#ScienceMatters: Biotech Maize Reduces Labor for Women Farmers

Posted by on April 20th, 2017 | 0 Comments »

On April 22nd, concerned citizens will gather in hundreds of cities to March for Science, reminding the world of the critical role that science plays in our lives. This week, the Harvest 2050 blog is featuring stories from the 2016 GAP Report® on the importance of science-based and information technologies for agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability. This blog focuses on the role of biotechnology in empowering women farmers in South Africa.

Women are the drivers of change towards more sustainable production systems and a more varied and healthier diet. Women comprise an average of 43 percent of the agricultural labor force of low-income countries, and up to almost 50 percent in Eastern and Southeastern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. If women farmers could access the same productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent, lifting 100–150 million people out of hunger. [1]

With many men in rural areas leaving for urban work and with physical labor made more difficult by the disease burden of HIV/AIDS, these is a substantial need for technologies that support African women in their agricultural roles. Photo: CIMMYT

Labor demands on women during peak agricultural cycles of land preparation, planting and weeding actually hinder the ability of farmers to increase crop yields and to diversify their farm operations. Given the important role women small-scale farmers play in agriculture across the African continent, and as biotechnologies begin to be adopted by farmers of all scales, a central question arises: does GM crop technology provide gender differentiated benefits?

South Africa
is the only country where small-scale farmers have been growing genetically modified maize, their primary subsistence crop, for more than a decade. In 1988, Bt maize seeds (maize hybrids with a Bacillus thuringiensis gene inserted making them resistant to stem borer pests) were approved. Herbicide tolerant (HT) maize seeds that enabled farmers to fight weeds and improve soil health came on the market in 2003. Then in 2009, a maize variety containing both the HT and the Bt traits (“stacked” maize) was approved and began to be adopted by farmers. By 2012, 85 percent of all maize grown in South Africa was GM: Bt single trait maize covered 29 percent of maize area; HT single trait maize covered 13 percent; and stacked maize with both Bt and HT traits covered 43 percent of all maize area.

Agricultural biotechnology encompasses a range of tools, including traditional breeding techniques and genetic engineering, that alter living organisms, or parts of organisms, to make or modify products, improve plants or animals or development microorganisms for specific agricultural uses. For more on the impact of biotechnology and bioinnovation, see the 2016 GAP Report®, pages 36-42.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the University of Pretoria in South Africa conducted research in small-scale farmer communities over eight cropping seasons as well as qualitative research with men and women in separate small groups to examine the relative gender impact of GM maize adoption in Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) Province. These farmers were selected because they had previously participated in demonstration workshops organized by Monsanto in 2001 and had adopted Monsanto maize with Bt, HT and stacked traits.

In comparison with conventional maize producing households, the research found that both men and women preferred the stacked and HT trait maize varieties because these enabled them to save time and labor while providing higher yields. Adult female household members reduced weeding time by 10 to 12 days, a significant time savings that enabled them to spend more time growing nutritious foods or taking care of their families. [2]

This represents a substantial reduction in physical drudgery, as women normally perform this particular task in the maize production cycle. Women reported being able to spend more time working in their own or community vegetable gardens or on other household work.

[1] UN FAO, Smallholders and Family Farmers Factsheet, (2012). http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/nr/sustainability_pathways/docs/Factsheet_

[2] Marnus Gouse, Debdatta Sengupta, Patricia Zambrano, and Jose Falck Zepeda, “Genetically Modified Maize: Less Drudgery for Her, More Maize for Him? Evidence from Smallholder Maize Farmers in South Africa,” World Development, Volume 83, pp. 27-38, (2016).

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