Women and food security: the case for food system transformation

Though women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force worldwide and they produce 60-80 percent of the food in the developing world, traditional power structures in the food system means that their contribution is, at best, undervalued.

What’s more, women, smallholder farmers, poor and marginalized communities carry an uneven burden of the negative impacts caused by today’s industrial food system. The low power and visibility of those vulnerable populations leaves us with major blind spots and creates a situation in which those exposed to the greatest risks are not seen or heard. This is especially the case when it comes the impact of climate change.

Yet, we ignore women at our own peril. Across the world, women are taking matters into their own hands, transforming food systems to tackle food insecurity, playing an essential role in the dynamic management of agricultural biodiversity and improving their communities’ climate resilience.

In 2018, I visited the climate resilient Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) initiative in Andhra Pradesh, India. This government-backed, chemical-free programme promotes food resilience through traditional farming and regenerative, agroecological processes and principles. It is a holistic, natural alternative to high-cost chemical inputs-based agriculture, freeing farmers from the use of harmful pesticides and other expensive inputs, and the burdensome loans required to fund them.

While I was there, I met a woman named Lakshmi who, against social conventions, independently bought a plot of land and farmed it using agroecological practices. At its zenith, she revealed it to her family to prove its success and convert them to a new nature- and people-based way of farming. Today, Lakshmi is not only working as a successful small-holder farmer, but as a ZBNF farmer trainer as well, and thus a central part of a growing movement. There are 180,000 farmers involved in the ZBNF way of growing food and managing the biodiversity of the land, feeding communities in 3015 villages. It plans to scale to 6 million by 2024.

Like many women, Lakshmi had to navigate social and cultural barriers to succeed. It’s clear that by changing how food in her community is grown and cultivated, she opened up not only a sustainable way to provide for her family but also a climate-smart and culturally relevant way to do so too.

With ZBNF, natural inputs like cow dung and cow urine are used to rejuvenate soil, improve productivity, and increase the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. This is a nature-based approach to food systems that replenishes the land which, in turn, helps mitigate the impacts of climate change. The recommendations of the IPCC Land report support scaling up of agroecological farming techniques that enable the land to absorb and store more carbon dioxide, lowering greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Given there are some 3.6 billion acres of agricultural soil on the earth, our food systems are an immediate, scalable, effective, and affordable opportunity to respond to climate change.

The case for systemic change has never been clearer. From new policies to a shift in power dynamics, we need to transform the conditions that are keeping the current industrial food system in place, and exporting it beyond its current boundaries.

A good place to start is with a shift in narrative and in mindsets. World Food Day’s message has long been about needing to feed the world. This needs to change from how “we” feed 9 billion, often driven by the Global North, to how will 9 billion people feed themselves well through empowering farmers, citizens, and communities. There is sufficient food available for everyone to be well-fed. That this is not happening points not to a lack of food but to systemic failure in the way we grow, process, distribute, market, eat, and dispose of food with a disregard for equity and meeting basic human needs.

Our future food systems must be made resilient and equitable. Only then can we ensure that no one is left behind and that those upon whom our food systems depend – women and smallholders – have the ability to achieve a decent livelihood, food security and sovereignty. By changing the paradigms and disrupting the status quo, Lakshmi’s lived experience shows that change is possible when there is real action.

Image credit: Simon Allen from Pixabay