Film Review: Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds

By Norris Thomlinson / Deep Green Resistance Hawai’i

Open Sesame examines the importance of seeds to humans as the genesis of nearly all our domesticated foods. It details the tremendous loss in varietal diversity of our crops over the last century, due in large part to increasing corporate control over the seed market.

Farmers and gardeners in every region once had access to dozens of varieties of each vegetable and staple crop, finely adapted to the specific growing season, temperatures, rainfall patterns, insects, diseases, and soils of their area. With few people now saving their own seed, we’ve entrusted our food supply to a handful of seed companies selling the same handful of varieties to growers across the US. This will prove increasingly problematic as climate chaos increases divergence from climatic norms. We need a return to seed saving and breeding of numerous local varieties, each starting from a baseline adaptation to the specific conditions of each area. Diversity gives a better chance of avoiding complete catastrophic crop failure; this variety may yield in the heavy rains of one year, while that variety may succeed in the drought of the next.

The film shows beautiful time lapse sequences of seeds sprouting and shooting into new life. Even rarer, it shows people feeling very emotional about seeds, displaying extra-human connections we normally only see with domesticated pets, and hinting at the human responsibility of respectful relationship with all beings described by so many indigenous people. The movie highlights great projects from seed schools and the Seed Broadcast truck educating people on why and how to save seed, to William Woys Weaver and others within Seed Savers Exchange doing the on-the-ground work of saving varieties from extinction, to Hudson Valley Seed Library trying to create a viable business as a local organic seed company.

Civilization and Agriculture

Unfortunately, Open Sesame has an extremely narrow focus. Though it rightly brings up the issue of staple crops, which many people ignore in their focus on vegetables, it trumpets our dependence on grains, even showing factory farmed cattle, pigs, and chickens in an uncritical light. This assumption that humans need annual crops reveals an ignorance of agriculture itself as a root cause of our converging environmental crises. Even before industrialism accelerated the destruction and oppression, civilization and its cities, fed by organic agriculture, was eroding soil, silting up waterways, turning forests into deserts, and instituting slavery and warfare. Though the diminished diversity within our food crops should indeed cause concern, the far greater biodiversity loss of mass species extinctions under organic agriculture should spark great alarm, if not outright panic.

In one scene, the documentary shows a nighttime urban view of industrial vehicles and electric lights, bringing to mind the planetary destruction enacted by the creation and operation of these technologies. Beneath the surface, this scene contains further social and imperialistic implications of packing humans into artificial and barren environments. The residents of this scene are fully reliant on imported food and other resources, often stolen directly, and all grown or mined from land stolen from its original human and non-human inhabitants. But the film goes on to point out, without any irony, that all civilizations began with humans planting seeds, as if the only problem we face now is that industrialization and corporate control applied to agriculture threaten the stability of otherwise beneficial systems.

In a similar disconnect, Open Sesame proclaims the wonders of gardening, farming, and “being in nature” while showing simplified ecosystem after simplified ecosystem ― annual gardens and fields with trees present only in the background, if at all. As any student of permaculture or of nature could tell you, the disturbed soil shown in these human constructions is antithetical to soil building, biodiversity, and sustainability. The film describes seeds “needing” our love and nurturing to grow, positioning us as stewards and playing dangerously into the dominating myth of human supremacism. Such dependence may (or may not) be true of many of our domesticated crops and animals, but I think it crucial to explicitly recognize that in indigenous cultures, humans are just one of many equal species living in mutual dependence.

Though the documentary chose not to tackle those big-picture issues, it still could have included perennial polycultures, groups of long-lived plants and animals living and interacting together in support of their community. For 99% of our existence, humans met our needs primarily from perennial polycultures, the only method proven to be sustainable. The film could have chosen from hundreds of modern examples of production of vegetables, fruit, and staple foods from perennial vegetable gardens, food forests, and grazing operations using rotating paddocks. Even simplified systems of orchards and nutteries would have shown some diversity in food production options. Besides being inherently more  sustainable in building topsoil and creating habitat, such systems rely much less on seed companies and help subvert their control.

Liberal vs Radical

The Deep Green Resistance Youtube Channel has an excellent comparison of Liberal vs Radical ways of analyzing and addressing problems. In short, liberalism focuses on individual mindsets and changing individual attitudes, and thus prioritizes education for achieving social change. Radicalism recognizes that some classes wield more power than others and directly benefit from the oppressions and problems of civilization. Radicalism holds these are not “mistakes” out of which people can be educated; we need to confront and dismantle systems of power, and redistribute that power. Both approaches are necessary: we need to stop the ability of the powerful to destroy the planet, and simultaneously to repair and rebuild local systems. But as a radical environmentalist, I found the exclusively liberal focus of Open Sesame disappointing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with its take on seed sovereignty; the film is good for what it is; and I’m in no way criticizing the interviewees doing such great and important work around seed saving and education. But there are already so many liberal analyses and proposed solutions in the environmental realm that this film’s treatment doesn’t really add anything new to the discussion.

