What would feminist GM crops look like?

May 14, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

I was in a conversation on genetically modified crops with a feminist economist and a leading ecologist the other day (Chatham House rules, so no names, alas). As often happens, the unusual combination of disciplines led to some thought-provoking exchanges. After lamenting the way most new biotech and GM research is top down and biased towards both rich country agriculture and large farmers, we got onto what a feminist approach to developing GM crops might look like. Suppose that rather than asking scientists, we started by asking women farmers, who grow most of Africa’s food crops, what kinds of technologies, including GM, might help them? 

Most surveys show that one of women farmers’ main challenges is time poverty: finding time to farm (they traditionally concentrate on growing food for consumption, rather than cash crops) while coping with the need to find water, fuel, and caring for the sick, including family members with HIV and AIDS. Most of the obvious ways to improve their lot (and increase productivity) have little to do with GM:

 –         increasing women’s access to agricultural extension advice and services from government (only 7% of extension services in Africa reach women)

–         Improved supplies of water for domestic consumption (we weren’t sure of women’s role in collecting water for agricultural use) to free up time for other activities. Women typically spend 4-8 hours a day collecting water and fuel, and cleaning and cooking.

–         Ditto on fuel – reducing dependence on collecting wood and dung, eg through alternative fuels, or more efficient stoves, can save hours every day, some of which can be used for farming. A possible GM angle here in terms of biofuels.

The two areas that jumped out in terms of the GM agenda are increasing the amount of attention to food crops typically grown by women (this is happening a bit in crops such as cassava, but is still a very poor relation compared to the big research items), and reducing the labour input required, to address women’s time poverty.

Other possible areas, such as GM’s role in helping adapt to climate change (salination and drought) or to improve the nutritional content and productivity levels of food crops would be relevant to both women and men.

A quick search on Google scholar suggests most writing on this theme has focused on how the downside of GMs, such as the way that control of new technologies both reflects and exacerbates the dominance of already powerful men (see here and here). Anyone know of anything more like the kind of positive engagement approach outlined here?

May 14, 2009
Duncan Green