Beyond Gender and Food Security

By McMahon, Martha; Johra, Fatima | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall/Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Beyond Gender and Food Security


McMahon, Martha, Johra, Fatima, Women & Environments International Magazine


Food Sovereignty

A quick internet search shows that images of women farmers are increasingly used in major reports on global food security. This development may not be as promising as it first appears.

Despite years of talking, new promises of money, new projects, endless reports and all sorts of international commitments and expressions of good intentions, the number of hungry and malnourished people in the world is rising.

Roughly 15% of humanity (over one billion people) is considered hungry or malnourished. A disproportionate number of the hungry are women and children. The majority of the hungry (65%) are in India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. Although most of the hungry and malnourished people live in rural and semi-rural areas, there has been growing urban-based public protest and political unrest around food prices.

This new unrest seems to come not from the most abject victims of absolute hunger that we often see in die media, but from the somewhat better off urban dwellers, many of whom are increasingly spending 40% or more of their incomes on food. The rising cost of food hits urban household budgets very hard, but unlike many of the rural powerless, the new food-insecure urbanités have the capacity to make their political protests visible. The political upheavals in Egypt and Libya, for example, were both initially connected to rising food prices.

Political unrest gives urgency to the new interest in food and agriculture in the major organs of international and national governance. So too has the expectation that climate change will increase foodrelated conflict and scarcities. Many large investment corporations, and some national governments, are securing their own future control of food commodities and access to agricultural land.

Huge tracts of agricultural land, primarily in poor African countries, are being bought or acquired through what some call 'investments' and others call 'land grabs.'

Foreign national governments want to secure their own political stability vis-àvis food security by acquiring control of other countries' farmland. Financial companies and agri-business corporations want to secure profits and growth. Both quests are leading to 'investment' in African agriculture and farmland. In many cases, peasant farmers are being dispossessed of their traditional means of life (Oxfam, Sept 2011). This problem is not exclusive to the Global South. The number of people relying on food banks in countries like Canada is increasing.

Feminists have worked to improve food security and agricultural policies by stressing mat food security and food insecurity are gendered phenomena. The most food insecure people in the world are usually women and children. Here in Canada (as elsewhere) children go hungry or rely on food banks because their mothers are poor. In the Global South, given women's key role in farming, the dynamics are different. That is, small-scale women farmers often produce the food and thus create food security for their families and their communities.

Putting Gender in Talk of Food Security: Is this a good thing?

The World Bank World Development Report (2008) opens with a textual image of women small-scale farmers represented as the embodiment of the conflated problems of food insecurity, inadequate technology, large families, and poverty:

An African woman bent over under the sun weeding sorghum with a hoe, a child strapped to her back - a vivid image of rural poverty. For her large family and millions like her, the meager bounty of subsistence farming is the only chance to survive.

Impoverished, feminized, small-scale farmers are commonly the objects of a caring and gendered gaze widely found in texts produced by international governance organizations and some large NGOs. Readers are often assured mat it is not women-farmers' fault, but a problem of neglect.

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