Feminization of Maize Agricultural Production
in Southwest China
Yiching Song
Keywords:  China Peoples Republic, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Gender, Maize, Plant breeding.
Correct citation: Song, Y. (1999), "Feminization of Maize Agricultural Production in Southwest China." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 37, p. 6-9.

In China, major economic transformations are changing the structure of agriculture and households. Under these transitions, male migration from agriculture is resulting in the feminization of agriculture. This is also occurring in the southwestern provinces, where the maize technology development and adoption of the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (CIMMYT) has been assessed by the author. Her main conclusion confirms that the role of women is central, not optional, in addressing food security, and the conservation and management of biodiversity. Hence, women should be well integrated into agricultural research and development.

China is experiencing two transitions: from a centrally controlled economy to a market based economy and from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one. With the rapidly changing national economic policies, the emerging market in China puts a heavy demand on the country’s labour force. However, mostly male farmers are migrating to the urban areas. This male migration model in China is determined by two major factors. First, the traditional patrilineal ideology perpetuated by society, the household, and even women themselves maintains women’s inferior status in terms of resources and opportunities. Second, the current structure and status of rural households makes it very difficult for all members of a rural family to migrate because it is almost impossible to get a permanent residence permit in the cities. As a consequence, most of the male migrants become temporary labourers in cities. Nevertheless, land and agriculture remain a kind of insurance and retreat for those who venture into the cities and their households.
While both men and women have always been engaged in agriculture, traditionally the men’s role has been predominant, since women are also engaged in domestic work. However, the new social context has shaped the transformation and reconstruction of the gender division of labour within the households, from "the men till and the women weave" to "the women till and the men work in industry". This current reinterpretation of the traditional model of the gender division of labour in China could be described as: "men control the outside world, women the inner". The only difference is that women’s ‘inner world’ is extending to agriculture, which is considered an inferior profession, but at the same time also a valuable retreat for industrial workers.
The new patterns in the gender division of labour have led to a feminization of agriculture all over the country, whereby around 80 per cent of the rural labour force are women. This is most predominant in the poorer and more marginal areas. Women comprise more than 85 per cent of the agricultural labour force in the three south-western provinces, Guangxi, Yunnan and Guizhou. The percentage of women labourers in some remote mountainous areas is even higher, at around 90 per cent.

CIMMYT’s programme in south-western China
At present 80 million of China’s population remain in absolute poverty. About a third of those in poverty live in the south-western province, and most of them in the remote uplands. Maize in the Southwest is the staple food of thousands of poor farmers; 96 per cent of the maize grown is used for local consumption. Land holdings are tiny, averaging about 0.12 hectares per household. These largely covers the limestone mountain regions, which constitute unreliable, rain-fed risky areas. Given this risk it is not surprising that the adoption of maize hybrids is only about 45 per cent as compared to 80 per cent of the national average, because hybrids maize are generally grown in more favourable and high-input agriculture.
With the general objective of increasing maize production and productivity, and the reduction of poverty, CIMMYT, of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), started a collaborative programme with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science (CAAS) for high yielding maize breeding in the early 1980s. The programme covers the three provinces Guangxi, Yunan and Guizhou, with a population of about 97 million, of which about 86 per cent live in rural areas.
Maize is one of the ‘controlled crops’ in China, which means the government identifies the crop as essential to national food security. Therefore all breeding efforts are geared toward increasing productivity, mainly through the development and diffusion of several high-yielding hybrids, especially single-cross F1 hybrids. This is regardless of the highly diverse farming systems all over China.
CIMMYT’s programme mainly involves the provision of improved germplasm to be used in plant breeding by CAAS. So far more than 2000 entries of improved germplasm have been transferred from CIMMYT to the three provinces. 80 per cent of their current modern varieties (MVs) are CIMMYT related germplasm and 73 per cent of the total local releases are based on CIMMYT germplasm. The hybrids are grown mainly in the relatively flat and irrigated areas, while the improved open-pollinated varieties (OPVs) are mainly adopted in less favourable rain-fed areas. OPVs are populations improved through mass selection, and form the products of the most basic method of traditional plant breeding.
In principle, CIMMYT does not produce finished varieties. Yet several populations like Tuxpeño 1 and Tuxpeño PB-C15, which were originally constituents for variety improvement and hybrid combination, have made their way directly to farmer’s fields. These populations have been disseminated rapidly, mainly through farmer-to-farmer seed exchange, or the so-called informal seeds system. Tuxpeños have become dominant varieties in the less favoured, low potential areas, with an annual adoption rate of about 15 per cent. Tuxpeño varieties have contributed considerably to subsistence agriculture and household food security in the poor mountainous areas, largely due to their adaptability and relatively high yields.
However, after being used continually for several years, out-crossing with landraces and other OPVs has become a serious problem, leading to the degeneration of Tuxpeño 1, as well as other local varieties. Tuxpeño’s degeneration has led to decreases in yield, lodging resistance and drought tolerance, which are crucial in this area. Farmers have a great need for the restoration and improvement of Tuxpeño. However, the government has ignored the farmers’ requests since Tuxpeño is an OPV and is not in line with the state’s research priority of high yields, which mandates only hybrid varieties. Furthermore, since public institutions are also undergoing privatization, they prioritize the generation of income. In this respect, the resource-poor farmers are not good clients.

