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Breaking New Grounds: A corn-breeder is paving the way for women in agriculture

In the heart of North Cotabato, Jean Jose Somera spent her childhood immersed in their small farming community. Watching her father till their one-hectare rice farm, she realized that there are a host of problems within the agri-sector that needed to be addressed. In highschool, she learned that science could be the answer.


Despite financial constraints, she seized opportunities to study Agriculture and eventually found her niche in corn breeding. Today, Jean is a respected corn-breeder who finds purpose in her work at the Crop Science division of Bayer in the Philippines. Her work in corn breeding revolves around research to find the right genetic combinations and develop hybrid corn varieties that allow farmers to produce more while using less resources.



“Being exposed to war-stricken and marginal areas in Mindanao led me to understand customer needs on a deeper level. I asked myself a lot, ‘what do farmers need in a smallholder setting?’ That’s what drove me to the realization that we can do more to contribute to agricultural communities using Science,” shared Jean.


INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS IN THE FACE OF CHALLENGES


Jean’s work exposed her to the biggest challenges in the corn sector such as the growing population, diminishing agricultural lands, and the complexity brought by the climate crisis, which impact how local farmers grow our food. Southeast Asian corn farmers, including Filipino farmers, face difficulties due to limited resources, small landholdings, and high input costs, resulting in low productivity and yields which keeps them below poverty level.


“Bayer has a broad and advanced portfolio of technologies that fit the needs of farmers and can ease their problems. But we can’t do it alone, we need to work together.”

To tackle these challenges, Jean emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships. She highlighted Bayer initiatives like collaborations with local government units to initiate Bayer Learning Centers to teach farmers better crop management, Crop Life Philippines on farming stewardship, and research and Scientific institutions such as the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) to advance policy on corn.

Jean also touched on some of Bayer's global projects such as the Better Life Farming which aims to empower farmers, especially women, by training them to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset.


“Through Better Life Farming we hope to improve farmers’ income levels. We support them, especially the women who are very present in all the farm activities so they can grow their business and help their communities thrive,” she elaborated.


With the global challenges of agricultural productivity and climate change, Jean underscored the importance of innovations in corn breeding. Leveraging precision breeding and data science, Jean and her team use millions of data points to create high-quality and climate-resilient corn hybrids. Such data helps ensure that their innovations will bring the required level of production despite reduced resources.

​​Among Bayer's innovations include the first biotech corn variety that provided resistance to Asian Corn Borer, a major Philippines corn pest for decades; and the first biotech corn product with resistance to above-ground pests like Fall Armyworm (FAW). 


“I believe that innovation can bring us to a higher notch. With a smaller arable area, we need to do more to ensure that even if we have small space for production, we can still produce that quantity required to feed our growing world.”


CLOSING THE GENDER GAP


Recognizing the significant role of women in decision-making processes and financing in the farm, Jean shared some of Bayer's initiatives to support women in agriculture. Last year, they launched the “Greater Role of Women in Agriculture” or The GROW in Agri—Bayer’s global platform that celebrates women’s contribution in agriculture by providing a space for women farmers to engage in online forums. Similarly named, the local GROW in Bayer's Philippine chapter serves as an internal venue to champion their female employees’ equitable presence, leadership impact and recognition at all levels and for men to advocate for this equity.


“In Bayer, we wanted to close the gender gap because in most farming communities, there’s always that notion that it's a man’s world, the GROW in Agri is our way of empowering women and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.”


Jean further emphasized Bayer's commitment to closing the gender gap through initiatives like the Bayer Kubo program. This initiative brings together the company's three business divisions, namely Crop Science, Pharmaceutical, and Consumer Health towards empowering smallholder farmers, especially women, with competency building programs focusing on women's health, family planning, healthy self-care and even basic financial literacy.


Working with Bayer, Jean is empowered that 70% of her colleagues at their station are women. As a female talent in a traditionally male-dominated field, she emphasizes the importance of fairness and equality in the workplace. She is proud that she is able to receive leadership opportunities and have the respect of her colleagues, regardless of gender. Moreover, she also appreciates the work-life balance where she can bring her authentic self to work. This includes having the freedom to design a schedule that works for her.



THE POWER OF STORIES


Reflecting on the women who inspired her, Jean pays tribute to her mother and maternal grandmother for their diligence and perseverance. Their strong work ethic and ability to navigate challenges left a lasting impact on her. She aims to emulate their qualities and inspire others by sharing her story.


As a mentor in one of Bayer’s programs, she recognizes the importance of being a role model and influencing others positively. Jean encourages women in agriculture to keep going and be heard, “today our communities are more open to listen to women’s voices. By sharing our stories we can support each other. Even if we are mothers with responsibilities to our families, if we can communicate what we want to achieve, there will always be people around us who can serve as instruments to help us get to where we want to be.”



Looking ahead, she envisions herself continuing her work in corn breeding and contributing to the improvement of farmers' lives in Southeast Asia. Her dream is to witness the positive impact of technologies and efforts translated into products that benefit farmers across the region. Jean hopes to see farmers not only sustain themselves but also improve their situations over time.


“The greatest reward is hearing farmers say that the products we developed have changed their lives. It keeps us grounded to our objectives and the next steps to make these products more sustainable.”


PASSING DOWN THE TORCH


Coming from a family of teachers, Jean chose to go against the grain because Agriscience is where her heart belongs. Her message to the youth, especially young women, is to not be afraid to explore agriculture. If they can look beyond stereotypes, she finds that agriculture offers diverse opportunities that can lead to fulfilling careers.


“Unlike previous generations where corn breeding is all in the field and on paper. Now in my time as a breeder, you don’t see me holding a pen and paper, you see me holding my iphone generating data in our systems.”



Jean expresses optimism on the prospect of passing down her work to the next generation. With advancements in technology, she envisions a new era of corn breeding involving robotics and more advanced techniques that can spark passion among the youth. 


”We have fears that no one might continue the work that we do but we’re also hopeful that things will change because of technology, and utilizing it the right way can lead us to greater heights.”

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