Sowing the seeds: SPI CEO Peter Marks calls for local heroism

You can be a hero. That was the message imparted by Peter Marks, president and CEO of Seed Programs International, at the 527th edition of Asheville Green Drinks. A crowd of around 20 people showed up at the Green Sage Café in downtown Asheville on Wednesday night, Oct. 22, to listen to – and participate in – a presentation that was part pub-quiz, part world-history lesson and part motivational speech.

Marks demonstrated to his audience that an act we view as a hobby — vegetable gardening — can save lives.

Oct. 24 is United Nations Day, a fact that made this presentation both timely and poignant. Lynn Failing, who used to work for the U.N., opened the night by speaking about the agency’s efforts at reducing world hunger. According to Failing, more than 1 million people around the world are hosting events similar to the Green Drinks gathering. “We support the connective tissue that the U.N. Association provides,” Failing said. “This event will bring in one aspect of what the U.N. is doing and demonstrate how that works — from the local level on up,” he noted.

Failing went on to say, “The U.N. is not simply politics — it is all of us working together to tackle urgent issues. The U.N. is part of you, whether you know it or not. That’s kind of scary, but it’s also comforting. It’s how we connect ourselves with ourselves.”

Following Failing’s address, Jim Barton, the program coordinator of the Western North Carolina Chapter of the U.N. Association of the U.S.A., introduced Marks, the evening’s primary speaker. Afterward, Barton said, “I knew that Peter would be a good speaker, but I didn’t realize how great he would be. I hope other groups invite him to speak.”

Astute and energetic, Marks opened by explaining that Seed Programs International partners with a multitude of organizations to provide non-GMO vegetable seeds to communities worldwide. The idea behind SPI’s mission, he said, is that a key to overcoming hunger lies in teaching people to produce their own food. According to Marks, once people are able to feed themselves, they can grow surplus food and utilize that surplus to pay for expenses, such as school fees and healthcare. The end result is an upward spiral that leads families out of poverty, not into it.

Having given an overview of what Seed Programs International does, Marks launched into what he called the “Green Drinks Pub Quiz Night.” He encouraged the audience to form teams, then presented the whole group with five questions — each of which he answered in the ensuing presentation. Marks gave out prizes to the teams with the correct answers (or those who came closest). The questions themselves focused on people in developing countries — their average lifespan, the number who are undernourished, the number who are displaced, and the average income for a family of four.

After he posed his questions, Marks revealed some surprising answers. He made a point of dispelling the myth that world hunger is an insurmountable problem. “One thing I like about [Microsoft founder] Bill Gates is that with all his money, he doesn’t spend any of it on his hairstyle,” Marks quipped. Coiffure comments aside, Marks noted the multitude of philanthropic contributions Gates has made to projects in developing nations. Marks also quoted the second line of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

To that end, Marks pointed out that global hunger has improved by 25 percent in Central America since 1990.

Marks also talked about positive changes occurring in Africa. “Africa has made big strides in health and education,” he said. “The average lifespan in Africa has gone up from 41 to 57 years. The percentage of children in schools has increased from the low 40s [percentage-wise] to 75 percent since 1970,” he added. Underlying these statistics was Marks’ message that the potential for developing nations to grow into developed nations is real and attainable.

For much of the evening’s remainder, Marks outlined a concept that he referred to as “quiet heroism.” The first part of that concept is understanding just how fortunate people in developed nations — such as the U.S. — are. “Your income is close to 6.5 times the global average,” Marks said. He then added, “Because of this gap and because of this knowledge we have, every person can be a hero.”

To illustrate his point, he noted organizations such as Giving What We Can — a group started by Toby Ord of Balliol College (Oxford). This society encourages members to donate 10 percent of their income to charities, according to Marks.

Headquartered in East Asheville, SPI is of a similar ilk. Marks said that his organization’s goal was to “ship out enough seeds to grow a million family gardens.” He added, “It’s good old picking-up-the-phone-type partnership building.”

Marks explained that Seed Programs International started because the founder — who had worked for what is now Monsanto’s seed brand, Asgrow – saw how much usable seed was being thrown away each year for one reason or another. By establishing relationships with partner companies that donate seed, SPI is able to teach people around the world to feed themselves.

“It’s all through partnership,” Marks said. “We communicate with a company, package the seeds up and ship them out. With our partners, we have a much greater chance of success.” Today, Seed Programs International has initiated projects across the globe — including enterprises in Liberia, Burundi, South Africa, Haiti and more. “We think of vegetable gardening as a nice hobby, but it can truly save lives,” Marks said.

In closing, Marks encouraged audience members to be heroic. He said that everyone can help by learning to talk about the world, by fighting hunger in their own communities, by signing up for e-news and by supporting crowdfunding projects such as Global Giving.

Marks also pulled up another quote from JFK’s inaugural address: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Peter Marks can be reached at peter.marks@seedprograms.org.

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About Erik Peake
Writing is my craft, my passion, my solace - and my livelihood. As a professional writer, I have worked in an array of venues and filled a variety of roles. Since I moved to Asheville, NC, I have enjoyed a freelance career as a grant writer, a technical writer, a Web-content writer, a copy editor, and an English tutor. I am currently specializing in web-content writing, blogging, and tutoring. Although an obsessive-compulsive nature inclines me toward proselytizing on behalf of English grammar, I also pursue forays into creative writing (as a balance, I suppose). Creative non-fiction is a field of particular interest to me, and I hope someday to publish a collection of short stories that circumnavigates the vicissitudes of my unorthodox youth.

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