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Seeds of Time

Peruvian potato farmers band together to try to preserve their national crop in the documentary "Seeds of Time." 

Seeds aren’t the first thing that comes to mind as the subject of a compelling documentary. But about 10 minutes into “Seeds of Time,” it becomes clear that seeds, in fact, are at the center of a global race against time that could have catastrophic results should the race be lost.

That race is to save as many types and varieties of seeds as possible in “gene banks” around the world, preserving the diversity that will be needed to sustain agriculture in coming decades as global warming changes the climate and, necessarily, what plants can be grown in any area.

The example delivered by first-time feature doc director Sandy McLeod comes from Peru, where the potato is the staple crop -- and a pivotal touchstone for the indigenous culture. As temperatures have increased, growing potato production has had to move to higher and higher elevations and, as one of the farmers says, eventually they’ll run out of mountains.

Those Peruvian farmers, however, have begun to battle shrinking crop diversity, working with the International Potato Center gene bank to preserve more than 1,500 species.

That’s the local story presented in “Seeds of Time.” The global perspective comes from Cary Fowler, who has spent decades crusading for seed diversity and preservation, and for years has led the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust.

That UN-affiliated group addresses all seed issues from the dwindling diversity that already has only 10 percent or less of varieties of many crops still available to the crumbling “gene banks” around the world.

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One of the solutions is a stunner -- buried deep inside a Norwegian mountain is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a below-zero environment where boxes upon boxes of seeds are preserved, secure from global warming and available to meet the future challenges.

What those challenges are remains to be seen. Today, however, many gene banks are disappearing from flood, fire or neglect, and seeds don’t get a lot of public attention.

So Fowler rightly becomes the hero of the film that lets him tell his story -- from battling cancer to battling politicians and bureaucracies -- and follows him around the world as he speaks to conferences and grade-school kids and wheels boxes of seeds into the Norwegian vault.

Along the way, Fowler journeys to St. Petersburg, Russia, allowing “Seeds of Time” to present a brief history of the movement to collect, classify and preserve seeds. That effort largely began with Soviet agricultural scientist Nikolai Vavilov, who worked to find the origin of crops, fruits and vegetables and collect seeds before World War II.

Vavilov’s research continues to play an important role in the seed diversity effort as the fast-moving globe-hopping film vividly demonstrates.

While the science deniers who dispute global warming are likely to scoff at the film, “Seeds of Time” presents a scary case for the need for diversity and preservation. One thing is certain -- after seeing the film you’ll never look at seeds in the same way.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.

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