She Farms

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:

asian women farmers.jpg

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.


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Just because currently 1.4 billion people rely on seeds they save and could not afford to purchase seed, no matter how productive, does not preclude improvements in seed technology directly benefitting these 1.4 billion people - there need to be mechanisms by which to get 'hi tech' seed to 'low tech' farmers which circumvent the requirement to pay for the seed - for instance, if a drought resistant (or nitrogen efficient, or disease resistant, or high nutrient) GMO variety was produced specifically for a given area there is nothing actually preventing that variety being saved and planted year in year out (other than the possibility of genetic pollution from unmodified plants sneaking in and buggering things up - perhaps some extention lessons in plant breeding and a good inbred rather than a hybrid would be required also...) without anyone other than the farmers benefitting - clearly it would require quite a complex framework of IP law etc in some areas so that small, subsistence (or just escaping from subsistence) farmers could utilize technologies sans cost and with the capacity to save seed, while at the same time protecting corporate interests where that is ethically acceptable (with perhaps a sliding fee system while moving from small, to mid, to large scale farms which operate predominantly for profit) - it is wholly possible that given access to the right seed, and the right market (which may be a bigger issue), that after a few years a lot of these people would be pulled out of the 'can't afford to buy seed' mode of life into 'can afford to buy seed, and hire help, and send the kids to school, and maybe think about purchasing some land' - all on the back of increasing productivity due to a few bags of seed.

The current model of seed tech getting out there clearly cannot apply to the vast majority of agriculture that goes on right now - that doesn't mean that the technology is out of reach (given that once utilized it is no more high tech than primitive hand made tools) just that the model needs to be changed to incorporate the rest of agriculture.

Thank you. You have once again challenged my perceptions and caused me to think.


Keep up the good work.

Great post! In one of my grad classes, ethnobotany, I think? The professor was talking about how all of his tree-planting programs in the developed world had failed... the trees died. UNTIL he realized that he needed to put women in charge of the trees instead of men. He said his programs were successful after that.

I would agree that people perceive farming to be a male-dominated field, but if you visit a local farmer's market, take a look around at the vendors. I seem predominantly women, though they may not be the official "owner." I think that small farming is something that women in the US overlook as a career you can make work with children. All of us (me, brothers, cousins) grew up in the strawberry field and apple orchard. My mom has pictures of herself with me in a backpack while she picked strawberries. I wish I could bring my baby along to work with me! Well, Sharon, you know, I don't have to explain that to you!

I didn't know this but I must have felt it....when I lend money on line through micro-financing I try to choose women involved in agriculture.


As an "urban farmer" I have also noticed that growing the food is not even the most time-consuming part of this whole adventure. Harvesting, cleaning, preparing, cooking, storing the food takes as much or more time, and women do the vast majority of that work as well. And it takes a lot of skill and knowledge to do this well and it's all invisible. We really do feed the world, and we don't get no respect :)

Planted early seeds in flats almost a week ago and they're coming up! How can this be so exciting every year?

Pictures really are worth a thousand words. :)

Ewan, you make a good point, but as I understand it *right now*, in the US, you are not really *allowed* to save seed from GMO plants. The creators of the GMO seeds have a patent on the things and have actually IIRC sued people for having "volunteer" plants from the GMO seed in their fields. (I seem to recall reading this somewhere, but do not have the time to track it down now. Someone please correct me if I'm misremembering.)

There would need to be a legal revolution of sorts to get "improved" seeds in the hands of people who need seeds. And at that, sometimes the stuff that has been grown in a region for generations really is the stuff that's best adapted. This isn't even taking into account the tendency of GMO plants to be selected for uniformity and ability for the produce to be shipping long distances well as opposed to things like nutritive value, taste, and other benefits. We've lost a LOT of good, sturdy, well adapted varieties because the seed companies want to improve on what is there already.

I'm not saying it isn't possible, or even desirable -- I'm saying that isn't the way it is now. And that changing it is going to be a lot of work of the legal and attitude type. If you are up for that, carry on!

