A study in Vietnam explores the interplay between seed system, nutrition and gender among three ethnic minorities in the Northern mountainous region of Vietnam. The study examines the impact of seed system interventions on nutrition and women’s empowerment.
Vegetables are an important source of income and nutrition for ethnic minorities in Vietnam’s northern highlands. According to a report of Vietnam’s Ministry for Agriculture and Rural Development, there were 750,000 farmers producing vegetables in these areas in 2017, currently, more and more people are getting involved in vegetable production. Despite this potential, smallholder farmers face multiple seed-related challenges, resulting in their lack of access to quality seeds.
According to a policy brief published in 2021, their main barriers to quality seeds include insufficient seed availability, poor post-harvest handling practices, lack of quality guarantees, high seed prices, long distances to markets, and limited participation in seed value chains. Inadequate access to quality seeds not only negatively affects vegetable production but also vegetable diversity and diet quality. Ethnic minority households rely mostly on their own production for vegetable consumption. In addition, inadequate nutrition knowledge and skills among ethnic minority communities aggravates their food and nutrition insecurity.
“While the lack of access to quality seed is related to food and nutrition security among ethnic mininorities, this link has been largely ignored as seed system interventions have not explicitly focused on nutrition outcomes,” says Deborah Nabuuma, a nutritionist from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. “We have identified opportunities to enhance nutrition security through seed system intervention. For example, improving seed production practices and promoting the sharing and exchange of nutrient-dense seeds and vegetables could increase year-round vegetable availability—contributing to dietary diversity.”
Pathways from seed access to nutrition security
In an effort to explore the linkages between seed access and nutrition, researchers from a consortium of international and national organizations led by the Alliance are working on a vegetable seed system development project among ethnic minorities in the North of Vietnam. This work, supported by the Dutch Research Council, identified four potential impact pathways from seed access to food and nutrition security (See Figure 1). In theory, adequate access and the use of diverse vegetable seeds are linked to vegetable availability, and this can contribute to household nutrition and health through direct consumption and/or income.
These connections are being tested through a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) involving 36 villages in Mai Son district in Son La province and Sa Pa township in Sa Pa province. The RCT’s assumption is that better access to seeds can contribute to improved nutrition, especially when combined with nutritional education.
In 18 villages, the project set up Diet Health Clubs where women could learn more about nutrition as well as vegetable and seed production. These clubs are also expected to serve as a platform where farmers can exchange seeds, skills, and information on vegetable production and markets. Half of the Diet Health Club members were provided with diverse vegetable seeds to fill earlier identified seasonal and diet gaps. The RCT design allows the researchers to evaluate the effects of training and seed provision on household vegetable diversity, seed and food access, and dietary diversity.
Adding gender to the equation
The pathways from seeds to nutrition are along with several enabling or inhibiting factors that influence household decisions and practices. Gender is one such critical factor that should not be overlooked. While women play important roles in agricultural production and household food consumption, their roles often do not match with their access to information and resources, as well as their participation in decision making.
The RCT provides a unique setting to empirically assess women’s empowerment and nutrition capacity among ethnic minorities as well as establish the extent to which the seed system for nutrition intervention supported or hindered empowerment and nutrition.
Lan Nguyen, a Ph.D student from Wageningen University & Research leading the RCT, says “the Diet Health Clubs in the treated villages were mostly joined by women because [nutrition] resonated with them. With training on nutrition and vegetable/seed production for these women, it is likely that we can help reduce gender gaps in knowledge and diets”.
“However, despite our objective, it’s important that both the intended and any unintended consequences on women empowerment and nutrition are assessed,” she adds.
Through a WEAI nutrition-learning grant funded by the CGIAR GENDER Platform, the research team has integrated the Project Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (Pro-WEAI) into the RCT to measure the level of women’s empowerment and impacts of the RCT treatments on women’s empowerment and nutrition capacity. Currently, the study’s data collection and analysis are ongoing.
Study findings are expected to provide insights into the gender dynamics among ethnic minorities, as well as evidence on the interface of seed system interventions, nutritional capacity, women empowerment and dietary outcomes. In a broader sense, the study results will help synthesize and contextualize recommendations for future seed system development initiatives, assisting in the development of seed systems for nutrition that empower women.