"Farming is not gender neutral" - Q & A with Ann Tutwiler

Ann Tutwiler
Ann Tutwiler is Director General of Bioversity International. Photo: Bioversity International.
Mar 2015

On the eve of a major conference on closing the gender gap in farming under climate change, we catch up with Ann Tutwiler, Director General of Bioversity International and a speaker at the conference.

Hi Ann. You’re participating in a forthcoming conference organised by CCAFS, Future Earth, and the International Social Science Council (ISSC) on the topic of ‘Closing the gender gap in farming under climate change’. Why is this issue important to the work of Bioversity International, and to you personally?

Ann Tutwiler - Farming is not gender neutral; both men and women have a role to play.  The 2 billion smallholder farmers who live in developing countries – often women – produce the majority of the world’s food, yet most live in poverty. Unfortunately, women farmers tend to be more at risk from climate change than men as they often lack the means to cope with the harmful effects of climate change. They tend to have fewer assets and less access to information, improved varieties and technology, so they tend to be especially vulnerable to climate change. A recent FAO report calculated that if women had the same access to productive resources as men they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 per cent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4 per cent. This could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 per cent.

How is climate change interacting with the gender gap in agriculture? Do the effects of a changing climate affect men and women differently? What about strategies to adapt to climate change?

Ann Tutwiler - I think that climate change interacts with the gender gap in agriculture to the extent that women and men are growing different crops, raise different animals and at the same time have different and often unequal access to irrigation, land and financial resources.

In some instances, women may be raising the crops and the animals that in the future will provide more options for addressing climate change. Women are growing some crops, for example minor millets in India, that may be more drought tolerant than some of the crops that men are growing. Bioversity International’s work funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in India is transforming the lives of marginalized rural women in southern India by helping them to grow more nutritious food for their families and communities, in some cases increasing their yields by 70% and creating small milling enterprises run by women.

In Uganda’s Kiboga district, women often raise goats where men might raise cattle, but you find out that in a particular environment, goats are actually a better option. But how do you introduce a different animal into a production system, when there is an inherent cultural perception of that animal or that crop, and whose role is it to raise that animal or crop?

There’s a large body of research on the gender gap in agriculture, spanning several decades. Tomorrow's conference aims to turn knowledge into action. What do you think are the main priorities for action that could make a difference? What progress is being made?

Ann Tutwiler - Let me give you an example. I just came back from India, where I attended a multi-state training workshop for smallholder farmers. Four hundred farmers brought and shared knowledge on an array of diverse crops that they’re growing, and received training on how to register their varieties in the Indian system. There was not a single woman at this workshop. But when I asked our researchers who they were working with in the villages, they said the women, they grow the crops. There is a cultural issue – women don’t travel outside their villages and thus can’t benefit from this kind of training.

We’re starting to make a lot of progress in terms of the approach of the research community and recognition that thinking about these gender issues is really important, and thinking how to make sure that we are empowering women as much as possible in a particular situation, but I think we still have a long way to go on ensuring that women have access to training, to new knowledge and this is not possible through research projects. These are deep cultural norms.

The research community needs to be thinking more about some technologies that it perceives as gender neutral, for example, breeding traits into certain crops. The selection of traits to breed into crops will have a different impact on men and women. People in the breeding community need to think more about who will be growing the crop, than just focus in agronomic traits.

As researchers behind our Seeds for Needs initiative often tell me, yield is not the only important thing. Is it resistant to pests and diseases? How can the research be used for food or animal feed? How will it taste when cooked one way rather than another? All of these things are important and have very gendered impacts and yet these aspects are probably not on the top of the list for many researchers. The research for development community has some serious thinking to do on how to make this gap smaller.

In India, our researchers have been working on making the minor millet popular again – it used to be what one could call an orphan or neglected crop. They asked – why aren’t these crops grown anymore when they are very nutritious and drought-tolerant? What we found was that women were having to hand-mill these millets for hours and therefore didn’t want to grow these crops. If you can address that problem, which we have demonstrated, then you can increase the production of a highly nutritious and drought-tolerant crop.

The gender gap in farming, and the impacts of that gap, differ in different places depending on other factors such as local laws and customs, or differential access to resources and training, as well as intersecting with other inequalities. How can organisations with an international remit like Bioversity International or Future Earth tackle this kind of challenge that demands detailed local knowledge and action?

Ann Tutwiler - Information can have a big impact. FAO’s 2011 publication State of Food and Agriculture - Women in agriculture: closing the gender gap for development  underlined the potential increase in yield if women had increased resources and the resulting impact on poverty reduction – this was a mind-set change for a lot of people because it communicated that it is not just about women’s empowerment, it is about really hard economic facts.

If women have more resources, more will be produced. That kind of information needs to be translated into what it would mean for an individual country, and what that would mean in terms of the economic benefit. These numbers appeal to finance ministers who want to know the quantitative benefit to the finances of a country – something that would reduce the poverty rate as well. They ask themselves: Will it reduce the need for economic growth? Will it increase feeding programmes?

I think that one role that an international research institution can play is to actually get that research down to a country level. Gender equality in agriculture is not just a good and decent thing to have and it is not enough to change policy if policy-makers can’t see the hard data.

How important is women’s own agency in closing the gender gap in farming?  

Ann Tutwiler - A lot of this is at the personal household level and it is a transformation that requires both women and men to be involved and work on changing their behaviours and perceptions. Men are essential in this; after all the gender gap in farming often favours them and not their wives, daughters and mothers.

I do think that women’s cooperatives and associations give women a role and a voice in larger community and some economic status and some power to start changing attitudes. Bioversity International is working with such cooperatives in different countries – from India to Bolivia to Mali.

Ms Nagaveni Hegde – the leader of Matrabhoomi Women's Group really inspired me: she said that “Unity is important in the group, otherwise the group will not survive. We should not forget that. Unity is strengthened when a clear message is shared that through the group we can achieve more than on our own”.