If we don't drown or suffocate first, it's a very real possibility that life on earth will starve to death as climate change ravages planet Earth. Though it serves as the background story for Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar, the agricultural implications of climate change haven't been the face of the planetary event—polar bears are much cuter, of course—but a new documentary film from Academy Award-winning director Sandy McLeod aims to change that, bringing the human toll of drought and crop extinction to the forefront of the discussion.
The film, Seeds Of Time, tracks agriculture pioneer Cary Fowler as he races to preserve as many plant species as possible to retain genetic diversity as plant species extinction marches forward. As the former Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Fowler traveled to places like Peru to help farmers catalogue and archive their crops, specifically potatoes in this case. Together with samples from other parts of the world, Fowler helped to found the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed storage facility in Norway that's like the Noah's Ark for agriculture.
Along with the vault, the film also explores the human angle of what will happen when biodiversity and agriculture fail. Namely, that the drought conditions we're already experiencing will lead first to rising food costs, then to increased conflict in starving regions and finally to the extinction of life-sustaining crops as we know it.
Below, an exclusive clip from Seeds Of Time—which debuts at Cinema Village tonight—followed by a brief Q&A with the film's director about why this is the kind of message that should be delivered more often.
What drew you to Cary's story and why did you want to tell it? David Byrne, who is a friend, sent me an article in The New Yorker called "Sowing for the Apocalypse." Oddly enough another close friend had sent me the same article. While I was reading it, my husband was on a call that he had on the speaker phone. I noticed that he was talking to a guy named Cary, and I was reading about a guy named Cary, but didn't really think much about it until I read a line in the article that said "Cary Fowler was given 30 million dollars by the Gates Foundation to collect the seeds."
About 10 seconds later I heard my husband ask the person on the phone how much money they got from the Gates Foundation and when the answer came back "30 Million dollars" I was stunned. After he hung up the phone I said, "Was that Cary Fowler you were speaking to?" "Yes," he replied. "How do you know Cary?" So just let me say that this knotting of things doesn't happen to me all the time, and when it does I really pay attention.
So that summer I read Cary's book called Shattered and I went to Memphis to interview him and see if there was a film there. When I began to realize the magnitude of what he was trying to do and how little most people, including myself, know about seeds and seed banks and the fragility of agriculture, I became really excited about doing a film about this subject. The problem was that people who generally fund films don't find agriculture "juicy" and people who have funds to spend on agriculture can barely fund the programs that so desperately need their help. So it was a very difficult film to fund and ended up taking 8 years to get it done.
Do you think focusing more attention to rising food costs will help get the message out more deeply? Yes, I do.
The film Interstellar deals with dying crop diversity as its main thrust. Is that the kind of future you wanted to get across with your film? I am more concerned with what's happening in the present and how our food security is threatened on an amazing number of fronts that range from limited arable land, to water shortages, from loss of genetic diversity to higher fertilizer costs due to peak oil, from a growing population which equals more mouths to feed and then to weather that is becoming more unpredictable. The farmer's job is not an easy one.
What was the most shocking or dire prediction/fact you learned while making this film? I think that the climate is changing much faster than scientists first predicted and is going to make it really hard to grow food. Farmers along the equator are really feeling those effects and have been for awhile. Scientists are now predicting that the polar ice caps will be melted by 2020, which will raise water levels and not only displace people along the coasts but mean that all of that farmland will be lost and that crops that aren't saline tolerant will no longer grow where they used to along rivers that will be inundated with salt water. This will be a huge problem.
With all the attention being given to climate change, why do you think we're still in a place of denial in many ways? I don't think most people are in denial anymore, I just don't think that they know what to do about it. The fact that there are politicians out there who are getting a lot of press who don't want to endorse climate change [initiatives] because it's not to their advantage, is hard to fathom at this point in time. They insist that it's not happening when the vast majority of scientists agree that it's not only happening, but it appears to be happening faster than they originally thought.