Gender and breeding: culinary tests with farmers sharpen breeding objectives

How often do you think about the cooking qualities of a product you buy in the open market or in the grocery store? Perhaps if you’re buying a can of beans, you might want to know the beans will keep their color, aren’t mushy, and the water they are soaking in is a nice viscosity. Or if you’re peeling carrots for a large crowd, straight and uniform carrots make the job much faster. But the potatoes in the produce section? Or that bag of rice? Many of us don’t think too much about how long something takes to cook or how hard the grain is, but we certainly are interested in the color, texture, and the quality of the end-product. And not surprisingly, so are farmers in Mali.

Yet, often times these culinary traits are overlooked in breeding programs for smallholder farmers, quite possibly because many breeders have been trained in production paradigms that are environmentally homogenous or modified with inputs, and where crop machinery, transportation needs, and commercial end-use dictates crop traits. Or perhaps the voices of certain producers, such as large-farm operators or the principle grower, such as men, are considered over others.

Breeding for sorghum in Mali isn’t just about how much the plant yields in a certain environment. This is of course very important to all farmers, but the consumers of the food, whether they are producers or purchasers, are interested in the food quality too. In Mali, women are responsible for all of the processing of sorghum, whereas men are the decision-makers in the field. As part of a larger participatory plant breeding program, we involved women in culinary tests to understand the cooking attributes important for sorghum. This culinary test of the most agronomically promising varieties was created to ensure that new varieties would be acceptable for food preparation and consumption.

Women prepare sorghum as part of culinary testing in Mali. Photo: K.Isaacs

Imagine a food lab plopped down in a village with four different groups of women preparing five varieties of sorghum for tô, a staple food in Mali made mostly from flour and water. The process starts from the beginning with pounding the grain to remove the bran (decortication), sifting the flour, to cooking, tasting, and rating the final product. Measurements and opinions are collected at each stop. Finally, when the tô is ready, 25 individuals blind test all the varieties and replications and rate them based on color, taste, consistency, and conservation quality (the next day). A group discussion on preferences and issues collects final thoughts at the end of the activity.

Results from the culinary tests show that women’s knowledge about processing and their identification of important traits for better household food security were essential to improve breeding objectives and adoption. The measurements and feedback from the women during the culinary tests revealed there were no advantage to farmers if a new variety had a 10–20% yield increase but the decortication losses were 10– 40% more than the losses from the local variety. This was particularly true if, in addition, the new variety had more storage losses during the dry season due to susceptibility to storage pests and if food preparation required more time or effort.

Culinary testing of sorghum in Mali. Photo: K.Isaacs

The highly adapted local sorghum varieties are of the Guinea-race, which have distinct plant architecture and display traits important to producers and consumers alike. Interestingly, the culinary tests revealed that many new sorghum varieties introduced in Mali, especially of the Caudatum-race, rarely met the quality standards of women due to differences in the quality and quantity of the flour, consistency of the tô, and the hardness of the grain. Based on these findings, the sorghum breeding program decided to focus its breeding activities on the genetic diversity within the Guinea-race, while using the improved Caudatum-race breeding material as source material for specific traits.

Culinary tests involved different members of the household to evaluate varieties from perspectives that are based on their roles and responsibilities. Photo: K.Isaacs

Overall, these culinary tests also contributed to broader lessons learned in variety development. Different members of the household, in this case women and men, evaluate varieties from perspectives that are based on their roles and responsibilities. If breeders only talked to men or those in charge of production, they may miss understanding other traits that are key to adoption. In addition, although growers are always interested in “yield” first and foremost, how yield is conceptualized by end-users may be quite distinct from how a researcher or the principal grower measures it. In this case, the food yield, difficulty of processing the grain, and the quality of the food were key factors.

The culinary tests in Mali are ongoing and dynamic in order to ensure new varieties are acceptable, and so that breeding objectives shift as consumer and producer demand shifts. If a new variety does not encapsulate attributes from growers and processors alike, adoption is unlikely in smallholder systems such as these, where the crop is produced primarily for consumption. So, the next time you’re trying to peel the fancy new twisted and intertwined highly nutritious purple carrots for a large gathering, consider engaging with your carrot breeder about culinary attributes that facilitate efficiency and high food yield. Otherwise, you might just stick to the straight, uniform orange carrots you’ve always purchased.

This is one of 10 case studies explored in the CGIAR Gender and Breeding Initiative’s new publication ‘State of the Knowledge for Gender in Breeding: Case Studies for Practitioners’. The working paper is part of a series of knowledge products designed to share the Initiative’s collective knowledge more widely across CGIAR and partner breeding programs.


Krista Isaacs

Assistant Professor of International Seed Systems, Michigan State University
Krista Isaacs is an Assistant Professor of International Seed Systems at Michigan State University. Her research combines elements of crop ecology, human nutrition, gender, and participatory research to co-create seed systems with smallholder farmers that improve access and availability of preferred, quality seed. Smallholder farmers approach their livelihood strategies from a holistic and complex perspective, and in order to develop resilient agricultural strategies – communication and collaboration across knowledge and belief systems are essential. This requires adaptive trans-disciplinary approaches and Krista is interested in developing such adaptive approaches with communities.