Many of us in the Global North probably have a mental image attached to the word “farmer.” Here’s a pretty good approximation of most of our impressions of what constitutes “the average farmer.”
Most of us probably don’t realize that the “average farmer” on a world scale looks rather different. Here’s an approximate of what the average farmer looks like:
Or maybe she looks more like this:
Women feed the world, and I mean that quite literally. Worldwide, according to the UN FAO, more than 50% of all the food grown worldwide is produced by women, who constitute close to 60% of the world’s farmers – and more than 70% of the world’s small farmers. More than 80% of all food processing and preparation worldwide is done by women – everything from grain grinding to dinner cooking.
85% of the world’s farms are small farms, producing half the world’s calories. In many parts of the world, they produce the vast majority, including grain staples. 80% of African farms are small farms and almost 90% are farmed by women. In Asia, the majority of all the world’s rice is grown on small farms with less than 2 hectares in production – often by women.
in the US, women are the single-fastest growing demographic group – while women own only 7% of all farms, their numbers doubled from 2000 to 2007. As in the world as a whole, US women farmers are vastly less likely to own their land than male farmers – less than 1% of all agricultural land worldwide is actually owned by women. In many cases, land titles are held by males and their families, while women actually work the land, and that land can be sold out from under them.
Everywhere in the world, women farmers face astonishing barriers. In the US, for example, American women farmers are currently suing the Department of Agriculture (Love v. Vilsack) for discrimination in agricultural loans. In much of Africa, for decades well meaning social agencies directed farm aid at men – rather than the people who actually grew the food. And yet, they keep on growing. And they are feeding us. African women farmers grow your coffee. Mexican women farmers grow your lettuce. Malaysian women farmers grow your tea.
When we talk about the future of agriculture, whether we can feed the world, etc… I think it is important to have a fairly accurate mental picture of what we are describing – we tend to assume that large grain producers in the Global North produce most of the world’s food, but this is not true. We tend to assume that all we have to do is improve technologies, develop just the right seeds and what else is there? But often the right seeds aren’t quite the point. For example, the UN FAO observes that 25% of African women farmers are using only primitive hand-made tools. 1.4 billion people rely on seeds they save themselves and could not afford to purchase seed, no matter how productive.
This is only a tiny snapshot of the world agricultural picture, but I point it out because while many of us are beginning to know something about our food, most of us still have a great deal to learn about what the world food picture looks like – and where we need to begin to make sure that people go on eating.