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Tuesday, October 15, 2013
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Flipping the Script: Women’s Labor as Central in the Global Drive for Sustainable Food

By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15

In her October 2 webinar, “Gender, Food and Agriculture,” Maria Trumpler, Director of the Office LGBTQ Resources at Yale, spoke about the centrality of women’s labor and expertise in agriculture around the world and highlighted the ways in which interdisciplinarity can illuminate conventionally delineated topics such as agriculture and gender studies. In doing this, she helped listeners find connections between agriculture, international development, cooking, gender, women’s voting rights, and the simple (or socially complex) act of eating.

This approach reveals that women are critical drivers behind the sustainable production of food globally, particularly in many developing countries where women provide 43 percent of agricultural labor. The recent report, The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011, released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recognizes the “gender gap” in agricultural production. That is, recent data reveals that despite their large contribution of labor, women own less land, fewer livestock, and have less access to machinery, credit, or extension education. Ameliorating this gap could increase a locale’s food production and help reduce food shortages.

From a women’s history perspective, this report reflects an important historic trend, the acknowledgement of women’s labor as independent of men’s. The inclusion of gender studies in agriculture does much to dismantle the invisibility of women’s work in the fields and in the home, an all-too-familiar historic narrative.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, women run 14 percent of farms (as opposed to 5 percent in 1978) and are increasingly interested in small-scale farming ventures. By 2007, in fact, small or “tiny” farms represented 31 percent of all U.S. farms (as opposed to 11 percent in 1982). Women play an important role in the local agriculture movement that is gaining momentum across the US. Local farms and community-supported agriculture organizations (CSAs) are becoming important sources of organic produce, dairy, and meat in regional markets. Groups such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are pressing for federal action to support small farms as drivers of local economies. Such efforts are creating a national platform for re-thinking food production and distribution.

Women’s support of small farms may boost regional economic systems, but may also be a source of biological and cultural revitalization. In this sense, perhaps, local women farmers are both reclaiming and redefining their roles as members of their communities. As the loss of crop diversity globally becomes a greater threat to food security, the task of protecting native and heirloom varieties becomes ever more important.

Indeed, the protection of crop diversity is both biologically and culturally relevant as these carefully selected plants are, in many ways, embedded in a cultural milieu. Crops such as lacinato kale, beets, or cabbage bind cultivators and consumers to the land and to each other through economic and social ties. These plants often represent seasonal traditions in celebration of the spring planting or fall harvest, or may be a central component of how communities express social values like sharing or cooperation.

Increased involvement with growing food locally may allow women to build not only a more robust economy but create a stronger community-driven and cooperative relationship to the land.

If you weren’t able to join us for Maria’s webinar but are interested in exploring this topic more, a recording of Maria Trumpler’s webinar is available here.

Please join us November 6 at 11:00 AM EST for our next webinar in the series. Jason Foscolo of the Food Law Firm will join us to launch “A Legal Framework for the New Food Movement,” the second part of our yearlong webinar series on Frontiers in Food and Agriculture. Registration details are forthcoming. For more information about the series and to register for upcoming webinars, visit our webinar page.

Avana Andrade is a first year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.

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