Howard-Yana Shapiro The Constant Gardener

Working for Mars may seem an incongruous job for a plant specialist who wants to change the world through optimized nutrition. Yet he has been able effect positive change from inside the global food giant.
Howard-Yana Shapiro believes in the power of plants.

 

Howard-Yana Shapiro is a professor of agriculture and environmental science at the University of California and consultant to environmental organizations, companies and government authorities. In 1989, he co-founded the organic seed producer Seeds of Change, which became one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. When Mars acquired the seed company in 1997, it hired Mr. Shapiro as the global director of plant science and external research. He attracted worldwide attention in 2010, when he cracked the gene of the cocoa plant and made it freely available on the Internet.

 

Howard-Yana Shapiro: You just caught me on my way to the greenhouses.

Handelsblatt: Are you breeding zucchini for your kitchen or for research?

Food is always at the core of my projects. It's all about discovery. I pollinate female plants with male pollen, the way farmers have been doing for thousands of years. And then comes the Eureka moment when I discover something – I love it.

What are you and your team working on, specifically?

We concern ourselves with what we call 'orphan crops'. These are the 101 food crops in countries like Africa that have been neglected by research. We want to sequence their genomes and create a genetic library to build breeding programs in the public domain.

That sounds like a huge project.

For starters, we estimate costs of about $50 million. That sounds like a lot of money indeed, but it will have a positive impact on the entire African continent. Currently, Africa imports over $60 billion dollars in food every year. Even though this may cost another half a billion dollars, it's still not that much – considering that we are talking about one billion African people. We want children in Africa to have the opportunity to grow up to be the next Einstein or Usain Bolt.

How is that going to work?

Within a short time, we will be able to breed plant varieties that are better and more nutritious by using the genetic information we are exploring.

Is nutritional value more important than yield?

This is not just about filling bellies. The crops must contain the right nutritional content: protein, vitamins, micro-nutrients, minerals. Only then does our brain develop, and children's bodies grow. The key question is: How do we create a society that ensures all children across the globe have access to the best food? One reason why not all societies develop the same abilities is the nutritional differences during pregnancy and infancy.

You've already sequenced one genome, that of the cocoa bean. Why cocoa?

Cocoa is the heart and soul of Mars. It is one of the top ten globally-traded agricultural commodities. But the harvest per hectare amounts to only 450 kilos – that's not even a tenth of what is feasible. In a perfect system, the potential is close to eight tons.

How can genetic sequencing help achieve a yield of eight tons?

European scientists have been working in Africa for 100 years, but the average yield remains at not more than 450 kilos per hectare.  If you know the genetic makeup, you can change the properties of a tree in a much more targeted manner, and a lot faster. Look at Brazil, for example, where a fungus in the late 1980s destroyed the majority of the cocoa trees in one whack. In our research, we first discovered markers on two chromosomes in trees that do not get this disease. Wow! Then, we planted those kinds of trees in Brazil and they survived. In a second step, we look for high-quality varieties with these markers. We have traditionally bred those trees and now they are being planted in South America.

Who finances the 'orphan crops' project?

We do not get money directly from governments and foundations. However, numerous companies and institutions are making commitments in their own ways: The World Agroforestry Centre, for example, which is active in combating poverty through agricultural science and environmental preservation, has provided laboratories in Kenya. There, the best instructors assembled by the University of California Davis are training African scientists. LifeTechnologies has equipped the lab. These courses are paid by Mars, and Google is providing data exchange resources.

And who owns the data?

That's the fun part: no one. We make everything public; you can download our results from the Internet through the iPlant Collaborative and Integrated Breeding Platform.

You give away data. Is your employer in it for the image?

I am in the fortunate situation to work for a company that belongs to a visionary family. This gives us the freedom to reinvest company earnings to do good and make a difference.

What about the competitors? Can they also use your cocoa genome data?  

Our competitors, such as Nestlé and Barry Callebaut, are also involved in the cocoa project though a collaboration called CocoaAction. Of course, we do not talk about pricing but science and the transfer of knowledge to the cocoa farmer. But together, we can achieve much more.  And besides, everyone knows: Even if we manage to double the harvests medium-term, the market will still not be swamped with cocoa beans.  This year, we are already short 150,000 metric tons – the demand is growing by two percent every year. What's more: China and India are just starting to discover their love for chocolate!

Should your data also be used to develop genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

it is difficult to have an objective discussion on GMOs in Germany. As for me, I can hardly be against it – I have been suffering from heart problems since the age of 18 and my life depends on a medication that is based on genetically modified organisms. Many people are not aware of all the things that hang on genetic engineering.

