Commentary: A Less Visible Solution to Hunger

Article Date

13 October 2010

Article Author

David Kauck

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

As they gather this week for the World Food Prize Symposium, government leaders, multilateral institutions, civil society and private corporations will again discuss international hunger. Their usual response to this issue is to beef up agricultural production by focusing almost exclusively on expanding markets and developing new technologies, such as improved seed varieties. This is necessary, but insufficient. It would be wise – especially now – for world leaders to consider a novel approach. This is our best opportunity in decades to get it right.

To make a significant dent in chronic hunger and  jump-start economic growth, global food security strategies must tackle something less tangible than seeds, less visible than tractors: It’s time for an approach that addresses the underlying social inequities between women and men that contribute directly to low productivity farming. Members of the G20 and President Barack Obama already recognize the value in this. Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative suggests that if women farmers had the same assets as men, economic output would increase and fewer children would go hungry. The message here? Gender inequality is a drag on productivity, and until we do something about it, we’ll keep taking two steps back with each step forward.

To understand why we need to do more for women farmers, it helps to examine their unique place in the agricultural sector, particularly in Africa, where hunger is common and where most women work as small-scale farmers. In sub-Saharan Africa, it’s women who often are responsible for ensuring the nutritional well-being of their children. It’s women who produce most of the food eaten at home. And it’s women who have a strong role in farming crops for sale.

Strategies to boost household food production in Africa and elsewhere oftentimes assume that the  household acts as one unit – that women and men under the same roof split chores, make decisions jointly and share land, equipment and other assets. Decades of field research demonstrate that this is not the case. In most rural farming communities around the world, women hold less power than men. They have less say over household decisions. They have less influence over income. Meanwhile, studies show they labor longer hours than their male counterparts.

And for all their work, women farmers are less likely to see the profits from the sale of the goods they produce. What’s more, many women from Latin America to Southeast Asia report that as the value of a particular commodity – that they farm – increases, men take over the marketing and sales.

It’s for these reasons that women do not have the same preferences as men. Why should a woman grow a higher-value crop if it will mean more labor on her part, but still the same income – or less? Essentially, many women farmers are locked into low-value, low-productivity farming because their lives do not measurably improve if they change their methods.

One reason that global food security strategies continue to fall short is that they don’t recognize these on-the-ground realities of women farmers. Simply put, agricultural investors don’t know their primary client. And until food security strategies address the inequities women face – while simultaneously providing them equal access to training, information, capital, seeds and tools – efforts to increase agricultural productivity in some of the neediest corners of the world will fail. Poor, rural families will remain trapped in poverty. Children will continue to go hungry and malnourished.

So to the leaders and decision-makers at the World Food Prize gathering, I say this: Let’s get it right this time. Let’s dive into those less visible, yet powerful drivers that cripple agricultural productivity. Gender inequality cannot be an afterthought to our food security strategies. It must be the linchpin.

This commentary was featured as a guest column for The Des Moines Register on Oct. 1, 2010.