6. Women and SDG 2 – Promoting sustainable agriculture

This chapter provides a description of the links between gender equality and sustainable agriculture. Lack of gender-disaggregated data is a major challenge to advance the necessary analysis, but existing evidence shows some links between gender discrimination, undernourishment, and unsustainable farming practices. Tackling this vicious circle requires urgent action, given women’s growing role in agriculture production:

  • Environmental damage and climate change are important stressors on food systems, notably by impacting agricultural production and by affecting crucial ecosystems. In turn, agricultural production is an important stressor to the environment, with agriculture, forestry and other land use accounting for around 23% of greenhouse gas emissions.

  • In Africa and Asia, women already constitute between 43-50% of all farmworkers. About 80% of farmland is managed by small-scale farmers, who in turn also provide around 80% of the food supply. Among 70% of small-scale African farmers are women (FAO, 2016[1]).

  • The majority of agricultural workers everywhere are informal (98% in developing countries, 93% in emerging and 59% in developed countries). Female agricultural workers, who make up about 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, are over-represented in unpaid and low-paid seasonal or part-time jobs and thus likely to be left out of social protection systems (Rapsomanikis, 2015[2]).

  • In much of the developing world, the largest barrier for women farmers is their limited rights to inherit, access and use land and other productive resources than men, leading to smaller production by 20-30% when compared to that of men (FAO, 2020[3]).

  • Breaking legal and cultural barriers to women’s full engagement in agriculture is key. In developing countries, for which data are available, on average 16% of all landholders are women in comparison to 21% in developed economies (UN Women, 2019[4]).

  • Trade and investment policies, international agreements and development co-operation should incorporate and intensify mechanisms to integrate gender equality and sustainability in relation to the agricultural sector, as well as to provide more equal access to markets and market information.

  • There is a need to strengthen sex- and gender-disaggregated data collection and mixing of existing data on the impact of unsustainable farming practices (e.g. pesticides exposure and impact), and on women’s contribution to advance sustainable agricultural methods, including technologies that reduce pesticides, such as precision agriculture or biotech.

  • Supporting women-led sustainable agriculture activities requires a more thorough gender-sensitive, place-based approach. In addition, women and indigenous communities, due to their traditional knowledge, may help identify issues and difficulties the local population is confronted with, and may also provide alternatives in providing solutions.

Agriculture development is key to human well-being and has major implications for the environment. As the world’s population continues to grow, the need for more and better quality food will be imperative, especially considering the various health and environmental challenges around the globe (from COVID-19 to other infectious diseases which affect livestock production). The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that vulnerabilities and inadequacies of global food systems still persist and under pressure, impacts on production, distribution and consumption can affect livelihoods considerably (FAO et al., 2020[5]). Recent OECD-FAO projections estimate that global agricultural production will continue to increase in the next decade, resulting in growing demand due to population growth. Food is also expected to be more affordable for households as income increases, albeit with variations between countries of different income levels. Yet, vulnerable groups and groups with the lowest income, often women, remain more at risk from changes in production and food prices (OECD/FAO, 2020[6]).

However, agricultural and food production increase (agricultural commercialisation) can also create significant pressure on the environment. The Agriculture, Forestry and other Land Use (AFOLU) sector accounts for 23.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 2019[7]). Further intensification of certain agricultural activities may have further negative effects on the environment, reducing biodiversity, worsening water scarcity and causing soil degradation (FAO, 2011[8]). The economic costs of the negative externalities associated with certain agricultural practices are enormous, and include – among others - the loss of free products and services provided by nature to humanity, climate change, and the increased incidence and impact of zoonosis, which often originate in unsustainable human farming and eating habits (OECD, 2020[9]); (OECD, 2020[10]). Run-offs from the excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides can also heighten risks to human health.

Environmental damage and climate change are also important stressors on food systems, notably by impacting agricultural production and by affecting crucial ecosystems through systematic and industrial hunting and fishing. This is especially true in Canada’s Northern region, where climate change is significantly impacting First Nations and causing food insecurity up to 50% in these communities (Human Rights Watch, 2020[11]). Food poverty will worsen as climate change impacts intensify and accelerate, further undermining these communities’ access to food, worsening health outcomes and reinforcing inequalities. Overall, women, children, the elderly, indigenous and disabled people face the highest levels of vulnerability to severe food insecurity and malnutrition, which are further worsened by climate change (FAO, 2019[12]).

