Women and agricultural biodiversity – from the seed to the table

By Maria Hartl, Senior Technical Specialist - Gender and Social Equity

EXPO Milan has definitely given us the space to talk – with a calendar of occasions for exchange about topics that often do not make it into the headlines, including for example the core mandates of the Rome-based agencies and their collaboration.

That was my first thought, when I was invited to speak at a round-table on “Agricultural biodiversity, value chains and women’s empowerment”. The event was organized by Bioversity International and supported by the Italian Development Cooperation. The focus was on the strategic role of women in managing and conserving agricultural biodiversity and the challenges and opportunities they face.

The round-table was skillfully moderated by Barbara Serra, news presenter and correspondent for Al Jazeera English. It brought together many key players on gender and biodiversity, including representatives from FAO, IFAD, Oxfam Novib, to Slow Food, Fair Trade and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSFR) in India.

In fact, to me it felt like the extended IFAD family.  It was certainly not a coincidence that many of the programmes that were presented kicked off with IFAD grant support. It was a great opportunity to learn about long-term results and impact. And it was really gratifying to see that all the programmes integrated a gender perspective and contributed to women’s empowerment, in particular for indigenous women.

Ann Tutweiler (Director General, Bioversity International) and Stefano Padulosi (Theme Leader, Marketing Diversity, Bioversity International) spoke about the result of years of research on neglected and underutilized species (NUS), which started with IFAD grant support.  They had also invited Sebastiana Choque, a custodian farmer from Bolivia, to give a testimonial about her management of many varieties of native potatoes, cañihua, oca and barley. Choque also spoke about the important work she has been doing in support of the Bolivian National Agricultural and Forestry Research Institute in its cañihua germplasm collection.

Bioversity’s support of the Andean “lost grains” of Quinoa in Bolivia and Peru led to the development of practical and safe processing machines which combine both traditional and modern technologies and significantly reduce women’s burden of labour. The machines slash the time required to thresh grains from 2 hours to 6 minutes per kilogramme. Another key process, the removal of saponin, the bitter coat around the grains, takes only 1 minute per kilogramme with the new machines, where before it took half an hour – a truly fantastic reduction of drudgery. (Remember that the third strategic objective of IFAD’s gender policy focuses on reducing workload – and that’s because it makes a huge difference to women’s lives.) The programme also facilitated strategic alliances with private companies to develop over 40 new food products, including fortified cookies and dairy substitutes with an Andean grain base which the government is now making available to breastfeeding women.

Putting Lessons into Practice: Scaling up People’s Biodiversity Management for Food Security” is an Oxfam Novib programme in Peru, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe supported by IFAD.  According to Gigi Manicad (Senior Programme Manager, Oxfam Novib), more than the 60 per cent of the participants were indigenous women who were actively engaged in seed management and in participatory varietal selection and breeding. (To find out more about this, take a look at the women’s video diaries, where indigenous women speak for themselves)

In 2014, the programme expanded into eight countries, using the innovative Farmer Field Schools method to preserve the seeds of neglected and under-utilised species that are a priority for women and food and nutrition security.

Oxfam Novib has submitted a report on the programme to the upcoming Sixth Session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture with recommendations on farmers’ rights and inclusion of women.

Another joint IFAD-Biodiversity International project was introduced by E.D. Israel Oliver King, the principal scientist at the MSSFR (India) and coordinator of a programme strengthening the resilience of poor rural communities in the face of food insecurity, poverty and climate change through on-farm conservation of local agricultural biodiversity.  He was accompanied by Malliga Seerangan, a recognized custodian farmer and Jaya Eswaran, representative of a women’s self-help group, who described their involvement in varietal selection, community seed banks and value addition.

In my presentation, I put the spotlight on IFAD’s support to indigenous peoples, in particular women and their holistic approach to biodiversity. The link between biodiversity conservation and empowering rural people to improve their lives and strengthen their resilience is a leitmotiv for grant and loan-financed operations, leading to better nutrition and food security, and increased income and economic empowerment. Women are a key link in the chain that starts with seed selection and preservation and ends with putting nutritious food on the table.

In the discussion that followed, one participant asked about the collaboration between the many organizations present. There are indeed so many ongoing partnerships, often invisible to the public eye.  As Ann Tutweiler (Bioversity International) replied, a diagram showing all the different partnerships and collaborations among the organizations present in the room would consist of hundreds of lines running from one organization to the other.

The event concluded with a demonstration and tasting of delicious Indian snacks made out of millet and other neglected species, the final statement about women’s important role in the food chain, leading to the kitchen and filling hungry stomachs.

Related links
Stewards of biodiversity adapt to a changing climate