Sowing the seeds

Will Bonsall, of Scatterseed Project, outside his barn with a rare variety of corn saved from a...
Will Bonsall, of Scatterseed Project, outside his barn with a rare variety of corn saved from a dying neighbour. Photos: Seed.
A new documentary hopes to plant the germ of an idea, writes Tom McKinlay.

The documentary Taggart Siegel made his name with starts somewhat inauspiciously.

An unremarkable-looking American farmer walks into the middle of a muddy paddock and begins to eat the dirt.

"Soil tastes good today," he says.

But the 2005 film, The Real Dirt On Farmer John, went on to become an unlikely star. The dirt-eating farmer turns out to be really quite extraordinary; a man with a thoroughly engaging tale of redemption.

Siegel’s new film, Seed: The Untold Story, takes a leaf. It opens with the scruffy and heavily bearded Will Bonsall walking in the country. It would be fair to wonder what on earth he might be about to eat first.

A Hopi red corn seed, the result of thousands of years of breeding and seed stewardship.
A Hopi red corn seed, the result of thousands of years of breeding and seed stewardship.
But it turns out that Bonsall is spoilt for choice in that department, as he is a seed saver. He’s a grower of myriad edibles, as part of his Scatterseed Project, which preserves and distributes heritage seeds.

"I see myself as Noah, not God. Noah didn’t get to decide whether the crocodiles came on the Ark or not or the black flies. His job was to load them on. OK? That’s my job," he says in the documentary’s opening frames.

So he saves seeds of all kinds: thousands of varieties. Several hundred potato varieties alone.

"I may discover 10 years from now that [particular] seed will be in huge demand because it has in its genes some resistance to some disease which is only now evolving.

"Genetic diversity is the hedge between us and global famine," he says, prophetically.

Seed travels the world, meeting and talking to characters like Bonsall who are determined that the diversity and richness of the world’s seed stores survive. In turn, they hope the resilience embodied by their collections might help us survive the storms of climate change and disease that we could very well meet in future.

Siegel has made Seed with directing partner Jon Betz, who also worked on Siegel’s previous project, Queen of the Sun, a film about the care we should be taking of the bees that pollinate our foodstuffs.

It was a short step from bees to seeds, Siegel says on the phone from Portland, Oregon. The American lives there when not at his Pigeon Bay, Banks Peninsula farm.

"Yes, bees really taught me about seeds. If you think about a bee doing their pollination act and creating these beautiful fruits and flowers and vegetables that we eat every day, or almost every day. We have to give thanks to the bees but we also have to give thanks to the seeds that create this abundance."

And abundance, or the lack of it, is at the heart of Seed. We have lost 94% of our seed varieties in the 20th century, Siegel says, as the seed business has become concentrated in the hands of a few big corporations that have prioritised pesticides, patents and proprietary hybrids over other considerations.

The last study to count US seed diversity was conducted in 1983, according to the film-makers. Of 544 cabbage varieties, 28 remained. Cauliflower was down from 158 to nine. Forty-six varieties of asparagus had reduced to one.

"The diversity in our seeds stock is as endangered as a panda or a golden eagle or a polar bear," says another of the film’s commentators.

For Siegel, the direction we need to head in is clear.

People need to search out a diversity of seeds, collect them — he nominates New Zealand heirloom plant collection the Koanga Institute as a good example — and find what works in their area.

"Everybody could be seed savers again," he says.

"And reconnect with that thing that we lost."


The film

Seed: The Untold Story opens at Metro Cinema, Dunedin on Thursday, April 20.

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