Unleashing the Power of Genomics

Unleashing the Power of Genomics

How Mars Inc. redefines sustainable production through science and partnerships
© MARS Incorporated

Howard Yana Shapiro

Chief Agricultural Officer, Mars, Incorporated; Senior Fellow at the College of Agriculture & Environmental Sciences, at the University of California at Davis; Distinguished Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya

At Mars we are trying to use genomics to improve the lot of small farmers in our supply chain while protecting the environment. As one of the world’s leading food manufacturers, we are also moving toward 100% certified sustainable sourcing for most of our key agricultural raw materials. But Mars is also working to ensure certification does not lock in poverty for farmers, but instead, becomes a means to pull them into prosperity.

How can genomics help us get there?

In 2010, when we sequenced, assembled and annotated the genome of cacao, the tree that grows the seeds that become cocoa, we put the results in the public domain for anyone to access freely and without restriction. We wanted more and better chocolate to be bred for Mars and to raise the incomes of the cacao farmers who supply us.

Consider this: cacao productivity has been a flat line for the past century, the world average being less than 500 kilos per hectare. With a little of the right fertilizer, a little training, and new, more productive germplasm (developed in our genomics work) to graft to aging trees, farmers can triple that yield to 1.5+ tonnes per hectare.

As a result, cocoa farmers will become more prosperous, send their children to school, and not be seduced into switching from cacao to palm oil or rubber. They will also be less prone to cutting down forests in order to plant more low-productivity cacao. This approach leads to a win-win-win strategy for all: farmers, the environment and Mars.

Sequencing the cacao genome gave me the germ of an idea that became the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC). The consortium is an uncommon collaboration of African governments, companies, NGOs and international agencies pledged to sequence and re-sequence the genomes of 101 African “back-garden” food and tree crop varieties

These crops are crucial to  the 600 million people who live in rural Africa but are of little interest to the scientific community because they are not traded internationally.

The AOCC is not charity. Mars has a “Food Segment” (best known for Uncle Ben’s rice products) that excels at producing and packaging quality foods anywhere in the world. It is hoping to produce nutritious products that Africans can afford. In addition, Mars‘ Petcare Segment, the largest pet food producer in the world, is searching for alternative sources of protein so that its pet foods are not competing with humans for protein.

Is there a “sweet spot” where AOCC and the ambitions of our food and petcare segments all overlap?

Cassava produces a big, drought-resistant tuber in much of Africa that fills bellies with starch, but not much nutrition. Yet its leaves are very high in protein. Can they be processed and packaged to help improve the food security of Africa?

A few years ago, Mars bought Wrigley, which uses mint in some 70%-80% of its chewing gum products. Much of this mint comes from the northwestern United States, where we help farmers grow higher quality mint, while at the same time helping them use water more efficiently and be more energy-efficient.

We are also helping small farmers in India become more efficient in mint production. And we are sequencing the mint genome, which should help us breed higher quality, hardier, more flavorful and more profitable mint varieties for the farmers of the Pacific Northwest and India.

Mars is part of an international collaboration to sequence the genome of the peanut, which will produce peanuts resistant to aflatoxins. If we could figure out how to do that in peanuts, perhaps we could do it in other crops, and improve nutrition all over the world.

It is an age-old idea, one that agricultural universities and extension services in the US and elsewhere have long pondered and pursued: how to give famers better seeds to improve productivity and quality.

At Mars we are trying to do that today. The high-tech science of genomics offers an excellent opportunity not only to increase agricultural sustainability but to save millions of lives in Africa.

Mars and IFC have been working together since 2006 in Indonesia, where they set up the Cocoa Sustainability Partnership, a multi-stakeholder forum on cocoa collaboration, and also joined forces with Rainforest Alliance to train farmers in sustainable cocoa practices, through a project funded by IFC's Biodiversity and Agricultural Commodities Program (BACP).

Featured Interview

Howard-Yana Shapiro Chief Agricultural Officer, Mars, Incorporated; Senior Fellow at the College of Agriculture & Environmental Sciences, at the University of California at Davis; Distinguished Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya

Howard-Yana Shapiro

When Howard-Yana Shapiro is not mapping crop genomics, he is riding one of his collector classic motorcycles through the back roads of northern California. An icon of the sustainability world with an idiosyncratic boardroom look, Shapiro is one of corporate America’s most influential voices.  Here, Shapiro talks with IFC about the humble origins of his organic seed company, Seeds of Change, what agribusiness companies can learn from failure, and how he navigates corporate America with his unconventional beard.