The ‘triple challenge’ of providing food security and nutrition; ensuring livelihoods; and using natural resources sustainably and mitigating climate change is pressing. Efficiency gains and innovation are crucial to improve productivity, which could reduce land use change (LUC) and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions (OECD, 2021[13]). Technological uptake, such as new plant breeding techniques, could be particularly important for increasing yields in regions where the agricultural expansion involves the conversion of carbon rich and biodiverse landscapes (IPCC, 2019[7]). However, as many farmers continue to rely on informal markets for buying their products, their access to new technologies is often limited.

SDG 2, in line with the 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, sets the ground for promoting sustainable agriculture and transitioning to more sustainable agricultural production methods. Advancing towards sustainable agriculture is not only key to achieving zero hunger (SDG 2), but also to promoting better health; and reducing mortality rates due to chemicals use, unsafe water and soil pollution and contamination (SDG 3). Sustainable agriculture is linked directly to the use of natural resources, and as such goes hand in hand with sustainable management of water (SDG 6); responsible production and consumption patterns (SDG 12); climate change (SDG 13); sustainable use of ecosystems and forests, and land and biodiversity preservation (SDG 15). It is also influenced by urbanisation, especially when this occurs in former agricultural lands (SDG 11). In addition, part of agricultural production is used as biofuel, influencing fossil fuel and renewable energy use, as well as land use, income and food generation (SDG 7). Agriculture, finally, is strongly linked to education and accessing new skills and knowledge which can support a transition to sustainability (SDG 4); while it is a key component for income generation and economic growth (SDG 8).

Gender equality (SDG 5) is strongly linked to achieving SDG 2 on sustainable agriculture. The SDG framework refers to women’s (and other groups’) role as small-scale farmers, acknowledges traditional knowledge and maintaining the genetic diversity of seeds, plants and animals (Target 2.5), and supports equal ownership of and access to agricultural land (Target 5.a). Providing equal access to productive resources for both men and women is expected to increase agricultural output. Delivering on SDG 5, hence, stands as an essential milestone to realise SDG 2.

In some countries, the female share of the agricultural labour force is increasing, a trend that is particularly noticeable in small-scale farming. Female employment in agriculture worldwide was at 25.3% of total female employment in 2019, while respective male employment was 27.7% (ILOSTAT, 2021[14]).

Figure 6.1 shows the distribution of total employment between men and women across the agriculture, industry and services sectors in 2019. It covers the regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, East Asia and Pacific, Middle East and North Africa and South Asia and the OECD. We observe that the agricultural sector is the major employer in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia for both men and women. In these regions female employment in agriculture exceeds 50% of total female employment. This stands in contrast with the agricultural female workforce of OECD countries that is below 5%.The largest gender disparity in the agriculture sector can be observed in South Asia where almost 20% more of the total female workforce works in agriculture compared to the male workforce. The region that shows the most gender equality in labour participation in the agricultural sector is Sub-Saharan Africa.

As observed in Figure 6.1, overall OECD countries have a much smaller workforce in the agriculture sector. However in Turkey, Colombia, Mexico and Greece the agricultural sector continues to represent more than 9% of the total employment, while Luxembourg and Belgium employment in agriculture represents less than 1% of total employment. Figure 6.2 shows the gender distribution of the agricultural workforce for all OECD countries. Turkey is the only OECD Member country where women’s employment has a higher representation in the agricultural workforce than men’s’, by almost 25%. Of those countries where agriculture employs more than 9% of the total population, Mexico and Colombia stand out for their low female representation, barely 25% of the total agricultural workforce. This situation explain calls by civil society for greater inclusiveness of women in these countries’ agricultural sectors, such as in the coffee and bean production sectors in Colombia, where women report to be constrained to specific gender roles (Global Coffee Platform (GCP), 2018[16]); (Avila-Santamaria and Del Pilar Useche, 2016[17]).

Food security is a growing problem in much of the developing world while food waste continues unabated in advanced countries (FAO, 2015[18]). Hunger often affects those directly involved in producing food. Sex-disaggregated data on undernourished people at global or regional levels are not readily available, but research shows that women are at higher risk of being undernourished than men (UNDP, 2012[19]); (Sethuraman and Duvvury, 2007[20]).

Gender discrimination is the root cause of this challenge. Despite women’s role in agriculture and farming, women farmers have limited rights to inherit, access and use land and other productive resources, leading to smaller production by 20-30% when compared to that of men1 (more on women and land in Chapter 14). Differences in yields between men and women in agriculture reduce significantly when both sexes have equal access to resources (Croppenstedt, Goldstein and Rosas, 2013[21]).

