Investing in women
2014 was the International Year of Family Farming. Today, there are an estimated 500 million family farmers producing some 56 percent of the world’s food, according to the FAO. They’re not only food producers but business people, innovators, teachers, and stewards of the land. Not surprisingly, 2015 was the International Year of Soils — and it’s the world’s family farmers, especially women, who safeguard what may be the most important agricultural input of all.
Unfortunately, women are the least recognized for their efforts, not just in protecting and building soils, but in safeguarding food and nutrition security and creating more inclusive societies.
In Ghana, for example, the Abooman Women’s Group has worked with local and international NGOs, including Heifer International, to organize themselves into a cooperative to raise dairy cows to make yogurt and other value-added products. When they formed the cooperative, their husbands were at first angry that their wives had dared to create the co-op without their permission. But as the men saw their family incomes grow, the more their opposition turned to enthusiastic support.
And in India, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has more than 1 million members. One of their biggest priorities is food security. They’ve built a training center and farm outside Ahmedabad and are training women about agroecological practices such as vermiculture, rainwater harvesting, and growing indigenous crops.
SEWA goes a step further, training urban entrepreneurs to market and sell SEWA’s products — rice, lentils, and spices — under SEWA’s own label to low-income women slum dwellers. These products are higher quality than most of the products available and the sellers are able to build a reliable customer base, giving them higher incomes.
The role of women in agriculture is so important that the FAO reports that if women had the same access to resources — land, credit, inputs, education, and extension services — as men, they could lift 100-150 million people out of hunger. But to ensure that women have the resources they need, governments and policymakers as well as civil society and businesses must push for women’s equality in all aspects of their lives.
One consequence of the Green Revolution in agriculture of the 1960s is that over the last 50 years, agricultural production, in developing and industrialized countries alike, has become more focused on the production of raw commodities. Maize, wheat, soy, rice, and other commodity crops dominate global production.
According to AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center, the lack of vegetables in children’s diets has a catastrophic impact on childhood malnutrition and mortality. Very simply put, the more communities and countries have access to vegetables, the fewer children who die before the age of five. The lack of vegetables in children’s diets also leads to a greater risk of malnutrition, stunting and other developmental problems.
But the lack of focus and investment on vegetables and other nutritious foods doesn’t only lead to malnourished children — it is also a leading factor in the obesity epidemic in both rich and poor countries.
For many decades, obesity was a problem facing only rich countries, but today, thanks to inexpensive, high-fat, low-nutrient processed food, it’s also impacting the health of people in poor countries. Mexico has a 70 percent obesity rate; and in India, often the poster child for world hunger, 17 percent of adults are obese.
This has created a surge in cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, and type-2 diabetes across the globe. These diseases will cost $30 trillion globally between now and 2030.
Shifting some emphasis from starchy staple crops to vegetables, perennials, and nutritious grains is essential to promoting nutrition and public health while also protecting the environment and reducing poverty.
In Uganda, for example, Developing Innovations in School Cultivation, or Project DISC, is working with more than two dozen schools to teach students from pre-schoolers to teens how to grow, cultivate, and market indigenous fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens, papaya, and other crops.
The organization rebuilds a taste for these foods — foods that the students’ great-grandparents ate but have now been forgotten as more foreign foods flood the domestic market. Often these indigenous foods are dismissed as poor people’s foods or even weeds.
By helping to restore the market in Africa for foods grown by Africans, groups such as Project DISC are restoring demand for more nutritious foods and keeping more money in their own communities where they’ll generate more jobs and opportunities. This is especially important for encouraging youth to stay in rural areas. The students working with Project DISC also learn that agriculture — something that is often looked down upon — can be profitable and intellectually stimulating.
Indigenous foods also have the potential to be the foods of the future — they’re typically more resilient to the drought, pests, disease, and flooding that are likely to increase as a result of climate change. If farmers and governments from California to Bangladesh act now, they could have a shot at preventing a bigger global food and nutrition crisis..