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A range of legal instruments exists that regulate the management and use of agrobiodiversity. Although they are established at the global level, it appears difficult to locate them at the local level. In many instances, extension workers, farmers and even researchers are unaware of their existence or their contents. However, managers and users of agrobiodiversity should be aware of their existence and main purpose. This fact sheet will give a short overview to which extent gender issues have been taken up in international policies and agreements concerning agrobiodiversity. This paper will not, however, analyse the regional details concerning ratification of these legal instruments or existence of different national policies[1].

In terms of gender, these legal instruments do not make any attempt to discuss the gender implications of resulting policies and legal agreements. Only the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Global Plan of Action acknowledge the key role played by women, especially in the developing world, in the management and use of biological resources. It is a challenge for extension workers, researchers and farmers to understand the impact and meaning of these legal instruments in their daily work.

Countries that have ratified, or acceded to, the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. They are also committed to submit national reports, at least every four years, on measures taken to comply with their treaty obligations. Entering into force on 3 September 1981, as of March 2004 a total of 176 states are Parties to the Convention.

Despite this increased recognition of gender differences, and implications at the international level, little has been done to implement this knowledge in national policies and programmes for agrobiodiversity management and conservation.

As stated in the Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the main cause of genetic erosion in crops, reported by almost all countries, is the replacement of local varieties by improved or exotic varieties and species. As old varieties in farmers' fields are replaced by the newer, genetic erosion frequently occurs. Genes and gene complexes found in the many farmers' varieties are not contained in the modern variety. In addition, the sheer number of varieties is often reduced when commercial varieties are introduced into traditional farming systems. This is similarly true for the replacement of animal genetic resources.

The report acknowledges the negative impacts these processes have on small farmers, especially on women, who depend on genetic diversity for their livelihoods.

Nonetheless, there are still many examples of national policy and development projects that promote commercial production. These focus on a few major cash crops, which threaten existing agrobiodiversity and food security. The more production is managed for commercial purposes, the more high-yielding varieties and breeds are used. In turn traditional risk reduction, the use of a wide diversity of varieties and breeds, becomes less important. Many local varieties and breeds are still categorized as low-performing and inferior by national extension services and research organizations. Therefore, national policies provide incentives for the use of modern varieties and breeds. This may lead to the irreversible loss of genetic diversity or it may impact upon traditional and established gender roles and responsibilities. The following example from Mali highlights the impact on agrobiodiversity use and gender roles.


In a Bamana village in Mali, women's subsistence production, which is based on local plant biodiversity, came into increased competition with men's production of exotic crops for the market. During this process, women's production was marginalized or even lost. Women were traditionally responsible for producing or collecting the traditional plant varieties, used to make sauces and relishes that they historically produced in home gardens. However, a market-gardening regime has developed in the community. This is directed towards satisfying a growing urban demand for fresh produce rather than local domestic requirements. Market gardening typically involves non-traditional fruit and vegetable crops. Middle-aged men dominate the garden leadership.

Source: Wooten, 2003.

Due to modern technologies and changes in perceptions, women have lost their influence over production they traditionally controlled. Access to resources has been lost to men, who benefit from extension services and can buy seeds, fertilizers and the required technologies. In this way, women lose their status and self-determination; they are not compensated in any way.

The above case study shows that agrobiodiversity is threatened because it is not used, not because it is overused, as is the case with many wildlife or wild plant species. Modern research, development and centralized plant breeding have mostly ignored and undermined the capacities of local farming communities' innovation and improvement of local plant varieties, which has often led to their replacement.

Conventional breeding programmes tend to focus heavily on 'broad adaptability'. This is the capacity of a plant to produce a high average yield over a range of growing environments and years. Unfortunately, genetic material that produces very good yields in one growing zone but poor yields in another tends to be quickly eliminated from the breeder's gene pool. Yet, this may be exactly what small farmers in some areas need. The resulting 'improved' varieties often require heavy doses of fertilizer and other chemicals, which most poor farmers cannot afford. Moreover, professional breeders often work in relative isolation from farmers. They are sometimes unaware of the multitude of preferences - beyond yield and resistance to diseases and pests - of their target farmers.

A few of the dozens of plant traits of interest to small-scale farmers are ease of harvest, storage, taste, cooking qualities, how fast a crop matures and the suitability of crop residues as livestock feed. Despite this wealth of knowledge, conventional breeding programmes have limited farmers' participation to the evaluation of and comments on a few experimental varieties prior to their official release. Participating in this way leaves few farmers feeling ownership of the research, or that they have contributed their technical expertise. If farmers had been given the chance to assess critically varieties reaching on-farm trials, many would have been eliminated from testing years earlier. Farmers - and in many cases, women farmers - have been the chief engineers of crop and variety development for thousands of years. Today they continue to actively select and breed most crops. These include the so-called minor or underutilized crops that are so important to family nutrition.

However, many encouraging examples exist where farmers are involved in crop improvement and breeding. One alternative approach for developing countries is participatory plant breeding, as it has been recognized that conventional breeding programmes have brought little benefit to agro-ecological and socio-economical marginal environments. Such an approach can potentially contribute to the conservation and sustainable management of plant genetic resources.

The principal aims of participatory plant breeding are to create more relevant technology and equitable access. However, depending on the organizations involved, there are often other objectives. For example, large-scale breeding programmes run by international or national research agencies may wish to cut research costs. Other organizations, such as farmer's groups and NGOs, may wish to affirm local people's rights over genetic resources. They may produce seed, build farmers' technical expertise or develop new products for niche markets, such as organically grown food.

Key points

  • A range of legal instruments exist that regulate the management and use of agrobiodiversity. In terms of gender aspects, these legal instruments do not make any attempt to discuss the gender implications of resulting policies and legal agreements.

  • Plant genetic resources were initially seen as humanity's common heritage. The Convention on Biological Diversity gave nations a sovereign right over their genetic resources and requires prior informed consent for their use (UNEP, 1992).

  • The view of PGRs, as common property, is rapidly changing to perceiving them as objects of trade.

  • Despite increased recognition of gender differences, and implications at the international level, little has been done to implement this knowledge in policies and programmes for agrobiodiversity management and conservation.

  • Agrobiodiversity is threatened because it is not used, not because it is overused, which is the case for many wildlife or wild plant species.

  • There are many examples of national policy and development projects that promote commercial production. They focus on few major cash crops, thus threatening existing agrobiodiversity and food security. Changes have been observed in gender roles and responsibilities.

[1] Further information on these aspects can be obtained in Law and policy of relevance to the management of plant genetic resources by S. Bragdon, C. Fowler and Z. Franca (Eds). 2003. Learning Module, ISNAR, The Hague, The Netherlands.
[2] See

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