Gender and Food Security

The state of the world's environment is vital for global food security. It was once believed that natural resources had an unlimited capacity to meet humanity's needs. It is now more widely understood that the environment is under threat and in need of protection.

Since the early 1980s considerable attention has been devoted to the relationship between women and the environment, and extensive efforts have been made to identify the effects of the international environmental crisis on women. Momentum was gathered at the workshop of non-governmental organizations, which ran parallel to the first World Conference on Women in Nairobi (1985), where it was not only recognized that the themes of "women and development" and the "environment" are interlinked but also must be incorporated into policy planning.

These efforts culminated with the finalization of the Women's Action Agenda 21, elaborated in the run-up of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and development (UNCEDA), whereby the important relationship between women and the environment was stressed.

As the world's food producers, women and men have a stake in the preservation of the environment and in environmentally sustainable development. Land and water resources form the basis of all farming systems, and their preservation is crucial to sustained and improved food production. Water is present at many levels in the life of rural women: they collect water and manage its use in the household; they farm irrigated and rain-fed crops; they know where the water can be found, how to store it, when it is scarce and whether it is safe for their family's use.

The same is true with land. Women farmers tend to use and perfect traditional cropping methods developed over time to protect precious natural resources. This makes them key players in the conservation of soil fertility.

Women employ methods such as fallowing (leaving fields uncultivated for at least a season), crop rotation (planting a field with different successive crops), intercropping (planting several different crops in a field at one time), mulching (spreading organic material on the soil around plants to avoid water evaporation) and a variety of techniques that promote soil conservation, fertility and enrichment. Planners are now recognizing the value of learning from women's local knowledge to protect and sustain the environment.

But poverty is a leading cause of environmental degradation in the developing world. Women farmers trying to eke out an existence on marginal lands, with little education and no access to agricultural resources, are often driven to adapting less labour-intensive crops and practices that may harm the environment. Soil erosion, polluted water and declining yields result.

Furthermore, as women rarely own land they cultivate there is little incentive for them to make environmentally sound decisions, while their lack of access to credit hampers them from buying technologies and inputs that would be less damaging to natural resources. These negative factors set up a cycle of declining productivity, increasing environmental degradation and food insecurity for the future.

Men and women need to be alerted to the threats that environmental degradation pose to food security. Women in particular, need to be informed about alternative methods of cooking, farming, heating and waste disposal. Gender-sensitive planning in training and technology development would not only improve production today, but it would also ensure the protection of the environment for tomorrow.

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization, Gender Unit

Return to Gender and Environment
Articles, links, one-pagers and more!