Crossroads: Toward Philippine economic and social progress
Philippine Star, 3 July 2019


An obscure event that recognizes a foreigner in a recent university commencement exercise sets me to think about a brighter future for Philippine agriculture.

A foreign direct investment that began in our country has become extraordinarily successful as an agricultural enterprise not only here, but also in many other countries.

Simon Groot’s accomplishment honored at UP Los Banos. Simon Groot, a Dutch citizen with experience and learning in the business of agricultural seeds growing and marketing, set up nearly 40 years ago the East-West Seed company in the Philippines.

It was a small, startup company that depended heavily on plant breeding technology and cooperation among agricultural scientists and breeders related to vegetable seed production.

Last week, during its commencement exercises, the University of the Philippines at Los Banos awarded Groot an honorary doctor of laws degree. In honoring him, the university noted his significant contributions “to the improvement of farmers’ livelihood and the availability of nutritious and affordable vegetables to Filipino consumers.”

Also, last month, Simon Groot received the World Food Prize, the most important international recognition for persons who have made exceptional achievements to improve the volume and quality of food in the world. In particular, he was cited for his transformative role in improving the economic opportunities of small farmer communities in many tropical countries.

Groot saw many opportunities and economic advantages in coming to the Philippines. As a country, we had good institutions in agricultural research. For his part, Groot also had connections with agricultural institutions in his own country, partly through experience in the family enterprise that he was born to – seed farming.

The UP Los Baños had good reputation in the Southeast Asian region with its faculty resources that were actively engaged in plant breeding research. Moreover, the IRRI was located in the same area, so that there was a large community of institutions engaged in spurring the green revolution in rice production.

Groot started East-West Seed in the Philippines as a cooperative enterprise with the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam and a Filipino seed trader, Benito Domingo. Organizing a team of plant breeders from Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the UPLB, they put up a research station in a five hectare farm in Lipa, Batangas.

Within a few years, they were able to put up an ampalaya variety they christened “Jade Star” and introduced it first locally and then all over Southeast Asia. Success followed other successes: improved varieties of tomato, eggplant, pumpkin, long beans, onions, several brassicas, and leafy vegetables, kangkong being one of their most successful in the Philippines.

The mission of East-West Seed was to sell to farmers different hybrids of vegetable seeds. These are plants that are commonly found in the country. The firm was to market seeds of improved nutritive values. The growers to whom they would sell are small farmers, usually backyard and small owner-occupied plots. In short, many relatively poor farmers in the countryside.

Fast forward to today, almost 40 years later. East-West Seed now has international branches in many parts of the world.

In Asia, its presence is heavily in Southeast Asia, especially in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia. It is actively pursuing efforts to expand to India, China, Africa and Latin America.

How East-West Seed grew in the Philippines. Sometime during the early 2000s, I became aware of the growth of East-West Seed and its impact on local agriculture.

Impressed by what I heard, I sought out Simon during one of his scheduled visits to the country to talk about how he rans company with local managers and a team of professional staff.

When we met, we had a discussion that lasted nearly three hours in his hotel in Manila. Mr. Groot explained to me how he made the decision to set up business in the country.

His operation did not require much land resources, even though farming was itself a land-intensive activity. It was farmers who owned the land. The farmers themselves had the potential to become demonstration farms within their communities and, certainly, the successful ones in the community of farmers.

In general, through demonstrations and extension work that targeted small farmers, the company played a important role in the buildup of a successful supply of farms that pioneered the use of its improved seeds for planting. The farmers themselves became the active agents in expanding the supply of farmers that use the company’s seeds.

The company also engaged with progressive governors and local leaders who helped to devise livelihood projects. Often, local governments actively promoted livelihood programs for their citizenry, and farming was a major livelihood.

Thus, the seed company became an effective agent in propagating highly productive farmers through their support and encouragement of interested farmers in their own communities. The farmers became major beneficiaries when their crops succeeded as it raised their income. Also, they added to the growth of agricultural production and in the sale of their produce in the market.

Local farming of vegetable crops that the farmers grow – tomatoes, papayas, sweet corn, hot peppers, melons, cucumbers, eggplants, long beans, kangkong – all hybrid varieties with high production yield given the proper planting techniques – have benefited the local farmers that adopted them.

By the time that I had interviewed Simon Groot, he had already established a new demonstration laboratory and office in San Rafael, Bulacan in central Luzon. In due time, it would also have an extension office in Bukidnon.

The extension offices make it a point to develop demonstration farms from willing and supportive farmers who benefit from their technical support and supervision. Some of the projects involve larger community projects of farmers being supported by enterprising local governors and leaders in different provinces, dealing with particular vegetable crops being promoted.

The techniques of propagation, support and extension work has been replicated in other countries where eventually East-West Seed also established country presence. In all these operations, the success rate in expanding the market for farming various types of hybrid vegetables had been extensive.