Plant gender equality... and reap food security

Friday, 11 March 2016 13:08 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When approaching a task as ambitious as achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which range from eradicating hunger and poverty, to combating climate change – it’s a bad move to leave out half the world’s population from doing their part. Yet, when it comes to sustainable development, women are frequently overlooked despite the fact they are often closest to some of the world’s most intractable problems. Any sustainable development approach must include a strategy to empower women. A great place to start is galvanizing women’s roles in creating sustainable food systems.

This week we celebrate International Women's Day (IWD), recognizing women’s achievements and rights in political, social and economic arenas. This year’s IWD should be seen in the light of the global ambitions for sustainable development. The SDGs have firmly positioned gender equality and the empowerment of women within the context of sustainable development, and goal number five sets out a stretching ambition for us all: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. While gender equality is a goal in and of itself, it should also be recognized for its potential to help us achieve many more.

Take, for instance, the goals of eradicating poverty (SDG no. 1) and hunger (SDG no. 2),of creating good health and wellbeing (SDG no. 3) or the goal of responsible consumption and production (SDG no 12) – on their own, they’re ambitious individual goals, but together they demand something more than the sum of their parts. It comes down to creating sustainable food systems for the future. Our shared mission is to ensure women are recognized as key agents in creating them.

Our current food systems are failing

The challenges with our current food systems are clear: they are unsustainable for our planet, our health, and our economies. The food and agriculture sector is responsible for up to 29 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and its share could increase an additional 30 percent by 2050. Moreover, our food systems are failing at keeping us healthy. In 2015, approximately 795 million people did not have enough food, 1.9 billion were consuming too much, and 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that dietary factors account for at least 30 percent of all cancers in Western countries and up to 20 percent in developing countries. This is putting a strain on global economies and, alongside the loss of biodiversity and the impact of Non-Communicable Diseases, the cost is counted in trillions. Looking ahead, we risk scaling up unhealthy and unsustainable systems to meet the appetites of the 9.7 billion people that will walk this earth in 2050.

This is the sobering reality:

  • Women represent 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world
  • Women produce more than half of all the food that is grown on a global scale and up to 80 percent of food in developing countries, and yet they still account for under 2 percent of land ownership
  • Women account for 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force, but are still invisible in the sector
  • They have little or no access to agricultural technologies and innovations, because, among other reasons, they are rarely members of cooperatives – commonly the mechanism by which governments distribute smallholder’s subsidies

Consequently, research also shows that empowering women in food production will bring about great results in reducing hunger and poverty and increasing food security. For example:

  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimate that the productivity gains from ensuring women’s equal access to fertilizer, seeds and tools, could reduce the number of hungry people by between 100 and 150 million
  • Women tend to devote a larger fraction of their income to their children’s health and nutrition, laying the foundation for their children’s lifelong cognitive and physical development. Mothers who own land are better able to provide more nutritious food to their children and ensure their health and wellbeing
  • Countries where women have equal resources and opportunity – based on labour policies, access to finance, and education and training – produce higher and higher quality agricultural yields

Women lead the way

For the last four years, Sustainia has worked on identifying, vetting and communicating the 100 most inspiring sustainable solutions within 10 different sectors – ranging from energy and transport, to food and fashion. This has given us a front-row seat to innovations and technologies within the interconnected arenas of food, sustainability and health, and we have been hugely inspired by the solutions produced by women. Here are some examples of women creating pieces of our future food systems:

FreshPapers by FenuGreen by Kavita Shukla
FreshPapers are sheets of paper that are simply dropped into containers, boxes, and bags of produce. By keeping food fresh from farm to fork in a scalable and sustainable way, while significantly reducing resource and energy costs, FreshPaper promises to positively impact the food economy and transform the lives of the 1.6 billion people who still lack access to refrigeration. FreshPaper has spread from a single farmer’s market to farmers, retailers, and consumers in over 35 countries.

Byoearth by Maria Rodriguez
Byoearth uses red worms to transform biodegradable waste into 100% organic fertilizer through a digestion process. The solution combines vermicomposting with poverty eradication in vulnerable rural and urban areas and educates farmers on how to avoid the dependency of chemical fertilizer. The resulting produce is sold in the most remote areas of Guatemala. The technique of using red worms is well known and holds the capacity for more environmentally friendly waste management while at the same time empowering women and disadvantaged communities.

The Wonderbag designed by Sarah Collins
The Wonderbag is a non-electric, heat-retention cooker that enables food that has been brought to boil on a stove or fire to continue cooking for hours after it is removed from the fuel source. The insulating abilities of the bag allow food to finish cooking without the use of additional fuel. The solution is time efficient, as there is a limited need for tending to the food. Instead, time can be better spent looking after children, earning an income, or doing essential chores. Wonderbag enables families to save energy and money.

In different ways, women all over the world are creating solutions to the food security and health challenges they see and experience in their surroundings – imagine what innovations we would witness if we removed the barriers they encounter along the way.

Setting the table for women

The barriers keeping women from living up to their full potential in creating sustainable food systems are many and complex, ranging from economic, to social and cultural in their nature. Strategies to empower women in food production must take into consideration a myriad of factors, including a woman’s level of education, her access to resources, new technology and land and cultural factors that limit her from owning land. There is no easy fix and any strategies addressing this issue will have to take an integrated and holistic approach – tailor made to fit local contexts.

However, the opportunities ahead are great. Agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of growth and poverty reduction in countries where it is the main occupation of the poor. Faced with the enormous challenge of recalibrating our global food systems to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 with healthy and nutritious food without exhausting our natural resources – we cannot afford to leave half the agricultural workforce out of the equation.

Furthermore, to meet the goals for sustainable development, agricultural development, food security and economic prosperity, we must recognize the role that women play and empower them to live up to their full potential – otherwise we will not achieve them at all.

Read more about food production and the Sustainable Development Goals in our EAT in Sustainia Guide available free of charge on

Sustainia is shining a spotlight on inspiring women in sustainability to mark International Women’s Day. Find out more by following @Sustainia and the hashtags 100solutions and GenderEquality or visit