Growing pains: Seed vault’s status as savior or saboteur gets new media, movie scrutiny


The good: A “daring rescue” of seeds in worn-torn Syria that may ensure the country’s future food production. The bad: a rusted refrigerator part at the seeds’ new home in Svalbard that “for a few horrible moments (suggested) the future of human civilization was in jeopardy.” The mixed: the drama of our possible “mass extinction” of meals is getting big-screen exposure, but critics aren’t finding it all that palatable.

Debate about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s role as a savior or saboteur in preserving the world’s food supply in the event of a catastrophy has raged since before the facility opened seven years ago. But the war in Syria, which threatens to destroy that country’s seed stores, plus a documentary that began screening in theaters last week are putting the vault in the spotlight again and exposing new angles of the controversy.

“Seeds of Time” by filmmaker Sandy McLeod focuses primarily on the vault, and the efforts of agriculturist Cary Fowler to preserve seed species by working with organizations and governments worldwide. Numerous news, magazine and other media are offering an in-depth focus on the vault as a result, including a lengthy profile published May 20 in The Guardian that opens with a harrowing antidote about how a simple malfunction threatened the seeds in what’s supposed to be a “disaster-proof backup” for other gene banks.

Robert Bjerke, a Statbygg employee monitoring the vault’s systems on a computer Dec. 16, 2014, noted the storage room temperature was  -16C rather than the optimal -18C, according to the article. He discovered the  entire cooling system had shut down due to a rusting electrical connection and by the time a technician arrived from Tromsø the next day the temperature was -14.5C.

Worse, the technician told Bjerke the part was made in Italy and would not be obtainable after Christmas. But “the same technician also serviced the local supermarket in Longyearbyen and knew its freezer had a similar component” that was borrowed as a temporary fix.

“What if there was a bigger glitch – one that could not be fixed by borrowing a part from the local shop?” Suzanne Goldenberg wrote in her article for The Guardian. “There is now a growing body of opinion that the world’s faith, in Svalbard and the Crop Trust’s broader mission to create seed banks, is misplaced.”

The pessimistic tale was counted by a May 22 article in Aftenposten headlined “Syria’s seed bank may be destroyed – Svalbard is vital backup.” The article noted a seed bank in Syria operated by international plant research center ICARDA is considered one of the world’s most important as seed species from the country’s major crops have been built up over a period of decades.

“This would create certainty for future food production, and was considered safe until the war broke out,” the article notes. “The seed vault is now out of service and it is feared that it be destroyed.”

Materials from the Syrian seed bank were smuggled out in batches by workers and commercial courier services a few weeks before the Syrian war reached its walls, according to The Guardian.

But while nearly every country has deposited seeds, with “notable exceptions” such as Japan and China, there’s a lack of certain species such as green leafy vegetables from Africa, and crops such as bananas, apples and tubers can’t be stored in the vault because they require different conditions, according to the newspaper.

“There has been a drop-off in deposits from developing countries in the last two years, since the vault stopped paying for shipping,” The Guardian added.

Fowler’s struggle with those and other issues – both practical and political – is the foundation of “Seeds of Time.” It follow him from the adminstrative headquarters of The Global Diversity Crop Trust in Rome to St. Peterburg to the midwest farmland of the U.S. to the Andes and finally – and most impressively, in the eyes of many reviewers, to Svalbard.

But while his intentions are generally lauded, despite skepticim about the seed vault ranging from serious to preposterous, the 77-minute film does a less than captivating job of hooking its audience, according to the reviewers. The documentary has a 60 percent approval score at at the rating website Rotten Tomatoes based on five reviews, but even positive assessments, such as one published by The New York Times, concludes “perhaps it’s a hazard tied to a subject, seeds, which are all about potential, but Ms. McLeod’s film feels naggingly diffuse and insufficiently vivid in evoking diversity.”

Similarly, another positive review by National Public Radio states “McLeod stitches together these overlapping strands with skill, if not much flair…’The Seeds of Time’ would have more narrative kick if the filmmakers had spent more time with Fowler. Too often, he tells us about incidents that ideally should be more than secondhand anecdotes.” The lack of personal touch is also mentioned in a review by Slant magazine, which notes “first-person accounts from individuals most affected by the drop in agricultural productivity are rarely the focus of the film’s vision.”