Using GMOs in the agricultural industry results in other issues, for example, farmers in South America use a lot more pesticides which in turn pollute the soil.

That is nonsense. I am a scientist, I stick to the facts. In India, using GMO cotton saves thousands of tons of pesticides. Many farmers have been able to improve their yields and their income. And many genetically modified plants never reach the table anyhow, because they are used for feed stuff such as soya, or for biodiesel.

Alleviating hunger among the world's population requires more than small steps. This is no longer about squeezing out four or five percent more efficiency, but rather about tripling the results – the same as with the cocoa harvest.

Would it be an alternative to change our eating habits in developed countries? 

What also matters is what you eat. The average German consumes as much as 32 Kenyans. Cocoa producers use and live from traditional field crops, and every once in a while a little meat or fish. We must improve the cocoa farmers' meal plan, while we have to cut back.

You would like to solve this problem with technology. Is hunger no longer a social issue? 

Naturally, this topic opens up a series of questions. But one point is simple: When farmers can double or triple their harvests, they also earn more and can spend some of their hard-earned money on their own consumption, paying school fees for their children, increasing access to health care. Prosperity in the rural farming sector is critical to our future everywhere.

What drives you? Have you ever been hungry?

No. But I have been long aware of the coming crisis. Then about three years ago I heard a lecture by a young professor from the University of California.  She spoke about poor health due to malnutrition. I had thought of myself as well informed, yet had never heard the statistics she mentioned. Stunted growth affects more than 35 percent of children in rural Africa.

Was that the turning point?

I’ve been a plant breeder and farmer for more than 45 years and suddenly I asked myself why we aren’t working more on vitamins, minerals and other nutritional elements? I was angry at myself for not thinking about this earlier. Then, at a conference with top experts from the world's largest seed company, I asked them if they would support me with data in my research on nutrition. They were enthusiastic but said they had very little information on nutrition. Our work is geared more towards increasing yields, water efficiency and resistance against pests and disease. I couldn't believe it! They had some of the best scientists and all the money they needed! But it shows a larger problem – we need to change how we think. It's not a question of more food, it is more a question of better food.

So, you had to start from the beginning once again.

At an age when most people have retired, my real job was about to begin. As an activist all my life, I knew I had to do something. First I fought for civil rights, then the peace movement followed by equal opportunity. Now it's the right to nutrition.

Doesn't your heart cry out knowing that the main product of Mars is a chocolate bar, a typical product of industrial nations that is not especially nutritious or healthy?    

Good question. A Mars bar is a snack, not traditional food. Our chocolate products are treats and as part of a healthy diet I support their consumption. We are a mainstream company and change takes time. For example, our portions are smaller, and products such as our Dolmio Pasta Sauce is brilliant, nearly no additives or stabilizers.

How did you and Mars come together? Are you a fan of chocolate?

No, I am a vegan and have never eaten a Mars bar. Mars acquired an organic seed company, Seeds of Change, where I was one of the founders. To make a long story short: We had to sell because we could no longer compete against the industry giants with their millions in turnover. It so happened that the mother of my assistant at Seeds of Change was also one of the owners of Mars.

What did you know about Mars?

Not much. I knew about Uncle Ben's Rice from camping. As I came to know the Mars Family, I realized that they are interesting people. First thing I saw were the 'five principles' on the wall of their office, which matched ours at Seeds of Change. "Do no harm" belonged to us long before Google. And then Mars actually wanted me to work for them – my first job in another company.

Was your beard as long then as it is now?

It was even longer, almost down to my waist. Today it is trimmed to my 'business look."

What were you able to change?

The perspective. For example I said, "Hey, we are an agriculture company."  They said, "No, no, we work with agricultural materials." What is my job title? Chief agricultural officer at Mars, a position they created for me.

When civil war broke out in the Ivory Coast, we could easily have left the country, but we stepped up and said that since we've been buying cocoa here for 60 years, we had to stay and help.

Is Mars thinking about buying land for growing cocoa beans? For example, Ritter Sport, a well-known chocolate producer in Germany, is developing its own cocoa plantation in Venezuela.

We do not need land. Buying land is complicated, and at times it drives away people who have lived there for years. That's the same discussion as whether the cocoa should be processed there. How many people do you think are needed in such a factory?

About 100?

Very few. In those countries it is much better to invest $25 million to help 100,000 farmers improve their cocoa trees and therefore their lives, as we do in our Vision for Change project in the Ivory Coast. I don't want to be forced to buy from farmers living in poverty. I want to improve their lives so their children can go to school.

 

Christoph Kapalchinski covers consumer goods, textiles and food for Handelsblatt, Corinna Nohn also writes for Handelsblatt and has covered finance and investment. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].