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Study sheds new light on roles of women and men on RTB farms

Husband and wife harvest potato. Photo credit J. Okonya/CIP

 

Results from a household survey of farmers in Rwanda and Burundi challenge our stereotypes about how women and men engage in growing roots, tubers and bananas. In male-headed households, decision-making and labor-provision were most of the time joint efforts by men and women, while in female-headed households, men made most of the decisions and supplied most of the labor.

“It is truly surprising,” said Joshua Okonya, lead author on the study. Okonya, a research associate with the International Potato Center (CIP) and CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) based in Kampala, Uganda, says that one of the key messages of the study is that gender is a complex subject that requires a deeper understanding of the community.

The survey looked at 811 farming households in two watersheds, Rusizi in Burundi and Ruhengiri in Rwanda. Each farmer grew at least two of four RTB crops; bananas and potatoes, primarily as cash crops to be sold at market, and sweetpotato and cassava as food crops to be eaten by the family. (Previous results from the survey looked at understanding farmers’ concerns in pest and disease management and the safer use of pesticides.)

Most of the households (80% in Burundi and 84% in Rwanda) were headed by men, usually a father or husband. In Rwanda, female-headed households had a combined on-farm and off-farm income less than half that of male-headed households. In Burundi, by contrast, female- and male-headed households had similar incomes. In general, lower farm incomes were observed where men participated less. This may be because men were able to earn more by working off the farm. Households with lower total income, especially those far from markets, showed increased joint decision-making.

Two factors may explain this, Okonya suggests. “Men can walk or ride a bike further than women, and when markets are far from home the women, who are in charge of most household chores and childcare, cannot spend long hours away from home.”

Woman in potato store selecting seed for planting. Photo credit J. Okonya/CIP

Whose crops?

Traditionally, cash crops are controlled by men while women control food crops, but the survey tried to uncover the details by asking who made the decisions about 10 different activities, from preparing the land to weeding and pest control, through to finally selling the crop. Separately, surveyors asked who actually carried out those activities.

For food crops and cash crops alike, men and women jointly took decisions and provided labor in almost half the male-headed households. Surprisingly, perhaps, in female-headed households men made most of the decisions and provided most of the labor. Fewer than one in five female-headed houses reported joint decision-making and labor. The proportion was slightly higher for cash crops (banana and potato, 17%) than for food crops (cassava and sweetpotato, 13%).

“Most female-headed households have an adult male around; an adult son, a father, a friend or a hired worker,” Okonya explains. “The female head consults and can delegate some duties to these men.”

Social norms rule

Social norms do still govern many activities. In Burundi, for example, girls are not permitted to prepare the land for bananas or plant bananas, because they do not own the land. Men show little interest in sweetpotato as a crop, because the roots are not usually sold. Violence is also a factor, with women telling the surveyors that they avoid asking men how they spent cash from crop sales.

This makes it imperative, the study says, for men to be continually sensitized and enlightened, to stop using violence against their wives and to increase the involvement of women in all aspects of farming. Where women do have their own plots, they decide what to grow and how to spend the proceeds, usually on school fees for their children and taking care of the home.

“Once men appreciate the role and significance of women making decisions and handling the cash from crop sales, then cultural norms as a gender-based constraint may gradually dissipate,” the study concludes.

Achieving equity

A surprise result is that women do not provide 60-80% of the agricultural labor, as was previously thought. At least for Burundi and Rwanda, this is simply a myth, for the four RTB crops in the study. It is not possible to say how much labor the women in this study do provide, because the researchers did not look at time budgets. However, even for weeding, the task to which women contribute the most, in only about 15% of households did women do all of the work.

“This finding absolutely changes the way we previously imagined women’s participation in banana production,” said Okonya. “The reason could be strong cultural norms, where girls are raised from childhood being told that banana is a man’s crop.”

The survey’s results will provide additional impetus for RTB research to deliver improved varieties that farmers like and that are resistant to various stresses. Work to improve links to markets and value chains will also continue. With specific regard to gender, Okonya sees a large contribution to future changes.

“Results will inform policymakers and development partners to design gender transformative approaches to women’s empowerment,” he said.

Traditional gender norms recognize men as the main decision-makers at household and community levels. That perception is already changing. According to this study, women and men perceive their contributions differently. Women tend to say that decisions are mostly made by men, while men say that decisions are mostly made jointly.

“This is a good thing,” Okonya said, “and shows that cultural norms can change and equity can be achieved.”

Scientists show which genetic loci is associated with bunch weight in highland banana

Scientists have, for the first time, located the position of major quantitative trait loci associated with bunch weight and its component traits in Matooke, the East African Highland cooking banana. This is an important breakthrough in efforts to speed up the breeding of improved high-yielding varieties for both food security and improved household incomes in the region.

Increasing banana bunch weight is a major objective in banana improvement since it determines yield. Little was known about the genetic factors regulating it.

Scientists, therefore, sought to understand the genetics underlying bunch weight and its component traits in banana. The components of bunch weight include several traits such as the number of hands and fruits, fruit length and circumference, and the diameter of both fruit and pulp.

