The Seed-Saving Farmers Securing the Future of Food

The problems of—and the solutions for—our industrialized food system start at the most basic level: the seed.

The future of the American food system is a hot topic, with corporations and activists debating questions like: How does the food we eat contribute to climate change? Can the Green Revolution—biotech-heavy agriculture that promises high yields—really mitigate the world’s food shortages, or does it indenture farmers and threaten biodiversity?

The problems of our industrialized food system start at the most basic level—with the seed.

What many of us may forget in the political, economic, and cultural debates is that the problems of our industrialized food system start at the most basic level—with the seed. That’s addressed in Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds, a documentary that celebrates not only alternatives to genetically modified seeds, but seeds themselves—the origins of the food-growing process upon which we profoundly depend. It’s a touching and spiritual film that will no doubt encourage discussion about the future of agriculture.

Open Sesame highlights seed banks from all over the globe, but particularly focuses on farmers in the United States as they learn sustainable methods for harvesting and saving seeds. The scenes are often emotionally charged: A student in a seed-saving program tenderly describes the “mystery that runs through these wondrous things”; older farmers wistfully link the history of their heirloom seeds to the lives of ancestors and beloved family members; a plaintiff in a joint suit against Monsanto tears up as she wonders whether her family will lose its farm.

The film wins our hearts when it settles on one farmer at a time, letting us absorb the details of his or her life, work, and seed saving. It frustrates when it undercuts these more intricate stories with anecdotes that serve the subject more than the storytelling. But the documentary succeeds where it matters most: helping us understand the realities of growing food in the modern world. It awakens us to the dire reality of our food system with the simple, sobering facts. Did you know that corporate-owned seeds account for 82 percent of the global market? Or that 95 percent of farmers worldwide, even those growing organic, use seeds that were developed and bred for conventional, chemically intensive systems of agriculture? Or that GMO seeds are more vulnerable than heirlooms to drought, as they’re not bred from seeds that have evolved to survive such conditions?

Despite Open Sesame’s acknowledgement of the problem of seed patenting, it often oversimplifies the solution as: “Just buy heirloom seeds.” In a system as corrupt and convoluted as ours—with powerful agriculture and biotech lobbies vying every day for more control and less regulation—that addresses just one aspect of the problem. What about the eating of our food? The buying of it?

Nevertheless, a large part of the solution rests in the proactive attitudes demonstrated by Open Sesame’s seed-saving farmers. As the executive director of a seed bank in California says in the film, we need a renewed appreciation for “the idea that we are so powerful and have so much, even in a handful of seeds … We lost how powerful we are, and how powerful this process is.”