Food Prize Groot

Simon Groot (right) accepts his World Food Prize plaque from Kenneth Quinn.

DES MOINES — Simon Groot had this idea that science and business could help feed the world. It is an idea that led the Dutch seedsman to be named as the 2019 World Food Prize Laureate.

Groot began his professional career as a sixth-generation seedsman in the Netherlands. But he always dreamed of using his scientific and business expertise to feed hungry people in faraway places. So after he sold the family seed company he started a new company, East-West Seed, in 1982.

It began with a small operation in the Philippines, but over time has spread to other parts of Asia, as well as to Africa and South America. Today, East-West Seed has about 5,000 employees in 16 countries and more expansion is planned.

But the growth has not always been easy. Groot told the crowd gathered for the World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines Oct. 16-18 that the idea at the start was not necessarily to start a new charity. Instead, it was to provide a long-term method of developing and supplying high-yielding vegetable seed to small farmers in poor regions of the world.

“Professional seed offers distinct advantages,” Groot says.

The problem often is that seed companies do not do the research and development on products that are wanted or needed in poor nations. And many charities and other organizations lack the marketing expertise to convince small farmers in those areas to spend money on hybrid seed.

“They were very reluctant to spend money on seeds (when they had little money to spend),” Groot says of the small farmers who were used to saving their own seed. And he adds that “selling seed is more than just making a new seed.”

But his company developed high-yielding seed for products such as pumpkins, and it is working on other products such as okra.

The world needs good science, Groot says. But it also needs people capable of marketing the new seed and other scientifically proven items.

The World Food Prize was started by Iowa native Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner and father of the so-called “green revolution.”

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.