Modern Biotechnologies in Agriculture:
Impact on women in the South
Helen Zweifel
Keywords:  Ghana; Colombia; Gender; Socio-economic impact; Cassava; Cacao.
Correct citation: Zweifel, H. (1995), "Modern Biotechnologies in Agriculture: Impact on women in the South." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 23, p. 10-13.

In Africa, Asia and Latin America, women are mainly the major or sole providers of their family's livelihood. Modern biotechnology in agriculture, like any other technology, will have an impact on the position of women, and their capability to provide food for the family. Although sufficient research data have been collected on the economic contribution of women to agriculture, no studies have been carried out on the impact of modern biotechnology on gender relations so far. In this article, Helen Zweifel opens the discussion.

The impact of biotechnology depends not just on the characteristics of the technology itself, but also on the context in which it is developed, the interests of those who introduce it, and the situation of those whom it will affect. In the analysis of the complex relationship between development, technology and gender, the concept of autonomy will be used. Autonomy is defined here as control over one's own life. It includes an economic, political, physical and ideological dimension: equal access to, and control over the means of production; political influence and self­determination; full control over ones own body; and the right to ones own identity. Therefore, in an assessment of the impact of modern biotechnology on women, and to stimulate successful technology development and transfer to strengthen the autonomy of women, two crucial questions need to be raised: who controls the new technologies, and for whose benefit?; and, will modern biotechnology help women to gain more autonomy or is it more likely that biotechnology will undermine women's autonomy? Cases of the potential impact of modern biotechnological applications in two different crops on the autonomy of women will be presented.

An export crop: Cacao
Cacao is the second most important agricultural export commodity in tropical regions. Current biotechnological research on cacao, which is dominated by multinational companies from the USA, Europe and Japan, aims at creating higher­yielding cacao plants, allowing developing countries to produce more cocoa, and the multinational companies to obtain raw material more cheaply and flexibly. A second important biotechnological development is research on high­quality cocoa substitutes from other sources. This enables a gradual elimination of the use of cacao beans for the production of chocolate. Both developments are likely to intensify competition and to lead to drastically decreasing cocoa prices, which would have severe consequences for cacao­producing countries. Half of the world's cacao crop is produced by smallholders. Poor countries such as Ghana and Colombia are highly dependent on cacao as a major export crop. These countries, however, lack the financial or scientific capacity to build up their own biotechnological research which could compete with research carried out by multinationals.

Women in cacao production in Ghana
n southern Ghana, the production of cacao as a cash crop is dominated by men. While the introduction of commercial cacao production in the last century brought new material benefits for the people, especially the elite, it harmed subsistence production. Within the household, it resulted in a new sexual division of labour and changed the way of sharing responsibilities. In the new system, men controlled the cash­crop production. With the sale of cacao, men were paid large sums of cash, which they invested in cacao trees, housing, education for their children, or they spent it on palm wine or other "bachelors" consumption goods. Access to and control of land for cacao production was commercialized and traditional land relations were corrupted. Fertile land was planted with cacao trees on a permanent basis, which resulted in the privatization and monopolization of common lands. Women's rights to common land as members of society were cut, leaving them with less and less fertile land for subsistence farming. Since the 1970s, the price paid to cacao producers has dropped drastically. Since cacao is the most important cash crop the decline in its profitability hit hard. Many men migrated to the cities in search of cash income, however, without losing their privileged access to land and other resources. Declining prices and migration of men have therefore resulted in women being placed in a disadvantaged position to cope with the exigencies of daily life. Besides subsistence agriculture in a degraded environment, other economic activities of women, such as producing crops to sell at the market, and other kinds of trade and paid labour, became indispensable for the survival of most families. The burden on women as providers for their families increased, while the social structure eroded and the environment degraded. Increasing competition and lower world market prices as a consequence of the application of modern biotechnologies will accelerate the current trends in Ghana towards general impoverishment, migration of men, and the heavy burden that women must carry. In this way, women in southern Ghana will indirectly, but drastically, be affected by biotechnological innovations.

