Solving the global food crisis starts with women’s rights

Solving the food crisis means empowering women.

This week, world leaders are meeting in Rome to devise new strategies for world agriculture. They ought to be promoting women’s rights.

The majority of the world’s farmers are women. In the poorest countries, where the food crisis is at its worst, women grow and produce 80 percent of all food.

Boosting the capacity of small farmers to produce and sell food locally is a key part of the solution. But as women, many small farmers face gender discrimination that undermines their capacity to feed people.

For example, in many countries, women who grow the food that sustains the majority of the population are not even recognized as farmers. They have no legal right to own land. And women are routinely shut out of government agriculture programs. They lose out on access to credit, seeds, tools and training that is more crucial than ever now, since farmers have to adapt to climate change.

All of this means that policies aiming to resolve the food crisis need also to uphold women’s rights.

These policies also must recognize the damage that so-called free trade has caused women.

Ana Chumba is facing a choice that no mother should ever have to make: whether to feed her daughter or send her to school.

Ana is a small-scale farmer who also sells homemade tortillas to make ends meet. But this year, the cost of staple foods in Nicaragua, where she lives, has more than doubled. If she keeps her daughter out of school to help with the tortillas, they may be able to bring in enough to buy rice, cooking oil and, on a good day, milk.

For most of us, the world food crisis has meant an annoying hike in our grocery bill. For Ana, already living on the brink of survival, it’s a true emergency.

Economists explain the food crisis as a perfect storm: rising demand for resource-intensive foods like meat, protracted drought, and more land being used to grow fuel instead of food.

But long before biofuels became a household word, international trade rules had bankrupted millions of small farmers in the developing world.

Because of huge government subsidies to factory farms in the United States and Europe, food imported from these countries became cheaper than food produced by local farmers.

As a result, food-producing countries like Nicaragua were turned into food importers, leaving people like Ana at the mercy of global markets.

The global food crisis is no natural disaster. Hunger is a consequence of failed policies.

Fortunately, policies can be changed.

The time to change them is now.

The kind of small-scale, sustainable farming that women traditionally do is exactly the mode of agriculture that we need to expand. The Rome meeting should realign world agriculture policy with the interests of small-scale women farmers instead of giant corporations. If we can do that, we may just be able to meet the challenge of today’s global food crisis by feeding all people while protecting the planet.

Yifat Susskind is the communications director for MADRE, an international nonprofit group based in New York that works for women’s rights and resources worldwide. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.