How did you discover an interest in food and farming?

I grew up in New York in a family of holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe. Because of what my relatives suffered, food was very important. I spent my childhood working in the fields of our family farm. My father, a physicist, taught me to think systematically. My mother taught me the joy of abstract thought. I have combined both in my life’s work.

You created Seeds of Change in the LATE 1980’s and sold it to Mars a decade later. How was that transition?

Back then, Seeds of Change was so poor that when we visited our farmers network we would spend time sleeping on the floor of friend’s houses or in a truck stop because we didn’t have money to rent a room. It was a nascent business that existed because of the dedication of a few individuals and great farmers.

When we sold the company to Mars in 1997, the transition felt very complicated, both intellectually and emotionally. Personally, I felt like a duck out of water.  But I also realized very quickly that I had an opportunity to influence one of the biggest food companies in the world. Over fifteen years later I have not looked back.

Was there a moment that illuminated the difficult decision to sell Seeds of Change and the potential impact on your future, and that of the company?

I had this cathartic moment driving into London from the airport and passing bus kiosks that were advertising Seeds of Change organic food products . Just before  that stage in my life, I hadn’t been paid regularly but all of a sudden – in a very short space of time – Mars had purchased us, employed us and given us health insurance. I asked the driver to stop the car. He did so immediately thinking I was ill. I got out, went to the bus stop, and stood in front of the advertisement utterly elated. It was a dream come true to deliver to the public extraordinary organic products made possible by Mars’ belief in organic, sustainable food.  It was an incredible experience.

Looking back, what has been one of the greatest achievements of your career?

One of the great breakthroughs was when I decided that I wanted to place botanically correct photographs on Seeds of Change packages. In the past you’d see a plate of tomatoes on a checkerboard tablecloth but I desperately wanted to show people how the plants grow, how they really look in the garden. I think it shocked the world when our seed packs shifted from these drawings where every plant looked  the same.   All of a sudden people loved it, and from that moment the company grew much faster than we understood how to run it as a business.  To be fair they are many moments that changed me forever.  Working with Norman Borlaug; visiting with Barbara McClintock; participating in agriculture for over 45 years.  Seeing new plants emerge from the ground in the spring; pink blossoms on a forest of peach trees; eating the fruits of your labor; cleaning seed.  The list is too long to relate.

Mars created history with the mapping of the cacao genome in 2010. Why did you urge Mars to go down this path?

When you have a business, no matter what it is, if you cannot ensure the sustainability of your fundamental ingredient you need to either get out of that business or fix it. That was my rap to the powers-that-be at Mars about sequencing the genome of the cacao tree.  They agreed, and an amazing project was born.

At the time, the decision to map the genome and release it to your competitors and the public caused a massive wave of global publicity. Were you ever worried about the risk involved for you, and for Mars, with this decision?

When I asked for the resources to do this it was because I couldn’t ensure a future of cacao. But Mars – in conjunction with our partners – hit a technology wave and formed an uncommon collaboration. I have never hesitated in our decision to release the genome to the public. It is being used every day of the week, all day long since it was made public. It is a great piece of scientific work.  There was never any question that Mars would own it and control it. We give it away so everyone has access to it equally, including our competitors.

What lessons can you impart to IFC’s agribusiness clients?

Firstly, spend your money. If you are trying to solve a key ingredient issue, then put money on the table to do it. Secondly, form uncommon collaborations – governments, universities, other companies – don’t leave anyone out or operate under the radar. Thirdly, work together pre-competitively. Why work alone when your competitors have the same issues? Fourthly, always use the best science.

You have been referred to from everything as Santa Claus to a member of the band ZZ Top. How do you navigate corporate America with that beard?

There are not too many other long beards in this business. I talk to many presidents and CEOs of other big companies and once they get over the shock that I’m the person they have to talk to, they realize that together we can make a difference. I do now own a tie, one that colleagues bought me recently for the Lindau Nobel laureates meeting.

How do you see the future in relation to Mars and your work?

Mars and I have a simple philosophy: we don’t want person or animal to suffer. We don’t anybody to be hungry. We’re interested in the future. I have science projects that I’m working on that I probably won’t finish in my lifetime but — if we’re on the right track, and I am sure we are — Mars will complete the job. They don’t need me to do that.

Related Articles

Impact through Technology

Building a Profit Pipeline

Empowering Women Agri-entrepreneurs

Leave a Comment