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man at podium, Simon Groot
Simon Groot, a sixth-generation Dutch farmer who founded East-West Seeds in 1982, established the first vegetable seed breeding company in the world.

The man who revolutionized commercial vegetable breeding

This year’s World Food Prize winner helped farmers achieve prosperity through high value vegetable crops

Last Monday morning I attended the World Food Prize announcement at the U. S. Department of State. I saw a friend of mine, a former four-star General in the U.S. Army. After Secretary Mike Pompeo had made the announcement I walked up to my friend and told him I was surprised to see him at an agriculture event. In prophetic words he said, “You either feed them or we end up killing them.”

I had never thought about agriculture the way the General encapsulated his interest in agriculture.

The World Food Prize winner was a vegetable seedsman. Simon Groot, a sixth-generation Dutch farmer, who founded East-West Seeds in 1982 in the Philippines. Mr. Groot set out to establish the first vegetable seed breeding company in the world.

All of you who read this blog are quite familiar with corn, soybean, and wheat breeding. I had never thought about commercial vegetable breeding. The same thing happened to that part of agriculture that happened to corn in the 1920s in the U.S.

According to the World Food Prize organizers, Groot “...sympathized with the farmers’ plight and saw a way to break the vicious cycle of poverty and help farmers achieve prosperity through diversification into high value vegetable crops.” He spent years researching and developing various commercial vegetable hybrids for tropical Asian countries. He not only developed high yield crops, he developed resistant crops to local diseases.

Showing farmers the way

Once the seeds were developed, Groot realized there must be an extension-service so he developed an educational and training program showing farmers how to improve vegetable cultivation. We were told that Mr. Groot created East-West Seeds “Knowledge Transfer” programs. This extension program trained tens of thousands of farmers in good agricultural practices.  

“As a result of better seeds and farming methods, farmers saw dramatic increase in their profits, doubling or even tripling their incomes, and consumers found greater availability of these nutritious vegetables in their local markets,” said the award organizers. Groot, a farmer from The Netherlands, had helped millions of farmers become horticultural entrepreneurs. Farmers in the Philippines and other Asian countries have been able to enhance rural and urban markets with nutritious vegetable crops.

The World Food Prize winner has “...truly shown the world what can be achieved when agricultural industry places the needs of small holder farmers at the heart of their business.”

The Borlaug legacy continues

The World Food Prize is given in honor of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. Dr. Borlaug had a vision that the World Food Prize would be recognized globally as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.” Retiring World Food Prize chairman Kenneth Quinn started the World Food Prize with a one-person staff producing a one-day event; Today the World Food Prize is an institution which attracts over 1,200 people from all over the world to its meetings. The Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium has attracted the support of former Prime Minister Tony Blair along with Bill and Melinda Gates.

It’s safe to say, Ambassador Quinn has raised the status of agriculture to the same level as the Nobel Prize.

We in agriculture tend not to celebrate the achievements of people such as Dr. Norman Borlaug and this year’s winner Simon N. Groot, a farmer. As we all know, food security is critical in terms of assuring national security. The work of Groot proves this point as my friend the General said, “you either have to feed them or end up killing them in war.”

A man trained in the arts of war speaks the truth.

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 

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