Plant breeders could let women farmers guide them

Plant breeders produce new varieties for their customers: farmers. To predict what kinds of new varieties are likely to offer significant benefits to farmers, breeders may turn to their customers to evaluate which characteristics might make a new variety more acceptable. A comprehensive review of many such evaluations suggests that if breeders were to pay more attention to what women need, it could increase the usefulness of new varieties in many ways.

Gender and Farmer Preferences for Varietal Traits: Evidence and Issues for Crop Improvement, published in Plant Breeding Reviews, came out of a workshop of the Gender and Breeding Initiative, led by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB). The authors scanned the published literature looking for research that addressed plant breeding, seed selection, trait evaluation and similar ideas and that specifically reported data from women about their varietal preferences. The paper describes their analysis.

Although 39 papers met the criteria, the authors say that none of them focused on gender differences for trait preferences as a primary objective. Women evaluated traits and varieties, but understanding their preferences was never the primary reason for any of the studies. The studies covered a wide variety of crops, countries and agricultural production and food systems. Despite the high diversity and specificity of these cases, the authors identified some trends and patterns.

Security versus productivity

Women and men sometimes have diametrically opposed views about what matters in a plant variety. Women mention traits related to their family’s food security, such as earliness, multiple harvests and pest and disease resistance, more often than men. Men, by contrast, mention varieties with market appeal — high yields, low labor requirements — more often than women.

“Women preferred traits conferring stability or the capacity to produce under stressful conditions,” said Jacqueline Ashby, one of the study authors and Senior Advisor on Gender Research at the CGIAR System Office at the time of the research.

There are differences after the harvest too. Women are more likely to be concerned about traits such as ease of processing and lower processing losses or medicinal properties, reflecting their concern with food quality, while men focus on storage life and marketability.

“Women tend to be responsible for food preparation, and thus have more detailed knowledge about what a good variety should bring to the table,” said Eva Weltzien of the University of Wisconsin and another of the paper’s authors. “If women cannot prepare more food from grain produced by a higher yielding variety, because losses during food preparation are higher than the yield advantages from the new variety, they will not adopt the new variety and will discourage the men from doing so.”

Women are responsible for ensuring that their family is well-fed, and that influences their preferences. In Ethiopia, for example, women say that they are the ones who have to maintain early and drought-tolerant sorghum varieties because “they are the first to hear a starving child cry”.

Same crop, different needs

Many crops are grown by women and men, albeit under different circumstances and sometimes with diverse goals. Very often, women prefer traits that will deliver an assured harvest from the poorer conditions of their plots. In West Africa, the fields on which women grow sorghum are low in fertility because they are allocated those fields at the end of the rotation and they do not have access to manure. They prefer early and tall sorghum varieties, which make the most of poor conditions.

This example, and several others, show that, as the authors note, “even within the same agro‐ecology and village, women and men may be cultivating the same crop under contrasting conditions and thus will have different trait preferences”.

Women tend to value characteristics of crop varieties differently from men when they have different roles and responsibilities during the crop production cycle. For example, when women are primarily responsible for weeding, harvesting or threshing, they will appreciate variety traits that reduce weeding and their workload.

It is also common that women use specific parts of plants that men are less interested in, and ignoring their preferences can block the uptake of an otherwise better variety. In Ethiopia, for example, women objected to more productive short-strawed sorghum varieties partly because they would increase their work, but also because they would reduce the income women earn by selling the sorghum stalks as fuel.

Let women decide

Some crops are seen as “women’s crops,” among them groundnut and Bambara groundnut in West Africa, finger millet in East Africa and traditional vegetables across Africa and Asia. The literature contained no research on gendered trait preferences for these women’s crops which, the authors note, “warrants further research”.

“In fact,” said Jacqueline Ashby, “the idea that some crops are ‘women’s crops’ is questionable. More to the point, whenever women grow any crop for home consumption using rudimentary technology, their opinions about what would improve the crop have been largely ignored by modern breeding.”

GBI and the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform have already teamed up to pilot a more systematic approach to ensuring that women’s trait preferences are included in the product profiles that guide the work of plant breeders.

Should the aim be to produce separate varieties for women and men? Probably not.

“It is costly and difficult to develop new varieties,” Eva Weltzien explained. “In most cases it will be better to combine the traits that women and men prefer. For example, there may be no real yield disadvantage for taller sorghum plants.”

Better, Weltzien said, to ensure that women’s preferences are being met. In Ethiopia, a new sorghum variety that is tall and high-yielding improves the likelihood that the improved variety might be adopted, because women and men will want it.