Across low and middle income countries, women engaged in farming hold mainly small pieces of land and cultivate mostly traditional food for subsistence and sale, while men generally hold larger pieces of land and focus mainly on trade activities (World Bank, 2020[22]). Women do not only struggle to participate in the production chain but also have a harder time to store, transform, transport and sell, further hindering gender equality in the agriculture sector. Women are also particularly affected by the destruction of ‘marginal’ land, which is often perceived as less important and less useful than agricultural land. Yet, marginal lands perform key subsistence functions and are of particular importance to women and indigenous peoples (CBD, 2008[23]).

Land tenure is another challenge for female farmers. The FAO Gender and Land Rights database shows that women who hold land generally have less secure rights even if land ownership is for many women a source of economic security, especially in societies lacking safety nets and an inclusive labour market (FAO, 2021[24]). For instance, a 2019 national agricultural census in Mexico shows that out of 4.9 million people in the country who own agrarian units, more than 3.6 million are men, while only 1.3 million are women (RAN, 2019[25]). Where land ownership rights are exercised mainly by men, women are not represented in decision-making spaces with no voice or vote in decisions related to agricultural and livestock practices.

Female farmers are more exposed to gender-based violence, as the majority of agricultural work often takes place out of the purview of others (Castañeda Carney et al., 2020[26]). Evidence shows that this is the case both in low and middle income countries and higher income countries, and it often involves sexual harassment from male superiors and being forced to give sexual favours to employers to secure contracts (Henry and Adams, 2018[27]); (FIAN International, 2014[28]).

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions on the movement of people and goods and other measures to contain the spread of the virus are disrupting agricultural value chains and food systems (FAO, 2020[29]). The negative and gender-differentiated impact on women has become visible through dimensions of food security, decreased purchasing power and diminished distribution capacities. While this affects rural farmers in general, women face greater disadvantages because they have limited access to different products and markets, services such as finance, and information. Research shows that women’s assets are more likely to be impacted under an illness shock or a family death (Quisumbing, Kumar and Behrman, 2017[30]).

Agriculture also affects health through the use of pesticides, which are most common in large-scale farming but also used by many smallholder farms. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, an estimated 3 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in over 250 000 deaths worldwide (Thundiyil et al., 2008[31]). Sex-disaggregated data on the use, exposure and impact of pesticides is not readily available, but women may be at greater risk of adverse effects due to a number of factors including insufficient knowledge of the negative effects, limited access to training and lack of personal protective equipment (Mrema et al., 2017[32]); (Garrigou et al., 2020[33]).

An example from the People’s Republic of China shows that there are gender differences regarding knowledge of pesticide impacts, pesticide use practices and protective behaviours which result in men having better awareness regarding associated health risks but adopting less protective measures or behaviours when using pesticides than women. The research suggested that gender-sensitive educational programmes should be implemented to increase the safety awareness amongst farmers, together with increased data availability and research on this topic (Wang et al., 2017[34]).

Additionally, biological factors (size, physiological, hormonal and enzyme differences between women and men, and between adults and children) can create higher susceptibility to health damage from exposure to toxic chemicals for women (UNDP, 2011[35]). Exposure to chemicals generally occurs through food consumption, with evidence linking a higher intake of organic fruit and vegetables with a lower pesticide residue in the body (Berman et al., 2016[36]). Working in the field or living in the vicinity of crops can also lead to direct chemical exposure, putting female workers in direct contact with endocrine-disrupting properties of some pesticides. The harmful impacts on health have become evident through the connection between pesticides and breast cancer rates (Watts, 2007[37]); (Watts, 2013[38]).

In a context of climate change, as more women enter agricultural production, the intensification of agriculture and the resulting environmental damage worsens women’s conditions as yields decline due to droughts and water gathering – a mainly female activity - become increasingly arduous. There is therefore an urgent need to transform agriculture towards more sustainable practices.

Evidence from Africa shows that women adapt as well or more effectively than men to changes that affect their farming, even though women farmers have less access to land, credit, modern technology, improved seeds, and education (Perez et al., 2015[39]). The FAO estimates that enabling women to access productive resources to the same extent as men in the agricultural sector could increase yields on women’s farms by 20-30%. This would translate to an increase in total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.4-4%, followed by a reduction of hungry people in the world by 12-17% (FAO, 2011[40]).

