Seed World

The Man Behind The Myth: An In-Depth Interview with Garlich von Essen

For the past 15 years, he has been the Secretary-General of the European Seed Association (ESA), now Euroseeds. Before that he was Director Public Affairs at ESA for four years, and Political Advisor in the European Parliament for another four years. He has been leading the European seed sector from one achievement to the next.

At a time when a renewed batch of EU politicians are settling into their new positions, it was the perfect moment for European Seed to sit down with Garlich von Essen and speak with him about his childhood, working in the EU policy bubble, his biggest achievements and his biggest regrets.

European Seed (ES): Garlich, can you share a little bit about your childhood? I believe you grew up on a farm, if I recall …

Garlich von Essen (GvE): Indeed, I grew up on the family farm in Lower-Saxony, in the north of Germany. The village, Rastede near Oldenburg, had around 5,000 and the total political community a good 10,000 inhabitants at the time. It was still very much a rural community, with farming and its input industries economically very important and also very visibly present everywhere. We had a dairy processing plant where we delivered our milk and got butter and other dairy products in return, a cooperative where we took our apples in exchange for juice throughout the year, two or three businesses selling and repairing agricultural machinery and tractors were a familiar sight everywhere. In my kindergarten and early school years, I think around half of the kids either came from farms or had a close relative in the farming sector.

ES: What is the fondest memory of your early years?

GvE: I would not be able to pick a specific event. But I always liked the days that marked the change of seasons. Springtime, when you were almost desperately looking out for the first green leaves, summer with the smells of fresh hay and our cereal harvest being dried day and night, the beginning of fall with its beautiful colours, our cattle returning to the stables, and, a very formative element in our family, the start of the shooting season. While these seasons meant constant change during the year, not only in terms of weather but also with regards to the organisation of work on the farm and in the family, you also have this natural and ever-returning rhythm of growing and harvesting. Maybe that is one explanation for the stability I always felt surrounding me, despite all the political, economic and societal changes that today seem so clear and present when historians look back and reflect on the 70s and 80s of the last century. The other, for sure, being my family. My parents, my two younger sisters, but also the many relatives that all lived nearby and of whom again many were either farming themselves or had close links to agriculture.


[tweetshareinline tweet=”The natural and ever-returning rhythm of growing and harvesting is one explanation for the stability I always felt surrounding me, despite all the political, economic and societal changes.” username=”EuropeanSeed”]


ES: Society and school education has changed a lot over the past decades. What do you think it is that children nowadays are missing compared to the old days as regards knowledge or at least awareness of food production?

GvE: I don’t think it is only the children. The lack of exposure to practical farming, lack of understanding its importance for societies and its manifold challenges, all that is already very broadly present in most of our European societies. For decades, there has been a continuous growth of our urban population while the number of people involved in farming has shrunk dramatically. What you don’t see and don’t experience, you don’t understand. And makes it much easier to decide to ignore or even oppose. Many people never actually see practical farming happen around them. If the one cow children know is the pink one of the chocolate advertisements that apparently lives healthily forever, happily grazes meadows full of flowers and never produces a bad smell, that’s probably one part of the explanation of the growing divide in our modern societies. The way farming is often portrayed, not least by the food industry, doesn’t match reality. And when people realise that, there is a certain feeling of disappointment, even betrayal, and consequently a lasting lack of trust.


[tweetshareinline tweet=”The way farming is often portrayed, not least by the food industry, doesn’t match reality.” username=”EuropeanSeed”]


ES: Garlich, let’s imagine you could teach a class full of children. What would you tell them?

GvE: Not sure I would make a good teacher. But I think taking kids to farms is probably the best way to start growing that awareness, making them curious about where our foods come from, how and by whom they are produced, from milk to potato and from steak to lettuce, and how difficult and sometimes unpredictable that actually is. I know that there are initiatives and programmes like this ongoing. But I also know of cases where children weren’t allowed to go because their parents despised modern farming and didn’t want this view to be challenged through school education. I think that shows how difficult it actually is to start building up a new relationship, based on more practical knowledge and consequently better understanding.

 width=ES: How do you think your early years have influenced your further career choices?

