syria: A huge effort has gone into smuggling duplicate samples out of the war-torn country to be stored in Svalbard.

The prospect of a global disaster that would put the seed vault to work is terrifying, and one that demonstrates climate change isn’t just about oil and water—it’s about eating too. As such, seeds are not only the subject of policy meetings in sleek boardrooms in the documentary. Rather, seeds, and the food they grow into, become the film’s emotional heartbeat.

Two seeds sewn into the coat linings of German immigrants and carried to Iowa nearly 150 years ago grew into the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit that preserves heirloom vegetables, fruit, and flowers. In a scene at SSE’s Decorah, Iowa, farm, a woman erupts into joyous laughter while describing the wide array of onions they grow. In a buttoned-up policy meeting, a delegate from the Philippines cannot recount the fire that destroyed a seed bank without dissolving into tears; another delegate stands to put a hand on her back as she cries. High in the mountains of Peru, a family peels potatoes, making soup that’s later served in steaming bowls at a wooden table set under a window. There in the Andes, where the global staple originated, groups of farmers have put aside past disagreements to collectively preserve 1,400 varieties of spuds. The potato is not just the central component of their diet—it’s the cornerstone of a cultural identity.

“There’s a very small proportion of the genetic resources that we’ve protected in gene banks,” Barbara Wells, the director general of the International Potato Center says. “The remainder of the diversity is still in the hands of the small farmers in pockets all around the world. Global food security really depends on the job that they’re doing to make sure that diversity is available for future generations.”

Documenting the potato farmers in Peru’s Sacred Valley was a moving experience for McLeod, and one that held echoes of her original desire to make the film.

“Watching them all come together to harvest and sit there and take a meal with them—it was almost a spiritual experience for me, and something that I don’t really get to dip into much in my life,” she said.

She had always been interested in food and loved to eat, but making Seeds of Time grew out of a desire to be more connected to her food on an intuitive, fundamental level.

“There’s a kind of longing that we have to get back to a community,” McLeod said. “Community comes out of that effort when people grow food together. Most of my social life is around a table with friends, and there’s something about that that’s so basic. Those things really compelled me to do the film. I’ve never been a mother; I feel like I can be nurturing to my friends. But I thought maybe I can get that done by making a film about it.”