In addition, applying gender-smart solutions for small-scale farming could allow more women to join the agricultural value chains (OECD/WTO, 2019[41]). This would have knock-on effects of reducing poverty, improving health, and food security. Additionally, increased productivity by sustainable farming practices in agriculture will also support the reduction of emissions. This will also require increased support to close the digital gender divide and broaden the application of digital tools in agricultural production – for instance, tools ensuring more sustainable water management and enabling the reduction of pesticide use - and access to an online market.

Women in rural areas and indigenous peoples play an important role in the conservation and management of biodiversity. In developing countries, women often are key users and custodians of natural resources (TEEB, 2015[42]). Their dependence on natural resources and surrounding environments to provide food, medicine and fuel for their families serves as a strong incentive to preserve and protect those resources. Further data collection on women’s farming practices that considers their traditional knowledge is key for ensuring the successful adoption of more sustainable agricultural practices.

Mainstream research is lacking on women’s role in environmental preservation, and gender disaggregated data is more scarce than in other sectors. However, there is growing evidence that women – as well as indigenous communities - may play a key role in environmental preservation, often through their traditional knowledge and agricultural methods (Kennedy et al., 2017[43]); (Winniefridah and Manuku, 2013[44]). There are also case studies demonstrating women’s interest in sustainable farming practices for instance in Kenya’s slum Kibera, where women use vertical farms due to the lack of space for farming, or women in Niger where they participate in the Africa Market Garden where they use technologies such as solar-power drip irrigation to grow vegetables for both self-consumption and distribution (UNEP, 2016[45]). The global community is mobilising to advance this agenda, particularly via the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), as part of the discussion on the conservation of biodiversity for food and agriculture (FAO, 2019[46]). This underlines the importance of collecting data beyond head of household, time-use surveys, and asking women specific questions about their needs and the impacts so as to help tailor policy measures accordingly.

Eliminating gender discrimination and otherwise facilitating and promoting women’s engagement in sustainable agriculture could help drive forward action to meet all relevant targets under SDG 2, in particular Target 2.3 on small scale farming, Target 2.4 on resilient and sustainable agriculture, and Target 2.5 on conservation of plant and animal genetic resources, especially those in danger of extinction. Introducing gender-sensitive and gender-inclusive aspects in agricultural investment, trade and value chains, and rural infrastructure policies, could support achieving Targets 2.a and 2.b. Guidance on responsible business conduct (RBC) can help enterprises operating in agricultural supply chains identify and prevent adverse impacts to ensure that agricultural investments contribute to sustainable development. Governments could actively promote guidance such as the OECD-FAO Guidance for Responsible Agricultural Supply Chains, which includes specific recommendations to companies to promote gender equality by eliminating discrimination against women, enhancing their meaningful participation in decision-making, and facilitating women’s equal access and control over natural resources, financial services and markets (OECD/FAO, 2016[47]).

In terms of investment, projects such as the FAO Multi-Partner Programme Support Mechanism (FMM) on gender-sensitive value chain development, which was specifically designed to enable women to benefit more equally from agri-food value chains, provides technical assistance and policy support to address barriers that hinder rural women’s access to, and benefits from local, national and global markets (FAO, 2019[12]). The programme aims to develop women’s capacities and increase women’s economic opportunities and benefits from more efficient and inclusive agri-food chains, triggering multiplier effects on food and nutrition security, education and health. The tri-fold approach followed, supports field-level activities targeting women’s associations and individual enterprises to access labour- and time-saving technologies; enhances skills in on- and off-farm activities, business management and enterprise development; and assists policy makers in designing tools that increase women’s participation in the higher-value segments of the value chains; while acknowledging the key role women play in promoting sustainable farming practices (FAO, 2019[12]). In developing countries, women are responsible for producing staple crops (such as rice, wheat and maize), which produce between 60% and 80% of food, and may cover up to 90% of food intake in poor rural areas (FAO, 2011[40]); (FAO, 2014[48]); (Menon, Van der Meulen Rodgers and Kennedy, 2017[49]).

Women are often in charge of the selection, improvement and adaptation of plant varieties when seed selection is done in situ, using criteria based on their genetic characteristics. Women safeguard and maintain seeds and germplasm to be used as planting material in smallholder agricultures (Howard and Cuijpers, 2013[50]); (Vernooy et al., 2017[51]). They choose to grow different crops than men, contributing to farm biodiversity and food security (Kennedy et al., 2017[43]). Women – and children - are also often in charge of small livestock production and milk processing (FAO, 2013[52]); (Subrahmanyeswari and Chander, 2013[53]). In addition, in developing countries, women cover about 80% of the healthcare needs of their families, through traditional medicine, using a variety of plants (Shewamene, Dune and Smith, 2020[54]).

