From field to lab: whose priorities count?

4 March, 2015 by (comments)
Women farmers in Sorghum field. Photo credit: ICRISAT / PS Rao

Women farmers in Sorghum field. Photo credit: ICRISAT / PS Rao

Making decisions in the lab about what crop traits to improve over others, already assumes that one trait is more desirable than another. Increasingly, involving communities is essential for researchers to ensure that improvements to crop varieties are demand-driven by farmers.

Rather than being confined to the lab, researchers are increasingly aware of the social context within which they work. For this purpose, collecting and analyzing data from both men and women – in combination with qualitative data on men and women’s perspectives – is important to clarify who, what, when, where and why for framer-driven research programs.

The CGIAR Gender and Agriculture Research Network, which met recently in the Philippines, was set up to nurture cross-cutting research to benefit rural women and integrate gender into all research programs – highlighting the topic of crop breeding and improvement.

Social context, gender and politics

Farmers grow different varieties and types of crops, depending on the season and a whole range of other factors from taste, color and texture, to quality of the crop for animal feed, flour or fodder. This type of information is used by plant breeders to take optimal ecological and biological contexts as well as the needs of local people into account.

“Science is a social process that constructs knowledge,” says Wenda Bauchspies, a sociologist specializing in science, technology and gender in Mali, at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

“By broadening the number of voices in the construction of science, we hope to decrease the unintended consequences and increase the intended outcomes within the targeted communities” for breeding new crop varieties, she said.

For example, higher yielding varieties can improve production and yield. Yet farmers are dealing with multiple pressures and looking for other qualities as well as high yield. “Farmers need varieties that serve household, cultural and environmental needs,” noted Bauchspies.

Farmers grow a wide portfolio of crops depending on factors including season, taste and market value. Photo credit: ICRISAT / L.vidyasagar.

Farmers grow a wide portfolio of crops depending on factors including season, taste and market value. Photo credit: ICRISAT / L.Vidyasagar.

“Gender research can help valorize diversity. It’s about tracking what traits are valued, why and when they are valued, and by whom,” said Bauchspies. That means taking into account who controls resources like crop seeds, land allocation, fertilizer, labor and food preparation.

Control over resources is a central concept for measuring empowerment, requiring that both men and women participate in decision-making. Empowerment is structured by the balance of power within communities.

“Equity is about having a flexible power structure,” noted Bauchspies. “If the power is only in one place and never moves, that’s where the interest stays.” This makes other interests and values invisible and subordinate – risky for science, since information that could help scientists solve new problems could be overlooked or ignored.

Taking into account power structures, such as who is responsible for which tasks within the community, can lead to a deeper understanding of what crop improvements will lead to empowered communities.

Millets and sorghum are nutritious and resilient cereals. Photo credit: ICRISAT

Millets and sorghum are nutritious and resilient cereals. Photo credit: ICRISAT

Social empowerment and agricultural adoption

Changes in empowerment can affect whether men or women want to adopt agricultural innovations or technologies like improved seed, and how they share in the benefits – whether from increased yield, nutrition or decreased labor.

Eva Weltzien, a senior ICRISAT cereal breeder, was first inspired by the great achievements of Norman Borlaug, who revolutionized agriculture with high-yielding wheat varieties. Her participatory plant breeding work with communities in Rajasthan, India, was triggered by a need to understand the reality for farmers growing pearl millet in the field.

“What really surprised us was the effect that caste has on people’s opportunity to succeed in agriculture,” she reflected. “Higher castes had more land and better land.” In another layer of social norms, or “rules,” women usually farmed the most degraded land, and had to plough after men – after optimal planting season, she notes.

In this respect, yield gaps can exist for social reasons as well as agronomic ones. Researchers have now done specific breeding work to improve sorghum so that it is better adapted to lower phosphorous availability in the soil – a vital nutrient for growing crops.

Another trait incorporated into new sorghum varieties is a higher flour yield, when using local manual processing tools for food preparation. When preparing food from the grain of these varieties, less weight is lost during decortication, so a higher proportion of the grain can be used for preparing food.

“These varieties don’t have more nutritional content, but they enable poor families to use less crop or grain for more porridge,” she noted. “We incorporate these qualities as a pre-requisite in our breeding programs.”

Previously, plant breeders might not have considered these qualities. “The essential issue is to involve the whole range of end-users in the process of priority setting and technology development, said Weltzien.

“What we have been aware of is that breeders need to take into account the needs of people who need seed – both men and women – to reach everyone and make a difference.”

References of interest:

The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI)

Engendering bigger impact: making the other half count

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Filed Under: Crops @en, Gender