Improved wheat helps reduce women’s workload in rural Afghanistan

Afghan women from wheat farming villages in focus-group interviews as part of Gennovate, a global study on gender and agricultural innovation. Photo: CIMMYT archives

by Katelyn Roett, Mike Listman / October 12, 2017

New research shows improved wheat raises the quality of life for men and women across rural communities in Afghanistan.

recent report from Gennovate, a major study about gender and innovation processes in developing country agriculture, found that improved wheat varieties emerged overwhelmingly among the agricultural technologies most favored by both men and women.

In one striking example from Afghanistan, introducing better wheat varieties alone reduced women’s work burden, showing how the uptake of technology – whether seeds or machinery – can improve the quality of life.

“Local varieties are tall and prone to falling, difficult to thresh, and more susceptible to diseases, including smuts and bunts, which requires special cleaning measures, a task normally done by women,” said Rajiv Sharma, a senior wheat scientist at International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and country liaison officer for CIMMYT in Afghanistan. “Such varieties may comprise mixes of several seed types, including seed of weeds. They also give small harvests for which threshing is typically manual, with wooden rollers and animals, picking up sticks, stones, and even animal excrement that greatly complicates cleaning the grain.”

Both women and men spoke favorably about how improved wheat varieties have eased women’s wheat cleaning work.  “Improved seeds can provide clean wheat,” said an 18-year old woman from one of the study’s youth focus groups in Panali, Afghanistan. “Before, we were washing wheat grains and we exposed it to the sun until it dried. Machineries have [also] eased women’s tasks.”

Finally, Sharma noted that bountiful harvests from improved varieties often lead farmers to use mechanical threshing, which further reduces work and ensures cleaner grain for household foods.

Gennovate: A large-scale, qualitative, comparative snapshot

Conceived as a “bottom-up” idea by a small gender research team of CGIAR in 2013, Gennovate involves 11 past and current CGIAR Research Programs. The project collected data from focus groups and interviews involving more than 7,500 rural men and women in 26 countries during 2014-16.

Some 2,500 women and men from 43 rural villages in 8 wheat-producing countries of Africa and Asia participated in community case studies, as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.

“Across wheat farm settings, both men and women reported a sense of gradual progress,” said Lone Badstue, gender specialist at the CIMMYT and Gennovate project leader. “But women still face huge challenges to access information and resources or have a voice in decision making, even about their own lives.”

According to estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), if women farmers, who comprise 43 per cent of the farm labor force in developing countries, had the same access to resources as men, agricultural output in 34 developing countries would rise by an estimated average of as high as 4 percent.

“Gender-related restrictions such as limitations on physical mobility or social interactions, as well as reproductive work burden, also constitute key constraints on rural women’s capacity to innovate in agriculture,” Badstue explained.

Gender equity drives innovation

The Gennovate-wheat report identified six “positive outlier communities” where norms are shifting towards more equitable gender relations and helping to foster inclusiveness and agricultural innovation. In those communities, men and women from all economic scales reported significantly higher empowerment and poverty reductions than in the 37 other locations. Greater acceptance of women’s freedom of action, economic activity, and civic and educational participation appears to be a key element.

“In contexts where gender norms are more fluid, new agricultural technologies and practices can become game-changing, increasing economic agency for women and men and rapidly lowering local poverty,” Badstue said.

The contributions and presence of CIMMYT in Afghanistan, which include support for breeding research and training for local scientists, date back several decades. In the last five years, the Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan (ARIA) of the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation & Livestock (MAIL) has used CIMMYT breeding lines to develop and make available to farmers seed of 15 high-yielding, disease resistant wheat varieties.

Read the full report “Gender and Innovation Processes in Wheat-Based Systems” here.

GENNOVATE has been supported by generous funding from the World Bank; the CGIAR Gender & Agricultural Research Network; the government of Mexico through MasAgro; Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ); numerous CGIAR Research Programs; and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

 

Asian scientists join cross-continental training to restrain wheat blast disease

Gary Peterson (center), explaining wheat blast screening to trainees inside the USDA-ARS Level-3 Biosafety Containment facility. Photo: CIMMYT archives

With backing from leading international donors and scientists, nine South Asia wheat researchers recently visited the Americas for training on measures to control a deadly and mysterious South American wheat disease that appeared suddenly on their doorstep in 2016.