A huge challenge I have with liberal environmentalism is its leap of logic in getting from here (a world in crisis) to there (a truly sustainable planet, with more topsoil and biodiversity every year than the year before.) Open Sesame is no exception: it has interview after interview of individuals carrying out individual actions: valuable, but necessarily limited. Gary Nabham speaks with relief on a few crop varieties saved from extinction by heroic individual effort, but no reflection is made on the reality of how much we’ve lost and the inadequacy of this individualist response. We see scene after scene of education efforts, especially of children. We’re left with a vague hope that more and more people will save their own seed, eventually leading to a majority reclaiming control over their plantings while the powerful agribusiness corporations just fade away. This ignores the institutional blocks deliberately put in place precisely by those powerful companies.

The only direct confrontation shown is a defensive lawsuit begging that Monsanto not be allowed to sue farmers whose crops are contaminated by patented GMOs from nearby fields. The lawsuit isn’t even successful, and the defeated farmers and activists are shown weary and dejected, but with a fuzzy determination that they can win justice if they keep trying hard enough. The film could instead have built on this example of the institutionalized power we’re up against and explored more radical approaches to force change. Still within the legal realm, CELDF (Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund) helps communities draft and pass ordinances banning things like factory farming, removing corporate personhood, and giving legal rights to nature within a municipality or county. Under such an ordinance, humans could initiate a lawsuit against agricultural operations leaching chemicals and sediment, on behalf of an impacted river. This radical redistribution of decision making directly confronts those in power and denies them the right to use it against the community and the land.

In the non-legal realm, underground direct attacks and aboveground nonviolent civil disobedience have successfully set back operations when people have cut down GMO papayas, burned GMO sugar beets, and sabotaged multiple fields and vineyards. The ultimate effectiveness of these attacks deserves a whole discussion in and of itself, but they would have been worth mentioning as one possible tactic for ending agribusiness domination of our food supplies.

In a perfect demonstration of the magical thinking that wanting something badly enough will make it happen, the documentary concludes with a succession of people chanting “Open sesame!” We’ve had 50 years of experience with this sort of environmentalism, long enough to know it’s not working. We also know that we, and the planet, have no time left to waste. We need to be strategic and smart in our opposition to perpetrators of destruction and in our healing of the damage already done. The Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy of Deep Green Resistance offers a possible plan for success, incorporating all kinds of people with all kinds of skills in all kinds of roles. If you care about the world and want to change where we’re headed, please read it, reflect on it, and get involved in whatever way makes the most sense for you.

3 thoughts on “Film Review: Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds”

  1. You brought up some great points, but I wouldn’t diss on this film because it can easily make people decide to just give up instead of do something about it. The film is trying to move people in a direction that needs to happen; get them more involved in a food and agriculture movement and though a lot of films like these have some sort of bias, they are doing more good than bad. It also has to leave hope in people in order to make them actually do something because of they just said “oh yeah this whole agriculture thing was a total screw up from the beginning” there is no way to solve that problem. It’s something that someone would hear and say “oh thanks, the world is officially hopeless”. It is impossible to eliminate agriculture from our society or any society nowadays really, so saying that it was a mistake is basically dooming the world. We can however focus the hope we do have to aim for a better sort of agriculture such as organic, and hopefully much further. In order to move a society towards something you have to take steps. This first one is an organic movement (or so it seems no GMO because we aren’t even there yet). This is a great film for getting people more aware and motivated but giving them enough awareness that they are actually capable of being motivated. We have to take smaller steps unfortunately. I would be so overjoyed if we didn’t have to, so relieved if people realized the peril we’re in but it doesn’t work that way. :/

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Person. You bring up the classic “revolution vs reform” dilemma: do we try to completely replace a system which is inherently destructive, or try to make it a bit less destructive?

      I think an elimination of agriculture is not only possible, but necessary for survival of the human species. Many societies even today live without agriculture, and of course all humans lived just fine without it prior to 10,000 years ago. In fact, humans lived much better without it than with it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to set a goal of rebuilding perennial polycultures with humans integrated into their landbases, nor infeasible to motivate people with small steps from here to there.

      I agree it can be shocking to confront the entirety of what’s needed to address our various crises: abolish agriculture, take down industrial civilization, dismantle patriarchy, etc. But I think it’s dangerous to get people engaged in smaller and easier steps if those ultimately dead-end in futility. The environmental movement has taken that approach for decades, with the result of burnt out activists who rightly feel their energy is wasted as the world gets worse and worse.

      I think it’s possible to grasp the big picture and plan a radical approach, but still break the action plan into small steps. I tried to suggest some of those in this review, as alternatives to the feel-good but ineffective solutions from the film: pursue pemaculture and perennial polycultures, get involved with CELDF style radical legal ordinances, learn the Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy and figure out where you fit in. Most of all, be clear on your goals, realistic about the forces opposing you, and strategic in planning how to get from here to there.

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