Through a genome-wide association study (GWAS), researchers found that chromosome 3 was most associated with bunch weight in banana. This breakthrough has been published in a paper entitled “Association Genetics of Bunch Weight and its Component Traits in East African Highland Banana” in the Theoretical and Applied Genetics journal.

The team studied a banana population of 307 genotypes of the East African Highland banana in the IITA breeding program of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) under three different environmental conditions.

“The findings of the study will facilitate marker-assisted breeding which allows breeders to identify early in the breeding cycle hybrids with poor fruit-filling characteristics and hence low bunch weight, thus saving time and money,” says Rony Swennen, head of IITA’s banana breeding program and corresponding author of the paper.

Cooking banana is an important food and income crop for over 80 million people in the East African Great Lakes countries of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The study was carried out by a team of researchers at IITA in Tanzania and Uganda in collaboration with researchers from the Department of Plant Breeding, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; Institute of Experimental Botany, Centre of the Region Haná for Biotechnological and Agricultural Research from Czech Republic; and Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement, Division of Crop Biotechnics, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.

It was supported with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Regional Development Fund project, “Plants as a tool for sustainable global development” and contributions from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

The blog was first published on the IITA website

Scaling up the use of Orange Fleshed Puree for Baked and Fried Products

OFSP puree Photo credit: J.Maru/CIP

In late May the International Potato Centre (CIP) organized a stakeholder engagement and launch meeting in Nairobi, Kenya bringing together over 20 organizations involved in sweetpotato value chain in Kenya. The launch involved representatives at the national level from the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), Ministry of Health and the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). The new project titled “Scaling up the use of Orange Fleshed Puree for Baked and Fried Products” will be implemented in Kenya, Uganda, and Malawi. The stakeholders worked together on the modalities of creating synergy and layering, mapping them to who is doing what, where and possible linkages, a key ingredient that most projects overlook limiting the efforts to go to scale.

Speaking through the launch Tawanda Muzhingi, CIP regional food scientist explained the potential of orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) as a highly nutritious biofortified crop, that is short maturing (3-4 months), high yielding with low production costs which makes it a suitable to addresses vitamin A deficiency, food insecurity and  low incomes among households in rural sub-Saharan Africa. He explained that extensive scientific evidence had shown that OFSP when consumed regularly reduced vitamin A deficiency in women, young children and the whole family.

John Waithaka, the principal agriculture officer for the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries emphasized the need for increased agro-processing which fits in in the government “Big 4” agenda for Kenya. He noted that increased investment in the OFSP puree processing and OFSP value chain by the private and public sectors in Kenya will create employment and income opportunities for men, women, and youth, which the government is committed to delivering.

Project launch Photo credit N.Ronoh/CIP

Previous efforts to reach both rural and urban dwellers and commercialize OFSP have been hindered by inconsistent production and seasonality. OFSP puree processing and utilization are avenues to address this challenge. It was revealed that technology advancements have led to the development of a vacuum-packaged OFSP puree that can be stored without refrigeration for 12 months, creating the potential for widespread use by bakeries and food vendors.

In the baking industry, it has been shown that OFSP puree can be used as a substitute for up to 30-50% of wheat flour in a range of baked or fried products, reducing production costs by 12% and increasing nutritional content. Some of the largest supermarkets in Kenya, Tuskys, and Naivas, who have baked and sold OFSP products have shown that they are widely accepted and liked by consumers.

Benjamin Kivuva, assistant director of agriculture from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Extension Organization (KALRO) questioned why there were so few investments and yet the technology is simple and products nutritious. “One of the things that limits small and medium investors to get into processing is standardization and food safety,” said Agnes Nzomo of the KEBS and assured the potential investors on the willingness of KEBS to support.

The low production costs of OFSP makes it an ideal crop for youth and women. The OFSP varieties are open access to public goods, so anyone can multiply seed without a license.  This means that people with limited money can get involved in vine multiplication, transportation as well as root aggregation. “Until people learn and get the knowledge of how to run a business, we will keep relying on donor funding and not growing our own business,” said Antonio Magnaghi, a food processing specialist. It was recognized that identifying entrepreneurial youth and linking them to business skills development will be a key entry point for this project.

The CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas funded CIP with a scaling grant to accelerate the use of OFSP puree in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda.  The two-year (2019-2021) project targets both formal (processors) and informal (street vendors) sectors with OFSP puree as a major ingredient to reduce the use of wheat flour and to enrich products with vitamin A. 

Unlike previous efforts to promote the use of OFSP in Kenya, this initiative will employ the scaling readiness approach to identify and address bottlenecks along the OFSP value chain to enable it to go to scale. By addressing the bottlenecks such as farmer organization, seasonal production, limited extension service, food safety, access to credit among others, farmers will benefit from a ready market for their roots, and as a result, increasing incomes.

Increased OFSP root and puree production will lead to expanded markets, attracting investment, creating jobs and income opportunities along the value chain. Making OFSP enriched products more widely available and affordable will improve the nutrition of women and children.

The blog is written and photos provided by Rose Chesoli. 