It has always surprised me when giving farm tours that people assumed my husband was the farmer, and I was merely the wife. Even though they knew from our talk that it was my family's century farm and that my husband was raised in the city, and that we both performed farm tasks daily.

Most surprising was a lesbian neighbor who nudged me, and said, "Hopefully, you will have sons from now on - so someone can do the farming." She worked in a paper mill in a male dominated division.

Lynne - I agree with you on the work being after the harvest. Some days I DO NOT feel like fixing a meal with a smile on my face, while someone sits for a while to rest... .


correct, legally in the US you cannot save GMO seeds (as all GMO traits currently available are owned by corporations)

Incorrect about sueing for having volunteer's - legal action is only taken when presence of the trait in the field is at such a level that accidental presence is not plausible - although really this is a discussion for a different day, or even blog, not really pertinent here)

However, once regulatory hurdles are cleared (and this is really the big obstacle) there is no reason that all GM traits be patented (or at least if patented there is no reason that all patents be prosecuted - non-profit research can, as far as I am aware, patent an invention and allow anyone to use it) - even patented traits owned by corporations need not necessarily have patents prosecuted in all cases - Monsanto have made a pledge to utilize their water utilization gene, in the WEMA project, for no royalties - with no obstacles to seed saving (at least at my last reading on the project) and Pioneer recently announced their intention to do the same thing but with nitrogen use efficiency technology - now the cynical may say that these are moves to simply increase acceptance of traits which are going to make a whole bunch of money in the first world (both traits, if they work, will doubtless generate millions for the patent holders) however even if this is the case - if the traits work, and poor farmers can get them for nothing, who cares about the motivation right?

There would have to be some kind of legal framework in place, but not really a revolution - just a framework whereby subsistence/borderline subsistence farming has access to the technology for free with a sliding scale of cost so that commercial agriculture still pays for a product that potentially cost upwards of $100M to get to out there. I believe that this is a framework that the major biotech players are at least somewhat working towards currently (although that may not be in play for another decade or so, which I think is the approximate timeline for WEMA transgenics... hopefully I am wrong in this though)

GMO plants aren't selected for uniformity, ability to produce, or to be shipped long distances, or opposed to things like nutritive value, taste, or other benefits. Current GM traits are probably more likely to be found in plants which have these issues (or some of them) because currently GMOs are only utilized in (or at least predominantly utilized in) large scale monoculture(ish) agriculture where these traits are selected for in the hybrids which are then selected for modification. There is literally no reason that an heirloom tomato could not be modified genetically to express Bt toxin (or some equivalent which would protect against a predator of the tomato) without there being any changes to any of the other characteristics mentioned - likewise with any trait, in any plant - the genetics of the plant itself dictate uniformity, production, taste, shipping capacity, nitritional value, etc - the genetic trait, effects just that genetic trait (assuming insertion doesn't cause some yield drag, or disrupt a native gene - but this is part of the costly process of getting GM right, rather than just flinging genes in at random and crossing your fingers)

What should be considered is, where there are good sturdy well adapted varieties (and frankly across a lot of subsistence farming I'd say this is not true, although that is based on more anecdotal evidence and the fact that yields and nutritional values suck - cassava anyone?) genetic modification of these varieties to insert new traits without having to cross them in (assuming genetic variation within the species allows this) would save time, and improve something without the negatives (if for instance the trait you were crossing in was tightly linked to something less desirable, although with molecular breeding these days this probably isn't that big of an issue)

Ewan, I don't disagree with you - there's no reason they couldn't be. But let's look at the history of getting improved varieties into the hands of the poor - it is at best inconsistent. The risk is the same risk that came with the Green Revolution - that the majority of the investment that scientists make with the sincere attempt to reduce hunger ends up mostly benefitting areas that already have food surpluses, and never gets into the hands of the people who need it.


