These women scientists at Corteva Agriscience are breaking gender stereotypes in the agri sector
With agriculture being the primary source of livelihood for 58 percent of India’s population, innovations and developments in this field are pertinent for farmers to increase growth and productivity.
Corteva Agriscience is a global pure-play agriculture company that provides farmers around the world with a complete portfolio of agriculture solutions in the industry. This includes a balanced and diverse mix of seed, crop protection, and digital solutions focused on maximising productivity to enhance yield, sustainability, and profitability.
Leading Corteva’s efforts are a number of women scientists who are creating breakthroughs and breaking gender stereotypes in the field of agriculture.
HerStory presents two women scientists at Corteva, Selvarani Elangovan and Sarada Annasamudram, who are being the “change they wish to see”.
Selvarani Elangovan, plant breeder
Selvarani works at Corteva Agriscience multi-crop research centre in Jaipur. Born and raised in Salem, Tamil Nadu, she has 14 years of research experience in the plant breeding domain in the seed industry. She completed her master’s in plant breeding and genetics from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in 2007. She got into the research after college through campus placement. She also underwent a “rice breeding course” from International Rice Research Centre, Philippines, and qualified “Crop Adviser” from the American Society of Agronomy.
“I was always interested and curious about plants and used to wander scouting for those that looked beautiful for our garden. Sometimes, I ended up bringing weed plants because they looked nice. Seeing me showing so much interest in plants, my class teacher Ms. Lilly suggested that I should pursue my studies in agriculture,” she recalls.
At Corteva Agriscience, Selvarani develops mustard hybrids for farmers. But developing hybrids, she explains, is not an easy task.
“We need to understand the farmers’ requirement first and then start working on developing a suitable product. We create thousands of test hybrids and evaluate them in different geographies over five to six years for performance and stability. Overall, it takes a minimum seven years for an hybrid to be launched in the market. Apart from just developing, we also need to maintain the parental lines of the hybrids and multiply seeds for testing in different locations etc.”
A day in Selvarani’s life includes planning and discussions with team members before going out into the field. “We go through materials planted and monitor for water requirement, pest, and disease problem etc., take notes on the characteristics of the lines planted for observation, and decide on the combination that could work better for the target traits. Sometimes, I also visit the farmers growing our hybrids and evaluate performance and also talk to farmers about their expectations,” she says.
Selvarani recounts an instance when a few years ago, she was visiting a village near Palanpur, Gujarat, for evaluating trials that were planted in a farmer’s field.
“The farmer brought along his entire family, including children, to show them that a woman scientist was working in the mustard field and earning good money from her job. They also requested me to advise the children and women about the importance of education,” she says.
It was a working day, and Selvarani was overwhelmed that the farmer had kept his children at home so they could meet me. She believes this experience made her realise that she has a responsibility of living up to the faith people reposed in her.
She reiterates agricultural research is important because “of our growing population and increasing purchase power”.
“To feed the growing population, we will have to “produce more with little”. Originally, Indian agriculture is resource-intensive in nature, but rural-urban migration is causing severe shortage of manpower in farming. Other problems include groundwater depletion, desertification, land degradation, and climate change. In the future, we have to grow more food with less water, soil, and manpower. So all these are possible only through innovations and technology and govt policy interventions,” she says.
She believes innovations like biotech-molecular markers, genetic engineering, gene editing, drone technology, nanotechnology in irrigation and fertiliser, integrated pest management, seed treatments help seeds to use residual soil moisture for germination and nutrient absorption. Mobile applications for selling produce is another innovation that is helping farmers today.
Selvarani says while women perform significant tasks in the agri sector, their work is treated as an extension of their household work.
As an expecting mother, Selvarani now wants to “just go with the flow, have my baby, and then get back to work”.
Saradamba Annasamudram, Research Associate
Born in Andhra Pradesh and raised in Gujarat, Saradamba Annasamudram is a senior research associated at Corteva’s Toopran Research Centre (TRC), Hyderabad. She completed her PhD at the MS University of Baroda, Gujarat, post which joined Dupont India. Currently, she works as a Research Associate at Corteva Agriscience.
“Science has always fascinated me since childhood, and I believe it’s the only thing that can allow you to understand anything completely from an atom to the galaxy. Any new thought can result in invention. It is a kind of profession where you need not completely depend on some one else’s thought process, but can be your own self and bring out innovation. These thoughts made my intention stronger to be a scientist,” she says.
Sarada says the best thing about her job is that there is no ‘typical’ day.
“One day I would be busy scheduling/ attending meetings and an on others, I would be completely into field visits/trials. Sometimes I work on my own projects or as a support system for other projects. I usually begin by going over the list of activities I have itemised for the day/week. This helps me to set up my priorities.”
She frequently collaborates with external research scientists, subject experts, and also farmers at ground level. This variance, she says, helps her understand her subject at both ground as well as advanced level helping her gain better understanding theoretically and practically. She also hosts many visitors and schools at site, explaining about the work they do. “That helped me to get confidence in talking to the public. I would want to continue sharing my research insights and improving my ability to transform the lives of our farmers,” she says.
“I am glad to directly interact with the farmers, understand their needs, and at the same time be able to counsel and guide them regarding cropping practices, technology dissemination, crop protection from pests and diseases, market trends or prices of various crops in the markets, which would enhance the productivity of good quality crops,” she says.
Sarada admits that being a woman, one has to go above and beyond to prove herself, especially in the agri sector.
“This has nothing to do with an aptitude for farming but with the gender-specific obstacles. Women have been contributing enormously to agricultural growth and development through their involvement in crop production, horticulture, animal husbandry, fisheries, natural resource management etc. A worldwide effort to level the agricultural playing field for female farmers is gaining momentum at present. There’s a quote that well defines the importance of Women in Agri sector: ‘If you teach a man to farm, his family will eat. If you teach a woman to farm, the community will eat,’” she adds.
She also emphasises on the need for technological innovations in the sector. From the creation of the plow to the global positioning system (GPS)-driven precision farming equipment, humans have developed new ways to make farming more efficient and grow more food.
“Innovation and precision technologies (for instance sensors, weather forecasting, satellite, drones, and cameras) yield a multi-pronged impact across the value chain. There is a visible need for an open, scalable, integrating agri platform that democratises access to information and markets, encouraging innovation, and better decision-making,” Sarada says.
She is very open to whatever opportunities the future may hold, especially within Corteva. “I pride myself in being flexible and adaptable. I intend to make the most of every opportunity that I am offered. I think the best way of planning for the future is to make the most of the present,” she adds.
Edited by Megha Reddy