GM and Gender

WEN at Gender and the Politics of Technology

The relationship between GM and gender is a really complex one –  the GM debate in itself is huge and there will be a whole BTF session devoted to that very topic in November, so this will be a brief overview of what we consider to be the key issues.

As a starting point, GM crops will affect men and women differently, in different times and places, depending on the gendered divisions of labour (e.g. cash cropping in sub-Saharan Africa but homestead production in South Asia) socio-cultural norms and the political economy of each place. So while GM will affect men and women differently depending on an array of factors, I’m just going to highlight a few of the ways in which GM has the potential to disproportionately negatively affect rural women in developing countries.

Main themes

–            Biodiversity and women’s role in and knowledge of preserving seeds

–           GM and agro-chemicals

–           Control and ownership

Main questions

–           Who controls this technology?

–           Who benefits from it?

–           What are the forces or perceived needs that shape this tech—how could it be different?

The GM companies’ rhetoric is about over-population: (due to reach 9.3 billion by 2050) and increasing meat and dairy consumption in China and India as their middle classes expand, leading to higher food prices such as we saw in 2008. How are we going to feed the world? The FAO and OECD argue that we need to increase production by 60% over the next 40 years.  Their argument is that we need GM in our toolbox to meet these vast challenges.

They would argue that women are potentially the main beneficiaries of GM, since in many places it tends to be women who produce food for families. They could benefit from ‘better’ varieties: increased yield, less disease and pests, improved plant characteristics, e.g. more nutritious ‘Golden Rice’. They argue that decreased production costs leads to lower food prices and this will help low-income women to feed their families.

Women are not a homogenous group- there will be some women who welcome GM. There is, however, a growing movement of rural women who are speaking out very strongly against GM and I would like to highlight a few of their reasons for concern.

1.         Even in places where women are involved in cash cropping, women’s lack of access to land, seeds, tools, credit and extension services as well as dynamic and shifting gender roles will affect the adoption of technology. Worldwide, women receive only about 5 % of agricultural extension services and own about 2 % of land worldwide. It is not a simple case of technology trickling down to those who could potentially benefit the most from it.

2.         Even then, if we go back a step further, it is important to ask in whose interest this biotechnology has been developed? Not through any bottom up, participatory research process where women’s views and needs as food producers are taken into account. This is a top-down process whose research agenda is decided by predominantly white males in developed countries. Research is targeted towards commercial agriculture in industrialised countries, not subsistence oriented farms in developing countries. Even if more women were involved in biotechnology firms and had some input into their research agendas, this would not necessarily mean that the end product would better benefit women in developing countries.

Biodiversity and women’s role in and knowledge of preserving seeds

There is little evidence to suggest that women are inherently more conservationist than men. However as a result of gendered divisions of labour, women and men hold different knowledges related to biodiversity. In many cultures it is women who choose, store and preserve seed to meet many different needs- food, fuel, fodder and medicinal purposes. One plant must do many things- provide grain but also the straw which is useful for weaving. A plant can have many uses and must be well adapted to the specific agroecological terrain in which they are growing- for example drought or pest resistant varieties. In many places women’s responsibilities for household food production have increased as a result of male outmigration, pandemics such as HIV/AIDS and war.

Control and Ownership

Given women’s vital role in food production and seed saving in many developing countries, it is widely accepted among farmer, small scale producer and peasant movements across the world that patenting and the prohibition of saving seed would severely impact the lives of subsistence oriented families, especially women.

An example from the Pesticide Action Network for Asia and the Pacific, India- Green Revolution experience

“We used to wait in long queues to buy ‘packet’ seeds every year during sowing season,” she recalls. “The problem with ‘packet’ (hybrid) seeds,” she adds, “is that they cannot be saved from year to year.” Community members in Kulumedoddi report that changing cultivation practices over the years resulted in a loss of indigenous varieties in the area. As farmers reverted to the use of hybrid varieties, seed conservation practices slowly began to disappear. This affected the food security of community members, most of whom are subsistence farmers cultivating crops for family consumption. “In the olden days, there used to be many different seed varieties. If a six-month crop failed, we had a fast-maturing, two-month crop that we could grow for our families,” explains Shivrudraiah, a noted community leader in the area. This dependency on external sources for inputs of farming had left her and her family vulnerable to fluctuating markets, weakening their livelihood security.

