Laureate reflects on four successful decades of work in Asia and looks towards Africa as his focus for the future.
Simon Groot, founder of East-West Seed, received the 2019 World Food Prize during a prestigious ceremony with international delegates and luminaries at the Iowa State Capitol last night in Des Moines, Iowa. The ceremony was part of the 33rd World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium, based on the theme “Pax Agricultura.”
Groot was honored with the World Food Prize for his global leadership in bringing vegetables to the forefront of the fight to improve global nutrition and health. To achieve this, he has focused on supporting small farmers and helping them improve their economic prospects.
As he noted in his Laureate speech on Thursday evening, “I’m very grateful to receive this award. My own philosophy from 40 years ago was to deliver quality seeds to farmers and become their friend.”
During that time, he and East-West Seed have empowered 20 million small farmers in 60 countries across the globe by providing them with quality, locally-adapted vegetable seeds to produce nutritious, affordable vegetables for their families and communities.
The World Food Prize honors the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. This year’s award ceremony was held in the magnificent Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines, drawing over 800 people from more than 75 countries, rivaling the turnout for the Nobel Prize.
The ceremony was presided over by Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, who was also celebrating his final year as the President of The World Food Prize Foundation, and included personal messages from Prince Constantijn van Oranje of the Netherlands and Bill Gates, congratulating Groot on this achievement.
Also in attendance were:
Ambassador André Haspels, the ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United States
H. E. Félix Tshisekedi, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo
H.E. Chanthol Sun, Minister of Public Works and Transport, Cambodia
Hon. Gerardine Mukeshimana, Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources, Rwanda
Kim Reynolds, Governor, State of Iowa
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The symposium took place across three days and included an event hosted by East-West Seed titled, “Farmers, Food, and the Future: Vegetable Seeds for a Healthier World.”
The program featured lightning talks and a panel discussion with luminaries like Purvi Mehta, Head of Asia Agriculture at The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Roy Steiner, Senior Vice President of the Food Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation; Marco Wopereis, Director General of the World Vegetable Center; Ido Verhagen, Director of Access to Seeds Index; Ernst van den Ende, Director Plant Sciences Group at Wageningen University and Research; and 2016 World Food Prize Laureate Jan Low. The lively discussion focused on food security and sustainability, as well as the economic and nutritional power of vegetables.
A theme that emerged during the event was the underconsumption of vegetables and its detrimental effect on public health, educational advancement, and more. East-West Seed recognized from the beginning that nutrition is foundational for individual health as well as the health of societies. And that it all starts with good seeds.
“We are not eating vegetables at optimal levels for optimal health—we’re only getting 50% of what we need,” said Roy Steiner, Senior Vice President of the Food Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation.
“It’s a universal problem from the US to Africa. In global populations across the board, only 10% of the population are getting the optimal amount,” he added.
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But increasing productivity and introducing new crops to meet the nutritional needs of local populations can be daunting. It requires a drastic shift from the way things have been done for generations. For this reason, East-West Seed pioneered a knowledge transfer program that builds trust with growers at the deepest level so that local needs can be understood and agricultural practices strengthened. This helps growers improve their yields, reduce pesticide and water usage, and earn more for their work.
East-West Seed has made great inroads in Southeast Asia, and they are now looking towards Africa to continue their work. As their focus shifts to Africa, the major challenge will be the poor quality of the soil and the variability of environmental factors from one region to the next. Even the most productive varietals need to be bred to match the specific needs of each region. “Transplanting knowledge from Asia to Africa—this is our goal,” concluded Simon Groot in his Laureate award speech last night.
“More income for farmers and more healthy food for their communities. And we are seeking partners to help mobilize small farmers and continue the Vegetable Revolution for generations to come,” he added.