News Release

Neglecting prominent role of women in agriculture hindering solutions to food security

With women handling almost half of farm work in poor countries, experts say 'leveling the plowing field' could help end hunger for 150 million people

Peer-Reviewed Publication


NEW DELHI (12 MARCH)—As developing countries battle multiple threats to food security—soaring prices, crop-crushing weather extremes and dramatic population growth—agriculture experts gathering in New Delhi this week warn that efforts to boost food production and reduce malnutrition risk failure if they continue to ignore the important role of women farmers around the world.

"The global sidelining of women farmers puts our food security at great risk," said Mark Holderness, Executive Secretary for the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR), one of the sponsors of the first-ever Global Conference on Women in Agriculture, which is part of GFAR's Gender in Agriculture Partnership program. "In holding this meeting, we are spurring collective action from all quarters of the agriculture field, whether from farmers' groups or national agricultural research systems, universities or NGOs, to empower women farmers."

Other organizing partners include the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI). They have assembled a wide range of agriculture experts including World Food Prize laureates, government ministers, farmers, agricultural researchers, gender specialists and community development organizations who will meet March 13 through 15 to focus on the importance of women to food security.

They are driven by the fact that women represent on average 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries but must contend daily with policies and practices that severely restrain their food production potential. Women face widespread restrictions on their ability to buy, sell or inherit land, open a savings account, borrow money or sell their crops at market. They also are more likely than men to lack access to rudimentary basics of farming such as fertilizers, water, tillers, transportation, improved crop and animal varieties, and extension services.

As a result, female farmers produce a lower yield on their crops than male farmers by an average of 25 percent. A recent report commissioned by GFAR and recently published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) even shows differences in yield in the same household. A study in Burkina Faso, for example, links gender-based restrictions on access to labor and basic farm inputs with a 30 percent reduction in yields on plots farmed by women versus those maintained by men.

Meanwhile, as of 2010, there were some 925 million undernourished people, mostly in the developing world. And experts say that number could easily grow as record-setting food prices, a series of weather extremes induced by climate change, and a world population that is on track to reach 9 billion by 2050, collude to create unprecedented challenges for global food security.

"We see this conference as a way to unlock the potential of women from Africa to South Asia to Latin America to address the world's food needs," said Uma Lele, an independent scholar and a former Economic and Policy Advisor at the World Bank who will be presenting at the conference.

Increased Food Production Not Leading to Improved Nutrition

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that opening up access to women farmers could increase total agriculture output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent—or approximately 100 to 150 million people. Yet research to be discussed at the conference shows that improving output alone is not sufficient to resolve gender inequalities that aggravate hunger.

For example, despite a dramatic increase in both food production and income over the last few decades, there are 350 million people in India today who are malnourished, and 46 percent of India's children still experience stunted growth, a prime indication of malnutrition. The World Bank cites inattention to the importance of women as both producers and providers of food in their households as a key reason agriculture production increases in South Asia have not generated the expected nutritional improvements.

A similar disconnect can be found in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, the IFPRI report cites an example in Kenya, where a push to boost milk yields by replacing locally-bred cattle with new hybrid breeds had the effect of transferring dairy production from women to men. And while overall milk production increased, in many households, nutrition levels declined. Researchers found that when women were in charge of dairy production, they saved the morning milk for their families and the evening milk for market, something the new policy had failed to consider.

"It's clear that by failing to invest in women farmers we are handicapping ourselves in the quest for sustainable and more productive agriculture systems and more food-secure societies," said S. Ayyappan, Director General of ICAR. "Any serious effort to reduce hunger and poverty in the developing world has to confront the fact that, today, almost half of the people in our agriculture sector—which is the foundation for all economic growth--are operating from a distinct disadvantage."

"This is not a question of ideology," said Raj Paroda, Executive Secretary of APAARI. "It's a question of smart development policy. And it's a change in attitude that has to happen throughout society, from the family field to the offices of decision makers, whether they are in Ouagadougou or Rome."

Well-meaning Initiatives Undermined Women, Didn't Reduce Drudgery

Experts note that one pervasive problem is that well-intentioned agriculture research and development efforts sponsored by wealthy countries often assume that Western notions of male-dominated farm operations hold true for the rest of the world. Thus they fail to include women in their planning or consider how their work might exacerbate existing gender inequities.

