A seed expert who brought high quality vegetable seeds to more many countries, was awarded the 2019 World Food Prize on Monday.
Simon Groot of the Netherlands is credited with introducing high-quality, disease-resistant vegetable seeds to more than 60 countries including the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.
Developing seeds has been the Groot family business for a long time. He is the sixth generation of, what is called, a seedsman. He began his search to create better vegetable seeds to help farmers in Southeast Asia in 1981. He was 47 and his family’s company had just been taken over by a larger corporation.
Sixteen years earlier, he had made his first trip to Indonesia. There, Groot learned that vegetable seeds which were developed for the moderate climate of Europe, did poorly when planted in the hot tropics. He thought there was a great possibility to introduce hybrid vegetables to the area. The area lacked vegetable seed developers who were trying to create hybrids for the local climate.
“It was neither charity nor business. It was a passion for good seeds,” said Groot. Now 85, he said developing seeds has always concerned him: “I noticed the seed quality in that part of world was so much below our standards and below achievable standards.” He added that he “could not stand” that the farmers there did not have better seeds.
At the time, farmers in Southeast Asia usually saved seeds from season to season. That was because the seeds available for sale were often old. Those seeds were usually from Europe or North America and did not grow well in their tropical climate. This meant that the farmers ended up with smaller crops, and lower quality that changed greatly from season to season. The plants also could easily become infected with diseases.
Groot partnered with seed trader Benito Domingo of the Philippines. They put together a team of seed researchers and growers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the University of the Philippines. Within a few years, they developed a hybrid bitter gourd that sold successfully. Then they adapted a tomato plant, followed by eggplants, pumpkins and leafy vegetables.
The early successes led to the start of the East-West Seed Company, which now has more than 970 improved seeds of 60 vegetable crops.
Over the past 40 years, the discoveries have led to the creation of a tropical vegetable seed industry aimed at small farmers. The tropical seeds are now spreading into Asia, Africa and Latin America.
It is estimated that the company’s seeds are used by 20 million farmers each year in more than 60 countries, said Kenneth Quinn, the former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. He has been the president of the Des Moines, Iowa-based World Food Prize Foundation since 2000.
Of Groot, Quinn said, “he’s a truly remarkable individual with worthy accomplishments that should be recognized.”
The award was announced during a ceremony at the U.S. Department of State hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“The remarkable improvements made in these tropical vegetable seeds helped small farmers in developing nations produce more food and importantly get more income for themselves and their families,” Pompeo said. He added that the seeds fight hunger and help increase economic growth.
Groot will receive the $250,000 World Food Prize during an award ceremony at the Iowa Capitol on October 17.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug started the prize in 1986 to recognize people who have improved the quality and availability of food.
I’m Anne Ball.
Words in This Story
tropics – n. the part of the world that is near the equator where the weather is very warm
hybrid – n. an animal or plant that is produced from two animals or plants of different kinds
charity – n. the act of giving money, food, or other kinds of help to people who are poor and sick
passion – n. a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something
standard – n. a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable
accomplishment – n. something done, achieved, or accomplished successfully
remarkable – adj. unusual or surprising : likely to be noticed