“Seed: The Untold Story” comes to PBS’s ‘Independent Lens’

A documentary set to bow across PBS’s long-running doc strand ‘Independent Lens’ puts seeds in the spotlight. Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz’s documentary SEED: The Untold Story follows seed keepers intent on protecting a ...
April 17, 2017

A documentary set to bow across PBS’s long-running doc strand ‘Independent Lens’ puts seeds in the spotlight.

Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz’s documentary SEED: The Untold Story follows seed keepers intent on protecting a 12,000-year-old food legacy.

In the last century, 94% of our seed varieties have disappeared, the doc tells viewers. This once abundant seed diversity  has been winnowed down to a handful of mass-produced varieties.

Under the spell of industrial “progress” and corporate profits, family farmsteads have given way to mechanized agri-businesses sowing genetically identical crops on a massive scale, the doc argues. But, it warns, without seed diversity, crop diseases rise and empires fall.

Seed reveals the work of the farmers, scientists, lawyers, and indigenous seed keepers who are fighting to defend the future of food.

It’s part of a trilogy of docs from Betz and Siegel. In 2005, Siegel released The Real Dirt on Farmer John — the profile of a Midwestern farmer who transforms his farm amidst a failing economy.

That was followed up with Queen of the Sun in 2010, a doc that takes viewers on a journey through the catastrophic disappearance of bees and the long-term effects.

Siegal and Betz say they hadn’t intended to make Seed after Queen of the Sun, but the doc about the honeybee colony collapse paved the way for a doc that touched upon how seeds create the flowers that bees pollinate.

Experts interviewed in the doc include Will Bonsall of the Scatterseed Project, Dr. Jane Goodall, environmental lawyer Claire Hope Cummings, ethno-botanist Gary Paul Nabhan, botanical explorer Joseph Simcox, Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, and physicist/activist Dr. Vandana Shiva.

“If you look at the films on a timeline, the common thread is profiles of people that are compelling and usual, and sometimes funny,” says Siegel. “But we felt the need to be more investigative in Seed because there was more of a sense of urgency.”

According to filmmakers Siegel and Betz, Seeds began with an article in National Geographic that reported that up to 96% of the vegetable seeds available in 1903 have disappeared.

“Seed explores the hidden fabric of our food and the people that painstakingly and meticulously curate its diversity, fighting the immense corporate power of chemical companies that now control the majority of our food,” they say.

But despite the political nature of the doc, painstaking efforts were taken to create a product that’s visually appealing. It uses a mix of animation, archive footage and sit-down interviews throughout the course of the film, along with macro photography that showcases the details of a seed.

“We really wanted to show people the beauty of seeds,” the filmmakers say.

Siegel and Bertz say this is by far the most expensive film they’ve made, with funding coming from sources including two separate Kickstarter campaigns as well as the grocery change Whole Foods.

Executive produced by Marisa Tomei, Marc Turtletaub (Little Miss Sunshine) and Phil Fairclough (Grizzly ManCave of Forgotten Dreams), the doc world premiered at the D.C. Environmental Film Festival last May and has screened at the Seattle International Film Festival as well as festivals in Boston, Nashville and Florida.

But airing on PBS’s ‘Independent Lens’ means access to a “slice of the mainstream” that isn’t always available through theatrical releases, according to the filmmakers.

“Our hope is that anyone who watches the broadcast will go forward to do something to support seeds,” they say. “Even though they might think the issue is very removed from their lifestyle, one of our missions is to get people to think differently and understand how their seed choices impact the broader economy and agriculture industry.”

Seed premieres on Independent Lens Monday, April 17, 2017 , 10:00-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor-in-chief and content director for Realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to Realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.