Essentially the patenting of seeds entails the prohibition of saving seed nearby because crops can cross-pollinate with those from adjacent fields. The resulting seeds may carry the patented gene, so a person could be profiting from the GM seed without paying royalties to the company.

It is women who have saved, stored and preserved seed for generations; GM threatens to undermine and undervalue their traditional knowledge with a scientific, rational and ‘better’ approach to food production. For many rural women it is yet another manifestation of a patriarchal capitalist system which has served to undervalue and exploit women’s reproductive labour.

GM and agro-chemicals

Pro GM people might argue: “look at Bt corn: it has been modified to produce its own insecticide. This means that farmers don’t have to a) buy expensive insecticides and b) less insecticides in the ecosystem is good. Even if Monarch butterflies are harmed, it is better than the blanket application of broad spectrum insecticides. This rhetoric paints GM as the good guy option against chemicals.

However- not all GM crops are the same- others are modified to be herbicide resistant- a few weeks ago the USDA quietly announced its decision to deregulate (approve) Bayer CropScience’s newest genetically engineered soybean, designed to be resistant to the herbicide, isoxaflutole. The EPA has designated isoxaflutole a “probable human carcinogen.”

Children are more vulnerable to toxins from agro-chemicals, as are women at certain times in their reproductive cycles. Not only does this mean that women are at a greater risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals than men, but given women’s role as primary care givers, they will also be burdened with the tasks of caring for sick children and the elderly,  further adding to women’s unpaid reproductive labour. This is particularly worrying given that studies of US agriculture have shown that farmers using herbicide resistant GM crops are using between 2 and 5 times as much herbicide as farmers growing non GM crops.

To conclude:

Question of control and ownership: while at the moment livelihoods and food securities are in many places are in the hands of women, GM seeds threaten to take control and ownership of that security, which many rural women see as potentially making them more vulnerable to debt, to hunger and to illness. Instead of seeing GM as the answer to feed 10 billion people, or as simple improved crop varieties, rural woman are seeing it as yet another link in the food production chain which companies would like control over, and a form of undermining and disrespecting their knowledge and expertise with regards to crop varieties and their ability to feed their families.

I’d like to finish with a look at what rural women in developing countries are saying:

Asian Rural Women’s Coalition:

“This present imperialist-dominated economic and political processes promote corporate control over all aspects of food and fibre production and have created monopoly control over land, seas and marine resources, water, livelihoods, seeds and genetic biodiversity….Rural women are disproportionately and negatively affected, suffering increased gender based violence, hunger and malnutrition, forced evictions and trafficking.”

The Women’s Declaration from the Nyeleni conference on Food Sovereignty in Mali in 2007 called for a rejection of “capitalist and patriarchal institutions that conceive of food, water, land, people’s knowledge and women’s bodies as mere goods.”

Tower Hamlets Community Seed Library

Given this context, it has become ever more important to save and exchange seeds, especially traditional or rare varieties. At Women’s Environmental Network we have taken this on board and created a seed library for the Tower Hamlets Food Growing Network, where food growers can swap seeds and share knowledge. This is particularly exciting because Tower Hamlets is so diverse; there is the potential to create a seed library with varieties from all over the world. We think this is really important and exciting- especially as a way of building solidarity between food producers and seed savers in the Global South and North.

Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) is the only organisation in the UK that has worked consistently to make the links between women’s lives and environmental issues. For more than two decades we have had a track record of being the first to raise awareness on important issues overlooked in ‘the mainstream’, especially those concerning women’s health and waste reduction.

WEN’s mission is to make the connections between women’s health and wellbeing and environmental issues. We want to inspire women to make environmentally informed choices about health. WEN aims to empower women to become agents of change in their families, networks and society and to participate equally in an environmentally sustainable future.

Connie Hunter is a recent graduate of Politics and Development Studies from SOAS. She focused on environmental issues and wrote her dissertation about the need for a political agroecology with specific reference to gender and farming practices in developing countries. She has been a volunteer at the Women’s Environmental Network for about 2 years.

Posts on this blog represent the views of their authors, not of Breaking the Frame, unless otherwise noted.

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