How much food do women produce?

This blog was originally posted on the CGIAR Development Dialogues 2014 website and is an entry for the "Talking Science" competition.

CD blogWomen play important roles in all smallholder farming systems. Advocates for women farmers often claim that “women produce 60-80% of the world’s food.” Occasionally, we are told that this statistic refers to food produced in developing countries, or food crops in sub-Saharan Africa; the reference point is vague. But the idea is clear – women produce more food than men.

Every bit of available evidence, however, suggests that the statistic is wrong – and indeed that the underlying claim is simply a myth. The best available data on labor allocated to agriculture indicate that women actually represent little more than 40% of the global agricultural workforce (and even in sub-Saharan Africa this figure is less than 50%). It could still be the case that women farmers work many more hours than men in agriculture, but the limited time use data does not provide statistical support for this proposition.

On closer consideration, it is hard to know what it would even mean for women to produce more food than men (or vice versa). Food is produced with land and labor – often the labor of more than one person — and other inputs, such as seeds or fertilizer.

How would we know if a particular kilo of maize was grown by a woman? Is it maize grown on her land? Produced with her labor? Or is it maize that she takes to market to sell? If a wheat field was cleared by a man, planted and weeded by a woman, and harvested by the whole family – men, women and children – who produced the wheat? And when women purchase bread from a shop, who produced it?

One approach might consider the amount of labor time that men and women each contributed. We might be able to claim that women provided some percentage of the labor to grow food. But that raises other challenges. Would we simply count each hour of time? Or adjust for skills or effort as well? Another approach would be to attribute food production to the owner or manager of the land. But this would ignore the contributions of women working on a plot owned by their husband and would give us quite low estimates of the amount of food produced by women.

If this claim about women in agriculture is simply a myth, it is important to remember that many myths actually reflect deeper truths – and this one is no exception. Women are indeed important food producers, and they play a key role in all smallholder farming systems. In addition, women have the primary responsibility to transform crops into meals for their families. In many places, they also play vital roles in food marketing and distribution. Beyond their heavy involvement in agricultural production and food preparation, women also have primary responsibility for the bulk of the child care and housekeeping, including cleaning, laundry, meal preparation, and fetching water and fuel. So women are indeed key actors in smallholder agriculture, and it is important for development interventions to recognize the particular challenges and constraints that women face.

Although there are no comprehensive data on women’s access to and ownership of land globally, all of the available information suggests that women are disadvantaged in terms of land rights. Similarly, women farmers in almost all settings have less access to extension service, credit, and inputs than their male counterparts.

If women were producing 60-80% of the food in developing countries, given their limited access to land and other inputs and their household responsibilities, they would be miracle workers indeed! But perhaps we should focus less on how much they are currently producing and more on how to ease these constraints that limit their potential.

The rationale for paying attention to women as farmers should not rest on inflated estimates of how much food they “produce”, but rather on recognition that removing barriers that limit women’s potential could have the double benefit of raising incomes of women farmers and making more food available for all.

This blogpost is based on the paper: “If women hold up half the sky, how much of the world’s food do they produce?” by Cheryl Doss, published in Gender in Agriculture: Closing the Knowledge Gap, edited by Agnes R. Quisumbing, Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Terri L. Raney, André Croppenstedt, Julia A. Behrman, and Amber Peterman, Springer, 2014.

Blogpost submitted by Cheryl Doss, Strategic Gender Research for the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), led by IFPRI – cheryl.doss(at)yale.edu
Picture courtesy M.Yousuf Tushar (WorldFish)

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