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Seed breeder Bakker Brothers:
"Our drive is to feed families"
Like shades from a science fiction movie, linen bags are hanging from wires in a closed off greenhouse. The Tuta absoluta, one of the most destructive insects for tomatoes, flies around here. The originally Amazonian bug is able to decimate a healthy tomato vine in no time. As a result of international trade, the moth is found everywhere, in Europe as well now. Wouter Bakker looks through the window at the linen bags.
"Making our six crops more resistant step by step is what we do here and in other locations. There's a wild tomato that's immune to the Tuta. We're working on transferring this tomato's quality to a variety in our own tomato seed range. That's way, tomatoes will get an immunity boost without using chemicals. Our seeds for zucchinis, beans, onions and eggplants are mostly used in the open field rather than in greenhouses. The conditions there are a lot more fickle than in a climate-controlled greenhouse. We don't occupy ourselves with developments like mini cucumbers or specialty lettuce varieties for the consumer. Our drive is to feed families at as low a cost as possible."
Wouter represents the fourth generation from the Bakker family. Together with his uncle, Eric Bakker (third generation), he leads the company that was established in 1928 to breed cabbage seeds. Bakker Brothers is a breeding, production and distribution company. Since its inception, the Bakkers have been looking across borders, but that idea grew stronger after the Second World War.
In America, they are sometimes jokingly referred to as the Bakker Bros. Since the company became a part of the South African Klein Karoo Kooperasie in 2003/2004 and later Zaad Holdings Ltd. (a subsidiary of South African agri investor Zeder), the internationalisation only increased. Wouter is also on the board of Zaad Holdings. "Bakker Brothers is a small player in the world of breeders, with a turnover of around 16 million euros in vegetable seeds. But being a part of Zaad Holdings, with a turnover of about 100 million euros, we are a force to be reckoned with. It's easier for us to get licenses and cooperate with universities, institutes and fellow entrepreneurs. We don't do fundamental research. We're really a company that brings developments to the market by using a license, which provides us with the latest technology to breed our crops."
Breeding as a quest
The seeds to Africa are shipped in large and small tins, so they don't just arrive intact, but the local population can also turn them into the well-known tin cars. Wouter Bakker: "Our drive is working with food: contributing to solving the worldwide food problem. Seeds are at the basis of every vegetable. The better the seed, the more a grower can produce. Through our breeding stations in Jordan and South Africa, as well as another ten trial stations worldwide, we are able to breed quickly. We reach a stable variety within seven generations. That means a timespan of roughly 3 years, because we distribute those stages across three different breeding stations. It used to take us 7 years. Each year, we bring the seed up another three generations for most crops. Our work is a quest in which you can't lose your way, otherwise you'll have worked in vain for years."
The production of said stable seed is outsourced to around twenty companies in China, America and France, the seeds from these companies are all taken to Bakker Brothers in the Netherlands, where they are treated, packaged, and sent to the distributor. What many people don't know is that Bakker Brothers is the biggest supplier of vegetable seeds to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Uncle Eric: "We actually notice the geopolitical situation of a region or country immediately here in Noord-Scharwoude. We always have to deal with a conflict zone, so our warehouses contain seeds for South Sudan, Iraq and Syria, which we sell to the FAO at cost price."
Wouter continues: "We work with distributors in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, about two hundred of them. Through wars, networks are lost and growers can't do their job anymore, with famine as a result. FAO aims to combat that with seeds. By the way, 20 percent of our seed production goes directly to companies that process canned vegetables, like those of Bonduelle. They in turn distribute the seeds to contracted farmers, who own hundreds of hectares of land."
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