Gender and the Food System

At this point in the Lesson, you’ve learned a lot about how to think about agroecology, about the social movements supporting agroecology, industrial agriculture’s effect on people and the environment, the root causes of hunger, trade and different ways small farmers can re-localize their food systems. You’ve also learned that despite the dominant narrative, industrial farming isn’t feeding the world, small, rural farmers practicing traditional agriculture are.

But, did you know that around 43 per cent of the agricultural labor force and produce between 60-80 per cent of the world’s food crops (FAO, 2011)? They also account for an estimated two-thirds of the world’s 600 million poor livestock keepers. In this module, we look at gender and the food system. You’ll watch a video to hear the voices of rural women farmers in South Africa who share some of the realities they face around land and hunger. You’ll read about how women have used co-creation of knowledge to assert their rights and to burgeon movements for agroecology. Finally, you’ll read two articles exploring intersections of race, land, gender and agriculture.

“Women are the backbone of the rural economy, especially in the developing world. Yet they receive only a fraction of the land, credit, inputs (such as improved seeds and fertilizers), resources and agricultural training and information compared to men. Empowering and investing in rural women has been shown to significantly increase productivity, reduce hunger and malnutrition and improving rural livelihoods. And not only for women, but for everyone. Let’s take a closer look at this story.” – Farming

Film 1: Land is Life: Challenging the Hunger Myths

from Oxfam international

Article 1: Opinion – Women farm through knowledge sharing

by Elizabeth Mpofu | Farming Matters, 2016   

In an attempt to solve problems, people collectively ask questions and discuss and implement solutions. Elizabeth Mpofu describes how knowledge co-creation is commonplace in the lives of people and in agroecology. From these processes, social, political, and practical innovations emerge.

Learning is a lifetime activity. Nowhere is this clearer than in agriculture, and especially among women farmers. Being responsible for over 70% of agricultural production on our continent, we farm through knowledge sharing. In complex and closely knit social groups, starting in early childhood, knowledge is birthed, nurtured and passed on. This knowledge relates to a wide range of topics, such as seed selection and storage, farming methods, nutrition and traditional medicine.

Our grandparents used to tell us: ‘chara chimwe hachitswanyi inda’, meaning: ‘for a person to achieve his or her goals they need help, ideas and knowledge from other people’. So we share knowledge as we walk to fetch water, gather firewood, during traditional ceremonies and as we take our children to clinics. Every space in our community is a space to learn and share what one knows.

As women, despite historical negligence because of patriarchy, we have used co-creation of knowledge to assert our rights and to strengthen the position of rural women. We formed groups and started to engage in farmer-to-farmer learning. We organized seed fairs to share the diversity of our own native indigenous seeds and we organised food fairs to showcase our traditional foods. This enabled us to link with consumers. By sharing ideas and sharing knowledge we joined other women’s organisations and lobbied together for favourable agricultural policies. This helped us to better understand how government structures operate.

As we women are responsible for producing enough food in times of climate change, we decided to work with other farmers and progressive researchers to co-create new ways and means of farming. After many years of perfecting our ways of farming, and because our social, ecological and economic contexts are changing, scientists and policy makers are beginning to embrace our knowledge. They see the value of our methods of ecological farming, now called agroecology, that is rooted in indigenous knowledge systems, and seeks harmony and respects mother nature. Our way of farming is currently being propagated as a way to solve the climate crisis and reduce poverty. Through knowledge co-creation with progressive scientists and many others, we as women farmers are working towards achieving food sovereignty (not food security) and producing enough food for our families.

Elizabeth Mpofu ( is the General Coordinator of La Via Campesina and the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Organic Smallholder Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF)

Excerpt 1: Land and Gender

by Tanya M Kerssen and Zoe W Brent | Ch 12, The New Food Activism, 2017*

*Forthcoming Publication

Interview 1: Farming is Feminist: A Q&A with “The Color of Food”

by Anna Maryas with Natasha Bowens, 2015

The majority of women who farm our land are people of color, but when Natasha Bowens began her work as a food sovereignty activist — and began farming herself as a “young brown female” in the late 2000s — she realized that the people leading (if not controlling) the food movement looked nothing like the people working on the ground. Food activists and farmers of color — many young women, both living in cities and the countryside — were washed away from the surface. In response, Bowens started Brown.Girl.Farming, a blog dedicated to documenting her own journey as an urban farmer. Soon after, she launched the multimedia project, Color of Food, which examines racial, economic and gender-related disparities within the food justice movement, while featuring the stories of Black, Latino, Indigenous and Asian farmers and food activists from across the country. This April, Bowens’ commitment to amplifying these stories will be released as a book, The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farmingon New Society Press.

