Unpacking interdisciplinarity in the context of breeding programs: the value of different disciplines and research methods

Men and women participate in a training session for farmers in Bangladesh. Photo: WorldFish

What is interdisciplinarity in the context of CGIAR and how do we move towards it? How do we come together? What needs to be done and more so, how can it be fostered as we move into this new phase of CGIAR Research Programs?

Across the system, we find breeding teams working towards building more accurate and relevant datasets of end-users, their decision-making processes, livelihoods and agro-ecological contexts. However, moving towards actual interdisciplinary approaches that go beyond disciplinary silos is easier said than done. While we may come together, as market economists, food technologists, biologists and gender experts to collaborate and solve complex problems, how do we ensure the next and crucial steps towards interdisciplinary practices and approaches? How do we integrate and synthesize different tools, methods and perspectives? How do we encourage collective learning, critical thought and discussion from inception to completion of a contextualized breeding process? This is the discussion we expect to stimulate through this post.

Problem-based approaches: the way forward?

In moving towards interdisciplinary initiatives, we suggest a problem-focused approach, which analyzes important social and agro-technical issues among specific task-based groups. This type of analysis fosters a collaborative environment by focusing on the problem at hand, thus helping avoid a disciplinary bias. This might include problem-focused meetings that constitute the basis of a project that is transdisciplinary from its inception, creatively bringing together tools and methods from different disciplines. The key question is how to institutionalize such sessions and protocols of collaboration.

Moving beyond a focus on women and men as distinct groups

Gender research, if it focuses on women and men as abstract or absolute groups may have been guilty of setting misguided goals. A focus on women and men as distinct groups may even create artificial divisions or even further inequality.

Instead of simply studying the preferences of women and men, it is important to look at the different tasks they perform within the cultivation of crops, the rearing of cattle and the production, processing and selling of fish. It is also important to know how roles interact with other societal differences.  ‘Women’ and ‘men’ cannot be an initial grouping that is taken for granted.

Harvesting fish and prawn from a gher in Bangladesh. Photo: D.M.Shibly/WorldFish

The current climate

Drawing from our work in plant breeding, we found that a breeder’s reaction to the varietal preferences, which he received from social scientists, was that he could do nothing with such a very long list of men and women’s preferred traits. He was dubious that he could breed for such diverse criteria. Likewise, a banana breeder mentioned that it is just impossible for a breeder to incorporate gender because they were only now, after decades of breeding, able to master how to make a good hybrid based on end-user material.

It is important to consider here that while not all preferences can be included, often times these preferences are “composite” or aggregate varieties that incorporate multiple traits valued as a whole by groups of women and men producers, processors and sellers. One or two varieties could be composed of these aggregate traits, but in practice, this may involve offering a package of various varieties each with aggregate features. Determining such composites requires thorough and critical interaction between social scientists and breeders, which goes beyond sending long lists of workable essential traits to the desks of breeders.

Currently, breeders attempt to draw together economic, health and welfare, and environmental aspects. Gender research and its methodological innovations are therefore, crucial in shaping these new perspectives in the science of breeding selection indexes. Recognizing the need for a better, deeper understanding of end-user preferences will help bridge the gap between selection indexes and gender research datasets. At this point, however, one question we are trying to get to grips with is how to package this data. Moving forward requires the transdisciplinary patience of breeders and social scientists alike, to sit and explain where to investigate, ensure relevant questionnaires, and help interpret the nuances of our findings.

Women in Burundi cultivating an improved bean variety. Photo: G.Smith/CIAT

Where to from here?

Transdisciplinary research requires deliberately cumulative efforts within teams and between breeding networks. In 2016, at a CGIAR workshop, participants proposed a merit system as a mechanism for fostering transdisciplinarity in program design and implementation. While this is a start, however, it is important to note that achieving transdisciplinarity, especially at the program or even institutional level, can be quite a complex process.

We do recognize that transdisciplinary work is indeed challenging – personally, professionally and scientifically. However, it is crucial that we remind ourselves of the end goal – real-time, face-to-face discussions that are geared towards collaborative and iterative learning, ultimately leading to critical and sustainable scientific development which translates to longer lasting impact, thereby improving the lives and livelihoods of the world’s smallholder farmers.


Béla Teeken

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
Béla Teeken is a gender postdoctoral research fellow at IITA working closely together with the cassava breeding unit. He is especially interested in how the biophysical environment, local institutions and culture shape and determine local agricultural innovations and practices and how such innovations and practices relate to those of formal scientific research. He worked shortly on grassroots innovations at the NGO ‘Sristi’ in India, before pursuing his PhD research at the Knowledge Technology and Innovation group of Wageningen University. He has an interdisciplinary background with an MSc thesis in rural development sociology and another in agronomy/plant physiology both with fieldwork in West-Africa. His PhD combined these disciplines and covered research on rice cultivation in West-Africa and particularly in the Togo Hills in Ghana and Togo.

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.

Seamus Murphy

CGIAR Gender Postdoctoral Fellow, WorldFish
Seamus Murphy is a CGIAR Gender Postdoctoral Fellow, based at the WorldFish Center in Cairo, Egypt,whose work centers on the nexus between gender, nutrition and fish value chains in Egypt and Zambia. His work will contribute gender-sensitive data on the trait preferences of fish among lower-income consumers and retailers to support the development of more gender-responsive fish breeding programs at WorldFish. Seamus’s work on gender & breeding is a part of the CGIAR Research Program on Fish (‘FISH’).