Female farmers in Colombia
In Colombia, women play a prominent role in small­scale cacao production. Inheritance laws allow women to own land and cacao trees, and it is not uncommon to find women as the sole landowner in a nuclear family. Access to and control over land gives women a certain degree of autonomy. In traditional agriculture, where cacao, coffee, plantains and other crops are intercropped with maize and other food crops, the work is often done by women alone. The perennial cacao trees offer them a kind of economic and social security, since even ageing trees produce at least something. Female farmers may lose their independence if agricultural methods and crops were to change, or the producer prices deteriorate. High­yielding or more resistant cacao tree varieties could in principle benefit small­scale farmers. Yet both promoters and the critics of modern biotechnology agree that small­scale impoverished farmers are most likely to be adversely affected. The World Bank notes that generally new technologies are difficult and expensive to apply on small­scale farms, and consequently small­scale farmers are likely to be displaced by large­scale plantations. Future cacao production will be concentrated in newly industrialized countries such as Brazil and Malaysia. In these countries, advanced technologies are more easily applied, and large­scale plantations are more common. Female farmers in Colombia will be affected by crop substitutes and falling producer prices, and lose their "social security": the perennial cacao trees. Women's economic role and status change as a function of deteriorating economic conditions and cocoa prices. There are very few alternatives open to women who generally have, even compared to poor men, very limited access to land, credits or other resources, and lack decision­making power. Besides subsistence agriculture, their only way to secure or supplement their income is through various small­scale activities in the informal sector, such as petty trading of either processed or prepared food products, and resale of commodities. This process of relatively greater impoverishment of women, which has been called the "feminization of poverty", continues, also because it is combined with a male bias in agricultural research, extension and development policies. In the present global power structure, and the present focus of biotechnological research and application, modern biotechnologies will further widen the gap between men and women, and rich and poor people.

A food crop: Cassava
Cassava is the most important food crop for 500 million people in tropical regions. Because cassava tolerates drought and low soil fertility, it is a major food crop produced by small­scale farmers in marginal areas with poor soil conditions and an unfavourable climate. Cassava is in many ways a "women's crop": in most regions of Africa, Latin America and Asia, women are the main producers of cassava, and are almost entirely responsible for its processing. In Latin America, for instance, men are responsible for cutting and clearing the plots, but the women decide which variety to plant, where and when to plant it. Women use several criteria to come to these decisions, such as varietal differences concerning growth, resistance, yield and taste, peculiarities of the terrain, the distance of the plot from their homes, and shading from the forests. They usually intercrop cassava with maize and other crops, but even when it is grown alone, there will be variation: bitter or sweet varieties, those that can be eaten fresh, and those that need processing. An illustrative example of women's active role in improving cassava cultivation is found in the Amazons. In an informal system for conservation and expansion of biodiversity of cassava which extends over hundreds of kilometres, women play a central role. When a woman gets married and moves to her husband's house, she takes her mother's cassava varieties with her. She continues to test and experiment with old and new varieties. Sisters, sisters­in­law, mothers and daughters exchange cassava varieties and discuss their qualities, planting, or cooking potential. In spite of its importance as a food crop, cassava has been overlooked to a large extent by modern biotechnology because of its negligible importance to the industrialized world. The most important institutes that carry out research on cassava are the international agricultural research centres CIAT and IITA, as well as the Cassava Biotechnology Network (CBN). In the work of CBN, attention is explicitly paid to women, but rather because of reasons of efficiency than of increasing women's autonomy. As is stated in CBN­Newsletter No. 2 (1993): "When the different roles and needs of men and women are considered, and when both are included in the design and testing of solutions to their problems, the resulting technology is more appropriate and more rapidly adopted. Research on genetic improvement of cassava concentrates on the reduction of the cyanide content, a natural toxicity in cassava. It is doubtful whether this research priority is in women's interest. In October 1993, CBN­researchers went to villagers in Tanzania to inquire about local needs. The village women interviewed were interested in new processing methods to improve nutritional quality for home consumption, and to increase the properties of cassava flour in such a way that it can be used in baked products which are to be sold on the market. Women themselves did not mention the cyanogen content as a major problem. They actually appreciate the 'bitterness' as a natural repellent for insects, rats, monkeys and pigs. Therefore, they grow 'bitter' as well as 'sweet' varieties on their cassava fields. Human cassava toxicity, an argument often mentioned in favour of lowering cyanide content, is rare in proportion to overall use of the crops. Studies show that it occurs only under specific circumstances. For example in Nigeria in 1989, deaths linked to lethal levels of cyanide were actually caused by impoverishment and acute food shortage. The demand for gari (dried processed cassava) as a cheap food product rose dramatically, which made women reduce the soaking time used to leach cyanide from cassava from one week to less than two days. This apparently resulted in lethal cyanide levels. Hunger and poverty therefore are the main causes for the toxicity of the cassava products, and not the so­called 'primitive' technology of women or high cyanide levels in cassava. Research on genetically lowering cyanogen levels in cassava is therefore not carried out primarily to support women. It is rather to open new markets for cassava, for which the reputation of cassava as a safe food product needs to be enhanced. For example, low cyanogen levels could benefit cassava starch factories, since they will reduce the environmental pollution they usually cause. The development of cassava starch factories could trigger the development of larger, market­oriented cassava production. This production could come under control of men, as has happened with other cash crops. This process is likely to be stimulated by the continuing male bias in agricultural extension and services. In this scenario, men will take over cassava production, cutting women's income from the sale of processed goods on the local market. Small­scale cassava production, and with it women and their knowledge of cassava cultivation and biodiversity, might be further marginalized, resulting in an undermining of women's autonomy.

