As a young researcher working with plant breeders to develop improved wheat varieties for smallholder farmers, Hale Ann Tufan confronted a profound dilemma. It wasn’t an issue of gnarly plant genetics or unruly research fields — commonplace-enough issues for any scientist in advanced plant breeding. She faced a deeper, more fundamental issue that went to the core of her discipline and agricultural research for development as a whole.
During her formative training on fungal pathogens that threaten the global wheat supply, Tufan had been taught that crops are developed with a purpose: to grow faster and bigger, to withstand pests and pathogens, or to be best suited for a rapidly changing climate. But in these scientific conversations, the people who were actually growing the crops were only discussed in vague terms.
Even as she shifted from wheat to other crops, the conversations remained the same. It simply was not seen as the role of a biophysical scientist to consider the social heterogeneity of “farmers” they were breeding crop varieties for — yet, the people growing cassava in remote areas of Africa, for example, weren’t faceless, generic farmers.
Her experience with NextGen Cassava showed her that an optimal variety of cassava was not one size fits all. Rather, the large variety and diversity of stakeholders all had different priorities. Women especially had a key role in cassava production, processing, and marketing, yet their needs, voices and aspirations remained invisible to most cassava breeding programs.
At that moment Tufan discovered a fusion between her passion for women’s rights and plant breeding. That nexus led Tufan to a space where she could thrive as a feminist and a scientist, realizing that plant sciences and gender equality are inextricably linked, and her career trajectory shifted in a new direction.
“It was as if my two worlds collided, and I realized that I could pursue my personal and professional passions side by side,” she says.
Now a Research Professor in the Department of Global Development at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), Tufan’s work is shifting how gender is analyzed within agricultural research, especially in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
“We can’t be satisfied with incremental steps in gender equality and social inclusion,” Tufan says. “Business as usual in agriculture and agricultural research perpetuates an imbalance of power and privilege. This imbalance largely favors men as farmers, consumers, entrepreneurs and researchers, which left unchecked can negatively impact women’s lives.”
In 2019, her research and advocacy helped earn her the World Food Prize’s Borlaug Field Award, and since then she has accelerated her studies into how agricultural innovations can contribute to gender equality.
Photos from the field
Changing and challenging crop breeding methods
Tufan’s research program is charting new paths in the collection, synthesis and reaction to data. By developing, testing and implementing new methodologies, Tufan seeks to better understand how agricultural innovations are designed and why they are adopted.
This approach broadens the scope of what’s possible in plant breeding. Tufan and her colleagues are looking not only at trait preferences in terms of men versus women, but also the complex, intersecting social identities that shape experiences and influence decisions around agriculture — and how these in turn should help shape how new crop varieties are designed.
“An intervention that may work for some women may not for others” Tufan says.
Researchers may inadvertently reinforce race, class, ethnic or religious divides if they are not careful to intentionally consider intersecting identities of women, Tufan adds. She takes what she calls a gender+ analysis as a central focus of large-scale agricultural research for development projects at Cornell with funding from diverse donors across multiple continents.
At NextGen Cassava, together with partners IITA and NRCRI in Nigeria, TARI in Tanzania and NaCRRI in Uganda, Tufan and the Survey Division team are breaking down research silos by integrating data sets between plant breeders, economists and gender specialists.
“By bringing together multidisciplinary data sets, we can start making informed decisions and really target crop breeding products and technologies that meet diverse needs,” Tufan says.
In the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement, Tufan works with a collaborative team of interdisciplinary researchers to focus priority setting for National Agricultural Research Institutes in Costa Rica, Haiti, Senegal, Malawi and Uganda. The priority setting team supports NARI partners to assess their breeding priorities, challenge their assumptions, perform engaged research and ultimately prioritize the impact they want to make through crop improvement.
As gender research lead of the newly launched Feed the Future Insect-resistant Eggplant Partnership, Tufan is exploring whether biotechnology products equitably benefit women, men, and young people within households that adopt these technologies in Bangladesh. Looking beyond household level income benefits, the study examines the effects of adoption of Bt eggplant on women’s empowerment, using existing and new data from the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index.
It is not enough, Tufan says, to develop methods and approaches if those advances aren’t valued or utilized — a scenario repeated again and again in agricultural research for development. Convincing researchers and institutions to think critically about their approaches to designing, developing and scaling crop breeding innovations is critical. Innovation is a gendered construct and does not automatically benefit everyone equally, Tufan explains.
Communicating, bridging and brokering disciplines is a central tenet of Tufan’s approach. As a molecular biologist with crop breeding experience by training and practice who is deeply engaged with social scientists and gender research, Tufan is in a unique position to act as a translator and bridge gaps between disciplines, and form new transdisciplinary paths.
“Plant breeders must understand that social problems are complex, and their plants are embedded in these systems,” Tufan says. “I see my role as showing plant breeding teams that they have a role to play to positively impact gender equality outcomes, and elevating the importance and critical role of gender focused research and researchers to do so.”
The Gender-Responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) project seeks to do just that. Since its inception in 2016, Tufan and colleagues at Makerere University in Uganda have trained nearly 300 researchers from institutions across sub-Saharan Africa in gender-responsive research design and implementation. With an original goal to shift mindsets about the relationship between agricultural development and gender, GREAT has become a global leader in promoting inclusive agricultural systems through its courses on perceptions, tools and outcomes.
Catalyzing a mindset shift is one of the best parts of her job, Tufan says. “It is incredibly rewarding to see leaders and researchers shift their perceptions, especially knowing that the repercussions come in the form of long-term impact on equitable food systems.”
As she leads by example, Tufan has gained a reputation for challenging institutional power structures. It’s a dynamic that scientists should embrace, she says.
“Researchers are in a unique position to encourage uncomfortable conversations, especially with people in positions of power,” Tufan says.
“Making change is upsetting, uncomfortable. Change is hard, and comes with anxiety and questioning and resistance, but those are signs we are on the right track.”
Tufan is expanding her research on team power dynamics, starting with the Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement. “Collaborative research must be aware of who has a voice and agency, and how those power dynamics affect partnerships,” she says. This new line of research has potential to not only hold a mirror to crop breeding researchers, institutions, and donors, but also holds promise to develop better ways of structuring research processes to be more equitable.
“The uncomfortable truth is that gender equality goals can only be attained by challenging power structures, and in doing so, moving beyond safe discussions around gender equality.”
Kelly Merchan is a communications specialist in the Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Scienes.
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