Seed World

One-on-One with East-West Seed’s May Chodchoey

2024 priorities, building on core values, gender politics, and the value of supporting small-holder farmers: we cover a lot of ground in this up close and personal chat with APSA’s past executive director, now key leader at East-West Seed.

Kanokwan (May) Chodchoey is a well-known name in the global seed industry, having most recently served as executive director of the Asia Pacific Seed Association (APSA). In September 2023, she shifted gears, stepping across to the private sector as group head of public affairs with East-West Seed. We caught up with Chodchoey to chat about the changes in her role and the impact she continues to make in the seed industry.  

Seed World (SW): May, you started in the corporate world, moved to leading an association, and have now returned to the corporate world. How does the impact you can make differ between corporate and association? In which role do you feel you can make the most impact?

Chodchoey: I firmly believe that clear core values and a passion for serving the seed sector should drive impact regardless of the organization type. From my first job to the present, my goal has been to make a positive and progressive impact, especially in the public sector. In the corporate sector as a quality lead, I understood practical challenges influenced by policy, especially around international seed movement. As an executive director at APSA, I facilitated a platform for members to connect and address challenges in delivering high-quality seeds.

Having worked in both corporate and a regional seed association in APAC, I now better understand how to connect and form alliances for a global impact in the seed sector. Instead of comparing roles, it’s about maximizing your current role for the organization. This approach, rooted in dedication and purpose, opens doors for future opportunities. I believe in finding connecting dots in your path and staying focused on life’s purpose for a lasting impact.

SW: What are your big priorities for 2024? When you look back over the year at the end of 2024, what are you hoping you’ll have achieved?

MC: As the Group Head of Public Affairs at East-West Seed, my main priorities for 2024 include focusing on capacity building for our operations team on key seed-related policies. I aim to collaborate with our alliances, primarily seed companies and industry associations, at national, regional, and global levels. Advocating for a science-based approach and predictable policies to support freedom to operate is crucial. 

While it may sound simple, understanding diverse approaches by country or region requires significant effort. My goal is to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors on seed movement, seed quality, and plant variety protection.

SW: Do you see the world moving towards free trade or more protectionism, and how should the seed industry respond?

MC: I observe simultaneous trends, with the pandemic and climate change accelerating both initiatives. Some countries are shifting toward protectionism for local seed production, aiming for self-sufficiency, especially in crucial crops. Conversely, some nations envisioning innovation and the integration of quality seeds lean toward free trade zones to bolster R&D and seed production programs.

As a seed industry representative, it’s essential to engage with the public sector, guiding countries based on scientific insights into crop production. Collective emphasis on the significance of food and seed supply chains is crucial. Moving towards protectionism may have adverse effects on long-term food security. Therefore, adopting a science-based and predictive approach to phytosanitary requirements for international seed movement, aligned with international standards, is paramount (specifically referencing ISPM38 and ISPM45). Our ultimate goal is to achieve multilateral recognition of a systems approach, ensuring farmers have access to high-quality seeds at the right season for optimal crop production.

SW: When you took on the new role with East-West Seed in September, you specifically mentioned that one of your major priorities is enhancing the lives of smallholder farmers. What steps are you taking in that direction, and why are smallholder farmers especially critical?

MC: “Why smallholder farmers?” is indeed a pivotal question. Before joining East-West Seed, the focus on smallholder farmers in global initiatives drew me in. It wasn’t just about the talk but the execution and commitment to making a difference. This alignment of mission led me to choose East-West Seed, where the significance of smallholder farmers has been a cornerstone since its founding by Simon N Groot in 1982. Mr. Groot, the 2019 World Food Prize Laureate, emphasized, “A good seed can change the lives of millions,” a sentiment that echoes the company’s dedication to improving smallholder farmers’ livelihoods.

Smallholder farmers are indispensable, contributing significantly by producing one-third of the world’s food. Beyond this, they play a pivotal role in environmental sustainability through their agronomic practices. According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are approximately 600 million smallholder farmers globally, with an average landholding of less than two hectares. The majority of these farmers are located in Asian and African countries, facing numerous challenges such as inadequate infrastructure, limited access to high-quality seeds, the impact of climate change, gender biases, and various economic factors.

My current focus is on setting the right approach to deliver innovative solutions through high-quality seeds, considering the policy landscape. To achieve this, understanding challenges in crop production planning, country-specific phytosanitary requirements, and maintaining a balance between plant breeders’ rights and farmers’ rights is crucial. Collaborating with key stakeholders and the public sector, my priority is to share best practices on the policy framework. This aims to empower farmers and leverage the use of high-quality seeds for improving productivity and their livelihoods. These efforts will lead to achieving the sustainable development goals, especially SDG1 and SDG2.

SW: Do you feel that the successes you’ve achieved have helped prove women’s place in leadership in the Asia Pacific region? How challenging has that been, and how important?

MC: Let me express this differently. I’ve always looked up to successful women leaders, especially mothers in key positions within APAC organizations. Surprisingly, most of my role models in the seed industry are women. Whether through direct conversations or by setting an example, they’ve played a role in shaping who I am today. Their capabilities are truly admirable and inspire me to follow in their footsteps.

Believing strongly in leading by example, I actively encourage women and youth to define their aspirations and remain focused on their life goals. Gratitude is due to the numerous global and regional campaigns supporting women’s leadership, including the UN’s SDG5 for gender equality. Such initiatives have a profound impact, encouraging organizations to strategize and actively support gender equality in leadership roles. Ultimately, I firmly believe that one’s biological gender should never be a limiting factor in achieving their life’s aspirations.

SW: When you’re not working, how do you prefer to spend your time?

MC: Outside of work, I cherish moments with my family, engaging in outdoor activities and shared exercises, especially now that my son has started walking. Witnessing his newfound mobility adds an extra layer of joy to our family adventures.

Additionally, I find immense pleasure in group lunches with my friends at work. Recently, we initiated a network where we openly discuss life challenges and share how each one copes. While it may seem like a simple activity, these gatherings significantly contribute to boosting my mental health. Recognizing the importance of maintaining a good balance between physical and mental well-being, I believe that by ensuring our own vitality, we’re better equipped to contribute positively to others and make a more meaningful impact.