Ensuring access to quality seed, equitable gender practices

MSU researcher Krista Isaacs is examining the access smallholder farmers have to quality seed and whether these needs are factored into variety development.

Krista IsaacsThere are more than 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide who grow food for their families and, in some cases, have a small amount left to sell at local markets. These growers are the backbone of food production in developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

While much of the world relies on this type of farming for sustenance, there are many production challenges involved, including seed quality.

Krista Isaacs, an assistant professor in the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, is examining the access smallholder farmers have to quality seed and whether these needs are factored into variety development.

Isaac’s background in agroecology and sociology positions her to connect with farmers both agronomically and socially. She studied rural and environmental sociology while earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Montana. There, she saw rural communities were often absent from larger food production conversations.

After college, she joined the Peace Corps and saw firsthand the day-to-day complexities of subsistence farming in Paraguay. That motivated Isaacs to help growers in some of the world’s poorest countries.

“My research is participatory and driven by grower needs rather than research needs,” she said. “There’s a lot of trust that needs to be built for projects like this to succeed. Seed is passed down through families so there are important cultural aspects to consider, but the quality may degrade over time or may not be as suitable to their growing environment in a quickly changing climate. Even if growers want to plant new varieties, the latest seed is very expensive and, in many cases, inaccessible.”

Isaacs is operating mostly in West Africa with sorghum and cowpeas, and in India with rice and wheat. The majority of farmers in these regions are either risk adverse or have limited access to new varieties. Neighboring farmers are a dependable and trustworthy source of high-quality, new seed varieties. Isaacs said large seed companies often aren’t factoring in local agricultural knowledge and region-specific conditions.

In Mali, Isaacs collaborates with a sorghum breeding program that incorporates farmers throughout the process. They have established breeding objectives and chosen plant traits based on farmer feedback and evaluations.

“I’m trying to practice inclusive science,” she said. “It’s really important to take into account the diverse and varied needs of everyone involved.”

She’s particularly interested in the gender dynamics of smallholder farming. While tasked with much of the physical labor, women farmers are often left out of the decision-making process and don’t engage with outreach information. And while both men and women prioritize agronomy, women are more likely to consider nutrition and processing as essential facets of production.

In December 2019, Isaacs conducted surveys in India after gender-inclusive seed production practices were first implemented in a historically conservative area. By becoming seed producers, the women respondents said that they felt valued for their new knowledge and empowered as equal contributors to the household.

“They feel like they are now members of community who are sought for their knowledge,” Isaacs said. “It was quite emotional to hear them. They described how people in their communities now know their names, rather than just the males in their families.”

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