Invited speakers and faculty talk seed patents, neocolonialism at Camera as Witness panel

Aug. 8, 2021, 1:10 a.m.

“SEED: THE UNTOLD STORY” featured captivating close-up shots that made inanimate seeds and crops come alive while giving urgency to an issue often overlooked by the American public at a Thursday Camera as Witness (CAW) virtual screening.

 “SEED,” a documentary about the fight to save seed varieties in the face of highly commercialized agriculture, condemns the state of the industry, in which large chemical and pharmaceutical corporations, such as Monsanto and Bayer, own patents for popular seeds. The documentary explains that “94% of our vegetable seed varieties” went extinct in the 20th century (though some have debated this claim).

While most commercial farmers buy a few select seed varieties and their corresponding pesticides from corporations, the 2016 documentary interviews variant-preserving farmers and seed-bank workers, many of whom are also indigenous. Interviewees describe how the extraordinary diversity of corn variants (among other crops), developed for thousands of years by indigenous peoples in North America, have been taken advantage of to create hybrid variants that were patented by corporations and subsequently used to crowd existing variants out of the market.

The documentary has won dozens of film festival awards and was nominated for an Emmy.

“SEED” was the fourth film screened as part of Camera as Witness, a Stanford program  presenting documentaries for educational purposes. Attendees watched the film on their own time, then posed questions to speakers throughout an hour-long synchronous panel moderated by ​​Jasmina Bojic, a Stanford lecturer in international relations and the director of CAW.

According to “SEED” Director Jon Betz, the process by which large corporations acquire seed patents constitutes a form of “neocolonialism.” Seed patents discount the “wisdom and cultural heritage” behind seeds with indigenous origins, Betz said.

“There’s a tradition in botany and paleontology, to some extent, for us to just kind of march into an unexplored land and describe everything,” said Andrew Leslie, a Stanford researcher and assistant professor of Geological Sciences and Biology. “But there’s a long history of not giving proper credit where credit’s due, in terms of [the fact] that these plants are known by other people.”

Scientists have taken recent strides “to include people who know about these plants and have some kind of ownership over these plants in terms of their history, their cultural and ecological interactions,” Leslie said.

According to Betz, calling criticisms of modern agriculture “anti-science” sentiment is misguided.

“There’s so many layers of nuance to this … when you begin to see this not as simply a science or health concern, but as a social justice concern, and as a concern of quality and who has the right to heritage,” Betz said.

According to investigative journalist Mark Schapiro, the U.S. government currently ensures that farmers who grow patented seeds using chemical pesticides are “significantly subsidized,” making alternative food sources more expensive in comparison.

He explained: “when we want to go buy organic food, we are paying more for organic food. That necessarily excludes huge numbers of people from buying organic food from no fault of their own.”

“SEED”‘s wide range of stylistic choices also reflects the overarching message of the need for seed diversity.

Betz said, “The premise of the film was diversity, and so we worked with a whole bunch of different animators, each with their own style.”

He said the film’s soundtrack also served to reinforce its “naturalistic” themes. “We wanted to keep away from a very technocentric view of the music. We wanted to keep it with a lot of natural fibers,” he said. 

“I’m in awe with musicians,” Betz said. “I just say, ‘Please; bless us with your work, show us what you can do.’ And they just wow us every single time. It’s the most fun part of making the film.”

William Ding is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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