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