August 7, 2009

Organic farmer Howard Shapiro talks Mars, Inc.

Howard Shapiro (photo: Peter Allgaier )
Howard Shapiro: "Mars, Inc. believes in us!" (photo: Peter Allgaier )
One wouldn't necessarily associate a man who looks like a cross between Dusty Hill of ZZ Top and Tolstoy with big, ballsy US corporation Mars, Inc. As founder of the seed company Seeds of Change, Howard Shapiro (63) became a leading proponent of organic farming in the US.

But he caused a stir among organic farming advocates when he sold Seeds of Change to the world's tenth-largest food group in 1997. Shapiro has now virtually become the 'green' ambassador of the US giant and says he wants to feed the planet.

In so doing, he has traversed the long, dusty road from idealist-botanist and anthropologist to businessman-pragmatist.

Has Howard Shapiro sold his soul to Mephistopheles? At all events, his appointment says a lot about recent changes at Mars Inc. (2008 revenues: $28bn; €19.5bn). 
Shapiro may look an unconventional individual ("I don't like to shave."), but he isn't so laid-back as he appears: "My job is to worry and to find solutions, and I have a team that worries with me." Is he worrying with the right company?

"It's what we need to do" 

Mr. Shapiro, you want to save humanity. Can one really achieve this more easily through such a complex business giant as Mars Inc. than through the small company you originally created?
Yes, of course. There are obviously different types of thinking between a small agile company like “Seeds of Change” and a considerably larger company like Mars. The most important thing is who influences whom?

The very fact that I’m now Global Director of Plant Science at Mars is a clear indication of how things stand. I am responsible for all the agriculture of a company which is far larger than 'Seeds of Change' ever was. But we brought our thinking to Mars, and I still look pretty much the same.

So what is Mars learning from you?
The owners of Mars Inc. want to be in business in a hundred years time. If the crops that we depend on for all of our work are not sustainable, we will not have a business.

Can you concretize this change in thinking?
There are big and small things. When I joined the company, they actually started thinking about sustainability for all crops including tomatoes, cocoa or rice. They began to improve the ecological neighbourhood for their children. We started a dialogue.

The change is not just social, economic or even environmental, it’s also cultural. We have created a platform to discuss all these things.

There are people who say that you betrayed your own ideas by selling them to a multinational business group?
Here is my answer to that: We were struggling in those days to pay our bills because it was very difficult to start with food products. And you have to ask whether it makes sense to find a strong partner who let’s you do products on a large scale.

Through Mars we can also do what we do in Canada, the UK, the States, Germany or France one day. I would say that’s a big chance.

Mars has the techniques and methodologies for food safety and quality. And I honestly believe that with Mars I can bring more organic food to the markets. This, in turn, means that I can employ more organic farmers, and more land is cultivated organically. Is that so bad?

What share has 'Seeds of Change' within the food division of Mars on its most important markets, i.e., the US and the UK?
Mars Inc. believes in us! The market shares of these products have been growing since we joined Mars. And they made it possible to do business on a scale which we could only have dreamt of before.

Matthias Berninger, the German politician and former member of the Alliance '90/The Greens party, is your global counterpart. How closely do you work together with him?
I work with him hand in glove. I talk to him three times a week about the sustainable cocoa initiatives. Sometimes I am greener than he is on certain things; sometimes he is greener than me. That’s the way to work.

You engage with people who agree with you, but you should also able to engage with people who disagree with you. If you have intractable discussions, you have to find a resolution. He takes my word on agriculture, and I take his word on government and corporate affairs.

So you work very closely with him…
Yes, indeed. We discuss many things. Two years ago we resolved that it was better not to talk about “sustainability” any longer. Instead, we now talk about “sustain-agility”. In other words, the capacity to be agile, to be able to move forward and to make decisions about the critical path to take. So now we talk about “sustain-agility”.

To me, what is more important is the ability to train someone to become partners. We have many models for every region of the globe, many mini-models instead of one big model because farming is very different from place to place. This means agility.

