Better seed quality, concerns over climate change top agenda at World Food Prize

Vegetables on display in the Philippines. Photo by: East-West Seed

DES MOINES, Iowa — Simon Groot believes smallholder farmers can grow more nutritious crops that will lift them out of poverty. But in order for this to happen at scale, the right seeds need to get in the hands of the right farmers — even as they struggle with the effects of climate change and fragility.

Groot, from the Netherlands, is the recipient of this year’s World Food Prize and was honored for his work starting East-West Seed. The company began improving seed quality for smallholder farmers in the Philippines in 1982, at a time when farmers typically saved seeds from year to year. This practice reduced their yields, made plants susceptible to disease, and didn’t allow for climate adaptation.

"We must ensure that we have policies in place that support ... the entirety of the population to ensure that we can build that resilience that is necessary."

— Ertharin Cousin, former head, World Food Programme

Groot focused on breeding vegetable seeds that would not only provide nutritious food but would be tailored to local conditions, in order to yield a larger harvest for smallholders — a population long ignored by for-profit seed companies.

“One by one, that’s how we do it. It has to be local,” Groot said. “It has to be done with local people. This kind of development is very much localized. It depends on eating habits, on crops, on farming habits, and a number of other variables. This is the way we have done it in Asia and I think we can repeat it.”

Nearly 40 years later, the company has reached 20 million farmers in 60 countries who have planted some of the 973 seed varieties of 60 vegetable crops. Groot said some of these varieties are particularly useful in the wake of natural disasters — such as the cyclones experienced in the Philippines, which are likely to increase as a result of climate change — because they can quickly produce a yield when replanted after storm destruction.

“Some of the vegetables — that goes especially for the leafy vegetables, and Asia has quite a few of those that are hardly known anywhere else — can be produced in a very short time,” Groot said. “The champions are one that is all over Southeast Asia that’s called the water spinach … which is a crop that will produce 80 tons of leaf in three weeks’ time, from between planting the seeds and getting the leaves ready for harvest. So that is a huge potential crop for fast relief and also for generating income.”

Farmer and entrepreneur win $100,000 Africa Food Prize

“Don’t say you have nothing. Emma only has one acre — and today she has won Africa’s greatest food prize.”

Groot said he will use his $250,000 prize to accelerate East-West Seed’s expansion into Africa, taking the lessons it learned from Southeast Asia and applying them to some of the most populous but food-insecure areas of the world.

USAID focuses on resilience

In Des Moines, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green announced the creation of a new Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement hosted at Cornell University, which will focus on key crops like banana and sweet potato. The $25 million investment wants to get “new and better” seeds to smallholder farmers.

“We must develop new technologies and partnerships that will not only assist displaced families in crisis settings but offer them livelihood opportunities wherever they can find them,” Green said.

“Dr. Groot's East-West Seed Company put more resilient, productive and affordable seeds in the hands of local farmers in Southeast Asia. As a result, food security is rising, nutritional outcomes are rising, and economic opportunity is rising. By applying that same spirit to the challenge of families displaced, I know we can find new answers.”

Beth Dunford, deputy coordinator for development at Feed the Future, said as the agency gets ready to stand up a new bureau of food security and resilience as a part of its transformation, USAID has adapted its thinking when it comes to fragile contexts. It must be ready to respond to shocks of all kinds, whether that be decreasing yield due to drought or outbreak of armed conflict, she told Devex.

“When we used to do our strategies, we used to have this assumption column, and the assumption column would say ‘assumption: no drought in Ethiopia.’ And we’d design this really beautiful strategy, and we’d assume no drought,” Dunford said.

“Now, the crises are more complex, more frequent, more severe. So now we’re saying that instead of having an assumption column, let’s just build a strategy around assuming fragility, assuming shock, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Improving plant breeding

The international consortium of agricultural research centers CGIAR also aims to make its work more agile and responsive to shocks and a changing climate.

With money from funders including the U.K. Department for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, CGIAR launched a new initiative at the World Food Prize that is aimed at improving plant breeding. Crops to End Hunger will focus on creating climate-adapted varieties of crops that people around the world are already eating.

“Ten years ago, we were still very much in the mode of fostering food security from a calorie point of view,” said Marco Feroni, chair of the system management board of CGIAR.

“[What] has come to the fore much more prominently is the whole climate question, and many of the climate change manifestations will make themselves felt through irregularities in terms of water. So water and natural resources more generally is becoming more important these days, as it must. You could argue that it should have been addressed more prominently 10 years ago. It was not not-addressed, but priorities and senses of urgency change, as is only natural.”

This strain over agricultural resources such as water also contributes to conflict and increasing fragility around the world, said former World Food Programme head Ertharin Cousin. She said that the agriculture sector must recognize, as does the U.S. Department of Defense, that climate change is a “threat multiplier.

President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Félix Tshisekedi said his country is an example of the interconnectedness of these issues: The ongoing conflict in the breadbasket of DRC has not only impacted incomes and food security but also led to forced displacement from agricultural lands.

This can create growing discontent among populations, he said, citing a study that found that low agricultural development contributes to growing poverty, which can increase individuals’ desire to join an armed group.

Cousin said it is essential that all of the research, development, and technology developed by the agricultural and food sectors actually reaches the vulnerable smallholders that need it to withstand shocks and crisis, whether it be armed conflict or climate change.

“How do you withstand a shock and crisis? You have seeds that are drought tolerant or drought-resistant. You have seeds that can withstand long periods of salinization when storms come and the rice fields are under saltwater for too long. You have the policies in place that support the sharing of our freshwater,” Cousin said.

“We must ensure that we have policies in place that support not just those who can afford the access to seeds and tools that would ensure their ability to withstand shocks and crisis, but for the entirety of the population, to ensure that we can build that resilience that is necessary.”

Editor’s note: East-West Seed facilitated Devex’s travel to the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue. Devex retains full editorial control and responsibility for this content.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.