Dutch seed developer wins 2019 World Food Prize

By Justin Cremer

June 11, 2019

A Dutch seed breeder who introduced new hybrid vegetable varieties to Southeast Asia has been awarded the 2019 World Food Prize.

As the founder of East-West Seed, Simon Groot is credited with bringing disease- and stress-resistant vegetable seeds to millions of smallholder farmers, helping to lift them out of poverty.

The seed company, which began in 1982 as a partnership with Philippine seed trader Benito Domingo, now has 973 improved varieties of 60 different vegetable crops that are being used by more than 20 million farmers in 60 countries.

“As the use of his seeds spread throughout the Philippines and to Thailand, Indonesia and across Southeast Asia, farmers’ daily lives were uplifted and consumers benefited from greater access to nutritious vegetables,” Kenneth Quinn, the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, said in a statement announcing the selection on Monday. “Mr. Groot in effect developed a stunningly impactful global network of seed producers who are transforming the lives of 20 million farmers every year.”

A sixth-generation seedsman, Groot started East-West Seed shortly after his family seed business was in 1981 sold to Swiss company Sandoz, which later became part of Syngenta. During a trip throughout Southeast Asia that year, Groot found that there was virtually no market for improved, high-quality seeds in the region.

At that time, smallholder farmers were typically only able to purchase seeds from expired lots from Europe and North America. These low-quality seeds were not adapted to local conditions and produced low yields that left farmers mired in a cycle of malunutrition and poverty.

Working with plant breeders from Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands and the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, Groot first focused on developing a better seed for bitter gourd, a nutritious but high-priced local vegetable. The “Jade Star” variety his team introduced in 1986 was the first locally-developed commercial bitter gourd in tropical Asia. In the following years, Groot’s team introduced new tomato, eggplant and pumpkin varieties, as well as improved seeds for local leafy vegetables like kangkong.

In the following decades, Groot would expand East-West Seed’s work across Asia and into Africa and Central America.

Groot also created a knowledge transfer program that trains tens of thousands of farmers every year on better agricultural practices so that smallholders can take full advantage of the new improved seeds.

“I did not know which fertilizer to use,” Tanzanian farmer Salimu Tamimu said in a statement provided by the World Food Prize. “I now know the importance of good seed variety selection, planting with the right spacing, and when to apply fertilizer on my crops.”

Upon being named the recipient of the prestigious prize, Groot said that the recognition was a testament to the “millions of smallholder farmers that stepped up farming from a way of living to building a business.”

“Small scale vegetable farming is a great way to grow rural income and employment and improve nutrition at the same time. Partnering modern science with a long tradition of Dutch seedsmanship has contributed mightily to the growth of the vegetable farming industry of tropical Asia in the last 35 years,” the 85-year-old Groot said.

“Now it is the turn for tropical Africa where again quality vegetable seeds combined with major farmer knowledge transfer programs can create sustainable income for the next generation of African farmers,” he continued.

Groot’s selection as this year’s World Food Prize recipient was announced at the US State Department on Monday at a ceremony presided over by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo praised Groot as an example of the power of agricultural innovation.

“The remarkable improvements he made to these tropical vegetable seeds helped small farmers in developing nations produce more food and, importantly, get more income for themselves and their families, curbing hunger and stimulating economic growth wherever these seeds went,” Pompeo said. “The company provides free information on the best cultivation methods to farmers, which in turn helps customers and increases demand for its seeds. A truly virtuous cycle.”

Groot will be presented the 2019 World Food Prize at an Oct. 17 ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa.

The World Food Prize was created in 1986 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug as a way to celebrate achievements in “improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.”