Which is a reason I blather so - there needs to be a push to get these things to the people that need them. Rather than resources wasted on making sure that people can't use them - see Bt Brinjal in India as an example of farmers who really could use a GM product to massively reduce pesticide useage while at the same time massively increasing yields (although this perhaps falls into the areas with surplus rather than areas that absolutely need it - or maybe slap bang in the middle)

Equally golden rice, and flood tolerant rice (hurrah for ancient rice and breeding in this instance however) are two products which both have seen investment, research, and have then been stymied not due to any mismanagement in the hands of the developers, but because political ideologies get in the way.

Which means that yes, technology isn't the only answer - there needs to be systems in place to get the technology into the hands of those that need it, however in the seed technology is arguably far more likely to get to those that need it than anything the green revolution provided (hey, these varieties do great! Oh, provided you can afford the chemical inputs which they're designed to stand up to!) or anything that modern agriculture might utilize (hey, you guys want a tractor? I realize you possibly dont have access to gasoline what with not having fresh water and all, but it would do wonders if you could fill it up) - whereas a seed is a seed - which is a good starting point.

While the history may be inconsistent, and while there may be a risk that areas with surplus are going to benefit (and lets face it, even without investing in research for poorer areas, the research is going to be done for areas with surplus anyway, to the tune of billions of dollars a year) it's certainly worth pushing for, and pushing hard for, at least in my opinion.

you need an anthropology lesson.

In Asia, families work on the farm together. The men will prepare the paddies (using a hand plow or waterbuffalo, both requiring hard work) but the women plant and help with harvests.

In Africa, the man plows the field using oxen (dangerous work) and that is the main field for the family food. But in many Bantu tribes, the woman has her own field, with corn mixed with veggies/peanuts, and that is for her use to feed the family. With men now forced by modern economics to work in cities or the mines, that means she does most of the work in the fields.

Yes, women need to be integrated and helped to learn modern agriculture. But unless you work through the culture (and not impose a western individualistic mindset) you are missing the point.

I would love to see some of the seeds with desirable traits (affordably) in the hands of those who need them most. However, I've never really thought the problems were that the seeds which 3rd world farmers used were inferior, but rather that they'd been convinced to adopt the commodities model of planting (complete with its attendant inputs and equipment). This is a broadly unsustainable method of farming, even in the US, and even under the economic understanding of sustainable; it's been a disaster for the poor 3rd world farmer. And the seed stock to which you refer is also mostly commodity seed stock. Even if we could get it into their hands, it would just mean that now they'll have more success in growing commodity crops that are already flooding the world market in most places. I'd rather see us pursuing Vandana Shiva's method of helping these people re-learn their former farming methods, which are lower input and affordable, and give the result of being able to feed themselves plus some left over for small market sales. The seed scientists may well be trying their best to do wonderful things--I don't really doubt that. But at least in my view, they're trying to fix the wrong problem.

Golden rice is, in a way, the best example of what I see as a disconnect between the great desire of our scientists to do good, and the actual problem they're trying to address. Golden rice is a wonderful, not-for-profit, unpatented attempt to address the problem of severe vitamin A deficiencies in various populations. So they engineer rice to unlock the pronutrient form of vitamin A already present, so that the people can have a source of this nutrient. Great! But, here's the thing--why are these people vitamin A deficient in the first place? They didn't used to be. A population that is chronically unable to have access to a basic nutrient like vitamin A would have long ago either perished or moved away. The website for the Golden Rice Project itself says what the reason is--it's because the people are too poor to afford the fruits, vegetables, and other carotene-containing foods which are a superior way to get vitamin A. It is highly doubtful that these people have never been able to access these foods, or there wouldn't be people there at all anymore. But these days, thanks to a variety of factors, these people have generally stopped growing their traditional foods, gotten very very poor, and now cannot afford to buy the foods they used to grow which would've staved of such deficiencies. So really, the problem isn't a vitamin A deficiency, the problem is that *they're now really really poor*. What happens when the next deficiency shows up? Engineer protein into the rice, too? Or vitamin C producing wheat? What? How about helping them relearn the farming methods that kept them deficiency free for generations? And then, frankly, if we want to work on improving *those foods* seed stock, well why not? We've always done that with selection, and if GMOs end up being safe (I do still think that's an "if" but not a "yes" or a "no"), then yeah! But for right now, it seems like a solution to the wrong problem.