More equitable crop improvement

Ensuring plant breeders can take women into account

M9 is the code name of a new banana variety developed for the smallholder banana farmers of Uganda, where banana is a very important staple. Yields can be 60% higher and, because the variety is resistant to pests and diseases, it does not need to be replanted as often. When it came to trials, however, men and women differed in their appraisal of M9. Men rejected it, largely because the bigger bunches failed to get a higher price at market. Women, however, who cook bananas every day for their families, appreciated the new variety’s food value. As a result, M9 was the only one of 18 new varieties to be released, women’s preferences being the deciding factor.

M9 is noteworthy precisely because women’s preferences do not often carry much weight. Plant breeders sometimes assess gender differences in attitudes to new varieties, but not in any great depth. Many would like to have the tools to carry out a more profound analysis, and a new approach from the CGIAR Gender and Breeding Initiative (GBI) offers just that.

The implications of gender relations for modern approaches to crop improvement and plant breeding, by Jacqueline A. Ashby and Vivian Polar, is a chapter in “Gender, Agriculture and Agrarian Transformations,” a new book from Earthscan. In it, Ashby and Polar address a crucial step in the process of plant breeding and offer ways for plant breeders to ensure that the needs of women are fully taken into account.

Gender-based preferences

Polar is a Gender, Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist for the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and GBI. She says that in the past, public-sector breeding, to benefit the poor, paid little attention to gender differences in deciding what traits to incorporate in new varieties. “That,” Polar says, “is changing.”

Driving the change, at least in part, is evidence gathered by a CGIAR research looking at gender-based trait preferences. That investigation found only 39 studies that document the preferences of women and men, or women only, for specific traits and offered reasons for the differences. While there are differences across crops and localities, some commonalities emerge.

In some cases, only women may, for example, value ease of threshing, or the storage life of the produce, or the time needed to cook it. In other cases, only men may talk about pest resistance or yield per hectare. Other traits can be mentioned by women and men alike, but there are still many that represent the preferences of either women or men.

A better measure of successful breeding

Plant breeding goes through several stages at which stringent selection is applied to ensure that only varieties likely to be successful pass to the next stage. Success, in this case, is judged by how closely the candidates match something breeders draw up called the Product Profile, a set of heritable traits that is biologically feasible and that will meet demand from a well-identified set of customers.

“That’s where we need breeders to consider women,” says Polar.

Women’s preferences often clearly reflect the work they do. Ease of threshing may be of little interest to men because when they are not responsible for threshing the harvest. But there are also important differences between different crops and places. In lowland rice production in West Africa, for example, women are responsible for weeding, and unsurprisingly prefer varieties that are better able to suppress weeds. With upland rice in Ghana, men do the weeding, and it is they who value weed suppression. Even this difference is not static, as men migrate for off-farm labor and women take on new tasks.

To cope with these complexities, which their chapter examines in detail, Ashby and Polar suggest a framework that breeders, working with social scientists, apply to each trait in the proposed Product Profile.

Do no harm

“The first objective is to minimize the risk of releasing a variety that could exacerbate existing gender inequities,” explains Ashby, who has worked in CGIAR senior management on the application of social and gender analysis to plant breeding, most recently as Senior Adviser for Gender in Research to the CGIAR System Office and to GBI. This she calls “do no harm” analysis. A second analysis asks whether a trait is uniquely advantageous to women, which could give that trait a higher positive rating. Of course, traits can be gender-neutral, with no general differential between women and men.

“A final product profile may end up with all gender-neutral traits,” says Ashby. “Gender screening should ensure that the profile has not overlooked the possibility of a harmful outcome for women. It also lets a breeding project discuss how important the traits beneficial for women should be in the final set of priorities.”

The sort of analysis proposed could help to avoid some of the problems that have beset recently released varieties. In Ethiopia, for example, women objected to modern short-strawed sorghum varieties because they lost income from the sale of the stalks as cooking fuel, while in East Africa women objected to productive maize varieties that had harder kernels, making grinding — women’s work — more time consuming and more difficult.

Sometimes, counterintuitively, women may prefer varieties that need more processing. In central Malawi, poorer women, unlike men, prefer bitter types of cassava, even though they need more post-harvest processing. Bitter cassava is less likely to be stolen.

“Niche traits,” such as specific qualities required for food processing, can be a real benefit for women by relieving their drudgery or giving them the chance to improve their income. Women in Nigeria, who process small amounts of cassava when they need extra income, prefer varieties that can be left in the ground until needed.

Closing the adoption gap

The framework for gender screening, set out in more detail in the book chapter, has been reviewed by breeders and social scientists from the Gender and Breeding Initiative. The analysis generated an informative discussion of gender implications of individual traits that will now inform breeding work in RTB and beyond.

Vivian Polar says “we know that women producers often have lower adoption rates of modern varieties than men, but plant breeding has had difficulty taking gender differences into account, in part because of the complexity of the picture. Gender screening makes it more likely that breeding will include important traits that are better aligned with women’s needs and priorities.”

Researchers look deep under the banana’s skin

The very thing that makes bananas so easy to eat – they don’t have seeds – also makes them hard to breed. Beneath that simple observation, however, lies a very complicated evolutionary history, one that three recent papers by researchers with the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas help to uncover and, as they do so, hold out promise for easier banana breeding.

