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Solving the Global Food Crisis Starts with Women's Rights

Posted on: Thursday, June 5, 2008

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Global Food Crisis, Food Sovereignty, Emergency Relief

A version of this article was distributed through the Progressive Media Project.

Ana Chumba is facing a choice that no mother should ever have to make: whether to feed her daughter or send her to school. Ana is a small-scale farmer who also sells homemade tortillas to make ends meet. But this year, the cost of staple foods in Nicaragua, where she lives, has more than doubled. If she keeps her daughter out of school to help with the tortillas, they may be able to bring in enough to buy rice, cooking oil, and on a good day, milk. For most of us, the world food crisis has meant an annoying hike in our grocery bill. For Ana, already living on the brink of survival, it’s a true emergency.

Economists explain the food crisis as a perfect storm: rising demand for resource-intensive foods like meat, protracted drought, and more land being used to grow fuel instead of food.

More critical thinkers point out that long before biofuels became a household word, international trade rules had bankrupted millions of small farmers in the global south. Because of huge government subsidies to factory farms in the US and Europe, food imported from these countries became cheaper than food produced by local farmers. As a result, food producing countries like Nicaragua were turned into food importers, leaving people like Ana at the mercy of global markets.

But almost all public discussion has overlooked a critical fact: the majority of the world’s farmers are women. In the poorest countries, where the food crisis is at its worst, women grow and produce 80 percent of all food.

Does it really matter whether food is grown by a man or a woman? It does if you’re trying to hammer out new policies to resolve the food crisis. More and more policymakers now understand that boosting the capacity of small farmers to produce and sell food locally is a key part of the solution. What they haven’t yet grasped is that as women, many small farmers face gender discrimination that undermines their capacity to feed people.

For example, in many countries, women who grow the food that sustains the majority of the population are not even recognized as farmers. They have no legal right to own land. And women are routinely shut out of government agriculture programs. They lose out on access to credit, seeds, tools, and training that is more crucial than ever now that farmers must adapt to climate change. All of this means that policies aiming to resolve the food crisis need to also uphold women’s rights.

The global food crisis may be a perfect storm, but it’s no natural disaster. Hunger is a consequence of failed policies. Fortunately, policies can be changed. The next big opportunity is June 3, when world leaders will meet in Rome to devise new strategies for world agriculture. MADRE will be calling on them to ensure that agriculture programs promote women’s rights.

All government policies should respect human rights, including women’s rights. But when it comes to fixing our broken food system, the kind of small-scale, sustainable farming that women traditionally do is exactly the mode of agriculture that we need to expand. The Rome meeting should realign world agriculture policy with the interests of small-scale women farmers instead of giant corporations. If we can do that, we may just be able to meet the challenge of today’s global food crisis by feeding all people while protecting the planet.

By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Communications Director

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