By Ton van der Scheer
Groenten en Fruit (The Netherlands)
Jan. 30, 2014
(Monsanto’s Editors Note: This article originally appeared in Dutch and has been translated in to English. We received permission from the publication to post the English version here.)
“The major advantage of covered crops is that now for the first time crops that can be effectively harvested globally, can be bred.”
Ibrahim El Menschawi has been able to read and understand Dutch for some time, and his wife is learning the language as well. The German director of Monsanto Vegetable Seeds for Europe, The Middle East and Africa has been working in the world of vegetable seeds for 26 years.
According to El Menschawi, horticulture is a big world market.
The internalisation of horticulture means that the Dutch are present throughout the world. But conversely, people from abroad also come and work in the Netherlands. A good example of this latter group is Ibrahim El Menschawi, just about as international as you can get.
El Menschawi has run the most important vegetable division of multinational Monsanto from Bergschenhoek since May 2013. He was born in Germany to a German mother and an Egyptian father, and embarked on an education as an agricultural engineer. He started out in the seeds business in Germany as a seller of vegetable seeds for Asgrow Seeds. His international career really started to take off when the American vegetable seed company was incorporated into Monsanto. He went from Italy to Brussels and via France to the US.
“I was part of the merger and acquisition team when Monsanto took over De Ruiter Seeds in 2008. That was the first time I visited Bergschenhoek. Monsanto Vegetable Seeds was created from the mergers and acquisitions with Western Seeds and smaller French and Italian companies, with De Ruiter as our brand for the crops in the greenhouses and Seminis for the other covered crops and open field cultivation. In addition I have worked in the agriculture seeds division and I have been here since May.”
Finally in the global heart of horticulture. Or are the Dutch horticulturists overestimating themselves if they refer to themselves in this way?
“Absolutely not. The Netherlands is literally the heart of greenhouse crops in the world. The centre of technical development is right here. This was no surprise to me, I have been in the sector long enough to know this. Everywhere I have worked and in all the horticultural areas I have visited, I have encountered Dutch people and Dutch technology.”
This is the first time you have lived and worked amidst Dutch horticulture. Has this given you additional insight?
“The biggest difference is that I can visit major clients on my bike. They are so close by. And that is partly the strength of it. At the same time I would be able to carry out my job from Brussels or Paris. After all, horticulture is a large global market.”
“I have started to realise here that as a company we can learn from the way horticulturists set up their own companies. Take for instance the Hartman brothers, a major client of ours. They throw the doors of their company wide open. Monsanto should do the same; it needs that level of transparency, communication. It is better than not saying anything while you are accused of things that are not true.”
Ibrahim El Menschawi: “Europe is for us by far the most important market in terms of vegetables – it accounts for half of our turnover.”
“Monsanto can learn something from the openness of major Dutch vegetable horticulturists”
At the end of last year Monsanto held a meeting in Noordwijk concerning reputation management. That is brave for a company that is facing so much criticism.
“I think that our vegetable seeds division can be a spearhead in protecting Monsanto against reputation damage, to be able to show the world that we are far more than a company with GM crops. When it comes to vegetables, we have consciously and comprehensively moved away from that several years ago. Europe is for us by far the most important market in terms of vegetables. It accounts for half of our turnover. And here there is no necessity or need for genetically modified crops – not with the horticulturists, not in society, not in politics and not with us, in view of the possibilities of modern breeding techniques. And asking for exemptions is only becoming more expensive. It would be crazy to continue.”
What do the horticulturists need?
“Horticulturists, not only the Dutch ones, have always needed crops with a high return. The change I have seen concerning horticulturists in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe is that they are really starting to have listen to questions from clients. The taste of a certain type is really starting to matter. This compared to the US, where they pick tomatoes that are still green, force them to ripen and where the consumers even put them in the fridge. Our Trade Partnerships Team goes into Europe with promising crops to visit horticulturists, traders and retailers to achieve the collaboration between the various players in the chain and to successfully introduce new products onto the market which distinguish themselves in terms of taste or image. The major advantage of covered crops is that now for the first time crops that can be effectively harvested globally, can be bred. In a modern greenhouse it is no longer an issue whether a tomato is grown in the Netherlands, America or Russia. Such standardised types have been in the agriculture seeds division for some time. This can also occur in the greenhouse industry.”
2013 was not the most festive year for tomatoes to come work and live amidst the Dutch greenhouses.
“There were concerns indeed, also for us, with large clients who were struggling financially. It is a cyclic sector. In the other two main crops, bell peppers and cucumber, things were going better.”
“The fact is that the Dutch and Spanish seasons are overlapping each other more and more. Then there are many different situations in Africa. We did a pilot there with local tomato growers which shifted to hybrid crops and were able to quintuple their return per hectare. There is an enormous dynamic in the vegetable sector globally.”
The really large growth market is outside of your division: Asia.
“Yes. A really major challenge for me would perhaps be to break open the Chinese market. That is not only a very wide and broad horizon for us, but also for our most important competitors (major Dutch family companies such as Rijk Zwaan, Enza and Bejo have also not cracked the code). It is even difficult for the Japanese seed companies. Foreign companies cannot succeed under their own steam.”
“We have just discussed GM vegetable growing, China is doing much research into this. But we would not be allowed to do this as ‘Monsanto China’. Maybe start a joint venture? Then you can almost be certain that you will lose the intellectual property of your own discoveries. China remains far on the horizon as long as this side of doing business is not organised and protected.”
Russian greenhouses full of Dutch tomatoes
Ibrahim El Menschawi sees an important role for Dutch horticulturists in the international greenhouse industry. “I already see them as a managers in greenhouses in Canada and Russia. Currently around Moscow hundreds of hectares of glasshouses have been erected. Because until now they had not invested in the greenhouse industry there are still Turkish tomatoes on the shelves. With these new Dutch greenhouses and the Dutch expertise there will soon be Dutch tomatoes.”
“And as the local level of production develops in Russia, the Dutch market will probably also profit as producers of tomatoes in the high-quality segment exporting to Russia.”