Women's involvement
Women have always experimented, and improved farming and processing methods of cassava. Many examples of women's innovation, local methods for technical improvements of cassava processing and the quality of the final products can be found in practice as well as in literature. Therefore, the exchange among women of technology and knowledge developed by women would be a more sensitive step in the improvement of women's autonomy than expensive and risky advanced technology such as genetic engineering. Research should start with the acknowledgement of women's knowledge and achievements. This implies the need to change national and international research and agricultural policy in favour of women's possibilities and capacities. If women are involved in the whole technology innovation process, it is possible for technical innovations from outside to function well without harming their interests. In Ecuador's coastal province Manabi, for example, starch processing technology was adapted to the small­scale infrastructure and collective operations of local women's cassava­processing associations, especially created for this purpose. One of the women's associations wanted to expand their activities further and sought the assistance of a local cassava farmers/processors union, in order to build a new processing plant incorporating new technologies. The women involved set their own priorities and collectively appropriate capital­intensive technology.

Changing the priorities
The control over modern biotechnology will be further concentrated in the hands of a few private companies, and research will be directed towards the interests of industrialized countries and large­scale agriculture, more than of small­scale (female and male) farmers in the South. Since the needs of the latter are ignored, they are likely to be adversely affected by advances in biotechnology. The two cases on cacao show that application of modern biotechnology is likely further to weaken women's autonomy. Public research by national and international agricultural research centres is almost negligible in comparison to private research. Public research also generally bypasses women and their needs, or, as in the case of cassava, approaches women for efficiency reasons to diffuse technical innovations more rapidly. In this way, women are instrumentalized to stimulate acceptance of modern biotechnology. There are no easy answers to the question of what kind of technology will promote the autonomy of women in rural societies. In any case, acknowledgement of women's autonomy leads to the logical conclusion that women must play a key role as decision makers in designing the direction of research. WomenÕs participation both before and during the introduction of new technology is of central importance. Their participation should go beyond consultation aiming to implement outside innovation more easily, and include shared responsibility, trust and co­operation. Only if conditions are changed in such a way that women are able to set their own priorities, could new technologies probably benefit, instead of harm women.
Helen Zweifel

Group for Development and Environment, University of Bern, Hallerstrasse 12, CH­3012 Bern, Switzerland. Phone (+41) 31 631 88 22; Fax (+41) 31 631 85 44; E­mail zweifel@giub.unibe.ch.

J. Bukh (1979), The Village Woman in Ghana. Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies.

CBN (1993), Village Perspectives on Cassava and Implications for Biotechnology Research: A CBN case study on the Lake Zone of Northern Tanzania. Cali: CBN/CIAT.

S.V. Poats (1993), "Women and Cassava in Latin America". CBN Newsletter, vol.1, no.2.

A. Rubbo (1975), "The Spread of Capitalism in Rural Columbia: Effects on poor women". In: Ranya R. Reiter (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York/London: Monthly Review Press.

World Bank (1991), Agricultural Biotechnology: The next Green Revolution?. World Bank Technical Paper, no. 133.

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