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Back to July 2015 Newsletter

Review: Open Sesame The Story of Seeds

 Directed by M. Sean Kaminsky, 2014, Open Pollinated Productions Inc.

Reviewed by Taarini Chopra

“Grow good seeds and stories.
Save good seeds and stories.
Share good seeds and stories.”

This simple little quote seems to be the guiding principle of M. Sean Kaminksy’s new documentary, and of the many seed savers and seed enthusiasts who feature in it. Open Sesame tells a compelling story about the past, present and future of our seed system. The film opens with scenes from a protest and the story of a collective lawsuit brought by a number of organic growers (the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, or OSGATA) against Monsanto in 2011. The case challenged the company’s patents and sought to protect organic farmers from GM contamination, and from being accused of patent infringement in the case of such contamination.

Kaminsky then pauses this story to trace the history of seeds and the ways in which their cultural and ecological value has changed over generations. The many experts he interviews – farmers, seed producers and savers, lawyers, researchers and academics – explain how breeding systems around the world have shifted over the past century from being centred around open-pollinated, and grower-owned seeds, to our current agricultural system, which is shaped by corporate consolidation, large-scale monocultures of few varieties of crops, and is closely intertwined with the petrochemical industry. The various developments that took place along that timeline – the Green Revolution and the adoption of hybrid seed, the increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides, the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and changes in intellectual property and patenting frameworks – all profoundly changed the nature of our seed system.

The film is set in the US, and largely features American organizations and projects. However, the issues it touches on are both timely and germane in Canada and other countries around the world; the threats facing our seed system at the moment are sadly universal. The narrative mixes statistics about corporate control and the current state of our global crop diversity with anecdotes from passionate seed savers, such as those attending Seed School in Tucson, Arizona. Through interviews and visits to various farms, seed libraries and seedy events, Kaminsky finds ways to weave issues of genetically modified food, corporate control and climate change into personal stories and reflections.

The film then goes on explain some of the barriers and difficulties that organic seed producers face in an agricultural landscape dominated by large-scale GM corn and soy production, and gives examples of some of the diversity we have lost in the past decades. At the beginning of the 20th century, for instance, there were approximately 288 varieties of beets; today only 17 of those remain. Lettuce varieties have been lost in the same time period from 497 to 36, and sweetcorn from 307 to 12. These heirloom and regionally adapted varieties of crops are often more resilient to several weather and environmental conditions than modern varieties; and it is these varieties that will be our insurance in times of climate change and vulnerability. And as Diane Ott-Whealy of the Seed Savers Exchange reminds us, once they are lost, we cannot bring them back.

It’s not all bad news though. The growing interest in seed diversity, and in our food systems in general, has meant that small-scale, independent seed companies and seed libraries are popping up across the US and Canada, as well as in other parts of the world, and are doing incredibly important work.  Stories like that of the “Pippin peppers” ­– rare and unique seeds passed down to food historian William Weaver by his grandfather, who in turn got them from his friend Horace Pippin, and that would otherwise have been extinct by now – bring this point home in a very compelling way.

And this is perhaps what is most notable about Open Sesame. Seeds all come with stories. True to its topic, this film digs into those stories, and to the people who give them life. It reveals the passion and deep emotional connection that people share with seeds. That passion is infectious, and the heartfelt reflections that bring this film to life are both a reminder of the import of the issues the film is discussing and the work we still have ahead of us. 

**

For more information, to buy the movie, and to find out how to organize a screening in your community, visit http://www.opensesamemovie.com/

Taarini Chopra is publications coordinator at Seeds of Diversity Canada.

 

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