Farmers’ initiatives in maize regeneration
Obviously, there are big gaps between the multiple needs of farmers and the interests of the government. The government continues to supply homogeneous hybrid technology for yield increment and profits. However, the heterogeneous needs of farmers in various environments and increasingly diversified agriculture further stimulate the development and function of the indigenous knowledge networks of farmers. The assessment of CIMMYT’s programme reveals that farmers are making efforts to maintain and improve their preferred improved OPVs and landraces. Owing to the feminization of agriculture and lack of government support, local seed selection and breeding are mainly done by women. The following comparative case studies illustrate this development.
Zhichen village has a harsh environment; rugged limestone covers 90 per cent of the area. Farmers plant maize in minute pockets of soil in steep mountain slopes and between rocks in the flat fields. Flooding is a serious problem due to calcareous rocks; rain easily floods the land and washes away the crops. There are no roads and access to the market is very limited. There is a registered labour force of 1,100 men and women in the village, of which 620 have migrated. Among the migrants, 88 per cent are men and the rest are young women. As a result old people, children, the sick and women are left behind. It is the women who are taking care of the family and the farm. More than 90 per cent of the households are headed by women.
The village has about 140 hectares of mountain land, all planted with maize. It is the traditional staple crop and the only grain food crop. Farmers eat maize porridge every meal and depend on this crop for their survival. Production and the post-harvest activities, like processing, storing and preparing of food are all done by women using traditional domestic technologies.
Tuxpeño 1 was introduced into Zhichen through farmers’ own seed exchange system in the early 1980s and it now covers more than 90 per cent of the total area. From 20 pre-existing maize varieties, now Zhichen farmers only plant Tuxpeño 1 along with three other local varieties. Tuxpeño 1 is most popular among the villagers due to its compatibility with the environment and relatively high yields. The other three favourite local varieties, with local names, Local Sticky, Local White and Duan 1, are maintained to complement the villagers’ multiple needs, including environmental adaptationand ceremonial use. However, Tuxpeño 1 and three other local varieties have greatly degenerated in the last 15 years.
Despite Tuxpeño’s popularity, the Zhichen villagers unexpectedly, did not do much to maintain this variety. Instead, the women organized themselves to maintain their three local varieties through spatial separation and seed selection. When asked why they did so, Zhichen villagers replied that they feel Tuxpeño 1 has degenerated beyond their skills to improve it. They are waiting for the government to regenerate Tuxpeño 1, which they actually considered as a government variety. They also know that they have to maintain their local varieties because no outside help will ever bother. When forced to make hard decisions, the farmers chose to maintain the three local varieties firstly due to cultural preference since Local Sticky is used for ceremonies and Local White is preferred by their children due to its sweetness. Secondly, Duan 1 was chosen as part of the farmers’ risk management since it is the only one that can survive the notorious autumn drought. Despite Tuxpeño’s drought resistance, it cannot survive Zhichen’s worst drought. Hence, to ensure their own survival, the farmers have chosen the most drought resistance variety over their favourite Tuxpeño 1.
Wenteng Village, on the other hand, has a relatively favourable environment, people are generally more prosperous, better educated and more integrated into the market. Since 1978, rural industry has developed rapidly in Wenteng. Most men work in village and township enterprises, while women have become the driving force in agriculture, which has increasingly diversified. Maize used to be for household consumption. However, with the economic prosperity, maize is now mainly used as pig feed. Hence, the household main income is from hog raising. Surplus maize is sold in the market for pig feed as well.
Tuxpeño 1 was introduced in Wenteng in 1984, but adoption was slow. As farmers saw Tuxpeño’s environmental adaptability, more farmers subsequently shifted from hybrids to Tuxpeño 1. It now covers more than 90 per cent of the maize area. As in Zhichen, Tuxpeño 1 has also degenerated due to out-crossing. However, in Wenteng Tuxpeño 1 has been maintained much better than it has in Zhichen. This is due to the efforts of a group of women. Due to lack of institutional support, and due to the popularity of Tuxpeño 1, women in Wenteng village have organized themselves to maintain and improve Tuxpeño 1 since the late 1980s. This selection activity was initiated by an innovative woman who has tried to maintain Tuxpeño 1 since its adoption. The separation methods used by the women include spatial separation across fields, temporal isolation, and seed selection. They use mass selection, and claim that their skills have been passed on for generations, as they have also used similar techniques for the maintenance of maize landraces in the past.
As a result the quality of Tuxpeño 1 in Wenteng village has been maintained and even improved in the sense that the farmers claim that their Tuxpeño 1 is now better adapted to the local conditions. It is not surprising that the improved Tuxpeño 1 has spread rapidly to the neighbouring areas through farmers’ informal seed exchange systems. Now Wenteng has become a source for quality Tuxpeño 1 seeds. Unfortunately, Zhichen farmers have not been able to access these seeds since Zhichen is too far away from Wenteng.

