Gender dynamics in seed systems development: Emerging research of critical importance


by Berber Kramer, Alessandra Galiè, and Evgeniya Anisimova | November 30, 2020

All agricultural production—whether of crops, trees, forages, livestock, or fish—starts with seeds, making seed security vital to food security. Seed security means that producers—smallholder women and men farmers especially—have permanent and unrestricted access to adequate quantities of quality seed that is suitable to their agroecological conditions and socio-economic needs. Efforts to enhance seed security should be inclusive, without disparities related to income, social class, age, or gender. Yet, gender gaps reveal themselves across the seed system, including in the breeding, production, selection, and distribution stages, as well as in how the seeds are used and who reaps the benefits from this use.

While there is extensive literature on seed systems and how they should be organized to ensure seed security for smallholder farmers, a body of research unpacking gender dynamics within these systems has just begun to emerge. This includes a portfolio of projects initiated and funded by the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research, which was hosted within PIM’s Flagship 6: Crosscutting Gender Research and Coordination from 2017–2019. A new PIM Synthesis Brief summarizes this early work and provides an outlook for future research to mainstream gender analysis in seed systems development.

Read on for the key messages and download the full Synthesis Brief to learn more!

Photo credit: CIAT/Stephanie Malyon


Essential conditions: quality, availability, accessibility, use and control

To ensure seed security for women and men farmers, four conditions must be met:

  1. Seeds need to be of high quality and respond to the needs and preferences of both women and men from different demographic and socioeconomic categories.
  2. Quality seeds must be physically available for all smallholder women and men farmers in the right place, at the right time.
  3. Quality seeds must be accessible, meaning that farmers can obtain reliable information about seeds, can afford them, and can physically obtain them, regardless of gender.
  4. Both women and men can use and control quality seeds and the benefits arising from their use.

Formal and informal seed systems: better together

To enhance the reach and effectiveness of formal breeding programs, formal seed systems must generate quality seeds that respond to the different needs and preferences of both women and men, across socioeconomic categories. Seeds preferred by women might not be of the highest market value, and therefore not the focus of formal breeding programs. Still they might be important for smallholder farmers’ household food security and nutrition and for women’s livelihoods.

Informal seed systems can reach smallholders, particularly women, where formal systems do not. Local institutions such as seed banks, cooperatives, and small seed enterprises not only improve seed supply for their communities, but also generate local employment and income, creating opportunities for development of gender-responsive seed systems. Integration of formal and informal seed systems could generate synergies to improve availability and accessibility of quality seeds for both women and men.

Beyond access: use and control of seeds

Seed use and control refers to individuals’ ability to decide what seeds to source, when, and how to use them, and then how to use the associated benefits and income. Legal regimes may regulate who can sell or replant seed. Global regulations around patents and property rights may disenfranchise women from claiming rights over seed unless they explicitly protect the rights of women farmers to access and share the benefits of genetic material.

It is important to evaluate what programs, policies, and business models can improve the use and control of quality seeds, and the benefits arising from their use, in a cost effective, inclusive, and equitable way.

Looking forward: time for a paradigm shift

It is time for a new paradigm in which we ask how seed systems development can be transformative and provide business opportunities for both women and men, not just how gender responsiveness makes seed systems more effective.

Understanding the local social and gender context is critical in designing seed systems and interventions that allow equitable access to seeds and that empower women as users, producers, or traders of seed; but research should move beyond diagnosing gender gaps and also test what types of innovations reach, benefit and empower women and men equally. To support such analysis, data on seed systems need to be sex-disaggregated and include all members of the household, not only the head.

Future research should seek to improve our understanding of gender dynamics and gendered opportunities and constraints in seed systems development across different commodities, including crops, trees, fish, and livestock. Gender equality and women’s empowerment should be the next frontier for seed system development.


Kramer, Berber; and Galiè, Alessandra. 2020. Gender dynamics in seed systems development. PIM Synthesis Brief. November 2020. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 

Also see:

Brearley, E. and Kramer, B. (2020). Gender and promoting quality seeds in Africa: A literature review. ISSD Africa Working Paper, Oct. 2020. (Watch and interactive presentation here)

Inclusive seed delivery: Moving from gender diagnoses to testing solutions (Webinar with Berber Kramer, Oct. 15, 2020)

Berber Kramer is a Research Fellow in the Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), where she leads a number of research programs around gender, seed systems, financial inclusion, resilience, and insurance. Alessandra Galiè is a Senior Scientist, Gender at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), where she conducts gender work on women’s empowerment, animal seed systems, and livestock genetics among other topics. Evgeniya Anisimova is PIM Communications Manager.

Research summarized in this brief has been undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by IFPRI and supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund and through bilateral funding agreements. We are also grateful for funding from the Integrated Seed Systems Development Africa program, the Netherlands-CGIAR research program for Seed Systems Development, and the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock.

Photo in the banner: AVCD/Muthoni Njiru

See other PIM Synthesis Briefs:

The politics and governance of informal food retail in urban Africa

Methods for measuring women’s empowerment

Gender and rural transformation