Interview with the Directors of SEED: The Untold Story

by Alexina Cather, MPH

SEED: The Untold Story follows passionate seed keepers working to protect our 12,000 year-old food legacy and depicts their struggle against agrichemical companies (including Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta) who now control more than two-thirds of the seed market. SEED is more than just a cautionary tale of “man against nature,” but rather an epic David and Goliath battle as farmers, scientists, lawyers, and indigenous seed keepers fight to defend the future of our food.

SEED was produced and directed by award-winning filmmakers Taggart Siegel and John Betz (Queen of the Sun: What Are The Bees Telling Us? and The Real Dirt On Farmer John), who I interviewed about the film and what the dramatic loss of seeds means for our food system and our culture.

SEED opens September 23rd at Cinema Village in New York. Tickets can be purchased here.

 New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): How did you both become interested in seeds and protecting our food legacy? Did you come together with the purpose of creating your documentary, SEED: The Untold Story? Or did the documentary present itself?
For years, we have passionately made films that reveal our deep connection to nature and our food. SEED: The Untold Story is the third and final film in a trilogy that began with The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005), which tells the story of a maverick farmer who saves his family farm against all odds. Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? (2010) investigates the mysterious colony collapse disorder ravaging honeybees around the world.
SEED: The Untold Story began with an article in National Geographic reported that up to 94 percent of the vegetable seeds available in 1903 have disappeared. Being as deeply invested as we were in agriculture and the environment, the fact that we didn’t know this statistic was a wake-up call. We knew awareness must be raised on this foundational issue ford  the future of our food. Within moments we knew that was our next film. We embarked on a three and a half year journey.
FPC: We learn in the documentary that a shocking 94 percent of our vegetable seed varieties have been lost in the 20th century. What are the implications of this devastating loss for food security in the future?
The speed and scope of this loss is staggering, and its implications for our future are stark. As the renowned naturalist and author Gary Paul Nabhan puts it, “Many of our seeds today are as endangered as a panda or polar bear.” In an era of climate uncertainty, this dearth of diversity is a recipe for catastrophic crop failure and human suffering– not unlike The Great Famine of Ireland that saw the starvation of nearly a million people when their sole crop variety, a potato, was wiped out by blight. SEED explores a topic that is still largely unknown, yet it is increasingly urgent. With climate change and the consolidation and control of the seed industry, our seed stocks are  more and more crucial to the future of our food, and farther and farther from the individual stewardship of farmers and gardeners.
FPC: Many people have become increasingly disconnected from where their food comes from as more fast food restaurants and food delivery services pop up in every neighborhood. How can we encourage individuals to reconnect to their food and be invested in where it is coming from?
Once people understand the dramatic loss of our seed heritage, we see a shift, a wake-up call to seeds. This is a largely unknown issue. As word of the film travels via social media, with over 2 million views of the trailer, our job is to encourage a movement where people can participate in solutions. Thankfully, SEED is a catalyst for a burgeoning movement full of seed libraries, community gardens, and a new generation of passionate young farmers who are cropping up to shift the balance toward a more sustainable and sovereign seed paradigm.
FPC: Monsanto and a few other companies own 60 percent of our seeds, creating as Vandana Shiva calls it, “a seed dictatorship.” How did we get to this point and what can we do to prevent these companies from owning all of our seeds in the future?
More than a cautionary tale of “man against nature,” the remarkable story of seeds is an epic “good-versus-evil” saga playing out in our modern lives. For eons, cultures around the world have believed seeds to be our birthright: a covenant with the earth shared by all and passed down across generations. In these seeds, were the tastes and flavors of thousands of cultures, handed down generation to generation.
In the 1920s, the introduction of hybrids seeds was, as Claire Cummings says in SEED, “the atom bomb of agriculture.” Farmers stopped saving seeds, thinking that Hybrids were bigger, better and stronger. This tied farmers into the modern industrial food system. In a matter of years, farmers abdicated their seeds and many of the heirloom varieties became extinct. Today, our seeds are increasingly private property held in corporate hands. A cadre of ten agrichemical companies (including Syngenta, Bayer, Monsanto) now controls more than two-thirds of the global seed market, reaping unprecedented profits. With the recent purchase of Monsanto by Bayer, an even more fragile monopoly is forming. Genetically modified crops (GMOs) engineered in their sterile laboratories dominate farmers’ fields and dinner tables in the United States and countries around the world. Farmers from Minnesota to Madhya Pradesh, India toil in economic thrall to the “Gene Giants,” paying hefty licensing fees to plant their patented crops. If they attempt to save their own seed at the end of a season, following a tradition practiced by humans for over 12,000 years, they face ruthless prosecution. (Suffering under this indentured servitude, over 250,000 farmers in India have committed suicide in the last 20 years.)
People everywhere are waking up to the vital importance of seeds for our future. In 2013, March Against Monsanto protests rallied millions in more than 400 cities and 50 countries to the cause of seed freedom. Ballot initiatives to label genetically modified foods have been proposed in U.S. cities from California to Connecticut—a direct threat to the profits of the Gene Giants and Big Food.
Seed swaps, seed libraries, regional seed banks, seed schools, heirloom seed companies, and gardening communities hold the solutions and the movement to our future. Bill McDorman of Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance is working together with us on a new call for “A Million Seed Savers”, which we know has the power to rekindle the vibrant and rich connection humanity can have to our seeds. A David and Goliath battle is underway, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. In order to combat corporate control of seeds, a sustainable future lies in bio-regional food and seed systems, where seeds are grown locally, adapting to their climate and environment.
FPC: In the film, Bill McDorman of the Rocky Seed Alliance calls the destruction of a seed bank “a crime against humanity.” Can you elaborate on this?
Throughout history, seed banks have been a common target in war. Even in ancient times, generals knew that if you attack the foundation of a culture’s food source, it weakens the country. Jeffrey Smith says in SEED, “If you want to control the country, control the oil. If you want to control the people, control the food. Vandana Shiva said, if you want to control the food, control the seed.” Claire Cummings, author of “Uncertain Peril” says in SEED, “When we invaded Iraq, we destroyed that seed bank and we destroyed that garden. And we destroyed that repository of the great ancient seeds that had been collected by that government for the benefit of mankind.” The great tragedy is that when these seeds are destroyed it affects all of humanity. All of us depend on the unique qualities of particular seeds, their defenses against disease, drought and extreme climate.
FPC: What change in policy would have the greatest impact on protecting our seeds?
We feel the greatest policy change is to pass GMO labeling, localized GMO bans, transparency for seed test plots, pesticide regulation and government-funded traditional seed breeding. Seeds are a living embryo and they need to be grown out every tens years. One of the biggest blind spots in our seed industry, is that seed banks are critically underfunded to carry out these demands. With SEED, we are partnering with Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network, and Seed Matters who are at the forefront advocating for these measures.
FPC: What progress do you hope will be made with this documentary?