Cultivated bananas are generally triploid; that is, they contain three sets of chromosomes, as opposed to the customary two sets of their diploid wild relatives. The chromosome sets are labeled A or B and come from two wild relatives, Musa acuminata and M. balbisiana.

For example, the Cavendish variety of global international trade has three sets of A genomes. Others, like Fougamou 1, a cooking banana, are ABB (1 set of A chromosomes and 2 sets of B chromosomes), while Pisang Ceylan, a small, ladyfinger type of eating banana, is AAB.

Sebastien Carpentier, of the Banana Genetic Resources group at Bioversity International, and his colleagues looked at a selection of 32 different bananas (29 varieties and three wild relatives) in search of those that might perform better under drier conditions. Measured under identical, drought-simulating growing conditions, the best genotypes grew six to seven times more than the worst. The team identified two interesting traits that contribute towards drought tolerance, First, they consume less water during growth; and secondly, when water is scarce they invest more in producing roots than leaves. This last hints that the plants can reach deeper into the soil where they may find more moisture.

Drought is a very complex stress that needs to be tackled at many levels. Improving drought tolerance by breeding needs to focus on traits such as root production or reduced water loss from the leaves. More efficient breeding means that breeders need to identify parents that have those traits and screen their offspring early on. In that regard, the team noticed that most of the drought-tolerant varieties contained one or two B genomes.

“Phenotyping to identify those traits is the very first step and currently a bottleneck,” says Carpentier. “The next step is to identify the genes controlling the traits and prove that they are heritable.”

Morphological pictures of the 10 plants used in the study. Photo credit Mathieu Rouard, Bioversity

Mixed up chromosomes

In another RTB-supported effort, Angelique D’Hont of CIRAD in France and her colleagues mapped in detail how the A and B genomes are organized in a few banana varieties. Their key insight was that the A and B genomes are mixed in complex ways along some of the individual chromosomes. This mixing, called recombination, is reflected by the presence of A genome segments on B chromosomes and vice versa, and it offers new clues about the origin of edible bananas and the subsequent selection of different varieties by early banana farmers.

While it is very early days, these results offer breeders exciting prospects. One is that molecular maps may give them better ways to select new varieties that combine traits from the A and B genomes, such as the drought tolerance apparently associated with the B genome. A software package released by the group will allow other researchers to perform similar analyses on new material.

ABB bananas have regions of their genomes with higher B gene activity

In the third paper, Mathieu Rouard of the Banana Genetic Resources group of Bioversity International, and his colleagues extended the results of D’Hont’s group to look for links between the recombination of A and B chromosomes and the activity of their genes in root cells.

They selected a panel of varieties from the 29 reference varieties of the original drought-tolerance study. Once again, genome recombinations were detected and in addition the activity of the B genes differed from what would be predicted from their overall ABB or AAB makeup. Furthermore, when the researchers looked in detail at cellular metabolism in the roots, they found that the ones with a larger proportion of B genes were more active in pathways that help the root to supply itself with energy from the nutrients coming down from the leaves.

In addition to practical possibilities, because root growth is a target for banana breeders, the results also shed light on the history of domesticated bananas. Because most cultivated bananas do not produce seeds, almost all diversity among bananas comes about through mutations that farmers select because they offer some benefit. However, the study suggests that recombinations that occurred during the setup of triploids could have a link with some traits of interest, although Rouard remains cautious. “The linkage between these genomic events and the link to the resilience of the plant would have still to be demonstrated.”

Nevertheless, a detailed knowledge of the genome architecture could help scientists understand how different varieties are related, and that too could ultimately help to make banana breeding easier.

World Food Prize Selects Gender-Focused Plant Breeder as the Recipient of the 2019 Norman Borlaug Award For Field Research and Application

On behalf of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas and the Gender and Breeding Initiative, we would like to congratulate Hale Ann Tufan for being the 2019 recipient of the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application.  Collaboration with Hale first began with the NextGen Cassava project and evolved to work on quality traits and gender as a founding member of the Gender and Breeding Initiative and the RTBFoods project.

Hale’s efforts to advance gender in agricultural research contribute to equitable engagement and benefits for both men and women in different spheres of engagement, from the farm to the lab and beyond.

The award is well deserved, and we look forward to our continued collaboration with Hale in advancing gender in breeding and in other areas of agricultural research.

Graham Thiele, Director and

Vivian Polar, Gender and M & E Specialist,

CGIAR Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas

Dr. Tufan working in the field

The World Food Prize Foundation announced that Dr. Hale Ann Tufan, of Turkey, is the 2019 Recipient of the Norman E. Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, Endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation. She is recognized for championing the incorporation of gender-supportive activities within the global agricultural research community, working across disciplines to ensure women farmers and scientists are fairly represented in the lab, in the field and at the table.

“Since being established in 2012 with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Food Prize Dr. Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application has grown to become the premier recognition in the world for young agricultural scientists under the age of 40,” said Amb. Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize. “The presentation of the award in 2019 to Dr. Hale Ann Tufan of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University both reflects her remarkable achievements in making plant breeding work for women farmers’ needs by changing the views of the global agriculture research community towards gender and further reinforces the significant global importance of the Borlaug Field Award itself.”

