Scored with urgent, wordless sound, Sandy McLeod’s documentary Seeds of Time follows conservationist Cary Fowler across the globe as he tries to keep us alive. That’s not an exaggeration — Fowler is a leader in crop diversity, cataloging what we’ve lost and working to make sure we don’t lose more. Among sweeping vistas of Antarctic snow and the high mountains of Svalbard, one of the film’s most striking images is a series of pie charts depicting dwindling crop diversity. One dispiriting fact: Under ten percent of the varieties of corn that were known a century ago exist today.
It’s nearly impossible to watch this well-intentioned, serious film without feeling guilty. We’re all complicit in climate change and the rise of Big Agriculture, the diminution of our food sources and distribution. But is guilt a useful emotion? Fowler doesn’t seem to think so. Instead, he pools his considerable resources at the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome and spends the film venturing across the globe, gathering seeds and investigating changing human foodways, beginning with the shift to agriculture from hunting and gathering. The seed vault Fowler builds is objectively important and subjectively impressive, yet somehow the documentary feels hollow, far away. Fowler’s work is bureaucratic, institutional, Western-focused. Which shouldn’t matter, because it’s good work, but as a story of salvation it feels too familiar.