A concern with GMOs is the reports of falsification of data, lack of cooperation with independent researchers and government agencies, and bullying of farmers that seem to "crop up" wherever they are introduced. The worst of this seems to be centered on India at the moment.

Risa - given the statement

""At that time, Monsanto was getting into the seed business and I had information that a 'terminator gene' was to be incorporated in the seeds being supplied by the firm. This meant that the farmer had to buy fresh seeds from Monsanto at heavy cost every time he planted the crop," he said."

from the linked article I'm not overly inclined to believe Jagadistan has any bearing whatsoever on current Monsanto practices (comment section of this has a transcript of an interview with him)-…

firstly, he's 20 years retired - secondly he doesn't go so far as to say (only suggest) that any data was fudged - certainly not on his watch (so why on anyone elses?) - he's related entirely to herbicide product release in this respect - and is criticizing regulatory bodies as they existed 20-30 years ago, rather than as they exist today (India today is a vastly different place to 20-30 years ago, I think anyone can) and as such has no reason to know anything about the GMO product release and regulatory framework (as no such release or framework existed, particularly in India, at any time in which he was employed in the industry)

On Bt he appears to be pulling stuff out of thin air on the emergence of resistant bollworm (as far as I am aware there are no incidences of bollworm resistance causing problems on cotton - indeed I'm not sure I've read of any resistance developing other than in the lab - and generally that doesnt translate to field resistance)

On the terminator gene he 'deosnt know' if Monsanto uses it or not (hint - they dont, and havent) - which again suggests a pretty high level of disconnect from reality.

He also appears to believe that the courts judged favorably for Schmeisser - which almost suggests he infomed himself completely by going to anti-GM sites on the internet a few minutes before the interview - it certainly would explain the entire gist of the interview (one almost wonders if he received a payment from Greenpeace)


Do you have a source around your claims that the agriculture utilized by (those who are now) subsistence farmers was categorically better than the systems under which they now work - I'm having a hard time finding any evidence to suggest that diets were that significantly better in the past - although I must admit about the only source of any historical nature I can find is on the golden rice website discussing the adoption 400 years ago of Cassava as a staple food which now 500 million+ people rely on - I would guess, based on history, that 400+ years ago people, in general, across the world, were pretty malnourished as compared to people today, and as cassava is a bloody horrible source of nutrition (carbs not so bad, everything else, not so good) it seems odd that it would be adopted in such a widespread manner when it categorically is not a commodity crop and if it is so nutritionally inferior to whatever was being produced in its place.

I don't agree with the assessment that if people couldnt get sufficient vitamins for a period of time then there wouldn't be people anymore - the arguement isn't that people do not get any of the vitamins, just that they do not get enough - it is completely possible for life to go on (rather miserably) while chronically deficient across a broad spectrum of nutrients (hence the problems we have in the world today - if insufficient, rather than zero, nutrition was a stone cold killer the global population would have levelled out years ago) - another possible problem which raises its head is that currently population in areas with these difficultites may be such that a switch to high vitamin/lower calorific value foods may solve the problem of micronutrients while causing issues of larger proportions when the calorific output per unit area can no longer support the population (I have a feeling this may be why cassava and cereal crops proliferate at the detriment of fruits etc even under non-commodity farming - it's better to be well(ish) fed in terms of calories while deficient in a few vitamins, than replete in vitamins but dead)

However... where non-western practices (ie not commodity farming - although as a get out from poverty this is still a possible workable solution) or 'traditional' (which'd have to be defined - is cassava traditional in Africa because it's been around 400+ years, or is a switch to older foods required - what other crops have been supplanted and are they actually or just ideologically better to grow there?) varieties actually offer a solution - I'm all for that - I just believe that utilizing GMO techniques (which is a "yes" on safety for all current uses (unless you're an insect!), with the caveat that new developments would need to be tested individually) to ameliorate the problems that do exist should be used alongside whatever else works.