Main findings
The government’s priority for maize hybrids and high-yielding varieties is often inappropriate to the diversity of local natural environments and socio-economic conditions. It fails to address the female farmers’ multiple needs.

Suggestions for policy making
Two main policy issues arise from this study. Firstly, great gaps exist between farmers’ needs and the formal seed system’s interests. This has led to the farmers total reliance on their informal seed systems based on their own initiatives and interests and operated with their own indigenous knowledge and networks. Secondly, ‘feminization of agriculture’ is an impressive phenomenon. Seed maintenance and selection is carried out entirely by women, based on their own knowledge. Gender should become an important factor in technology design, development and distribution.
Given the conflict between the formal breeders’ research priority and the female farmers’ needs and gaps, and between government’s interests and female farmers’ motivation in maize production, a fundamental institutional change in the public research and extension system is needed. Instead of top-down technology transfer, a participatory, gender-analysis approach is urgently needed to involve women farmers’ participation and expertise. This should assist the public research and extension systems to be more responsive to farmers’ heterogeneous needs and adaptive to the diversified farming systems. For instance, given the multiple roles of women, policy-making for technology design, development and diffusion should focus on how innovations will affect time allocation and labour arrangement.
Yiching Song

Department of Communication and Innovation Studies, Wageningen Agricultural University, Hollandseweg 1, 6706 KN Wageningen, the Netherlands. Phone (+31) 317 483910,

Fax (+31) 317 484791, E-mail yiching.song@alg.wau.nl

This article is based on Y. Song (1998), ‘New’ Seed in ‘Old’ China: Impact of CIMMYT Collaborative Programme on Maize Breeding in South-Western China. Wageningen, the Netherlands: Wageningen Agricultural University.

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with acknowledgement of source.


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