GvE: Without realising it at the time, of course, I probably got the farming and countryside virus quite early in life. Describing it today as “deeply rooted” is probably a fitting picture. I observed what my father did and talked about, heard and saw what generations before had done: improving soil, manage water, establish woodlands. To me, it has always felt more a natural development rather than a conscious choice to see myself as part of a continuity, to feel and take a personal responsibility for preserving, further developing and, one day, passing on what was entrusted to me by my ancestors. What then was a conscious and logical decision was to study agriculture at Göttingen University, a decision much supported by my parents who always stressed the need to learn as much as you can in whatever area of choice, not only to truly understand and build up expertise but foremost to broaden your horizon and, consequently, open up wide opportunities.

ES: Like working in the EU policy bubble?

GvE: I have always been interested in history and politics. Already in school, these were my favourite subjects. And I had good teachers who motivated me to read beyond the regular curriculum and look at the socio-economic background of historical and political developments. This usually led to quite combative debates as we favoured quite different authors and, consequently, theories and conclusions. I was -and actually still am- fascinated by Friedrich August von Hayek’s piece on Law, Legislation, and Liberty, by Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau and their writings about the natural order and the social contract of free individuals. All that probably explains a bit why in my later studies I specialised on agricultural politics, law and economics.

ES: But that’s still quite far away from where you are today, isn’t it?

GvE: True. Honestly, I never imagined, let alone planned, to end up in Brussels. Actually, at the time, I rather saw myself somewhere in the Ministry for Agriculture in Bonn or in my region, in Hannover. But then I did my final thesis on the EU’s — or the EEC’s at the time — structural policies and measures in agriculture, starting with Sicco Mansholt and stretching to the reforms of the 1980s. I did interviews with people at the Directorate for Agriculture in Brussels and was pointed to the possibility of a traineeship with the Commission. Well, that’s how it started. I got hooked. I worked for the Commission, then for a regional office, specialised further in European political and administrative sciences with a Master programme at the College of Europe, and finally worked at the European Parliament for a number of years. To me, the logical next step was to work withrather than within the institutions. And when I was offered the chance to establish a new Brussels office for the European seed sector, that was an almost ideal opportunity to combine my EU expertise with my agricultural background and experience. And to truly build something new and leave my mark on it. When I started, there were still four different EU level organisations, and a loose group of vegetable companies, all with very different structures, ideas for the future, budgets and, of course personnel. Merging these into a new, single voice for the entire European industry was a very exciting project. That this would lead to such a long-lasting engagement wasn’t foreseeable at the time.

ES: If you look back over all those years, what do you consider are Euroseeds biggest achievements?

GvE: Maintaining a true spirit of collaboration in a highly differentiated, highly competitive and truly international industry. It is this mix of competition and collaboration that I find truly fascinating about the plant breeding sector. It is reflected not only by structures such as Euroseeds or its national member associations: The International Seed Federation will even celebrate its 100thanniversary in just a few years. You could say the seed sector always had this association gene as part of its DNA, realising that improving plant varieties requires you to access the best starting material from all over the world. For that, you need agreed rules and regulations that balance a broad access to plant material with the protection of intellectual property and, nowadays, the rights of sovereign countries; you need to facilitate the movement of plant material across borders while avoiding phytosanitary risks and the spread of pests or diseases and so much more. Many of today’s international as well as EU rules and regulations are the result of the industry’s desire and practical need to collaborate by establishing and safeguarding workable rules for fair competition. Despite all the changes over the years, all the mergers and acquisitions, the growing globalisation of our economies in general and this sector in particular, this commitment to work together and to build up and continuously support the structures and have dedicated people that organise this collaboration, that is an important achievement. And if I look at Euroseeds today, I think we have both, efficient and effective structures and a very dedicated team of experts.


[tweetshareinline tweet=”Euroseeds biggest achievement is maintaining a true spirit of collaboration in a highly differentiated, highly competitive and truly international industry.” username=”EuropeanSeed”]


ES: As you said, success is also thanks to a team. What are the key factors to a great team?