Better agricultural practices could help reduce pesticide use and their associated risks, including for human health. In countries where farmers have adopted Integrated Pest Management techniques, results show that reduced use of pesticides can also have a positive effect on yields, farm profits and incomes (OECD, 2016[55]). Skilling women in these fields offers an opportunity to make them key players in the transition to more sustainable practices, while higher productivity offers safeguards to ensure food security objectives. However, women are not a homogeneous group, and their roles, rights and needs, as well as their relationship with seeds, plants and land, may differ between regions and countries. These differences or special characteristics, need to be taken into consideration when introducing agricultural practices.

Gender-sensitive policies that target the promotion of healthy diets can benefit the transition to more sustainable agricultural practices. Healthier diets do not only prevent many non-communicable diseases, but also create synergies for reducing environmental pressure on agricultural systems, through reduced demand and consumption of organic products (FAO, 2019[56]). As women are often the household member in charge of diets, targeted food policy could contribute to maximising such opportunity.

A gender perspective is also critical to promoting sustainable farming in OECD countries. On average, only 21.35% of agricultural landholders are women in OECD countries, based on FAO data. Yet, in the European Union, women in rural areas are almost half of the rural population, representing 45% of the economically active population (about 40% of them are formally occupied in their family farms, while informal employment is not documented) (Franić and Kovačićek, 2019[57]). In Central and Eastern Europe (non-EU), women outnumber men in rural areas, with the exception of 15-49 year olds, where the figures are reversed. They also appear to be more dependent on gains from agricultural labour as in many cases there is no clear distinction between their domestic and labour-related tasks (FAO, 2018[58]).

In OECD countries, discrimination may also be the result of gender-blind policies or measures. Iceland offers an interesting experience as it is considered a gender equality frontrunner and has been using gender mainstreaming and gender budgeting tools since 2009. Through gender budgeting, the government recently changed the conditions by which farmers received state funding affecting their pensions. Based on 2012 data, Iceland officials realised that, even though both men and women worked equally on the farm, only the men applied for the funding; only one farmer per farm has the right to register for a grant (EC, 2019[59]). By allowing two farmers to register per farm, both family members have now access to the state funding and, subsequently, to a pension. Nevertheless, even countries like Iceland need to reconsider their general farm support policies, given their environmental impact (OECD, 2019[60])). An analysis on the impact of agriculture support policies on the environment from a gender equality perspective may further highlight the need to consider the differentiated impact of these policies on women and men.

As pandemic lockdowns are lifted and stimulus packages implemented, recovery strategies should integrate gender-responsive elements that ensure women’s food security and support to their economic activities in the agri-food value chains. The OECD has issued different policy briefs on safeguarding progress on gender- related SDGs during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to ensure a green recovery (OECD, 2020[61]); (OECD, 2020[9]). Guaranteeing access to basic services to rural women and providing them with immediate cash –transfers can mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19. Understanding that not all groups of society will benefit from job creation to the same extent is also important. Establishing a Gender Observatory and using Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development data and methodologies to map and monitor the gender impact of the crisis can help identify good policy practices.

Despite women’s strong engagement in agriculture, there is still a need for better gender mainstreaming in agricultural policy. Possible actions in this regard include:

  • Collecting evidence on women’s sustainable agricultural methods at local level. Supporting such initiatives by breaking legal and cultural barriers limiting their activity. Building gender-sensitive place-based approaches which allow for women’s role in managing local communities to be acknowledged.

  • Eliminating legal barriers to land ownership by women and their access to natural resources.

  • Engaging women and indigenous communities in decision-making regarding farming policies and practices, based on their role as custodians of natural resources, and their representation in the agricultural sector. Their traditional knowledge may help identify issues and difficulties that the local population is confronted with, and may also provide alternatives in providing solutions.

  • Strengthening women’s leadership in the agricultural sector, including both government and the private sector.

  • Ensuring gender mainstreaming when providing finance, financial literacy, digital skills and other incentives for scaling up sustainable agricultural production methods and market access. Governments should follow a gender-responsive approach when providing financial and other incentives for scaling up sustainable agricultural production methods and market access. This requires taking into consideration women’s needs and care responsibilities, including the changes that a continuous increase in the proportion of agricultural production that is marketed, may bring to women.


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