Mars has committed itself to only using sustainably-grown cocoa by the year 2020. What has to be done on the plantations and as regards farming methods for this to be achieved?
First of all, there are no plantations. You have 6.5m farmers with 3 or 4 hectares each. In West Africa they have a yield of 350 kilos a year, the yield in South America is 450 kilos a year. That is not enough. So, the first thing we have to do is to build up the economics. You have to start with better trees, but you also have to take care of them.

In a global context we can say that 20 per cent of the trees produce 80 per cent of the yields. We built a portfolio in tree investments and combine cocoa trees with cassava or papaya.

That means agro-forestry?
Yes, the farmers also harvest food crops or medicine for their families. The aim is not to rely on cocoa or any other crop. We train farmers to make compost for fertilizers because their application will give you 150 kilos more in yield. We should like to bring the tools to the farmers. That way we can force the yields up to 900 kilos and they earn more.

In ten or fifteen years, you will have to shift the yields to 2,000 kilos a year. The farmers have to learn crop management, working on the trees, the soil, nutrition etc. That changes the game completely.

Cocoa production is limited to only a few countries with the Ivory Coast providing 40 per cent of the world’s supply. Is Mars also trying to help smaller grower countries in order to place the procurement of raw materials on a broader basis?
At the moment, Côte d’Ivoire is the largest supplier, Ghana is second, Indonesia is third. Brazil was once the second-largest producer, but in two years just one disease destroyed the entire crop. The point is that there are an increasing number of diseases. We support any projects to combat disease, for example, in Indonesia where farmers harvest an average of 1,500 kilos a hectare.

Mars is involved in a project with IBM to analyse the cocoa genome. Would you like to shield it from Monsanto?
No, I would like to give everyone free access to it, and we should publish every detail we have. We will do this through a portal, where you can have a look at the sequence. As far as we are concerned, it is a public domain for everyone who is interested in the information, whether farmers, competitors, agronomists or scientists, because nobody can own a genome.

Would you like to become one of the major suppliers with very strong cocoa plants?
Again, it’s about 'sustain-agility' because how can I expect cocoa farmers to produce this crop? We have to give them every tool imaginable to help them because we are a profitable company who can use our resources to help these people as well. That’s called mutuality, that’s also responsibility, that’s called freedom. These three terms belong to the five principles of Mars Inc.

What do you think about genetic engineering in general? Do we need it to feed the world?
I have a different answer to what most people would expect. Before everything else, we need to prefer conventional plant breeding. But then we also need data-driven decision-making that’s technology-neutral.

If we find a technology to work with plants in a different way than before, by using the entire tool box of science, then it’s surely O.K. It’s not an emotional question. It is a question of what do we need to do.

Are there other raw materials whose long-term future ought to be secured?
For example, the peanuts used in 'Suzi Wan' sauce. Mars is the biggest rice company so we have to look at rice as well. My job is to worry and to find solutions, and I have a team that worries with me. We are working on corn and have the potential to make some giant breakthroughs with it. We would like to be the leader or influencer as well. 

Why do you believe that mass production is the solution? After all, humanity’s obsession with growth has also contributed to environmental pollution and rural poverty.
Cocoa farming is not mass production; it’s a crop with a human scale. The poverty of the cocoa farmers is caused because they do not have the best tools.

If you are against mass industry per se that’s O.K., but I’ve seen thousand-acre organic farms where the water and soil are good and where everything is alive with butterflies and other living things. Good farming is good farming, but bad farming is bad farming.

What do you think about politicians? Are they able to change the way society thinks? Or would you say companies do a better job at this?
There is no simple answer to this because very different influences are involved. There are various different groups of people: the government, farmers, NGOs, the World Bank or the GTZ.

We all have to work together. If you want to create progress, you have to participate and to establish coalitions. If I had to give an honest answer to your question, I would say: Things start to move when you create distinctive and extraordinary partnerships.

Lebensmittel Zeitung with its online sisters (photo: LZ)
Lebensmittel Zeitung with its online sisters
Read in German: 'Der Sämann' by features editor Heidrun Krost on page 30 of 
Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 32, 07.08.2009, 

German Retail Blog

Sign up for your FREE newsletter now!

Comments for this article are closed.

This is an English-language blog, please write all comments in English!
Thank you.