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Food and nutrition security is the measure of an individual’s ability to access food that is nutritious and sufficient in quantity. However, it remains a public health concern globally.
While good nutrition is a human right that should be accessed by everyone, hunger and malnutrition remain a major public health concern globally. On the eve of World Food Day and a year from the Nutrition Year of Action where COP26 was criticised for leaving sustainable food systems off the agenda, progress is still needed to tackle this global challenge.
As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)’s latest report states “the world is at a critical juncture”. New global challenges such as mounting population size combined with rising economic, environmental, and social concerns, all of which are intensified by shifts in dietary patterns, livelihood structures and climate change, are changing the landscape of agriculture and food systems as we know them.
Women driving the food economy
In most developing countries, rural women are the mainstay of small-scale agriculture, farm labour, and day-to-day family subsistence. Without the work of female farmers, the food and nutrition crisis would be much worse, and women are therefore an integral part of the solution. The United Nations estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30%, in turn lifting 100-150 million people out of hunger.
Yet there’s no doubt that it’s been a tumultuous few years of world events resulting in new barriers facing these women.
The Covid-19 pandemic left the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable workforce in jeopardy. Preventative measures from border closures to trade restrictions, prevented access to farms and markets, thereby triggering hard felt socio-economic consequences on people’s livelihoods and purchasing power, and making them increasingly food insecure. According to the FAO, the number of food-insecure people categorised as crisis level or worse potentially nearly doubled in 2020.
The war in Ukraine has also had a ripple effect on supply chains. Before the conflict, the World Food Program indicates that it was purchasing around 50 percent of its wheat from Ukraine for humanitarian purposes in countries such as Yemen, Ethiopia and Syria. The crisis is also further increasing fuel and food prices, particularly in import-dependent and low-income countries, making it unsustainable for many women to feed their families.
It is critical that women have increased access to control resources in order to mitigate the effect of future crises on food and nutrition security, particularly in the rural context. As the FAO states, “Efforts to alleviate rural poverty and improve food security will not be successful unless issues relating to women as producers and providers of food are taken into account.”
Women and girls have a fundamental right to good nutrition and deserve the opportunity to step out of survival mode and start planning for futures that would yield new possibilities for their communities, their own future, and the world at large.
The impact of vulnerable livelihoods on food insecurity
In addition to these growing new barriers, women must also contend with being a long-standing, at-risk group on the journey to achieve SDG8 (Decent work and economic growth).
Gender discrimination means that women are more likely to be in low-wage jobs, be paid less for the same work and have limited access to land and loans.
In times of crisis, low-income households also face asset losses and with less access to social capital and greater time burdens than their male counterparts, given their household food-security roles, women often struggle to find pathways out.
As they usually have a weak bargaining position regarding household income, they frequently have no choice but to reduce spending on nutrition and family well-being shifting to cheaper, less diverse diets. Rising food prices also mean women so often pay the price by reducing their own consumption to feed others.
Concern Worldwide are working to help people ‘graduate’ out of extreme poverty and into food security and sustainable livelihoods through ‘Graduation’ programmes. These are designed to provide those at risk with a comprehensive package of support from social assistance to livelihood development, and access to financial services. This model consists of six core components: Comprehensive targeting, income support, technical and business skills training, coaching and mentoring, facilitating access to financial services and promoting saving and transfer of capital or assets. As an example in practice, in Rwanda Concern works with local partners to address the root causes by engaging men and boys on women’s empowerment and gender equality.
Adding climate change into the mix
As we reflect on those whose livelihoods are most at stake it’s important to also consider how the situation for the most undernourished is multiplied by arguably the biggest threat facing humanity – climate change.
As rising temperatures, extreme weather-related disasters such as floods, droughts and higher levels of CO2, which reduces the nutritional value of crops, increase in severity traditional food production is becoming increasingly unsustainable. The MET Office and World Food Programme have created an interactive map which starkly shows the future effect if things don’t change.
Concern Worldwide work with communities on the frontline who rely heavily on farming, fishing and livestock-rearing for their livelihood and find themselves in an increasingly precarious position to build climate resilience at a community level. From the Sahelian zones of Chad and Niger, to the flood plains of Bangladesh, Concern are supporting communities to adopt Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) practices which adapt their farming. The practices being promoted include the diversification of crop varieties, increasing access to improved farming skills and technologies, and strengthening links with the private sector to facilitate access to agricultural inputs from seeds to new equipment. The organisation is committed to rolling-out CSA to 600,000 farmers as part of its Strategic Plan and as an active member of the African Climate-Smart Agriculture Alliance (ACSAA).
Lobbying for change
Other ways to change the tide include lobbying – taking action to influence the decisions of government - a particularly effective tool for change at both a national and international level. The following women with lived experience in developing contexts are agents of change worth knowing about.
Elizabeth Mpofu, now based in Zimbabwe has an incredible portfolio. Alongside operating her own farm, she is the General Coordinator at La Via Campesina (LVC), a coalition of 180+ organisations from 80+ countries striving to promote peasants’ rights and unite agricultural workers from around the world to establish a more just and sustainable food system. She also founded The African Women's Collaborative for Healthy Food Systems. Her work has successfully lobbied governments to incorporate and protect indigenous, local seeds and nutrient rich pulses in policy development, resulting in restrictions to the promotion of GMO seeds, enabling women farmers to thrive.
Esther Mwaura Muiru is the Founder and National Coordinator of GROOTS Kenya, a national movement of grassroots women-led community-based groups. She’s behind Stand for Her Land, a groundbreaking campaign calling for political leaders to end the patriarchal systems that discourage land ownership by women. The issue of land rights is crosscut with food security and climate resilience and vital in policy change.
Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General of FAO and Chairperson of the FAO Women’s Committee summarised well when speaking ahead of COP26 last year stating: “Women are on the front line, they are the most affected by the climate crisis, yet they are the ones who don't have the means when there's a flood or a drought […] They are the backbone of our agri-food system. If we don't take them into consideration, we will not achieve the results we want.”
Investing in the future of food
There are countless opportunities for companies and social entrepreneurs across other sectors to contribute to a truly sustainable food system and realise the value of pooling finances towards this cause.
Making the investment in your time to dedicate attention to reading this article also makes you a woman of concern and proves your potential to empower others, ensuring there’s enough food for us all as we navigate the unknown future.
Start by continuing the conversation by following us on LinkedIn or signing up to our emails.
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