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1,500 visitors flock to seedy congress in Belfast

It was the hottest ticket in Belfast in 2011. More than 1,500 people flocked to the city, leaving hotels completely booked out for the first time in two years.

Was Eminem checking out the Northern Ireland hospitality before his summer gig, with a massive entourage in tow? Perhaps a Hollywood film crew and cast were in town to shoot a big budget movie?

In fact, it wasn't the stars but the earth that packed the crowds into Belfast - to be exact, the International Seed Federation (ISF) World Seed Congress.

Seed industry professionals from 72 different countries including the US, China, New Zealand and the Netherlands, arrived here on Saturday for five packed days of trade events, but they were also treated to black tie dinners, parties, a golf tournament and tourist trips.

A group of golf-loving delegates battled the elements on Sunday for the ISF's much-loved golf tournament, which takes place every year on the Sunday before the congress begins.

The Hilton Templepatrick's 18-hole course played host to the group of competitive professionals, who valiantly played through wind and rain.

Monday began the serious negotiations, with seed traders and buyers using St George's market for quick-fire meetings, described by one trader as being "like speed dating".

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John Gilbert is on the UK board of the ISF, but also owns Banbridge-based McCausland Seeds.

He said: "There were 300 tables in St George's Market and four chairs per table. So you meet a company representative, get allocated a table, have a buying discussion and then on to the next.

"My son works for the company too and he had 14 separate meetings over a couple of days."

Seminars explored complex and sometimes controversial issues, such as genetic modification and the 'perfect storm' of climate change and soaring food and energy demand, expanding populations and increasing water usage.

It emerged that the humble seed forms the basis of one of the world's most high-tech and innovative industries.

Big names exhibiting included crop protection company Bayer CropScience, biotechnology giant Monsanto and Banbridge-based seed specialists, Germinal Holdings.

Seed technology company INOTEC was offering a host of products, including the scary-sounding 'Terminator' device for preparing seed samples, as well as genetic analysis tools.

It wasn't all sales and seminars, as the conference organisers took the opportunity to showcase Northern Ireland to an international audience.

Trips were organised to the Giants Causeway and Ulster Museum and a lavish welcome party saw Custom House Square in the city centre, vanish under an enormous marquee.

John Gilbert particularly enjoyed a night relaxing with delegates and customers at the Malmaison Hotel, which just happens to be the birthplace of the seed industry in Northern Ireland.

Mr Gilbert said: "My great, great grandfather, Samuel McCausland started the business in that very building in 1895 and I started work there in 1969."

On the last night, the organisers were faced with a logistical nightmare - hosting a gala dinner under one roof for 1,500 hungry delegates.

Organiser Anne Doherty from Happening Conferences said: "The King's Hall was the only place big enough to seat them. The place is huge, like a barn, but we got it decorated with drapes and somehow the King's Hall staff managed to get everybody served and fed."


* The worldwide seed market is worth $42.2bn (nearly £26bn) a year.

* Apples produce individual offspring - planting an apple seed will produce a fruit which looks and tastes entirely different to the apple it came from.

* Most of our food originates from seeds - from wheat, corn and maize, to growing grass to feed cattle.

* The world's largest seed is the double coconut, measuring up to 50cm around the middle.

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