Designer crops of the future must be better suited to women in agriculture


Despite all the advances scientists have made in breeding crops that feed more people, these breakthroughs typically elude a core demographic in low-income countries that depend on agriculture: women.

Advances in seed genetics are estimated to be responsible for up to 60 percent of yield increases in farmers’ fields in recent years by making crops hardier and faster maturing. However, only a third of the crops grown by farmers in sub-Saharan Africa in 2010 were the latest varieties of genetically improved plants; adoption is as low as 5% for female-headed households in this region. In some cases, modern varieties may be more difficult for women to harvest, process or cook, but ultimately scientists need more research to fully understand the characteristics that make crops desirable and viable for women. women as well as men.

Women make up more than 40% of the global agricultural workforce, and an even higher proportion in developing countries. In order to improve global food security and eliminate hunger, breeders need better market knowledge to understand the qualities that women prefer in crops so that they too can access the gains from genetically engineered crops. modified.

While male growers are more likely to prioritize high yields and disease resistance, since this usually equates to higher income when selling, female growers often prioritize other needs in their roles as mothers, caregivers and caretakers of households. The implication for breeders is that for a new variety to be widely adopted by both men and women, it must be attractive both to men seeking to increase their income and to women, who assume greater responsibility for household nutrition.

Scientists are beginning to make progress in understanding the needs of women farmers. For example, in a forthcoming study by the International Potato Center (CIP), researchers working on new sweet potato varieties for East Africa found that 80% of stakeholders were aware that women prioritized the taste of sweet potato varieties over all other traits, as this impacts the likelihood of their children eating them. Another example is the demand for rice fragrance in South and Southeast Asia, which has proven to be driven primarily by women.

This is reinforced by other studies which indicate that the ease of cooking for staple crops such as cassava is also a key factor influencing the adoption of new varieties by women. They tend to prefer varieties that cook quickly while boiling, which is determined by factors such as age, phytic acid levels, and larger starch granules.

But in addition to women’s preferences, breeders also need more market information to better understand the challenges and barriers to adoption that women face and their role in household decision-making on varieties of crops to be grown. For example, research shows that women are more likely to take on the time-consuming manual labor of weeding, threshing and cooking; manual weeding of a single hectare of sorghum requires up to 324 hours of work. In East Africa, adoption of maize has lagged because women objected to high-yielding hard maize varieties that were difficult to grind and thus increased their workload. Women are more likely to use traits that reduce the drudgery of farming for them.

Early efforts to incorporate these considerations into the crop selection process included the development of G+ Tools by the CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), the organization we work for. It is the largest publicly funded agricultural organization in the world. This toolkit provides a framework to support the targeting of specific segments of the population to determine the potential implications of traits or varieties for gender equality. Tools include questions about how a new product might increase drudgery, displace other forms of income, or rely too heavily on inputs such as irrigation, mechanization or fertilizers, which may be out of reach for women. .

The tools, which unite the expertise of social scientists, gender experts and plant breeders, have been piloted in Uganda, Nigeria and Zimbabwe to set priorities for the development of new lines of sweet potatoes, cassava and beans. In Nigeria, this has led the cassava breeding program to prioritize traits important to women processing cassava foods, including sweet taste, low fiber content, low moisture content, ease of peeling and consumers’ favorite color.

Livestock keepers also need to go beyond the field to understand the needs of women in agribusiness at every stage of the value chain. With more investment in projects and initiatives that subsidize the deployment of new varieties, farmers and processors could afford to test them and see their benefits before fully adopting them, so as not to compromise their traditional sources of income and food.

And for any crops that offer better yields to smallholders, those that perish quickly or require specific storage conditions to reach market or specialized equipment to process will be less profitable and therefore less likely to be adopted.

Existing innovations that show promise for better nutrition and livelihoods in the face of climate change pressures include vitamin-enriched sweet potato and cassava, iron- and zinc-fortified and low-glycemic index rice, high-yield maize and quick-cooking beans. But to refine these varieties to maximize their adoption by both men and women, more research is needed on their needs in the field.

An estimated investment of $39 million is needed over the next three years to engineer these crops and adapt them, but the return will likely result in higher incomes, improved food security and higher levels of equality for up to ‘to 125 million farmers, small businesses and consumers in Africa and South Asia alone by 2030. And by meeting the needs of all farmers, improved varieties can sustain food systems for all .

This is an opinion and analytical article, and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.


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