At the Mead: Trying to Save the Seeds of Time main content.

At the Mead: Trying to Save the Seeds of Time

by AMNH on

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Most seed banks aren’t glamorous but the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, set deep inside a mountain on the island of Svalbard, Norway, has achieved a kind of celebrity status both for its sleek, spy-novel-worthy, modernist design—and for the contents frozen within. Stored in this remote location high in the Arctic Circle are the seeds of numerous varieties of the world’s food plants and related wild species. 


The documentary Seeds of Time playing at the Mead on Sunday, October 26, gracefully reveals the man, and the ideas, behind the vault and other seed-preservation endeavors around the globe. 

Elegantly shot, with a thrumming, high-lonesome soundtrack, the film follows an unnamed (for much of the start of the film—so we won’t reveal his name here) American man as he dashes from a quiet farm where he eats dinner with his two sons to meetings across Europe, and eastward to Russia and beyond. 

A man, Cary Fowler, wearing a hard hat and orange vest, standing outdoors at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault being built on Spitsbergen, holding a long thin seed container.
Cary Fowler in front of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault being built on Spitsbergen, showing the kind of containers used for the seeds.

In hushed and well-appointed conference rooms, he promotes what is clearly the unifying idea behind these movements: that crop biodiversity must be preserved in order to provide a safety net for an agricultural system beset by monoculture and grappling with the effects of climate change. Seeds banks and other measures, he argues, may be what stand between humanity and “catastrophic starvation.” Agriculture, he says at one point, faces “an unprecedented combination of challenges and threats.” 

Four Beans
Beans at the CIAT gene bank in Colombia, which has just sent its latest consignments of seeds for conservation at the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. 
Wikimedia/Neil Palmer (CIAT) 

While he uses forceful language, the man is no hothead—in fact, he appears methodical, placid, organized, and intensely devoted to the goal of preserving the world’s food seeds. If the idea of gathering and freezing all these seeds doesn’t seem quixotic—and to many versed in the big ideas about climate change, it doesn’t—it is thanks in large part, the film suggests, to the rare combination of passion and implacable focus of one quiet, articulate man.