Why Seed Diversity Matters and How to Preserve It

“SEED: The Untold Story” begins with the same statistic that convinced filmmakers Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz that the documentary needed to be made: In the last century, 94 percent of our seed varieties have disappeared from commercial seed storage.

“We thought, ‘Oh my word, how have never heard about this?’” Betz said. “We’ve been working in this space and we’re aware of these issues and even we hadn’t heard about this tremendous loss of seed diversity.”

Seed diversity is critical to our food supply because individual varietals can get wiped out by disease and climate changes, according to the University of Chicago Food Security initiative. Genetically modified seeds (aka GMO seeds) are often the intellectual property of the companies that sell them, and those modifications include planting restrictions—meaning that farmers need to purchase seeds every year to produce their crops rather than plant the seeds that the plants naturally produce.

Farmers planting genetically identical seeds year after year, with no possibility of natural year-over-year evolution, reduces the ability of crops to survive when faced with challenges.

That 94 percent figure is pretty bleak, but Siegel, Betz and the many subjects of their film, part of PBS’s “Independent Lens” series, are on a mission to save what’s left of our seeds.

Saving seeds in a ‘bank’

Seed banks, which can be anything from a shed full of seed packets like seed saver Will Bonsall’s to an arctic vault with a capacity of more than 2 billion, act as back up plans for the world’s farmers, but even those aren’t infallible. A Baghdadi seed bank was destroyed during the war in Iraq. A Filipino seed bank was wiped out by a typhoon in 2006. During World War II, the Vavilov seed bank in Leningrad was only saved because a group of botanists chose to starve to death during a 900-day siege rather than eat the seeds they were guarding for future generations. The fail safe is the so-called “doomsday” seed vault, Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which lies halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole.

“A seed bank is incredibly vulnerable,” Betz said. “Any seed bank executive director that I’ve talked to is always freaking out about their seed bank. They think of it kind of the way we think about backing up our computer. It seems so vulnerable for it to all be in one place. And they’re in charge of maintaining it and we’re not creating a good, resilient system. It’s vulnerable to terrorism, it’s vulnerable to natural disasters. So much potentially is lost when that happens.”

Even with what we have left heavily guarded, it still falls to individuals to help protect Earth’s food legacy. That’s what Siegel and Betz want from their viewers. The film is educational, but it’s also a call to action.

We made the film in large part to fuel the notion that we can’t just rely on seed banks,” Betz said. “We have to be growing seeds out again and supporting non-profit seed banks and seed communities so we can have more and more of them backing things up.”


So, how can you start saving the world’s seeds? Well, there are a number of ways, but the key to all of them is to find a community, whether it’s online, local or nationwide, and get involved.

“This is a common thing in social issue documentaries now, to create some sort of impact,” Betz said. “For us, it was very important for people to not just do one thing, like sign a petition and be done, but to actually get enrolled in their communities.”

Buy seeds from a trusted source

The Home Depot Garden Center isn’t the only place out there to get seeds for your garden. Heirloom, organic and non-GMO seeds can be bought without too much hassle, and you’ll have better-tasting food and your own seeds for next year as your rewards.

The website Epic Gardening provides a breakdown of heirloom, organic and non-GMO seed companies by state. There are more than 100 to choose from, but a few states are still missing. You can contribute by filling in some of those blanks as well.

The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance also provides resources for finding responsible seed sources across several states, especially in the western U.S.

Once you’ve acquired your responsibly sourced seeds, plant them and plan to save what you grow. The website for “SEED: The Untold Story” provides links to some helpful guides, including this one from Seed Savers Exchange, to make getting involved at the grassroots level as easy as possible.

Another option for those looking to save and share seeds is finding a seed library.

There’s this huge movement of seed libraries,” Betz said. “There’s over 500 seed libraries across the country and many of these are part of public library systems. So where you go to check out your books you see a shelf that’s full of seeds and you can just check out the seeds, go and plant them, try your hand at seed saving and bring back the seeds you save the next year to return your seeds, just as you’d return a library book.”

These libraries are located all over the world. A comprehensive list can be found here, but don’t be afraid to talk to your local library about joining the movement.

How to support seed banks

If you don’t have the space, time or climate to plant seeds yourself, consider supporting those who can.

Betz said seed banks like the ones in “SEED: The Untold Story” are often underfunded. These banks are doing the work to preserve our future, but they need help in the present. Find a local seed bank and help them with what they need, whether that’s money, supplies or hands to do the work.

No local seed bank near you? No problem. You can also donate to the One Million Seed Savers Campaign through the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. It’s working to create a million new seed savers in the U.S., so your money can go toward helping someone else do what you might not be able to.

Seed diversity is just the beginning

One of the most shocking storylines in “SEED” takes place in Hawaii, where toxic pesticides are being sprayed just upwind from communities. In 2008, children in an outdoor P.E. class were sent to the emergency room for treatment, possibly because pesticide spray from a nearby field blew into their yard. The story is just one example of how toxic pesticide use can harm humans.

Seed pbs rewire
Directors of “SEED: The Untold Story,” Taggart Siegel (left) and Jon Betz. Photo courtesy of Collective Eye Films.

People are doing the work to save the world’s seeds, but governments can help solve the pesticide problem. Pesticide Action Network and Beyond Pesticides provide resources to help people learn about toxic pesticides and get involved in tightening governmental regulations on these chemicals.

“SEED: The Untold Story” shares a lot of information in a beautiful, interesting and entertaining way. But even after you’ve seen the film you won’t know all there is to know about the issues surrounding our seeds.

The film is committed to a two-year outreach and community engagement campaign—sign up for the “SEED” newsletter and you’ll receive news about screenings and opportunities to join others working to renew seed diversity.

Many of the sites linked above also have e-mail newsletters or regularly updated blogs. Find a group that speaks to you and start keeping track of what’s going on in the fight to save our food legacy.

SEED: The Untold Story” is part of the “Independent Lens” series. Watch online at PBS.org.

Christine Jackson

Christine Jackson is a Missouri-based writer and editor who loves the arts but never seems to write about them. Her holy trinity includes the St. Louis Blues, David Bowie and whoever invented iced coffee. You can find her on Twitter sharing snarky quote tweets @cjax1694.

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