In the course of her education and early career working with plant breeders, Tufan realized that it was not enough to simply release improved crop varieties because so many of those varieties were not adopted by the farmers they were meant to target. She discovered that this was often because researchers were missing the importance of taking gender into account in plant breeding, and as a result were ignoring the needs of a large number of farmers.

In 2012, Tufan took her first step toward addressing this need when she joined Cornell University’s International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to manage the Next Generation Cassava Breeding (NextGen Cassava) project. Through NextGen Cassava, she worked across multiple partner institutions in Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Brazil, Colombia, and the U.S. to design and implement a “Gender-Responsive Cassava Breeding” initiative to reach women smallholder farmers. This project is leading to better understanding of gender needs and impacts in farming communities by listening to stakeholders and is working with national agricultural research centers in Africa to mainstream and prioritize end-user preferences in breeding programs.

In 2015, Tufan secured a five-year, $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for her brainchild, Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT). Under Tufan’s leadership, GREAT brings together social and agricultural scientists to design and deliver courses in the practice of gender-responsive research to plant breeders in sub-Saharan Africa, which is leading to improved outcomes for women smallholder farmers, entrepreneurs and farmer organizations. As of today, researchers from 18 countries and 22 institutions have been trained in one of GREAT’s courses. Through GREAT, Tufan also helped to establish a Center of Excellence for gender and agricultural research at Makerere University in Uganda.

“To effectively confront global hunger all voices must be heard and valued, regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity and ability, as we join together as scientists, farmers and communities to grow life-giving food,” said Tufan. “Norman Borlaug believed in the power of human ingenuity to solve our greatest challenges, and his dedication reshaped the world. I am humbled to receive this award named in his honor and proud to work with collaborators from Cornell, Makerere University, IITA, NaCRRI Uganda and NRCRI Nigeria, amongst other researchers championing for gender equality. By continuing Norman Borlaug’s legacy, we can ensure that men, women, boys and girls all equally benefit in the fight to end hunger.”

In 2018, Tufan took on a new role in NextGen Cassava, heading up the Survey Division with the aim of identifying traits preferred by farmers to ensure that NextGen Cassava breeding is demand-driven and inclusive. Tufan also co-leads a team in the Breeding RTB Products for End User Preferences (RTBFoods) project, working across six African countries to create an evidence base for root, tuber, and banana product preferences by gender and other social factors that can be used by breeders to identify and prioritize traits in their breeding programs.

Tufan also demonstrates her commitment to advancing gender sensitivity through her work with the Steering Committee of CGIAR’s Gender & Breeding Initiative (GBI), organizing workshops and a symposium on future directions for gender and plant breeding for GBI members from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. She displays her leadership as director of Cornell’s Advancing Women in Agriculture through Research and Education (AWARE), initiating the first school-wide gender and diversity audit of the School of Integrative Plant Sciences. She shares her passion with the graduate students she mentors and advises, especially African women students.

Dr. Tufan is the eighth recipient of the award since its inception in 2011. She will receive the prize at a ceremony in the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates on October 16, 2019.

Learn more about Dr. Hale Ann Tufan on the World Food Prize Foundation website.

Guiding farmers to safer use of pesticides in Rwanda and Burundi

Farming spraying a field of potatoes. Photo credit Joshua Okonya, CIP

It’s hard to overstate the importance of root, tuber, and banana (RTB crops) for smallholder farmers in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. Thousands of farming households here depend on orange-fleshed sweetpotato, cassava, east African cooking banana and table potato for their daily meals. These families also rely on the cash generated from the sale of surplus RTB crops to cover home expenses, often including school fees and medical care.  

Despite the prominent role RTB crops play in the livelihoods of farmers in the region, their production is constrained by numerous pests and diseases that can hamper yields and cause significant postharvest losses. The African sweetpotato weevil and diseases such as potato late blight, cassava mosaic disease, and banana Xanthomonas wilt place high pressure on crop health and yields and are spreading to new areas with changing climatic condition.

“Quantifying crop losses from pests and diseases with high accuracy is difficult,” explains Joshua Okonya, Research Associate – Crop Protection, at the International Potato Center (CIP). “Official statistics don’t exist, and farmers rarely keep records.” Okonya estimates that losses would be in the average range of 10-30% depending on crop type, pathogen, weather conditions, and crop management. Crop losses significantly affect smallholder farmers’ livelihoods and food security.

In a bid to control these threats, farmers in Rwanda and Burundi are increasingly using pesticides to reduce yield- and postharvest losses. Yet information on pesticide use practices in RTB crops in these two countries is lacking, and there are few studies on farmers’ use of personal protective equipment (PPE), exposure symptoms, handling, and pesticide misuse.

Knowledge gaps in safe pesticide handling, the importance of PPE and a lack of working application equipment and safe storage pose significant hazards to farmers and their families. Neither Rwanda nor Burundi had or enforced regulations on safe pesticide use and handling, essentially leaving it to commercial sellers—many of them untrained—to advise farmers on how to store, package, label, transport, and handle these hazardous and often unlabeled chemicals.