GvE: Historians remain deeply divided whether it is individual men and women that create history or if history itself just happens and allows individual men and women to make use of the newly emerging opportunities.

As individuals, we probably have a preference for the first theory; but in my view and experience, both elements are interdependent and together drive developments. Still, I think it is individual talent, determination and commitment that make the difference. But you also need an environment where they can thrive. That is why I think that rules, structures and processes are important, provided they are designed in ways that drive a participatory discussion and decision making as well as an efficient practical implementation of those decisions. In Euroseeds, we are committed to the concept of subsidiarity; we always try to decide at the most appropriate level, i.e. the one closest to the subject in question. De facto, that means a bottom-up approach. On the other hand, if you would look top-down, we try to make sure that the Board exercises leadership on structure, finance and strategy and provides guidance on principal policy issues. And we have a clear understanding between members and Euroseeds secretariat that it is the latter that is expected to bring the necessary expertise to the table to efficiently prepare and lead the internal processes and then effectively drive the external implementation of our members’ positions. This provides a strong base of trust, gives great confidence to the team members and offers them a lot of potential for personal and professional growth; but it also means a lot of individual responsibility and continuously satisfying high expectations. And, last but not least, diversity is not only important for breeding new and better plant varieties. It is also an essential element when you design a team such as the Euroseeds secretariat. We today have a dozen nationalities from all over Europe and also Africa on the team, with very different cultural backgrounds, educations, work experiences etc … This very much stimulates and enriches our discussions.

ES: And personally? What would you consider your biggest achievement(s)?

GvE: That’s probably more for others to decide. What I am proud of is building a true team of highly motivated and capable individual experts. This has been the base for taking on new tasks and responsibilities and providing more services to our companies at association level such as e.g. the European Seed Treatment quality Assurance scheme ESTA, the Patent Information system PINTO, or the “Nagoya Navigator”, a guide that facilitates companies’ compliance with international rules on genetic resources.

I am also very content with the way we have developed our annual congress over the years. Bringing together more than a thousand participants from all over the world, every year, is only possible if you provide value for money. The continuous growth of the Congress suggests we do just that.

And maybe the fact that today nobody in the seed industry nor outside can imagine or would like to go back to the time without this organisation.

ES: What is your biggest regret?

GvE: Oh, there’s more than one, I can tell you that. But seriously: in hindsight, I should probably have done the one or the other thing differently. But most of those things would either be managerial or be related to my personal approach to individual discussions — which probably sometimes was too engaged, too enthusiastic, too opinionated, too quick. Experience helps. And good counsel — which I always got from colleagues and from the different presidents over the years. So, I hope I would do better today if I was given a second chance on some of those.

If it is concrete policy files you’re after, the biggest disappointment rather than regret was, or is, that I failed to convince the association to support the Commission when it suggested setting a threshold for the “adventitious”, technically unavoidable presence of GMs in conventional seed. At the time, the seed sector had argued for a level of 0.5% to 0.7% while the Commission was only willing to propose 0.3%. I very strongly argued that we should just move and go with the Commission’s draft, being convinced that speed of decision was more important than the actual level. Just out of the European Parliament and in the seed sector for only three years, I probably came across as being more interested in a deal as such, any deal, than in its substance. Understandably, that didn’t help to convince companies and associations at the time.


[tweetshareinline tweet=”My biggest regret is I failed to convince the association to support the EU Commission’s proposal of 0.3% adventitious presence.” username=”EuropeanSeed”]


ES: What are the three most frustrating things for you in today’s EU politics? [

GvE: I think all three European institutions, Council, Parliament and Commission, take some responsibility for the negative image and misperception of the EU project. National governments blame “Brussels” for decisions that they actually supported in Council once they see opposition mounting at home. The EP, which rightly criticised governments for this in the past, nowadays passes one (non-legislative) resolution after the other asking the Commission NOT to apply Treaty and EU legislation when it comes to GMOs or crop protection products, because this is allegedly “what the people want”. And the Commission, being pushed and shoved by both legislators, has little appetite to fulfil its role of “Guardian of the Treaty” when it may add to its public image. As a result, some of the key achievements and pillars of the EU, the Internal Market, the four freedoms, the support of multilateralism and of free trade, are now politically largely neglected and even portrayed as hindrances for the European project.

