What would feminist GM crops look like?

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?

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7 Responses to “What would feminist GM crops look like?”
  1. Ken Smith

    Isn’t the downside of GM the health and environmental danger it poses to all of us, men and women ? or do you think the genie is already out of the bottle and it is a question of how the technology is used and who controls it ?

  2. Duncan

    I think we have to distinguish between direct health impacts and environmental impacts. It seems to me that an awful lot of people have been eating GM food for a number of years now and there is precious little evidence of any negative health impact. Environmental damage is often discussed in terms of ‘contamination’, but that is a bit circular – the word ‘contamination’ assumes GM is harmful, then concludes that its spread into neighbouring non GM areas is a bad thing! More serious concerns surround the tendency of GM to encourage monoculture, so in countries like Mexico, GM leads to ‘genetic erosion’ as other indigenous varieties die out, and to the huge power it puts in the hands of biotech companies.

  3. gawain kripke

    actually, contamination can be a problem in at least two ways.

    one – if traits contaminate other non-gm (or different) crops. If you’re a farmer – you want to produce what you planted. And you want to the seeds you save to reproduce what you harvested. But if your seeds or plants are different, then you’re not planting what you think you are. Think of a farmer trying to plant flood resistant crops at the bottom of a watershed – near the creek, and finding that another, conflicting gene trait has contaminated his seeds.

    The other way in which contamination could be a problem is if they escape into the environment. In places where there are wild plants that are similar to domesticated ones, the possibility of gene escape is real. and these traits might make the wild plants stronger and harder to control (think weeds). if you give bt resistance to corn, it’s one thing. If you give bt resistance to the weeds, it’s another. For example, in mexico, where maize was first domesticated, there are many wild plants that are similar to maize and that might cross-polinate. It’s not known what impact escape of GM genes might have on these plants and the ecosystem.

    this isn’t necessarily to argue for or against gmos – just to say there are important issues that need exploration and careful management – which might include deciding that using some gmos is not managable.

  4. Duncan

    some examples would be nice Jody. Gawain, doesn’t contamination happen with any crop, or is there something about GM that makes this more of a problem?

  5. Daisy

    Duncan talks about studies focusing on the ‘down side’ of GM. Because of the high level of interest in GM and poverty – countries from all around the world got together to thrash out the pros and cons of technology (including GM.
    400 experts, 5 UN agencies, 30 Governments and 30 representatives from civil society (IAASTD) got together to examine whether biotechnology (specifically genetically engineered crops) could help meet the growing demand for food. The report released in 2008 found on modern Biotechnology :
    – There is a wide range of perspectives on the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern biotechnology, many of which are as yet unknown.
    – Data from some years and some crops indicated a highly variable 10-33% increase in yield in some places and in others yields declined
    – instruments such as patents may drive up costs, restrict experimentation by the
    individual farmer or public researcher while also potentially undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability.
    – GM farmers may become liable for adventitious presence if it causes loss of market certification and income to neighboring organic farmers, and conventional farmers may become liable to GM seed producers if transgenes are detected in their crops.

    I think this study needs to be considered as an important international work that has examined the issues that Duncan raises.

  6. Pamela

    I think that you are right as far as GM save time they are a blessing for poor women farmers.
    My point is that there are structural barriers to the managment of GMs that reinforce the dominant positions.
    No policy benefits both as far as there are structural asymmetries, we have to focus on who, where when.

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