By Dr. Robb Fraley
Chief Technology Officer
Winning the World Food Prize last year was gratifying in many ways, but none more so than in the contribution it enabled my wife Laura and me to make to the future of women in agriculture.
With a match from Monsanto, we were able to use the financial award that goes with the World Food Prize to establish the Fraley-Borlaug Scholars in Plant Science Scholarship at my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The scholarship is for women studying plant breeding and biotechnology. The university announced the first winner, Laura Chatham, Sept. 6, and it was my honor to introduce her at the Fighting Illini’s football game that day in Champaign. Laura is a first-year Ph.D. candidate who is researching the replacement of artificial dyes with natural colorants from maize. She is also interested in the genetics and breeding of health promoting compounds in Brassica vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.)
I’m sometimes asked why I chose to target the scholarship to female students. My answer is simple. Women are under-represented in plant science and biotechnology. Yet they play a very large role in agriculture here and in the developing world, where many of the advances in plant breeding and biotechnology will have the greatest impact.
The first part of that answer probably comes as no surprise. The under-representation of women in plant science and biotechnology is part of the larger and well-recognized problem of women’s under-representation in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, where women make up only 24 percent of the workforce. But the second part may surprise some readers, especially those whose perceptions are shaped by the situation in the United States. In our country, women make up only about 25 percent of the agricultural work force. I’m glad to say that the role of women lately has been growing, with women now serving as principal operators of about 14 percent of the nation’s farms, versus about 11 percent in 2002. And those statistics surely understate the situation, because in the case of co-management with a husband, it’s normally the man’s name that enters the statistics.
So it’s clear that farming is opening up as an occupation to women. Part of the reason, some observers say, is that business management skills are more important than ever in farming relative to production skills, and women increasingly have that business management training.
All that said, there is clearly a long way to go before women are as well-represented in the plant sciences and in the agricultural work force in the United States as men. Let’s hope progress continues, and rapidly.
In the developing world the story is both similar and different. It’s similar in that women consistently find they have less access to education, to land ownership, to inputs like fertilizers, improved seeds and equipment, and to many other resources that could help them and their families. See this infographic from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) for the troubling details.
But it’s different in that women in the developing world make up a very substantial 43 percent of the agricultural work force. And in the least developed countries among women who are economically active, 79 percent report agriculture as their primary source of income.
So women have a great deal to gain – even more than men, in many cases — if we can develop new innovations and bring them on an equal basis to farmers in the developing world. It’s my hope that Laura Chatham and the women who follow her as Fraley-Borlaug Scholars can help make that happen.
A final note for any readers who may not know the name: Dr. Norman Borlaug was the father of the Green Revolution. He is credited with having saved a billion lives by improving wheat production in the 1960s and 1970s, just in time to prevent massive famines on the Indian subcontinent. Dr. Borlaug created the World Food Prize in 1987 to honor those who have made significant and measurable contributions to improving the world’s food supply. He was a mentor of mine, and it’s my honor to have his name on the scholarship that my wife and I and Monsanto are funding.