To offer some data on women and farming: in the United States, more and more women are becoming involved in sustainable agriculture, with nearly 1 million women listing farming as their primary occupation. As for globally, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that women make up nearly half of the world’s agricultural labor force as of 2011.

Yet, while women are doing the majority of agriculture work, they’re not seeing a return on investment, thus making them more vulnerable to displacement and economic insecurity. It’s a trend to what’s happening in the fast food and domestic labor markets, which primarily employs women: women, particularly women of color, work overtime in these positions, but are often still living below the poverty line and don’t have access to needed benefits like paid leave or sick days.

Last month, I had a chance to interview Bowens via email about her book and the issues impacting women farmers that it explores. Here is our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.

What issues does your book touch on regarding women and farming?

Bowens: The book touches on many obstacles in place for marginalized farmers, including women, but it specifically highlights gender issues in our agricultural system such as the inequities in farm ownership, discrimination in loan access and other federal support along with gaining community support in some cases as a woman starting a small farm business. One story, for example, from Sandra Simone of Huckleberry Hill Farm in Alabama talks about her struggle starting a cooperative goat farm in her community. Though she would provide the land and infrastructure and the market trends at the time predicted a rise in the goat meat industry, along with low start-up costs and room for large profits with a donated starting herd from Heifer International, her community of mostly men rejected her business plan on the basis of what she says was purely gender discrimination. Sandra felt that because she was a woman leading the project, they did not want to follow. She now runs her own goat farm operation alone and was named Farmer of the Year by the Alabama [Natural Resources Conservation Service].

In working on the “Color of Food” project, what were the main issues/themes you discovered concerning female farmers?

Bowens: First of all, having the privilege of sitting with so many amazing women during the interview process was a powerful experience for me. As I point out in my book, I’ve personally never felt more like a woman than the first time I dug my hands into the soil. And that’s a statement that may not align with what society defines as feminine – getting our hands dirty, riding tractors, herding cattle. So affirming that feminine identity with the land and finding that solidarity while out on the road for The Color of Food was so important for me. I think capturing their stories and sharing them will help the rest of us find that solidarity, while opening the eyes of the agricultural and good food movement to what female farmers are facing as well as the paths they are fiercely blazing.

As mentioned above, some of the issues women are facing in agriculture are no different than the discrimination and inequities we face in other industries. But for me the focus is on what we are accomplishing despite, and how and why we are farming. … We are more interested in sustaining communities through our farms, not sustaining big [agricultural] profit margins. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms have higher percentages of female farmers and many of the women I encountered started farming to feed their communities and increase healthy food access.

In what ways are women impacted by farming and food justice?

Bowens: Women are disproportionately impacted by the lack of food justice in our food system. Meaning the lack of food access in low-income communities, the inequities in healthy food distribution with farmers markets and food stores, and in fair wages and treatment for women working in the food system. Women, as the primary providers of food for our families, feel the impact of food access and availability more significantly. I met many women who actually began farming or fighting for food justice in their communities simply because they felt it was the only way they could feed their children or ensure their kids were getting healthy foods. Women like Nelida Martinez in Washington who started her own farm after working on conventional farms for years and no longer wanted to expose her children to the chemicals sprayed on the food. Or women like Jenga Mwendo who started the Backyard Gardeners Network in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and is leading a community food policy council to combat the lack of food access in the neighborhood.  And food justice goes beyond the table. Women leading the food justice movement for farmworkers, like those  in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida,  can tell you about the countless stories of sexual harassment and unfair wages the women who are growing and harvesting our food are suffering. And women like Saru Jarayaman of ROCUnited, author of Behind the Kitchen Door, can tell you similar stories of injustice from women working in the food system’s restaurant industry. The impact is heavy on every level, from farm to table.

How does that impact differ from other groups?

Bowens: Women may suffer from food injustice at higher rates because of their role feeding the family, their numbers globally as rural farmers and the unique abuse, harassment and targeted gender discrimination they endure. But many women impacted at higher rates by injustice in the food and ag systems are also members of communities that are equally marginalized: low income or communities of color. So that sort of double discrimination leaves a heavier impact.

How do women who farm benefit from their work? Or are there inequalities between the work they put in and the benefits they receive/their quality of life?

Bowens: Based on the women I spoke to the benefits range from feeling economically successful and fulfilled spiritually to feeling lonely, resented and under-appreciated. I think it all depends. Like most marginalized groups, the extra work put in to overcome the obstacles in place often far exceeds the return. If you want to see inequities in numbers, look at the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] Census and compare the average farm income or value of goods produced by farms owned by women and farms owned by men. That will tell you all you need to know about whether we’re getting our fair share of the benefits.