“If nothing is done, cases of pesticide poisoning will continue to rise leading to ill-health among those who apply pesticides, hence reducing productivity and increasing expenditure on medical care,” says Okonya, a co-author of the paper published in 2019 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. However before potential interventions can be designed, a clearer picture is needed to capture farmers’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices about the role of pesticides in managing RTB pests and diseases. 

Farmer spraying without any PPE. Photo credit Joshua Okonya, CIP

What the survey revealed

In 2014 a team of researchers from the International Potato Center (CIP), the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Bioversity International, the Rwanda Agricultural Board, and the Institut des Sciences Agronomique du Burundi surveyed 811 RTB crop farming households in two watersheds, Ruhengeri in Rwanda and Rusizi in Burundi.

The survey gathered data on existing pest and disease control methods, toxicity levels of pesticides and frequency of application, protective measures against exposure, cases of acute poisoning while handling pesticides and descriptions of farmers’ level of knowledge regarding pesticide handling and use of PPE.

Results of the household survey paint a detailed picture of how farmers are managing the main pests and diseases of each of their RTB crops through the use of pesticides, cultural control methods such as single stem removal, crop rotation, and early harvesting, or a combination of different practices.

More than half of surveyed farmers applied pesticides with damaged knapsack sprayers, meanwhile use of PPE such as eye protection, face, and nose masks, gloves, and waterproof jackets were low. Farmers typically wore face-covering such as handkerchiefs, which provide poor protection. Farmers were reluctant to use PPEs while applying pesticides, citing cost and lack of availability as barriers.

As a result, all surveyed farmers reported some type of symptoms (e.g. itchy skin, irritated eyes, headaches, and nausea) following field application of pesticides, and in both countries, they knew of cases where some farmers have died from accidental poisoning.

Where future efforts should go from here

The household survey offers insights and information that can be used when designing vector control programs, intervention programs, and integrated pest management (IPM) approaches, including the safe use and handling of pesticides.  

The results can be of great value to other stakeholders in the pesticides value chain and can feed into efforts to raise awareness of the need to enforce pesticide legislation and alternative control methods.

Given the high risk of pesticide poisoning, it’s imperative that farmers and agrochemical retailers of pesticides alike be trained on how to use and handle pesticides safely, and that IPM approaches that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly be prioritized and promoted through increased policy and institutional support.

On farm: exploring the genetic diversity of RTB hotspots

Project sites and crops included in the RTB on farm diversity! project.
Photo credits: Stef De Haan/CIP, Erik Delaquis/CIAT, Gabriel Sachter-Smith/consultant, Bioversity International

This June, scientists from all over the world convened in the south of France for a unique conference. Held every ten years or so since 1997, the Harlan Symposium showcases research on the origins of agriculture, crop domestication & evolution, and the diversity and utilization of genetic resources. Named after Jack Harlan, professor of plant genetics, a passionate advocate of agrobiodiversity, and early crop diversity collector, this year’s edition explored diverse topics ranging from the domestication of the Asian elephant to using citizen science to document banana diversity.

Attending the symposium was a group of CGIAR and CIRAD scientists who took the opportunity to launch a three-year initiative in the spirit of Harlan’s legacy: to document and understand the genetic diversity of RTB crops in three continents.

Building on several years of previous work in the CGIAR-RTB research program, the project ‘On farm: Exploring the genetic diversity of RTB hotspots’ (or ‘RTB on farm diversity!’ for short) takes on the challenge of evaluating and documenting genetic diversity in hotspots of some of the world’s most important staple crops.

Farming communities continue to shape and maintain the diversity of crops the world over. It is through the interaction of farmers and crops that functional diversity in each species is shaped and maintained in an ever-evolving process of adaptation, selection, breeding, and maintenance. In this way, farming communities are the stewards of crop-variety diversity.

However, the FAO 2019 state of the world’s biodiversity for food and agriculture report highlights alarming declines in biodiversity at both species and genetic levels – and increases in the threats responsible for this erosion. Though it is on farms where crop wild relatives continue to breed with landraces, introducing new genes into breeding pools, over 95% of such species are still inadequately represented in gene banks. In this perilous context, understanding on farm diversity management is more critical than ever to safeguard the future of our food supply.

Three sites were chosen for the RTB on farm diversity! project:

  • Peru, where the Andean topography generates an array of microclimates from tropical forests to glacial peaks, accompanied by primary centers of diversity for staple crops including cassava in the steamy lowlands, and the bewildering diversity of potato on high altitude plateaus.
  • Papua New Guinea, the planet’s most linguistically diverse country, with a stunning array of bananas to match. Here there is undocumented diversity of many globally important RTB crops – included for evaluation in this project are banana, yam, and sweetpotato.
  • Benin, a long, club-shaped country in West Africa’s center of crop diversity, where the yam represents more than just food. Over 95% of the world’s yam production remains in Africa; particularly in the Western continent where the crop takes a paramount role in nutrition and markets, but also in ritual beliefs and social customs. Africa is also a secondary center of diversity for cassava, the result of centuries of crossing and selection by farmers following the crop’s introduction from South America.

