Women hold the seeds of a stronger food system for Peru

The extremes of climate change and now COVID-19 have put Andean farmers at the sharpest end of the food system, and none more so than women, who already perform much of the family farm work.

As the gatekeepers to family nutrition and the guardians of crop diversity, women play a defining yet underappreciated role in Peru’s food system. So, at every stage of the food chain there are untapped opportunities to achieve greater food security by better serving women through research and innovation.

Take the quality of seed for staple crops like potato in Peru, for example. Already a nutrient-dense crop, new varieties that are more productive and provide even greater nutritional returns are only as successful as their uptake among women, meaning women’s involvement from the very start is critical.

During potato harvest season in the Potato Park in Cuzco, Peru, the mountains are dotted with farmers cultivating potatoes in every hue found in the rainbow. Photo: Sara A. Fajardo/CIP.

Farmers living in the furthest reaches of the Andes, where resources are scarce and conditions are challenging, are likely to opt for crops that are not necessarily the most profitable or productive but which can best withstand the harsh environmental challenges they face.

While men tend to choose to plant hardy crops that secure their yields, women’s preferences are more often shaped by varieties that are easier to grow, quick to cook, nutritious and palatable.

To be successful, new varieties of potato must be developed to cater for all. For example, pregnant women, new mothers and women at reproductive age, have particular nutritional needs and are more likely to suffer from diet-related conditions like anaemia. More than one in five women of childbearing age in the rural Peruvian Andes suffer from iron and zinc deficiency.

One solution to meeting this nutritional need is developing a potato biofortified with iron. New, improved varieties of staple crops can help meet not only nutritional requirements, but also women’s preferences and caregiving needs as well. For example, new varieties that are quicker to cook reduce the burden on women for gathering fuelwood for cooking.

For women’s specific needs and preferences to be met, women must be involved at the beginning of the process to design, develop and scale new varieties and other productive technologies.

To better involve women in this process, researchers need to better understand and navigate gender-specific constraints that might hold back their participation in agricultural development. For example, women are likely to have had less access to education, which may limit their participation in a Spanish-speaking market, a language that men typically learn at school.

Researchers must adopt a deliberate approach to engage with both women and men to understand how their preferences are shaped by gender, culture and context, and what this means for developing new crop varieties, which might mean using indigenous languages to better communicate with women, for example.

Finally, women are a tremendous asset not only in informing new crop varieties but in breeding them and introducing them to the field.

Potato varieties native to the Andes region. Photo: V. Durroux/CIP.

If agricultural scientists are to best serve women smallholders, they must also include women in the research and development process. Such visibility will help build trust, encouraging women to take up new varieties developed to meet their needs and priorities.

The voices of women in agricultural development are as important to food security as women’s votes are to democracy. Women account for about half of the world’s smallholder farmers, contributing almost half of agricultural labour and deserving a more representative sector.

This is why the CGIAR GENDER Platform is collating, improving and sharing the tools and approaches needed to make sure that both women and men farmers are equally involved in efforts to breed new varieties, develop new technologies and strengthen the food system, not only in the Andes but across the globe.

The challenges facing farmers and rural families in the Andes and beyond are only likely to grow, making it more important than ever that we use the full combined potential of women and men to transform food systems.