As humans, we think about food a lot. But really, we’re not thinking about food, we’re thinking about eating. It’s only in the past few years that the American people have taken an interest in how our food gets made. The hard-hitting Food Inc., and slightly more dubious Super Size Me, brought awareness about where what we eat comes from and what it does to our bodies. Today we’re inundated with buzzword terminology, alarming statistics, and dubious science. But the story of where our food comes from goes a step further, a step still rarely considered. That’s the story of Seeds of Time.
Director/Producer Sandy McLeod’s debut feature documentary Seeds of Time follows Cary Fowler, an agriculturalist whose looking to save the future of our food. We think of extinction as something that happens to animals, but crops are dying out at an alarming rate and entire species are being lost to climate change and natural catastrophe. As director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Fowler oversees the construction and collection of one of the most significant projects you’ve never heard of: A Noah’s Ark of agriculture buried in the side of a Norwegian mountain and housing hundreds of thousands of seeds from thousands of species.
At first glance, seeds aren’t the most compelling subject for a documentary. And at second glance they still aren’t. But that doesn’t make the issues Seeds of Time touches upon any less important. Herein lies the problem. Seeds of Time exists at the fringes of pop culture’s capacity to care about science and agriculture. Documentaries feed on challenging preconceived notions and presenting revelations with surprising evidence. It’s difficult for an audience to get up in arms about a subject they’ve just become acquainted with. In this respect, McLeod is less interested in debating climate change statistics than she is in framing the debate in a different context, the context of seeds.
Much of Seeds of Time follows Cary Fowler directly, and we receive much of the film’s information via his voice-over. He’s an effective scientific authority, but isn’t quite the eccentric scientist front man the film wants and needs him to be. The film, and Cary himself, is at its most compelling when speaking about the science of agriculture. Attempts to dig into Cary’s personal life come off paradoxically cold and distant. Parallels between Cary’s battles with cancer and the ticking time bomb of agriculture fall mostly flat. On the surface the comparison seems sound, but Cary’s cancer is discussed as something that was easily treated, not something that’s slowly eating away at him like climate change eats away at the planet. Ultimately, McLeod’s attempt to shift focus away from the science and towards Cary hinges on what amount to a rhetorical device.
Clocking in at 77 minutes, Seeds of Time is a brisk affair, and never quite hits its narrative stride. The scope broadens throughout the film, but McLeod relies almost entirely on a fascinating case study of potato species and their affects on the tribes of the Andes Mountains in order to give the film a global context. The use of one example in lieu of many was almost certainly a budgetary issue, but the film’s shifting focus operates as though there were commercial breaks separating the segments.
In a lot of ways, Seeds of Time is more PBS Special than theatrical documentary. It’s apparent not only in the film’s narrative structure, but in its look and feel as well. The focus isn’t on the drama or even the visuals; the focus is on the information. Is it compelling enough to merit a watch? Definitely. I’m just not sure the theater is the best medium of delivery. I’m sure Seeds of Time will have a long life once it makes its way to television and the internet, and that’s probably the best way to view the film.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Seeds of Time offers some compelling insight in the world of agriculture viewed from an angle most of us have never thought about. Cary Fowler speaks about farming in terms that are both novel and seemingly intuitive. He mentions that for nearly the entire history of agriculture, farming has been viewed as a process that requires you to shape the environment to the crop: through irrigation, greenhouses, and other technological advances. We don’t think so much about what crops we’re actually growing, and we probably should. The species of crops we eat today might become extinct sooner than you think, which is why Fowler’s work is important and worth paying attention to. Seeds of Time might not be the most compelling piece of documentary filmmaking, but in an era where most people’s notions about food are guided by misinformation and half-truths, we owe it to ourselves to be informed.