Documentary Review: Seeds of Freedom

Keerthana Balaji

October 17, 2020 | Reviews

Over the years, scholarship in STS has explored how power and authority have transformed agricultural systems the world over (Iles et al, 2016). While some case studies have explored how American models of agricultural progress did not necessarily fit conditions elsewhere (Fitzgerald, 1986), recent studies have examined how alternative social-technical worlds can be re-imagined by studying agricultural systems and related challenges in the global South (Prasad 2020, Pandey 2020). Issues related to agricultural biotechnology and seed sovereignty have also featured in these discussions.

In this post, re-blogged from the Sustainable Livelihood Institute (SLI) in Tamil Nadu (India), Keerthana Balaji (2020) reviews the documentary Seeds of Freedom (2012) filmed by Jess Phillimore and produced by the Gaia Foundation along with African Biodiversity Network, GRAIN, Navdanya and Melca Ethiopia. This review can help STS scholars reflect on how agricultural research systems shape/are shaped by power and patent regimes that promote some technologies but lock out other socio-ecological innovations (Vanloqueren and Baret, 2009, Parthasarathy, 2017).

The evolution of agriculture and the impacts of it have groomed the earth and its inhabitants to whatever it is today. Seeds of freedom is a well-documented presentation on the politics and the power dynamics around food. The advent of agriculture has spun civilizations into course. History has been wound around food and the politics that unraveled with it.  This documentary predominantly presents the shifting ideologies around ‘the seed’, from traditional / conventional farming practices to modern industrial agricultural methods. The tracing of the inception of genetic modification and chemical fertilizers, the linkages between these industries (or allies), and the impacts of such levels of privatization (patents) of ‘general’ knowledge on seeds, present a rather strong evidence to the arguments brought forward by the advocates of traditional farming practices, who claim the entire food industry is running on the myth that “genetically modified crops are the only way to feed the world”. In fact, the director of Gaia Foundation goes on to say that ‘it is only about the control/ power over the food sector’. It exposes the viewer to a very distinct and a critical thought on the politics around food and the limitations of purely capitalistic technological advancements such as the GM seeds.

This documentary in fact made me draw parallels to multiple forms of enslavement that humans have devised in order to harvest power. The seed is the source of life and the primary resource in the agricultural production system, just as man is a primary resource in any social system. Controlling this resource obviously means harnessing power over everything else.

This power is not harnessed in a day. It requires meticulous planning, years of education and a systematic pattern of influence. Just as racism has lasted for millennia through myths spun by the en-slavers, education and law that validated the system and made the dark skinned accept and believe that they were inferior, a similar pathway seems to have been adopted by the monopolies in the agricultural sector; through the use of technology, research, patents and ‘ethics’ carved out to feed their (monopolies) economic and social needs. This has rendered not just the farmers, but also the earth impoverished.

To believe nature is inadequate is maybe the start of enslavement. While not romanticizing traditional farming practices, acknowledging that any good work or product takes time to be created, could help us in developing solutions that are truly sustainable. Ensuring diversity has made this earth resilient, in the same manner our seeds, the breeding and the diversity of traditional farms have fed the world for millennia. The romantic idea of less labor and more yield or the absence of pests is as fictional as leading a life with no problems and obstacles. Instead of believing in a stairway to heaven, considering the truth that goodness is hard work, could actually lead to heaven (Easier said than done!). The traditional seed knowledge and the selective breeding had resulted in resilient crops. While, engineered agriculture has tried modifying crops to fit into machinery rather, not considering the ecological role of agriculture and has rendered lands barren. A purely economic understanding of life has resulted in chemical agronomy, the wolf in a sheep’s skin. The symbiotic relationship between the organisms of the earth creates a balance by itself and not harnessing it, has proved to be detrimental to our survival.

A call for action to not believe in the myths spun by these large monopolies spurs more questions. If small farmers are the majority and their resilient practices have fed 70% of the population, then it certainly doesn’t support the claim of the industries that small or marginal farms are inefficient. If healthy food can be produced by preserving natural resources better, then shouldn’t our endeavors be steered towards designing better policies that are decentralized, farmer and consumer friendly than prioritizing industrial profits? While economic sustainability is vital, environmental sustainability only becomes the cornerstone to it. How does patenting natural plants answer the questions on food security? If the goal is to feed the world, how does it matter if a crop is patented and owned? All that matters is the health of the consumer and the re-usability and regeneration of resources, i.e. the livelihood security, nutritional security and environmental security that can guarantee sustainability. Such ideas of private property have led to numerous issues from yesteryear to modern days, from driving species to extinction to wars resulting in numerous human deaths. If the small farmers have been successful in ensuring such an intersection of sustainability and social justice for years, then the meek may have to inherit the earth. Maybe those really are the seeds of hope.

Keerthana Balaji currently pursues her post-graduation in development at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru (India). She joined SLI as an intern in 2020 as a part of her curriculum. The two month internship had Keerthana and her batch-mates research and document data focused on sustainable agriculture. By the end of the internship, Keerthana was able to pick up fresh veggies from her own house! 

The Sustainable Livelihood Institute is a unique initiative by the Government of Tamil Nadu and Auroville Foundation. The Institute conceptualizes, designs, organizes and delivers programmes for skill, knowledge and perspective building on sustainable livelihoods.

Published: 10/17/2020