Food is an important topic worldwide, which is critically questioned in all its aspects. From production to processing and distribution to access issues. This is partly because we are increasingly seeing food as a fundamental right – that is, a necessity of life and not just a commodity that we trade and constantly reinvent without regard to the implications. However, the discussion we are currently having is mainly about the best approach for our food and farming systems. And the question of how hunger and malnutrition can best be tackled – now and in the future.
Agroecology has emerged as an important approach to designing food and farming systems. It offers answers to pressing questions: What are the effects of our agroecosystems on our health? How must food production be designed in times of climate change? Agroecology takes trade issues into account in a globalized world, and always considers power relations and democratic standards. Agroecology is not new as a concept or as an approach – it has been around for many years. Recently, however, the concept has received more attention and encouragement. Because more and more people are convinced that agroecology is the most viable approach to sustainable food systems. The approach goes beyond the farm, by also addressing the social and political context in which the food value chains operate. It includes society as a whole, regardless of gender, socio-economic status and age. It strengthens resilience to climate change and market shocks. And at the same time strengthens small and large producers.
Agroecology has established itself as a counter-concept to industrial agriculture. This is because there is an over-reliance on seeds and agricultural inputs supplied by just a few companies, which thereby retain market power and control all input production and distribution systems. The consequences are significant: rising food costs, lack of independence for small farms, and a weakening of the food sovereignty of nations, communities, and households. Industrial agriculture has increased world hunger and destroyed the basis of global food systems - soil, seeds and biodiversity.
In any case, women are hardly taken into account in the context of current food and agricultural systems. In addition, women in rural areas face numerous challenges. For example, they have limited access to land and other productive and financial resources such as education and health care, rural extension services and markets. Adapting to climate change is much more difficult for them and employment opportunities are rare. These inequalities result in women being excluded from both political decision-making and the labor market — and instead being subjected to sexual exploitation and domestic violence.
Rural women are most affected by food insecurity. According to the 2021 SOFI (State of Food Security and Nutrition) report, the gender gap in moderate to severe food insecurity has widened in the year of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, ten percent more women were moderately or severely food insecure than in 2019 (six percent). Furthermore, most of the work done by women in rural families is not economically rewarded because it is considered subsistence work: within the framework of socialized gender roles, it falls under women's responsibilities. Their farming activities are often considered domestic work.
Agroecology is an alternative to the unequal power relations between the sexes in rural and urban societies, because it offers tools and ways to overcome the oppression of women. Through the agroecology approach, rural women are empowered, recognized and more visible. In addition, agroecology promotes better economic opportunities for women. Diversification protects producers from risks such as weather and market fluctuations, improves food and nutrition security of farm households, and reduces dependency on purchased food. And ultimately, agroecology primarily strives for a fairer system: wherever it is implemented, all forms of injustice (not just in relation to women) can be made more visible and thus reduced. However, it is not enough to simply involve women in processes: real integration means that women must be involved from the start. You have to help shape things.
For all these reasons, agroecology is seen as an opportunity and a framework within which women can transform the food system and economy from the ground up. Recently, a study conducted by La Vía Campesina and the National Association of Smallholders (ANAP) in Cuba has shown that the shift from monocultural agriculture to agroecology has improved traditional gender roles and power relations within farming families.
There is immense potential to empower and nurture women and feminist voices in rural societies by promoting agroecology. Although the concept and philosophy of agroecology are fundamentally aimed at achieving equality between men and women, a strong feminist approach is required to prevent the emergence of a patriarchal agroecology. The food sovereignty movement and the feminist movement both respond to complex political struggles. Since agroecology can help shape a just and fair society, the actors of both areas must combine their efforts - for gender justice and a right to food for everyone.
Felistus Mwalia works for the Heinrich Böll Foundation's "Human Right to Food Initiative" in the Nairobi office.
This article first appeared here: www.boell.de