Known as “wheat blast,” the disease results from a fungus that infects the wheat spikes in the field, turning the grain to inedible chaff. First sighted in Brazil in the mid-1980s, blast has affected up to 3 million hectares in South America and held back the region’s wheat crop expansion for decades.

In 2016, a surprise outbreak in seven districts of Bangladesh blighted wheat harvests on some 15,000 hectares and announced blast’s likely spread throughout South Asia, a region where rice-wheat cropping rotations cover 13 million hectares and nearly a billion inhabitants eat wheat.

“Most commercially grown wheat in South Asia is susceptible to blast,” said Pawan Singh, head of wheat pathology at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), an organization whose breeding lines are used by public research programs and seed companies in over 100 countries. “The disease poses a grave threat to food and income security in the region and yet is new and unknown to most breeders, pathologists and agronomists there.”

As part of an urgent global response to blast and to acquaint South Asian scientists with techniques to identify and describe the pathogen and help develop resistant varieties, Singh organized a two-week workshop in July. The event drew wheat scientists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Mexico, taking them from U.S. greenhouses and labs to fields in Bolivia, where experimental wheat lines are grown under actual blast infections to test for resistance.

The training began at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Foreign Disease-Weed Science Research facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where participants learned about molecular marker diagnosis of the causal fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum (MoT). Sessions also covered greenhouse screening for blast resistance and blast research conducted at Kansas State University. Inside Level-3 Biosafety Containment greenhouses from which no spore can escape, participants observed specialized plant inoculation and disease evaluation practices.

The group then traveled to Bolivia, where researchers have been fighting wheat blast for decades and had valuable experience to share with the colleagues from South Asia.

“In Bolivia, workshop participants performed hands-on disease evaluation and selection in the field—an experience quite distinct from the precise lab and greenhouse practicums,” said Singh, describing the groups time at the Cooperativa Agropecuaria Integral Colonias Okinawa (CAICO), Bolivia, experiment station.

Other stops in Bolivia included the stations of the Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal (INIAF), Asociación de Productores de Oleaginosas y Trigo (ANAPO), Centro de Investigación Agrícola Tropical (CIAT), and a blast-screening nursery in Quirusillas operated by INIAF-CIMMYT.

“Scientists in South Asia have little or no experience with blast disease, which mainly attacks the wheat spike and is completely different from the leaf diseases we normally encounter,” said Prem Lal Kashyap, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research (IIWBR) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). “To score a disease like blast in the field, you need to evaluate each spike and check individual spikelets, which is painstaking and labor-intensive, but only thus can you assess the intensity of disease pressure and identify any plants that potentially carry genes for resistance.”

After the U.S.A. and Bolivia, the South Asia scientists took part in a two-week pathology module of an ongoing advanced wheat improvement course at CIMMYT’s headquarters and research stations in Mexico, covering topics such as the epidemiology and characterization of fungal pathogens and screening for resistance to common wheat diseases.

The knowledge gained will allow participants to refine screening methods in South Asia and maintain communication with the blast experts they met in the Americas, according to Carolina St. Pierre who co-ordinates the precision field-based phenotyping platforms of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.

“They can now also raise awareness back home concerning the threat of blast and alert farmers, who may then take preventative and remedial actions,” Singh added. “The Bangladesh Ministry of Agriculture has already formed a task force through the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC) to help develop and distribute blast resistant cultivars and pursue integrated agronomic control measures.”

The latest course follows on from a hands-on training course in February 2017 at the Wheat Research Center (WRC) of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), Dinajpur, in collaboration with CIMMYT, Cornell University, and Kansas State University.

Participants in the July course received training from a truly international array of instructors, including Kerry Pedley and Gary Peterson, of USDA-ARS, and Christian Cruz, of Kansas State University; Felix Marza, of Bolivia’s Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal (INIAF); Pawan Singh and Carolina St. Pierre, of CIMMYT; Diego Baldelomar, of ANAPO; and Edgar Guzmán, of CIAT-Bolivia.

Funding for the July event came from the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), CIMMYT, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (through the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia), the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.