Art

A Film Portrait of the “Doomsday Vault” that Guards Our Agricultural Biodiversity

Still from 'Seeds of Time'
Still from ‘Seeds of Time,’ with a view to the Svalbard Seed Bank (all images courtesy the filmmakers)

On a Norwegian island 810 miles south of the North Pole is a safety net for an agricultural crisis. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds thousands of plant species seeds copied from gene banks around the world, kept cool in a mountain surrounded by permafrost, ready as a restart for our agricultural biodiversity.

The design solution to the loss of seed banks around the world, where low funding is often as much a danger as natural disasters, cooling unit failures, and war, was instigated by Cary FowlerSeeds of Time through Fowler puts a human face on what is widely nicknamed the “Doomsday Vault.” At the time of the Seed Vault’s groundbreaking in 2006, the agricultural advocate from Tennessee was director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT). A feature-length documentary called Seeds of Time, directed and produced by Sandy McLeod, both profiles Fowler and explores the potential plight of failing agriculture, where climate change, population growth, and the lack of diversity in crops could be devastating for our food future.

Still from 'Seeds of Time'
Still from ‘Seeds of Time’ showing the interior of the Seed Vault

McLeod’s film debuted last year at SXSW and opens in wide release this month, starting with a screening this Friday at Cinema Village in New York. It’s an incredibly sober film that avoids sensationalizing, showing from Fowler’s point of view how the vault is essential. Many of these seeds are not currently grown by farmers who favor other breeds, yet if some disease hits that breed in particular whole crops could be wiped out.

“We’ve got to keep in mind that the system that underpins the supermarket is not a natural system, and it’s a system that we control, we shape,” Fowler says in the film. Svalbard was selected for its remoteness and security against even the most extreme climate change situation, majorly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation along with government organizations, and managed in a three-way cooperation between Norway, GCDT, and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center.

Still from 'Seeds of Time'
Still from ‘Seeds of Time’

The film could have used some diversity itself in terms of voices, as while Fowler is a smart and calm voice in explaining the need for security against agricultural collapse, there are no contrasting voices of dissent. The one example provided of success is a “potato park” in the Andes of Peru that cultivates a wide variety of the crop, which while isolated does provide a moving account of why agricultural diversity isn’t just important for our food, but also culture.

“Our identity is the potato,” Alejandro Argumedo, co-director of Association ANDES explains in the film. “The other message of sending the seeds to Svalbard is that all that culture, also is kept. So it’s a cultural element in this because it’s not only the genetic material, the information, but also the association with a deep identity that we have and we want to keep it.” In other words, rather than an ominous time capsule of some potential apocalypse, the Seed Vault is more a backup, a library of our agriculture that someday may be integral in reviving part of our food system.

Still from 'Seeds of Time'
Still from ‘Seeds of Time’ in the Andes
Still from 'Seeds of Time'
Still from ‘Seeds of Time’ with the Seed Vault

Seeds of Time opens this Friday, May 22, at Cinema Village (22 E 12th Street, Manhattan) in New York and Friday, May 29 at Laemmle Music Hall (9036 Wilshire Boulevard) in Los Angeles. Additional screenings are listed online.

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