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Women Farmers and Food Security

Investing in women farmers can alleviate hunger and poverty and reduce carbon emissions, writes Milena Novy-Marx of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

By Milena Novy-Marx


ILRI Flickr

Global food security is expected to be a major topic of discussion at this year’s G8 summit. The following statement from the recent meeting of G8 foreign ministers foreshadows one aspect of the issue that heads of state should consider when they meet at Camp David on May 18-19. According to the Chair of the foreign ministers’ meeting, “Donor and partner government investments in agricultural development have proven to be one of the most effective means to promote broad-based economic growth, especially when they are nutrition-sensitive and target smallholder farmers and women.”

The G8 foreign ministers were right to highlight the role of smallholder farmers—especially women—in agricultural development. Food security—the challenge of sustainably feeding the world despite a growing population and rising appetites for meat and other resource-intensive calories—is not getting any easier. Nearly one billion people on the planet do not receive enough food to meet basic nutritional needs. Providing sufficient nutrition to the world’s seven billion people, especially to prevent stunted growth and permanently reduced levels of cognitive development in children, will become more difficult as the population rises. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) expects the global population to reach nine billion by the middle of the century, with demand for food growing 70 percent by that time.

A growing body of evidence indicates that smallholder farmers—the majority of whom are women in many developing countries—hold the key to producing the food the world needs and, in turn, tackling hunger and extreme poverty. FAO’s 2010-2011 annual report, which featured the role of female farmers, reported that women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries and over 50 percent in some sub-Saharan African countries, including Nigeria, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso. This is also the case in China, where women make up nearly 53 percent of the agricultural labor force.

Yet these female farmers are not as productive as they could be. Studies have shown that female farmers are just as efficient as their male counterparts but produce less because they lack the same access to land and crucial inputs, e.g. fertilizers, new seeds, extension services, and technology. The gender gap also exists in access to education and financial services, compounding the effects on farm output.

If women enjoyed equal access to these assets and services, FAO estimates that they could increase productivity on their farms by 20 to 30 percent. This would help boost agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent—enough to reduce the number of hungry people in the world by one-sixth. This kind of evidence has convinced the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to orient new agricultural funding around a program requiring grant recipients to design projects for female farmers.  “Ignoring a woman’s role in agriculture has consequences for the success of our work,” the foundation notes.

Climate change will only continue to complicate the challenge of food security. As weather becomes increasingly less predictable and extreme weather events become more frequent, farmers in many regions will suffer from reduced or less reliable rainfall. This is true in Central America, the Sahel, the Ganges Delta, the Mekong, and many other sub-regions. This is a major problem in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of smallholder farmers continue to rely on rainfall to water their crops, as opposed to irrigation.

A focus on women can and should be part of the solution. A study by economist David Wheeler and Dan Hammer of the Center for Global Development found that educating women and investing in family planning may be the most cost-effective investments to reduce carbon emissions. This may prove more efficient than other alternatives such as solar, wind, nuclear power, and carbon sequestration. Educated women can improve a community’s ability to adapt to climate change by choosing appropriate crops and technologies to improve agricultural yields, for example. Additionally, educated women have fewer children, are more likely to use technology on their farms, and have access to markets, boosting local food production and incomes.

Women spend more of their income on their children’s health and education than men. Raising female farmers’ levels of production means that more investments will go back into families and communities, helping to ensure intergenerational gains in the fight against hunger and poverty.

What can the G8 do about all of this? Partnerships with developing country governments and G20 nations are key. The G8 made a good first step in 2009, joining with countries from Africa and elsewhere to launch the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative, which supports country-led efforts to invest in sustainable food security and improved nutrition in Africa and other regions. The L’Aquila Initiative set a goal of raising $20 billion in investment over three years to promote rural development in poor countries.

G8 countries are also among the world’s largest donors of development assistance, and their representatives still hold a majority of votes on the Board of the World Bank. Helping to direct aid dollars within the L’Aquila Initiative and through other channels, and closing the gender gap in education could make a huge difference to in female farmers.  Ensuring that pledges from the L’Aquila Initiative and other supporters are met—and that women farmers benefit—offers a far higher return on investment than business as usual.