"Agriculture development initiatives can end up doing harm by importing western ideas of who is the farmer and how food production occurs," said Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI and lead author of the IFPRI report, Engendering Agricultural Research, Development and Extension. "We need to reorient the thinking of donors, researchers and aid groups to recognize women as farmers," she added, "and to see women's activities—whether they are gardening, storing, processing, packaging, transporting or marketing their crops—as central to agriculture and food security."

For example, women in many countries typically take the lead in post-harvest processing activities, but this area has been a low priority for agricultural researchers even though the lack of post-harvesting tools and storage leads to significant food losses. A report last year from FAO and the World Bank estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa alone, post-harvest grain losses from 2005 to 2007 were worth US $4 billion a year, about the same as the value of annual cereal imports in the region over the same period. The WorldFish Center estimates that more than one-quarter of the fish caught in Africa is lost to spoilage and to poor processing and shipping conditions.

In addition, the IFPRI report notes that reducing the enormous amount of time women spend processing crops can leave more time for other food producing and preparing activities that ultimately address hunger or provide new opportunities for income.

"Considering how many billions of hours are spent husking, milling and grinding grain at home, relatively little research has been devoted to improving the efficiency of these activities," the report said.

Research to be discussed at the conference also shows that the benefits of agricultural technologies targeted to women in developing countries can be significant. Labor-saving technologies have reduced the time it takes to parboil rice—which makes it easier to process by hand—from two days to six hours, according to research by ICAR's National Research Centre for Women in Agriculture (NRCWA). Women also have welcomed technologies that allow them to extract seeds from groundnuts while sitting versus standing and to use machines to plant maize and dehusk finger millets.

The IFPRI study finds that agricultural researchers need to broaden their objectives beyond simply boosting production to consider what women look for in a crop variety that might differ from a man's preferences, such as taste, nutritional value and ease of harvesting and processing. For example, in Côte d'Ivoire, men prefer short-stature, high-yielding rice varieties, but surveys reveal women are reluctant to grow them because they are hard to harvest while carrying infants on their backs. The West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA) has responded with a focus on developing medium- to tall-stature varieties.

There are also a growing number of studies showing that women can be vital research partners in the push to improve agriculture production in poor countries. For example, when a program in Rwanda asked women to evaluate new bean varieties, the beans they selected increased production by up to 38 percent more than the varieties selected by the breeders themselves.

However, a lack of gender balance among scientists and leadership in most agricultural institutions and among policymakers and extension workers drives gender inequality for farm women overall. In sub-Saharan Africa, only one in four of the agricultural researchers is female, and in Latin America, only one in three agricultural researchers is a woman. In 64 developing countries, only an average of 23 percent of agricultural researchers were female. Most extension workers are male and women have far less access to these extension services, according to the IFPRI report.


Developed by GFAR, the Gender in Agriculture Partnership (GAP) initiative is becoming a strong catalyst for concerted actions around gender in agriculture. It facilitates action among diverse partners, while fully recognizing the role and contribution of each of them, creating the invaluable synergies and scales of impact required to make a real difference.

The GAP came about through the major Global Conference on Agricultural Research in 2010, where gender was a key theme, and was included in the resultant GCARD Roadmap. Over the last two years, GFAR has fostered informal cooperation among a number of partners under the GAP initiative. This has allowed collective actions among leading international institutions (e.g. CGIAR, AWARD, FAO, IFAD, UN Women, World Bank), regional forums (e.g. APAARI, FARA, AARINENA), NGO and CSO networks (e.g. DIMITRA, Prolinnova), large scale research-for-development programmes (e.g. the Sub-Saharan Africa Challenge Program), and communities and national agricultural research for development systems across Africa and Asia.

Responding to the need for new large scale action to specifically meet the innovation needs of women farmers identified in FAO's The State of Food and Agriculture Report 2010- 2011, GFAR has worked intensively with FAO Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division (ESW) and jointly commissioned two studies: one in Niger on identifying women's needs in agricultural innovation, produced by IFPRI in the report Engendering Agricultural Research, Development and Extension; and a study through Association of Agricultural Research Institutions in the Near East and North Africa (AARINENA) on Women Empowerment for Improved Research in Agricultural Development, Innovation and Knowledge Transfer in the West Asia/North Africa Region.

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