31. Food Supply and Women’s Issues

Providing families with food has been associated with women throughout human history.  It started with our being mammals, whose babies’ survival depended on breastmilk, which only the female of the species could supply.  And it’s hard to be a hunter if you’re carrying a baby and have to stop to nurse it whenever it’s hungry (if you don’t, its cries will scare the prey away).  So men tended to be the hunters, while women and girls were the foragers for plant foods that made up most of the diets for most groups of early humans, as is also the case for hunter-gatherers today.  Women were also the ones who generally cooked whatever meat the men brought in.  So from the start, the men got more of the food-supplying glory while the women did more of the work.

Fast-forward to today, and a new book, Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, which looks at how we can fight climate change.  And this book includes a short but pithy segment on “Women and Girls” which notes (on p. 76) a few vital facts about the global food supply.  One is that “On average, women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force and produce 60 to 80 percent of crops in poorer parts of the world.”  However, Drawdown also points out that these women are often unpaid or underpaid small farmers who live in situations such that “compared with their male counterparts, women [tend to] have less access to a range of resources, from land and credit to education and technology.”  For this reason, the book cites a UN Food and Agriculture Organization determination that “if all women smallholders receive equal access to productive resources, their farm yields will rise by 20 to 30 percent, total agricultural output in low-income countries will increase by 2.5 to 4 percent, and the number of undernourished people in the world will drop by 12 to 17 percent.  One hundred million to 150 million people will no longer be hungry.”

That’s huge.  And I would add that these same low-income countries are exactly the places where this amelioration of hunger is needed most.

The same pages detail proven measures to accomplish this improvement in women’s abilities to farm:  recognize women as farmers in their own right rather than farm helpers;  improve women’s ability to own land directly rather than through men;  improve women’s access to training and microcredit;  focus research and development on crops women grow and systems that women use;  and favor approaches such as group farming that are especially useful to women farmers.

An equally important part of the feeding-the-world equation which Drawdown discusses, and which is especially  a women’s issue, is birth control, and it is significant for two reasons.  One is the obvious point that the more of us there are, the harder it is to feed us all, so enabling women to bear only as many children as they actually want will ease the demand on agricultural output.  The second is that the more children a woman farmer has, the less time and energy she has left to work her land, so that lack of access to desired contraception is another factor that diminishes women’s agricultural production.  Right now, hundreds of millions of women — and not a few men — would like to limit their family size but lack access to the contraception the want and need.  So providing the 5.3 billion dollars that the Drawdown article identifies as the sum needed to create access to desired contraception for all who want but don’t have it would be doubly useful in helping to end hunger.

One additional point that Drawdown makes is that when girls have the chance to go to school, they tend to marry later, have fewer children, use more contraception, earn more money and thus contribute better to their families’ finances, and better protect their families’ health.  So enabling all girls to become educated through high school becomes a big factor in ending hunger.  Who’d have thought it?

Drawdown is focussed on decreasing carbon emissions, and the fewer people there are the lower humanity’s overall carbon footprint.  But in the interest of enabling everyone to voluntarily control their birth rate the book makes some crucial points about some of the measures that need to be taken to solve world hunger.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley


27. Hunger, Poverty, and Food Justice: First Thoughts

In 1998, Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel prize in economics for his work showing that famine deaths in India had been primarily due not to lack of available food but to hungry people not having enough money to afford to buy what food was available.

He could have cited as another example the Irish Potato Famine, when over a million people starved to death and millions more emigrated while English absentee landlords who owned Irish farmland were exporting Irish-grown wheat that the Irish poor could not afford to buy.

On a different note, American Farmland Trust reports on the growing number of aging farmers who have no one to pass their farms on to, while a growing number of young would-be farmers cannot afford to buy farmland — at the same time that weekly newspaper Wisconsin State Farmer reports on a trend in which non-farming millionaires buy farmland as an investment (WSF, 1/6/17, p. 9B).  They hire people to work it, but these are employees who are required to produce a profit over stewarding the land or growing what feeds people (and will not become independent farmers themselves).

Similarly, nations like China and Saudi Arabia that cannot feed their people on their own land are increasingly buying up agricultural land in places like Africa.  African governments are happy to accept payment for this — but local Africans whose ancestors have farmed these lands from time immemorial (often without formal title because their tenancy stretches back prior to such notions) lose their lands and thus their ability to feed themselves and their families, and inequity increases while hunger is merely shifted, not solved.

Meanwhile, food pantries in the U.S. are needed because minimum wage jobs plus SNAP/ “food stamps” together do not enable people to buy enough food for their families.  The need for free and reduced-cost school lunches is part of the same picture.

Even the factory-farming of chickens and pigs for “cheap” meat and eggs is deeply  abusive.  For the typical set-up is that a big corporation owns the animals and contracts with a farmer to raise them.  But the farmers do not get paid unless they do exactly as the corporation specifies, no matter how inhumane or unsanitary that may be, yet they are paid so little even when they comply that they can barely scrape by and have no extra money left over to, for example, control manure safely, while if anything goes wrong it is the farmers and not the corporations that take the financial hit.

In short, there’s an abundance of evidence that hunger and misuse of agricultural assets is very often not at all a matter of inadequate food supply or agricultural capacity, but rather a direct result of poverty and oppression.  So any discussion of solving the hunger problem needs to include consideration of economic equity.   A well-fed world would be one in which the farmers who work the land and raise the animals are the people who own those assets, and in which they are able to make a living because everyone is able to pay enough for food to make farming economically viable.  But this is decidedly not the system we have now.

For this ideal to come about, a lot of changes would have to happen.

One area to look for changes would be the US Farm Bill, which is passed by Congress twice a decade (the next one is in 2018) and which shapes government food policy for the subsequent five years.  For some time now, it has mostly benefited industrial agriculture, with subsidies that support mega-farms at the expense of small family-size ones, chemical use as opposed to IPM and organic practices, commodity crops including high fructose corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol as opposed to vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds (which are all amazingly called “specialty crops”) that people would eat directly.

A different area for action would be increasing the wage scale for low-level workers so that anyone willing and able to work could afford to buy adequate food — even at prices that would pay farmers enough to support their families decently through farming.

Land reform also has to be part of the picture, for while it may be profitable for governments and corporations and millionaires to buy large tracts of land to grow crops for trade, this dispossesses people who had been feeding their families on those lands’ production, thus increasing hunger and injustice simultaneously.

Changing all these things will require enormous political effort, and is unlikely to come either easily or quickly.  But if hunger is to be ended, such changes in the status quo will have to be implemented.  The sooner we get started, the better.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley