The feminist capacity of crops should be considered when breeding produce for improved food security, concludes NMBU’s Ida Tarjem in fresh doctoral research.
Humans first started to domesticate and select crops with favourable characteristics about ten thousand years ago. Since then, crop breeding has significantly contributed to food security across the globe. The evaluation and selection criteria that crop breeders use, however, tend to overlook the interests, priorities and needs of women. On the African continent, where women play essential roles in producing and providing food, this results in lower rates of adoption of crop varieties that are resistant to disease and climate change (improved crop varieties) and in turn, reduced food security.
There are attempts to address this issue with increased efforts to make crop breeding more responsive to gender. The integration of gender in crop breeding is, however, far from straight-forward. It challenges deep-seated norms, values and power relations and requires new ways of thinking and implementation.
CGIAR tool kit may reinforce rather than challenge gender norms
The world’s largest agricultural research and innovation network, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), has been working on these issues by, amongst other things, trying out a new digital tool kit called Gender + Tools. The tool kit is designed to assist crop breeding teams in making decisions that incorporate gender equality. It does this by asking questions that help breeding teams better understand who the customers are from a gender perspective, including their needs and preferences, as well as how different varieties and their characteristics impact workload, income and control over agricultural resources.
Ida Tarjem followed the trials of this tool kit. She found that those using Gender + Tools didn’t just describe gender identities and relations, but actively constructed them. Women were, for example, often portrayed as preferring culinary and cooking traits in crops, whilst men were framed as being mostly concerned with productivity and marketability. In this way, the CGIAR tool kit may reinforce gender stereotypes and potentially fail to challenge traditional gender norms and power relations.
Tarjem’s observations further revealed how gender specialists must navigate complex power relations, with crop breeders and private sector donors holding much of the decision-making power.
How can crops and crop breeding be feminist?
Using insights from feminist studies and critical plant studies, Tarjem went on to develop the concept of the feminist crop, which captures the ways crops are entangled with women’s practices, knowledges, capabilities and power. She then applied the feminist crop concept to molecular crop breeding, arguing that the modification of plants’ DNA (plant genome editing) could be wielded as a tool for feminist intervention and politics through crop breeding.
One such genome editing technology, CRISPR-Cas, is a system that has generated a lot of excitement due to being faster, cheaper and more accurate than other genome editing methods.
“CRISPR-Cas can allow crop breeders to breed for multiple traits preferred by women as well as men, with high levels of precision and efficiency,” explains Tarjem.
“The feminist crop concept not only considers the role of humans and their institutions in shaping the politics of agricultural research and technical innovation, but also the role of other entities such as crops and research tools”, adds the biotechnologist.
By providing a better understanding of the relationship between gender, crops and crop breeding, Tarjem’s research can help inform current and future approaches to gender-responsive crop breeding and thereby contribute to the advancement of women’s rights, opportunities and wellbeing in African agriculture and society.
“Feminist crop breeding and new feminist crop varieties can make a contribution to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, including SDG2 on Zero Hunger, SDG5 on Gender Equality and SDG13 on Climate Action”, says Tarjem.