It has to be said, tough, that the EU is not alone in facing these developments. We see an erosion of credibility of public institutions and also media almost everywhere. At the same time, trust levels of “influencers”, “mom groups” and other internet-based activists go through the roof — even though their actual expertise and experience very often is at least questionable.

It seems as if specifically, our Western liberal democracies and their established centre-ground political parties are struggling to find effective ways to counter all the fake news and resulting illiberalism that is threatening the very fundament of our citizenship, our personal freedom.

ES: Many policy debates nowadays seem to get completely derailed by NGO’s. What in your view should be done about this?

GvE: Believe it or not, I am all for the proper involvement of “stakeholders” and NGOs in policy making. None of us wants to be reduced in our political engagement to a single cross in a general election every four or five years. Lobbying, of industries and NGOs alike, gives us the opportunity to put our ideas forward at all relevant levels and throughout the entire political and legislative process. I also believe it adds quality to that process by providing necessary expertise and experience. But like any institutionalised process, lobbying needs standards and defined rules of engagement. But foremost, it needs the principal acceptance of all parties that lobbying is legitimate, whatever the cause and whomever the lobbyist. The “right to lobby” neither depends on an altruistic objective or on a claim of independence of the views expressed. But today, at least some NGOs are trying hard to discredit and effectively exclude those with opposing views, and here specifically industry representatives, from debates. That, to me, is unacceptable.

 width=ES: Before this background, where are the opportunities for the EU seed sector? And what will be the biggest challenges for the industry and for Euroseeds in the next years?

GvE: We need to feed a more affluent and much larger world population with varied, healthy and nutritious food. To do that, we need to produce both more and better, contributing our share to a sustainable agriculture under increasing volatile and challenging climatic conditions. Our increasing scientific knowledge and growing technological capacities will help us to successfully address these huge challenges. And turn them into opportunities, not only for the seed sector but for farmers, food producers, our environment and societies at large. The successes in plant breeding and consequently in agri-food production have been a key driver and enabler for much of the societal change we have seen in the past 150 years. I am deeply convinced that plant breeding has to and actually can play a key role, also in the future. The latest breeding methods, such as targeted mutation breeding, hold great promises to effectively shorten development cycles and with that react more quickly to changing environmental or phytosanitary conditions. But we need a supportive political and consequent regulatory framework to reap the benefits of this scientific progress. Achieving this is probably our biggest challenge requiring outreach and advocacy not only to decision makers but also to wider groups of stakeholders and interested parties. More practically, we need to start this outreach towards a new European Parliament and a new European Commission, familiarising them with this important issue, but first of all with the sector and its many specificities.

ES: So, what would then your advice be to future Euroseeds Presidents?

GvE: That will of course depend on the concrete issues at stake at a given time and of the political environment in which we will need to develop our positions and strategic options.

But more generally, one of the particular strengths of the association in the past has been that all presidents and members of the Board on the one hand brought their individual companies’ or associations’ perspective to the table. That assured that we had a very complete and solid understanding of all relevant aspects in a given discussion. But on the other, all of them are not only willing but consider it their duty to then take off those company or country hats and find positions and approaches to the benefit of the entire sector. This attitude and these discussions still never fail to impress me. Clearly, the president here has a specific role to play. As a moderator, an umpire and as chairman. He needs to encourage debate, be able to steer it, and conclude it at the right point. I can truthfully say that Euroseeds has always been very lucky with all its presidents and with the strong personal commitment they all felt and took for the association.

ES: Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?

GvE: That probably depends on how good my advice to current and future presidents actually will have been. Let me put it this way: after all these years, I am still fascinated by this sector. By the dedication of the people working in companies and associations. By their positive and can-do attitude. By the international dimension and the collaborative spirit. But foremost, by the potential plant breeding and quality seed hold for the well-being of mankind. And I still have a good number of ideas and potential projects in my head.


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