Our goal is to raise awareness about seeds in the face of climate change, genetic modification and the corporate control of the seed system. Through our outreach efforts with the film, we are making a two-year effort to link audiences with organizations who are fostering seed sovereignty, championing seed diversity and advocating for critical policy change. We hope this will have a long lasting impact that will educate people to support small family farmers by eating local, organic food and growing open pollinated heirloom seeds. Above all, we hope SEED will inspire audiences, ignite in them a fire for a new passion to care for seeds, to save seeds, support seed libraries, seed swaps, seed schools, seed banks and localized seed efforts in their own community.

Jon Betz, Director
Grew up in: Walla Walla, WA
Background and Education: Rhode Island School of Design
One word you would use to describe our food system: Polarized.
Your breakfast this morning: Granola and Coffee
Food policy hero: Wendell Berry
Favorite food: My Wife’s

Social media must-follow: @seed_themovie – twitter, @seed_themovie – instagram,

Taggart Siegel, Director

Grew up in: Ketchum, ID now lives in Portland, Oregon
Background and Education: Beloit College BA and Columbia College MA
One word you would use to describe our food system: Nutty
Your breakfast this morning: Eggs from our chickens and toast from heirloom grains.
Food policy hero: Vandana Shiva
Favorite food: Indian
Social media must-follow: @seed_themovie – twitter, @seed_themovie – instagram,

Photo credit: Collective Eye Films

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