New Approaches to Breed More Roots, Tubers and Banana Crop Varieties
New crop varieties can help farmers thrive in difficult agricultural conditions, feed families and create livelihoods when sold or processed into other products. This creates a design challenge for breeders, who must anticipate which traits are needed for a variety to be adopted and have a positive impact on gender equality, food security, nutrition and economic returns for smallholder farmers and consumers.
"We need to think critically about how breeding programs operate, because at the end of the day, priority setting can be political," says Hale Ann Tufan, a research professor at Cornell University. "Donors have their priorities; programs have their priorities; breeders have their priorities and the nexus of all may end up more exclusive, rather than inclusive." Tufan poses an important question: Are we missing out on the opportunity to positively impact women and contribute towards gender equality goals?
Tufan explains that Cornell University, collaborating with the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), is working to solve this problem using gender-responsive frameworks, tools, data and training. This engages RTB breeding programs and partner networks, including several international agricultural research projects: the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement (ILCI), NextGen Cassava, RTBfoods, SweetGAINS and the Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation. Collectively these projects can provide deep insight into the needs of different users in the value chain — focusing on women as farmers, consumers and food processors.
ILCI is at the forefront of the global conversation about how breeding priorities fit alongside power, politics and long-term impact. The innovation lab’s "Impact Centered Varietal Design Framework," which is currently under development by Tufan, Miguel Gomez, Elisabeth Garner and Sergio Puerto, takes a human-centric approach to help NARIs assess their breeding priorities, challenge their assumptions, perform engaged research and, ultimately, prioritize the impact they want to make through crop improvement.
This framework will contribute to crop improvement research on sweet potato with partners at the innovation lab’s Central American and Caribbean Crop Improvement Alliance (CACCIA) in Costa Rica and Haiti. Sweet potato carries great significance for smallholder farmers in the region. In order to incorporate the voices and buy-in from stakeholders, CACCIA is collaborating with farmer organizations in order to set breeding priorities and conduct participatory selection.
"Women form the backbone of production in RTB crops, processing, sale and food preparation in all nodes of the value chain across sub-Saharan Africa," says Tufan, emphasizing results of the gender research for the RTBfoods project. "Clearly, if we think about who to work with and for in RTB breeding programs, putting women and girls front and center is non-negotiable."
These principles are central to the CGIAR-led cassava breeding network supported by RTB, and are set in motion in NextGen Cassava. The survey division under this project brings together three breeding programs and novel approaches, with the goal of identifying actionable breeding targets that meet diversity and demand, working through a three-step approach with smallholder farmers in Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda.
The first step is to use qualitative research tools to capture how producers, processors, consumers and traders describe the characteristics of high-quality food products, in their own words. The work included critical findings from the RTBfoods project, which helped define characteristics, especially on processing and food product quality. Information is also collected on why these characteristics are important. Respondents are deliberately and inclusively selected to reflect the diverse social makeup of a community.
The second is to use the 1000minds software, which asks farmers to rate traits against each other according to their preferences, leading to trait typologies and economic values. Analysis of the 1000minds data is used to identify different groups, or typologies, of people based on their preference for different crop characteristics. These data are then related to social demographic and household data collected with the Rural Household Multi-Indicator Survey (RHoMIS) tool, to explore relationships between typologies and social identities, poverty levels and household food security status.
The third step is to test if these preferences and choices hold true in the field, using the on-farm triadic comparisons of technologies (tricot) technique to track if choices around varieties grown by the same respondents under different field conditions follows the typologies generated in step two. The tricot data are also used to identify which traits are ultimately crucial for breeders to target.
The key innovation by NextGen Cassava is to add food security and poverty data from household surveys, and to apply the 1000minds tool to husbands and wives separately and then together, in a joint interview, to explore intrahousehold dynamics and choices around trait preferences.
Looking at the 1000minds data, three main typology groups were identified among around 800 farmers: those who appreciated cassava varieties that survived better in the field; those who looked for quality traits such as color or taste; and those focused on the output in terms of yield, root size or maturity time.
While research is ongoing, early results identified that the quality typology of farmers tended to be female and have better food security, whereas those focused on crop survivability were more affected by poverty.
According to Tufan, these results have the potential to provide empirical data to support the assumptions made by breeders when setting breeding priorities. "As women make more decisions or have higher access to assets, it seems they prioritize quality," added Tufan.
The challenge over the next year is to explore how much insight can be gained by crossing the various datasets, how breeders can incorporate such approaches in their work and how the benefits of doing so are balanced against the costs.
The CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform (EiB) is promoting the use of product profiles — written descriptions of the varieties that breeding programs aim to produce that have the right mix of qualities to become successful. To enhance gender responsiveness of product profiles, EiB, RTB and Cornell University have worked together with the Gender & Breeding Initiative (GBI) to pilot new tools to incorporate gender analysis information for stage-gate decision-making. Five pilots were conducted in Nigeria, Morocco, Uganda and Zimbabwe, generating a wealth of information for product advancement discussions. In the cassava case described above, the tools helped consolidate all available information to guide and support advancement meetings. As a result, a product profile for processed cassava was developed for Nigeria, including traits of significant importance to women producers and processors. This is a significant step towards more inclusive varietal development and, of course, enhanced varietal uptake and benefits for users.