THE BLOG
03/07/2016 01:32 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2017

Women and Food: The Key to a Healthier Planet

As we eat and celebrate this International Women's Day, let's pause to think about how women are involved in producing food. Why? Because focusing on women involved in agriculture will enable us to tackle the key issues of our time - gender inequality and climate change. Women have a crucial role to play in global natural resource management, environmental sustainability and food security.

Women comprise, on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in low and middle income countries, ranging from 20 percent in Latin America to 50 percent in Eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, an estimated two-thirds of poor livestock keepers, totaling approximately 400 million people, are women. Moreover, agriculture is becoming increasingly feminized as men migrate to cities and women stay on the farm. As the world approaches 9 billion people, agricultural production will need to be 60% higher than 2005-2007 levels.

Despite the importance of women in this sector and the anticipated need to enhance agricultural productivity, women continue to have unequal access to resources, land, income, information and technology. They also play a limited role in policy formulation and decision-making related to the environment. Women are often excluded from local decision-making with regard to natural resources. Such exclusion is often a reflection of gender inequality in roles and responsibilities as well as women's time constraints. If women had the same access to production resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%. This could boost agricultural yield in low and middle-income nations by 2.5-4% and reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 100 to 150 million.

Agriculture also has a central role to play in climate change because it is responsible for 80% of global deforestation, a major contributing factor to carbon emissions. The drive to increase food production to meet increasing world demand poses a huge threat to the world's forests. The recent Paris Agreement that resulted from COP21 clearly states that "sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries" can help to reduce carbon emissions. The loss of forests around the world also continues to threaten biodiversity and increase soil erosion.

One key solution to these global challenges is to can empower rural women producers and enhance their role in sustainable agriculture. Environmental protection, and consequently sustainable development, require that both women and men are actively involved in preserving natural resources and participating in local and higher level environmental decision-making. When it comes to forests, women participate far less than men in formal forest user groups in tropical forests as well as in countries such as Canada.

While there are no quick fixes to the deeply rooted social and cultural practices that result in gender inequality and the marginalization of specific communities, there are several examples of successful programs that advance both women and the environment.

In Peru, recognition of women's harvesting rights has resulted in increased incomes for indigenous communities involved in non-timber forest products. In the Amazonian region of Madre de Dios, one-third of concession holders and a significant percentage of the labor force related to Brazil nut collection and production are women. Yet, harvesting rights of indigenous women were only recently recognized. These rights have enabled women harvesters to access credit independently, with the result that 39% of the credit lines granted by a local bank for Brazil nut collection went to female heads of household. This was the first time that the indigenous Brazil nut harvesters received credit, which has contributed to a price increase of 18% for its Brazil nuts. The harvesters were able to fully repay their loan and the bank is interested in financing next year's harvest.

In the forested areas of West Africa, training in sustainable agriculture practices targeted to women is contributing to increased productivity and improved nutrition. Access to training has enabled Ghanaian farmer Vida Tsatso Boaful to increase her cocoa production from 3 to 10 bags per acre while retaining tree cover on her farm. She is using the increased income to send her children to school. In neighboring Côte d'Ivoire, a group of women involved in cocoa farming on the border of Taï National Park are helping to improve local nutrition and protect biodiversity. They have received training in rearing livestock to prevent the poaching and consumption of bushmeat. Several women are using chicken eggs as a sustainable protein alternative as well as a potential source of income.

These examples from Latin America and Africa provide robust evidence that enhancing women's decision-making related to natural resource management and providing them with access to credit and training on par with men results in social benefits and productivity at least equal to that of men. Studies have also indicated that $10 of increased women's income achieves the same amount of improvement in children's nutrition and health as $110 of increased men's income.

As we buy and eat food this International Women's Day, let's remember the crucial connection between women, food and our global struggle for equality and climate change. Let's commit to taking actions that advance women and our planet's future.