Food security is a critical – and growing – issue. We share the globe with 7 billion others and that number is growing. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that there are one 1 billion hungry people are hungry in the world and 60% of them are women, with 100 to 150 million living in extreme poverty. To drive the point home, 2.5 billion people live on $2/day, and here in the US, we spend about 7% of our household expenses on food – while the world’s poorest consumers spend 50—70% of their income on food.
On April 16, I moderated a blog breakfast in Washington, DC with Baroness Mary Goudie, a long time member of the House of Lords. Here’s a summary of what she said about this issue.
Foster: Can you give us a sense of what food security means and how it (and the related issue of hunger) affects women and girls?
Goudie: First, food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum (1) the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and (2) an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.
This is important because more women are hungry and undernourished than men. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, 20% of women are undernourished and in India and Bangladesh, it reaches 40%.
Being hungry makes women more susceptible to health problems such as miscarriage, premature labor and increases likelihood that HIV infected women will transmit the disease to their children. Hunger also has a large impact on children and their development.
When food prices rise, women are hard hit due to their lack of resources relative to men, poorer access to credit, income and land. Not surprisingly, women tend to reduce their own food consumption to leave more food for other family members – in Bangladesh almost 60% of households report that women skip meals more often than men.
Foster: I was taken by Tom Friedman’s column in the New York Times where he linked rebellion and revolt in the Arab Spring countries to increased food prices and scarcity of water. Can you comment on that?
Goudie: Food security is a foreign policy issue, and his comments highlight the global nature of the problem. Food security affects stability across the globe, and we need to pay attention to that as we analyze what is happening around the world.
Foster: Here in the US and UK, we think of farmers as men – but actually women are the majority of small scale farmers in developing countries. How do women farm differently than men?
Goudie: Women farmers work hard. As producers, women are sometimes relegated to the production of subsistence crops on marginal land. In comparison, men tend to produce cash crops on land nearer to the home or marketplace for ease of access. Women farmers work long hours – and mostly by hand. They work various plots of land, with no irrigation, no farm equipment or farm equipment that is really designed for men. And, they also spend hours getting water and fuel.
For example, African women carry out 90% of the work processing food crops and providing water and fuel, and 80% of the work of food storage and transport from farm to village but only receive 10% of the credit. In Tanzania the average woman spends more than 4 hours a day (1500 hours a year) on transporting water and fuel.
Foster: What policies do you think are important for national governments to implement?
Goudie: Governments and international organizations must support policies that support women farmers. I was surprised to learn that if women had same access to productive resources (farming equipment, fertilizer, etc.,) there would be an increase in food produced, such that we could decrease the number of hungry people in the world by 100-150 million. In sub-Saharan Africa, women produce 70% of food that is either sold or eaten, and if they had better farming equipment, training, there would be an increase of 22% in crop yields. This means that supporting women supports everyone.
We need to make sure that women get the help they need – training, inputs – but also need to make sure that there are women in the relevant ministries who can implement the policies – both women rural extension agents and Ministers of Agriculture.
Foster: Countries need to invest in women farmers to combat poverty and hunger – but what exactly does that mean from policy perspective?
Goudie: It’s simple. Women farmers need better access to markets, better training, and countries also need to make it easier for women to own land and have title to land.