International Seeds of Mystery

By Sophie Harrington

The path to new varieties of hybrid seeds created by companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer is long and expensive. They come from crosses between lines of inbred seeds, each line of which can cost between 30 and 40 million USD and take up to 8 years to develop. These seeds are closely guarded by the companies, with concerns that individuals or other companies might attempt to obtain varieties of inbred seed that they could then cross with a separate inbred, creating their own hybrid line. But until recently international espionage hadn’t been considered.


Are spies stealing our seeds? (Credit Tony Fischer Photography)

As reported in the New York Times, various Chinese nationals are suspected of returning inbred rice seeds to crop researchers in mainland China. Mo Hailong is one of the few who has been charged with stealing trade secrets. Mr. Mo was caught in 2011 digging up seeds in a DuPont research farm, from which he fled in true super-spy style in a getaway car. The F.B.I had Mr. Mo under surveillance until his arrest last December.

While the implication of China in a case of so-called “economic espionage” is in and of itself not particularly surprising, the reach into agriculture is unprecedented. But perhaps this, too, is to be expected. Growing middle class populations have resulted in a sharp increase in demand for meat, putting pressure on the supply of corn, often diverted for use as animal feed rather than as food. In the US requirements for ethanol in fuel have also served to drive up the prices of the crop. Obtaining a new line of more virile and fit crops, such as corn, could be crucial in allowing an increase in production.

Yet the strict control that companies such as Monsanto and DuPont have maintained over their proprietary seeds has been a barrier to the easy dissemination of such traits. Corn yields per plant in China haven’t changed significantly in many years, while it’s been over 10 years since the last major Chinese hybrid strain was developed. Stealing the inbred lines developed by American corporations appears to be much quicker and more effective when you aren’t caught. It’s unlikely that this will be the last we hear of agricultural espionage.

More details on the case can be found here

Holding up half the sky: The importance of women in agricultural development.

by Sophie Harrington

As the world’s population continues to edge skyward, concerns regarding our ability to feed all these new mouths gain more and more credence. Yet what if I were to tell you that we could reduce the number of those suffering from malnutrition by up to 150 million people? If women farmers were provided with the same resources as men, their own crop yields could improve by up to 20%, increasing total agricultural yield around the globe by up to 4%.

But why aren’t women already producing the same crop yield as men? It’s not because they’re simply worse at farming—studies have shown that when provided with the same resources as men, women at least equal their yield. Instead, the pervasive inequality women face preventing their full recognition as independent farmers serves to hinder their productivity.WomanRiceAttrib

A key issue throughout much of the developing world is the lack of land titles available to women. Often, women are involved in farming land solely tied to their male family members, or indeed are farming “unclaimed” land. Whilst there have been some legislative reforms to enable women to inherit land and jointly hold land titles with other family members, their implementation can be patchy at best. In order to ensure the effectiveness of any legislation, it’s crucial to engage elders of the community in encouraging awareness and support for women’s land rights.

At the same time, women farmers are often less able to obtain credit and financing, and what little they do obtain is often out of their control, instead in the hands of male family members who are less in touch with the requirements of the tasks carried out by women. While there have been improvements in the microfinancing available, it continues to be difficult for women to obtain more substantial financing and gain a foothold on the traditional credit ladder.

Many enrichment programs for small-scale farmers in the developing world have been focused on being “gender-blind” in their mandates and missions. However, such attempts have almost inevitably resulted in their primary benefits aiding male heads of households. Increasingly, focus is being placed on “gender-equitable” programs, which take into account social and cultural baggage surrounding women farmers. For example, women are often prevented by social expectation from being involved in the ploughing of their crop fields, leading those women who head their own households to be dependent on helpful male friends or extended family members to plough her field, in addition to their own. Unsurprisingly, such arrangements can serve to drastically reduce the yields women obtain.

WomanFarmAttrib New initiatives spearheaded by groups including the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are increasingly focused on raising awareness of the unique difficulties faced by women farmers and working to reshape societal constraints. This new focus on “gender-transformative” programs aims to engage key members of communities, such as village elders and community leaders, to give their support for reforms in legislation that, for example, would increase the ability of women to hold on to their own land titles.

The key policy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in this area can be summed up as “Know Her, Design for Her, Be Accountable to Her.” Increasing our focus on helping women farmers gain greater access to economic and societal platforms that would increase their autonomy and ownership would bring clear and tangible benefits in terms of crop production. We have the potential to reduce worldwide undernourishment by up to 17% by championing the ability of women to run their own farm’s economic, social, and physical tools tailored to their needs. It seems like too good of a deal to pass up.

If you’re interested in reading more about the programs involved in helping women increase their agricultural output, take a look at this FAO report.