Feminism + Agroecology = Feminist Agroecology²
Food is a crucial subject the world over. All aspects of how we produce, process, distribute and access food is increasingly coming under sharp, serious scrutiny. This is partly due to the universal understanding of food as a basic right – necessary for life rather than a commodity we trade, invent, re-invent and innovate with little consideration of the implications that has on access, safety and quality. Various discussions have been brought to the table, mainly trying to figure out the best approach to our food and farming systems and what approach gives a better chance to end hunger and malnutrition; now and in the days to come.
Agroecology has established itself as a prominent approach to food and farming systems that has been seen to address pressing issues such as agroecosystems health, food production in the context of climate change, trade issues in the context of globalisation, power and democracy. Agroecology is not a new term or approach. It has been in existence for many years and has received renewed force and attention with increased confidence that it the most viable approach to sustainable food systems. Agroecology goes beyond the farm, by addressing the social and political context supporting food value chains. It brings on board everyone in society regardless of gender, socio-economic status and age. It builds resilience against climate change and market shocks while empowering producers, big and small.
Agroecology has established itself as the anti-thesis to industrial agriculture. With over-reliance on seeds and farm inputs from a few providers, industrial agriculture puts the power in a few corporate entities that control all the input production and distribution systems. The result has been increased cost of food, lack of independence of smallholder producers and weakening food sovereignty amongst nations, communities and households. This approach has created more hungry people and destroyed the very basis of the world’s food systems – soils, seed and biodiversity. It has also widened the gender disparities in the farming and food sectors with increased domination of men, at the expense of women.
Besides being side-lined in the current approach to food and farming systems, women in rural areas face many challenges including limited access to land and other productive and financial resources such as education, health care, rural extension, markets, climate adaptation initiatives and employment opportunities. These inequalities render women subject to social exclusion from decision-making and labor markets, as well as to sexual exploitation and domestic violence. Rural women are the most food insecure. According to the 2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition (SOFI) report, the gender gap in the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity has grown even larger in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, incidences of moderate or severe food insecurity was 10% higher among women compared to 6% in 2019. Moreover, most of the work done by rural family women is not economically rewarded as it is considered subsistence and mainly falls under women’s socialised gender roles and responsibilities. Agricultural activities in which women are involved are often categorised as domestic work and therefore not accounted for.
Agroecology offers an alternative to the unequal gender power relations in rural and urban communities and offers tools and pathways to overcoming the oppressive structures in which women are embedded. Through agroecology, rural women are empowered, recognised, and more visible and are able to participate in food systems meaningfully. Furthermore, agroecology fosters better economic opportunities for women. Through diversification, producers are cushioned against risks such as those that are related to weather and market shocks. Diversification also enhances food and nutrition security of farming households and reduces the reliance on purchased foods. Finally yet importantly, agroecology seeks to achieve a more just and equitable system, therefore its implementation can deconstruct and render all forms of injustice more visible, including the inequalities that women face and suffer. It is not enough to simply include women in the implementation of actions: if the process is to be truly inclusive, women need to be there from the outset, designing them. It is not about increasing women’s options within the recognised economy, but rather about generating a new economy where productive and reproductive work is made visible and shared.
Agroecology therefore can be seen as an opportunity and a framework in which women can transform the food system and the economy. A study conducted in Cuba by La Vía Campesina and the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) demonstrated that the conversion from monoculture-based agriculture to agroecology improved traditional gender roles and power relations inside peasant families.
There is immense potential to advance women empowerment and feminist voices in rural communities through championing agroecology. While agroecology’s design and philosophy predominantly works to enhance equality between men and women in food and farming systems, there is a need to enforce a strong feminist approach to mitigate the risk of building a patriarchal agroecology. The food sovereignty and feminist movements respond to complex political struggles and since agroecology can build an equitable and fair society, there is a need and urgency for actors in these spaces to combine advocacy efforts to realise gender equality and the right to food, for all.
By Felistus Mwalia