Farming Feminism: Could Empowering Women Fix the Global Food System?

Women play a key role in food—except at the highest levels.

women in food

Women play a crucial role in the movement for a more sustainable food system—but there are still far too few women working at the highest levels of government and business. (Photo: Caroline Schiff/Getty Images)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

When it comes to fixing the way humans eat, there’s no shortage of proposed methods and philosophies. But if we could do just one thing to fix the global food system, what would that be? The answer, according to many experts, may surprise you: empower women.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment is one of eight Millennium Development Goals—a vision set by many nations and development organizations to meet the needs of the world’s poorest people by 2015. Food and agriculture is one of the areas where this goal is most needed.

Consider: Women comprise about half the agricultural labor force in the developing world, and in some countries—particularly Sub-Saharan Africa—make up 80 percent of farmers. Here in the United States, more farms than ever are run by women—especially among new and young farmers (there has been a 19 percent increase in female operators since the 2002 U.S. Farm Census). And as the primary purchasers of food worldwide, women control the majority of food choices families make—choosing how to spend as much as 80 percent of a family’s food dollar.

However, women typically don’t have the same access to land, banking and financial services, credit, education, or extension services as men do, says Danielle Nierenberg, cofounder of Food Tank, a food-policy think tank. She says that if women had the same access to these resources as men, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that yields could increase by 20 to 30 percent and global malnutrition could be reduced by up to 17 percent. As a result, one of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals is to promote gender equality and empower women.

But to achieve these goals requires significant action at the policy level, an arena controlled almost exclusively by men.

“Policy dictates what we grow, what we eat, what markets are available, how much we can mitigate risk as producers,” Leigh Adcock, Executive Director of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, tells TakePart.

But policies focused on women in agriculture have been scarce, given that men have long been seated at the highest levels of government and food business. According to a 2011 report from the Environmental Working Group, “Agriculture by the Numbers,” 98 percent of boards of directors of agriculture’s largest commodity groups are men. And despite comprising half the population, women still make up less than 25 percent of Congress.

Nierenberg says women have traditionally grown the foods that families eat—like vegetables, fruits, protein rich grains—and raised livestock, while men typically grow commodity crops or crops for market. Could increased gender equality in government result in more sustainable farm and food policies—including the hulking Farm Bill, which has traditionally focused heavily on subsidizing high-yield commodity crops over sustainable food systems? Adcock of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network thinks so.

“I believe any policy covering food production and farming will take food nutrition and safety and land stewardship into account far more comprehensively when women have a say, from the community level to Congress,” Adcock says.

There’s an emerging movement to address the inequality in the halls of power and direct more resources toward women and girls. Plate to Politics, for instance, is an emerging national program created by the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES)’s mission is to train women in the movement to ramp up their leadership at all levels of public engagement, “from the farm house to the White House.” Meanwhile, Food Tank, which was cofounded by Nierenberg and Ellen Gustafson, is using its extensive knowledge base in food and agriculture to promote programs that empower women. (Nierenberg recently praised 14 global organizations to empower women to change the food system)

Women aren’t only farming and starting food advocacy organizations, they’re also starting fast-growing sustainable food businesses, launching innovative urban agriculture projects, and documenting the movement for the world to see. (A Place at the Table, directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, is a recent example of a woman-powered food documentary.)

Besides strong women, the common core of all of these efforts is a commitment to health, justice and sustainability, says Nierenberg, who spoke at last week’s Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which addressed reproductive health, economic empowerment, food security, social justice, and the environment.

“It’s becoming more and more clear that we can’t separate [food] production from social justice issues,” she says. “Food needs to be safe, farmers, both women and men, need fair wages, and it needs to be environmentally sustainable.”

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