This article was originally written by Theresa Marquez and Jerome McGeorge and published in 2010 on Organic Sense, Organic Valley’s first blog.
We humans have been eating forever. For all of us food and nutrition begins in the womb. Our mother connects us with our first food memories. For a woman, what is more satisfying than feeding family and friends a delicious meal? The link between feminine and food goes very far back, millions of meals ago. During the Neolithic period after 9000 BCE, humans, under the domination of women, tamed our natural, wilder selves into a more secure domestication, a more human-directed cultural order. Horticulture was born as Homo sapiens began to settle into village cultures based upon food security (aka: “grow your own”). Women dominated as the gatherers and horticulturalists, and men, the hunters of meat and seafood.
Just before 3000 BCE, history officially begins with the first written documents at Sumer, recording human and natural events. Civilization begins with Kingship and along with Kingship, bureaucracy. Bureaucracy marked the beginning of the need for surplus food. Horticulture and the domestication of animals grew and became agriculture. And so began the long struggle of man to control nature for the purpose of food production, evolving to where we are today: farming with poisons and patenting nature. Regardless – women have been involved with food production from the beginning and played a major role in producing food, saving seeds, identifying and growing medicinals, preparing food, storing food and let us not forget the true beginning – singing lullabies to the babies while nursing..
Today, women are playing a vital role in food and farming; however, if we are to feed the world, it has become more and more imperative that women’s involvement in food security increase exponentially. Worldwide, women make up more than half of the agricultural work force. The majority of the world’s hungry reside in rural areas. And the majority of the poor in rural areas are women who are generally responsible for the food crops needed for immediate consumption in the household. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, it is estimated that women produce up to 80% of the basic food. In Asia, up to 90% of the labor to grow rice is provided by women.
Unfortunately, the voices of women around the world in agriculture are seldom heard. The gap in equality between the genders in agriculture is glaring. The FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations) and a host of other organizations focused on feeding the hungry all agree – the single most important action we can do today to help feed the hungry world is to “improve the status of rural women .” Consider this: Worldwide, over half of all food is grown by women who own only one percent of the world’s land. Economic empowerment of women is a critical component of feeding the world’s hungry.
Women of course do much more than grow food. They gather the wood, carry the water, cook the food, process the food and care for the children, all in between cultivating the food. It is chilling to consider that more than 70% of the poor and hungry people today are women. A 2008 cost-benefit analysis entitled “Investing in Women as Drivers of Agriculture Growth,” carried out by the World Bank, indicates that investment in the education of women has the highest rate of return of any possible type of investment in developing nations.
Today in the U.S. more and more women are getting into farming. The census has recorded more than double the farms operated by women in the past 25 years. Some say that farming has become more and more difficult making it “women’s work.” On a much less devastating scale, women in agriculture here in the U.S. have the same kind of “invisible” status as they do in the rural areas of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
So be it! Let agriculture be “women’s work.” And now let’s invest in women as well to increase their effectiveness worldwide in that role. Woman are food providers by nature and historically, and they can help solve world hunger not just on the farm, but in government, extension, the business of food and all areas where food development and food policy is a topic. The World Bank, with 100 other authors over a period of 15 years, produced in 2008 a most provocative document entitled “Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook .” The Sourcebook takes a good look at what women need to be empowered. Many of the recommendations are rooted in social change. It is clear, first and foremost, that acknowledging inequalities is critical. The issue of gender disparity seriously undermines a woman’s potential. Women need to be acknowledged; they need to be able to own property, be educated, be involved in many levels of food production from policy to innovations to marketing. The barriers are enormous, but around the world, models of change are emerging.
Sharing the Wisdom
Here at Rootstock, we have asked a variety of remarkable women involved in agriculture to tell their stories about being a woman in food and farming. In these stories, we believe the models we are seeking will emerge and a path toward feeding the world will unfold. Let us walk that path.
For more on the topic of women and their influence in agriculture check out “Behind Every Good Farm,” “Food Wisdom and the Feminine,” and “Women’s Environmental Institute.” And be sure to check out “In Quest of a World Food Plan” part 1.