Seeds Are Key to a Dutchman's Success

Oct 18, 2019  | 5 min  | Ep4509

Dr. Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner, often lamented there was no category for Agriculture.

For nearly two decades, the man credited with saving more than a billion lives, worked to launch what is now known as the World Food Prize.

Simon Groot, this year’s laureate and recipient of the $250,000 cash prize, typifies other winners who embody the importance of providing nutritious and sustainable food for all people.

Paul Yeager has more in our Cover Story.

The poor conditions brought on by the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II lead to the Dutch Famine of 1944-45. Also known as the Hunger Winter, more than 18,000 died, leaving much of the country in declining living standards.

One village avoided much of the devastation because of work done by local farmers in the early 1800’s who saved high quality seeds. What was done generations before planted the idea of how important seed can be in the mind of one 10-year old boy – Simon Groot.

Groot, who survived the Dutch Famine, never forgot his childhood experience. The lasting impression from those dire times would later change the lives of millions.

What started as work with vegetable seeds brought the young Dutchman to the United States. He saw first-hand the technological innovations in agriculture. Groot would began a tour of other countries where the land was unfamiliar and not as productive for traditional seed varieties used in Europe.

During one trip to Indonesia, Groot found a version of his family’s cabbage strain. The leafy green had thrived in European weather conditions but was struggling to overcome the warmer local temperatures.

Through traditional plant breeding techniques, he created a hybrid better suited for tropical conditions. This eventually guided to his pioneering of localized vegetable breeding and seed production. As the seed quality improved, so too were the livelihoods of many farmers in Southeast Asia.

Simon Groot, 2019 World Food Prize Laureate: “The main tools to provide them with high quality sheets and the knowledge to make the best use of them. The real enemy of the farmers is lousy seeds.”

In 1982, Groot went into business with Filipino seed trader Benito Domingo to start East-West Seed. The partnership eventually led to the development of the Jade Star, a commercial bitter gourd which is a staple of Asian cuisine. Other seed varieties would come next. The marketing plan included introducing small, inexpensive packages of high quality seeds that could be used on small plots of land.

The increased yield led to increased profits for producers and improved nutritional options for local consumption.

Groot’s company continued to innovate and began offering training programs to improve farming practices. East-West now has a staff of 100, training more than 56,000 farmers each year in eight countries across Asia and Africa. Today, more than 20 million farmers in 60 countries plant East-West Seeds 973 varieties of 60 vegetable crops.

As Groot was awarded the 2019 World Food Prize, the pomp and circumstance highlighted his achievements in improving the lives of millions around the world.

Simon Groot, 2019 World Food Prize Laureate: “In this huge world of global agriculture. You have recognized the small guys, the vegetable farmers of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Therefore I'm very grateful to receive this award. This award goes to a agricultural scientists working on improvement of the major food crops. And now it's time to pay more attention to the vegetable crops that deliver high nutritional value.”

Groot was humbled by the award for his personal history and life’s work.

Simon Groot, 2019 World Food Prize Laureate: “But I'm just a simple seeds man who want to make a difference to farmers around the world, as my ancestors have done for their generations.”  

The future – Groot added – is the knowledge transfer that includes a more business side of farming.

Simon Groot, 2019 World Food Prize Laureate: “More income for the farmers and more healthy foods for the local and urban populations. We want to help the next generation of farmers to stay in the business of their fathers, and to develop new into innovations in farming, as well as basic entrepreneurial skills.”

As in business and farming, Groot says, relationships matter.

Simon Groot, 2019 World Food Prize Laureate: “Looking back, our success has really come from sticking to our philosophy of the true friends of the farmer, because the small guys really do matter. And so the vegetables. Thank you very much.”

For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager. @PaulYeager

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