Representatives from Bioversity International, CIAT, CIP and CIRAD (IITA participated virtually) gathered in Montpellier to launch the project ‘On farm: Exploring the genetic diversity of RTB hotspots.

Despite their differences, these three sites are reservoirs of crop diversity, each facing the transformative pressures of a world undergoing rapid environmental and social change. The research in this project is vital, not only to understand how the human-crop relationship continues to shape both parties but also to identify gaps in existing ex-situ gene bank collections, bringing to the fore what we risk losing without concerted efforts to protect and manage crop diversity.

In this project, Bioversity International, CIAT, CIP, CIRAD, and IITA join a wide array of national partners; integral project members who make it possible to document the genetic resources in these hotspots. Together the group will share each other’s strengths, expertise, and methods, shedding new light on global RTB crop diversity.

Major partners include Grupo Yanapai and Universidad Nacional Daniel Alcides Carrion in Peru, Laboratory of Biotechnology, Genetic Resources and Plant and Animal Breeding (BIORAVE) at the University of Abomey in Benin, and the National Agricultural Research Institute in Papua New Guinea.

Climate change and rising population put pressure on essential crops in low-income regions

Crops such as bananas, potatoes, and cassava are essential to food security in the world’s poorest regions. By 2050, their importance will increase, but climate change and population growth will put unprecedented pressure on production. 

Climate change and population growth are increasing concerns for global food security. Modeling future agricultural trends that account for these seismic shifts is essential to understanding food supply and income generation, especially in low-income countries. Research often focuses on widely consumed cereal crops, which form a substantial portion of the global diet. But roots, tubers, and bananas (RTB crops) are the mainstay of diets in many of the world’s poorest regions, and a new analysis shows these crops have great potential for reducing malnutrition and poverty through 2050, as long as they are on the receiving end of appropriately targeted investments.

Known as RTB crops, these crops include plantains, cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, and tropical and Andean roots and tubers. They are some of the most valuable crops in the world’s poorest regions. Rich in nutrients, vitamin A and carbohydrates, RTB crops often outperform cereals in terms of energy per cultivated hectare and can produce high yields under harsh conditions – including extreme climate events that go hand-in-hand with climate change.

These traits make RTB crops particularly important for undernourished populations such as in sub-Saharan countries, where they contribute up to 50 percent of the daily calorie intake. What is more, they have a significant role in income generation and are frequently grown and marketed by women.

“RTB crops are the mainstay of diets and rural livelihoods in many poor regions,” said Guy Hareau, a researcher at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and co-author of the analysis published in Global Food Security. “However, overcoming the productivity and market challenges are constrained by underinvestment.”

RTB crops only receive a fraction of the attention given to other food commodities. The number of researchers dedicated to RTB crops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America during 2010-2014 was only one third the number of those dedicated to cereals and livestock, according to the analysis. This underinvestment is also mirrored in the gap in the literature on RTB crops, which is needed to inform food security interventions and policy.

Increased attention is warranted not just because of food security and nutrition. Some RTB crops are being grown for industrial purposes, including cassava for starch, and potatoes for biofuels. Growth in these industries could increase demand even further than projected.

“One understudied issue is the extent to which industry will increase demand on these staple crops to produce biofuels and starch,” said Steven Prager, a co-author from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and co-leader of the CGIAR’s Global Futures & Strategic Foresight initiative. “We need to take a serious look at how these humble crops are hooked into global markets and how policy decisions around the world can affect the markets for these crops, today and well into the future.”

Enoch Kikulwe, a co-author from Bioversity International echoes the sentiment: “A rising demand for biofuel or industrial starch is likely to exert pressure on RTB crops, especially cassava, which can result in an increase in prices, depriving poor people from accessing their staples as predicted in this research.”

RTB crops, today and tomorrow

The analysis was conducted by researchers at five CGIAR research centers – CIP, CIAT, Bioversity International, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) – within the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

Growth in RTB crop production has increased steadily in the last 50 years, most rapidly in Africa, albeit slower than cereals. Asia has now become the largest RTB crop-producing region, with much of growth concentrated on potato and sweet potato production in China. In Latin America, RTB crops are important staples and cash crops throughout the region.

Their key role in providing calories and nutrition makes it crucial to examine long-term trends in RTB crop supply and demand to better understand how focused investments can bolster their production. The existing studies, however, consist of primarily inadequate projections (limited in terms of geographic coverage, time horizon, and range of crops) that do not capture the impacts of socioeconomic drivers and climate change.

The study builds on research by IFPRI and other CGIAR centers that explores future trends for crops. The IFPRI study provided a baseline projection for 2050, including an assessment of the different agricultural investments to understand future changes in matters of food security. The projection takes into account socioeconomic and climate change pathways – namely the Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 2 and the Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5, developed by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change – which follow a business-as-usual scenario of fairly rapid change in the population, economic growth and climate change.

“In this research, we were happy to join with CGIAR colleagues to look at the prospective role of RTB crops under a future in which we face challenges not only from increasing total demands and shifting diets but also potentially adverse effects of climate change on production systems,” said Tim Sulser, a co-author from IFPRI. “Investments in research and development for RTB crops are important for addressing the imminent challenges we will be facing in the coming decades.”