I had just assumed that agriculture was such hard work that it took two adults (plus children) to run just about anywhere. I have to say, I'm surprised that there are many farms being run by just one person. I figured it always took a husband and wife, and therefore guessed that Farmers were both male and female in about equal numbers.

I guess I though that in large industrial farms in the USA, there would be more male than female employees.

Ewan, I guess the point that I would make is that there's a burden of proof, I think, on those making the case for the higher input, higher cost, higher infrastructure project as a potential solution. That is, we need a way to demonstrate that contrary to all past experience, the work that is being done for the benefit of the world's poorest people will actually go to them. Because limited resources for agricultural investment are available, we have to admit that the choice to emphasis one vector of research often means not taking on another one. Again, don't get me wrong -I'm not blanket opposed to GMOs, I'm just not convinced that they will actually serve the population that they are intended to serve. There's a tendency to assume that if we just found a new and better way to fix all the problems, that we'd be able to implement it, even though in many cases, we've had a way to fix many of those difficulties all along and not implmented them.

Pre-colonial African agriculture is not an area of expertise of mine, but what I've read on the subject - mostly about how that agriculture was transmitted into colonial states in the New World, so I'm working backwards, is that the advantage of cassava and other staple root crops in West and Central Africa in bush areas was that they could be grown in vegeculture plots in areas of mixed cultivated trees and existing bush or jungle - that is, they are meant to provide starch along with high nutrition fruit and other tree crops, rather than exclusively. They also could generally be kept in the ground for long term storage, while grain agriculture required storage systems and involved greater caloric loss to pests.

In _Agricultural Systems of the World_, Grigg argues that the advantage of this is the high quality fruit and protein provided by not clearing out the surrounding jungle, and that early Europeans. I'm not arguing with you that there were probably nutritional deficits on par or greater than the present in some locales, but I think that the adoption of cassava may well have made more sense before its inclusion in row agriculture.


At Random and Possibly Off Topic:

1. As always, I wonder what the men are doing while women are working in apparel factories, farming, looking for water, raising children, etc? Women should get micro-loans to start businesses and buy seed--but what on earth are the men doing while the women are starting businesses?

This is a broad question, and I'm sure the answer is very region and culture specific, but still...And is the US coming to this same point during this "mancession"--permanent higher unemployment for men than women? So we "need" more war to "take care" of the "extra" men, whether through terrorist organizations, official wars or drug and gang wars? (This is shorthand, but the deep logic is there, I promise you.)

2. As an organic gardener who supplies native species seeds to restoration areas (on a very small scale), I feel the problem of GMO pollen and seed dispersal is larger than some acknowledge.

Here in the US, there is evidence in Indiana that Bt corn pollen interferes with caddis fly populations, which in turn interferes with local riparian eco-systems. Also, look up the legal history of GMO alfalfa and the current sugar beet conflict. In Europe there are problems with GMO rapeseed contaminating wild populations.

Unfortunately, so many in the GMO debate forget that there are other, non-human species out there and that eco-systems are hugely complex. Interfere with the eco-system at your peril and never forget the law of unintended consequences. Nature has no boundaries!

Perhaps some of the food problems would be better solved through those old, non-scientific solutions of enhanced women's rights, education and family planning options, thereby helping to reduce human population pressures on fragile eco-systems. These admittedly complicated fixes combined with modern organic farming methods could do what most GMO commodity-crop seeds cannot.

(As a side-note, check out University of Illinois research by Mulvaney, et al, showing that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers actually deplete the soil and decrease carbon storage even if organic material is returned to the soil.)

3. What was happening 400 years ago that cassava became so widely used? What did it have to do with European expansion?

Thanks for putting up such thought-provoking posts.