Documentary follows food from seed to harvest

Ines Ramos attends Seed School at Native Seeds, in a scene from "Open Sesame." — Photo courtesy of Open Sesame

“Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds,” a documentary about seed saving, comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Friday, Oct. 3, in conjunction with the Living Local Harvest Festival. The West Tisbury Free Public Library, Island Grown Schools, and the FARM Institute are sponsoring the free film screening as part of their new community seed-library initiative, to be introduced at the Harvest Festival on Oct. 4.

The West Tisbury library will serve as a center for free locally-saved and -adapted seeds, as well as providing information about seed saving. “We are thrilled to be the host site of the seed library,” says West Tisbury library circulation assistant Amy Hoff. “We see this as an opportunity to collaborate with our community in its efforts to share knowledge and preserve resources.”

The focus in the first year will be on seeds from self-pollinated tomato, lettuce, and bean crops. “These plants are relatively easy to grow, and represent both wet and dry seed processing, providing a good overview of how to save seeds for beginners,” says Rebecca Sanders, garden manager at the FARM Institute.

The documentary “Open Sesame” draws its title from the Middle Eastern folktale, “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,” in which the phrase “Open Sesame” serves as the password that opens a cave door where 40 thieves have stored their booty. The tale of these magical two words aptly fits a documentary about the ancient practice of seed saving, because sesame seeds are among the oldest oil-seed crops in the world, dating back at least 3,000 years. A drought-resistant survivor crop originating in sub-Saharan Africa and India, sesame has one of the highest oil contents of any known seed. It is indeed magical, and the theme of thievery fits the film’s focus on the loss of seed varieties in this country and other parts of the world due to the development of monoculture farming and the industrialization of agriculture by corporations like Monsanto.

Directed by M. Sean Kaminsky, “Open Sesame” interviews farmers and heirloom-seed advocates who oppose the growing dominance of GMO (genetically modified organism) seed stocks that have been patented by large agricultural corporations. The film provides shocking data on what is happening to this crucial component of our food supply. Ninety percent of our calories come from seeds, but 90 percent of the crop varieties of the past 100 years are now extinct. One example the film gives is how lettuce seeds have dropped from 497 varieties to 36. Heritage wheat, i.e. wheat grown from non-GMO seeds, is reaching extinction, yet modern GMO wheat varieties carry toxic levels of gluten.

One of the problems with hybrid GMO seeds is that they don’t reproduce. Instead they degenerate, in contrast with open-pollinated seeds. GMO-originated monocrops also require toxic petrochemical fertilizers, like the phosphate herbicide Roundup. A 1980 court decision gave agricultural corporations the right to patent GMO seeds. As a result, corporate seed accounts took over 82 percent of seed varieties, and seed varieties became licenses to use seeds temporarily instead of being available to all. One of the benefits of heirloom seed varieties is that they do better in climate change. “Open Sesame” gives viewers access to a wealth of information about seeds and what is happening to them.

Ken Greene, founder of the nation’s first community seed library and owner of the Hudson Valley Seed Library company, is one of the open-seed advocates interviewed in “Open Sesame.” He will lead a seed-saving workshop at the West Tisbury Agricultural Hall on Saturday, Oct. 4, at 1 pm. He will teach participants how to save seeds from the three foundational crops the West Tisbury library’s seed initiative will focus on during its first year. Members of the community are invited to bring locally grown, non-GMO tomatoes, bean pods, and dry lettuce flower stalks, as well as other types of open-pollinated seeds to the workshop. This workshop will be the first in a series, in addition to other educational events and seed celebrations planned over the next year. For more information or to join the Seed Library mailing list, email

“Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds,” Friday, Oct. 3, 7:30 pm. Free. M.V. Film Center.  

Ken Greene seed-saving workshop, Saturday, Oct. 4, 1 pm. West Tisbury Agricultural Hall.