Using the study’s baseline scenario and the assessment related to RTB crops, the new study examines how RTB crop agriculture will look like in 2050. Climate change and water availability will be key factors for crop productivity: whereas banana and potato are sensitive to water stress, cassava, yam, and sweet potato are drought tolerant. Agro-ecological conditions and poverty will cause the consumption of RTB crops to increase, especially in Africa, indicating their growing importance for food security. While potato stands out as the crop most affected by changing preferences, especially in China, the banana will exhibit the highest growth in supply and demand across all regions.

The analysis also reveals that targeted, localized investments can strengthen the role of RTB crops as food security crops. Specifically, investments that aim at increasing productivity offer greater benefits than investments in marketing improvements.

This blog was first published on the CIAT’s website.

How RTB researchers try to develop the potential of RTB seed systems

Roots, tubers and bananas share one characteristic that unites them in the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas (RTB): farmers multiply them vegetatively, rather than as true seeds produced by sexual reproduction. Of course, they are also extremely important for the food security, nutrition and livelihoods of the most resource-poor farmers on Earth. And that makes a recent paper in the journal Food Security, which asks why interventions in RTB seed systems do not reach their full potential, important to policy-makers and farmers alike.

Together with RTB colleagues, Conny Almekinders, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, examined 13 previous efforts to improve seed systems for potato, sweetpotato, cassava, yam and banana. “We began to look at these cases in 2014,” Almekinders said, “as it became clear that an increasing number of RTB projects were introducing new varieties and improved multiplication practices, especially in Africa.”

“The case study documents did not show us evidence of many efforts to understand target seed systems,” Almekinders added.

Too often, the projects did not consider the fact that they were intervening in an existing local seed system or farmers who were known to be local seed experts. Many projects simply assumed that some farmers would specialize and become seed-supply entrepreneurs to fill the gap where the public sector could not reach, and the private sector was absent or uninterested. Such projects were often founded on the idea of a central source of high-quality foundation stock, usually produced with advanced technology, such as aeroponic micro-potatoes, yam mini-setts, and tissue culture bananas. These would then be passed to “decentralized multipliers” who would create further generations for distribution.

This approach succeeded sometimes, as with sweetpotatoes in Rwanda, where there was a good link to market for the products. In other cases, Almekinders says, “without project support and subsidies, the technical and economic viability of these decentralized multipliers is not clear.”

One problem, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is that many farmer cultures consider it inappropriate to pay or to ask for payment for planting material. This reticence may be partially overcome in the case of new varieties, but otherwise is likely to limit the opportunities for business-based informal RTB seed systems.

Some projects, such as the introduction of orange-fleshed sweetpotato in Mozambique, focused on health and nutrition and barely considered the seed system. Despite this, adoption and spread, via the informal seed system, have been impressive. “Orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes are now being grown by thousands of women on small plots of land,” Almekinders said. Varieties will spread and be adopted if farmers see a benefit.

RTB community of practice on one of their learning journeys, a joint visit of KEPHIS laboratories in Nairobi, Kenya

Pros and cons

Vegetative reproduction means that the variety keeps its genetic characteristics, unlike sexually produced seeds. This is a boon when getting new material into the hands of farmers, because it means they can share the improved material in their communities. The flip side, however, is that viruses and other diseases can accumulate in the planting material, reducing its performance.

Farmer-to-farmer diffusion remains the primary route for adoption, as farmers with good experiences multiply the improved material and share it with others. For banana, cassava and potato, the cases show that farmers often share new material with five or more others.

Unfortunately, diseases often spread along with the crops, as they have recently for viruses of cassava in eastern Africa and banana bunchy top virus in the Congo basin. Such degeneration is perhaps the most common reason for farmers to seek RTB planting material off their farm. Although this suggests an additional motivation for decentralized multipliers, there is little evidence that farmers will pay for clean planting material of varieties they already have.

What farmers want

The lack of demand is not simply because farmers do not understand the benefits; in many cases they lack other essential resources to make use of better planting material, such as capital or knowledge. Researchers may insert ‘demand’ in their project proposals, but when the project fails to distribute the expected amount of material, they seldom analyze the reasons why predicted demand did not materialize.

“Improved assessment of farmers’ demand will contribute to improving seed system interventions,” said Almekinders.

Government policy represents another barrier to improved seed systems. Certification schemes that guarantee the quality of planting material may raise costs beyond the reach of most farmers. But the absence of such schemes leaves farmers open to the sale of poor-quality seed.

Potential delivered

A 1990 study of potato identified many of the same problems as this more complete and wide-ranging survey of RTB seed interventions. “Not much seems to have changed since,” said Almekinders. But change is now in the air. The International Potato Center is already applying a diagnosis of existing seed systems to all projects going forward. And the project has started to create change beyond RTB.

“Just last week I learned that our framework is being used in a PhD project in Eritrea,” Almekinders said. “The key to progress is to pay attention to what works where, and for whom, and how to scale up good practices. We have not been good at understanding RTB systems or listening to what farmers really need. If we want to improve RTB crops, we have to improve RTB seed systems too.”