Empowering female farmers to feed the world

Closing the global gender gap in agriculture would grow food production and build sustainable futures for women.

Photograph by Lynn Johnson
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A woman carries vegetables from a Shiping County market in China’s Yunnan province.
Photograph by Lynn Johnson

In much of the world, the face of farming is female. Globally, reports the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the majority of economically active women in the least-developed countries work in agriculture. And, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture (the latest data available), 30 percent of farmers in the U.S. are women. The problem? Gender-specific obstacles—such as lack of access to land, financing, markets, agricultural training and education, suitable working conditions, and equal treatment—put female farmers at a significant disadvantage before they ever plow a field or sow a seed.

Arguably, the biggest roadblock is land rights. In developing countries, only 10 to 20 percent of landholders are women, and in some parts of the world, women still cannot legally own or control land. When a female farmer isn’t empowered to make decisions about the land she works, it is impossible for her to enter contract farming agreements that could provide higher earnings and reliable sources of income.

In addition, entrenched gender roles in developing countries can prevent women from bringing their crops to market or even leaving their villages without their husband’s permission. While female farmers in the U.S. don’t face the same restrictions, Lorie Fleenor, 33, an eighth-generation Bristol, Tennessee, farmer, says persistent gender bias in agriculture makes it “easier” to have her husband, Ben, handle business transactions and phone calls for the family’s Magna Vista Farm.

“Even though I run the farm and make the decisions, they [male farmers] don't want to talk to me about when to cut hay, or when to sell cattle, or how much rain we've gotten. They want to talk to a man,” she explains. “I guess being a woman, you have to go above and beyond to prove yourself.”

Yet, even with female farmers expending extra effort (worldwide, women work more hours per year than men), they substantially lag behind their male counterparts when it comes to crop yields and earnings. On average, women-run farms produce 20 to 30 percent less than farms run by men. The reasons for this “crop gap,” according to the FAO, have nothing to do with an aptitude for farming and everything to do with the gender-specific obstacles.

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A female farmer picks Swiss chard from her crop in Lyman, Maine.

Inherent gender bias in the economic system, for example, regularly limits a woman’s access to credit. That’s especially true for smallholder female farmers in developing countries where cultural norms and lack of collateral often prevent women from borrowing money. Without adequate funds for capital investments, female farmers are less likely than men to buy and use fertilizer, drought-resistant seeds, sustainable agricultural practices, and other advanced farming tools and techniques that increase crop yields.

Abolishing gender-specific barriers in farming, the FAO reports, would not only empower women to achieve their highest economic potential, it could help feed a hungry world. According to the FAO, most of the approximately 820 million people worldwide who are currently undernourished live in developing countries—the same places where women are key to food production. Giving females access to the same resources and education as males could increase food production by women by up to 30 percent, potentially eliminating hunger for 150 million people. In addition, the FAO asserts, earning extra income would enable women to spend more money on health care, nutrition, and education for their children—investments that could produce long-term, positive results for farm families and their neighbors.

A worldwide effort to level the agricultural playing field for female farmers is gaining momentum. In Western Uganda, for example, the PepsiCo Foundation is teaming up with the global humanitarian organization CARE to equip smallholder female farmers with the knowledge and technical support to grow high-demand crops using sustainable agriculture methods. Recently, PepsiCo and CARE launched Closing the Crop Gap, a global campaign designed to promote awareness of women in agriculture and offer them a platform to share their own stories in their own words.

The World Bank also has made gender equity in the agriculture and food sector a specific goal and is working to expand women’s access to land and rural finance. And, in 2016 alone, Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food-security initiative, helped nearly 2.4 million women improve their agriculture- and food-security-related skills, and helped more than 420,000 women access agriculture-related credit.

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To protect her harvested potatoes, a woman covers them with straw in the Cusco region of the Peruvian Andes.

The idea that closing the gender gap in farming would produce more food and long-term benefits for farm families and their neighbors doesn’t surprise Crumpler, North Carolina farmer Carol Coulter, 62, owner of Heritage Homestead Goat Dairy. Coulter, a founding member and former executive director of Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture (a supportive network of small-scale female gardeners and farmers in nine western North Carolina counties), sells cheese—made by her husband, Lon—at local farmer’s markets where many of the vendors are female.

“Women are the fastest growing group of new farmers, and I believe that is good for everyone because women tend to be community oriented,” Coulter says. “There’s a quote that really reaches out to me that goes something like, ‘If you teach a man to farm, his family will eat. If you teach a woman to farm, the community will eat.’”

And, as the FAO reports, if women farmers gain access to the same resources as their male counterparts, the entire world will eat, too.

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