by Patti Naylor & Ahna Kruzic
In March of 2018, thousands of women from around the world arrived in New York City for the 62nd session of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. Women gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.
As WFAN board members, we believe in building an ecological and just food and agriculture system; thus, we were honored to be a part of the conversation. We participated on the Women, Agriculture, and the Vital Revolution of US Farming panel as a part of the NGO CSW62 forum. The panel was organized by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, who recognizes the role of food and agriculture plays in global peace and stability, and was co-sponsored by Food First and WFAN. The panel also included representation from Pesticide Action Network, the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, El Comite de Apoyo a Los Trabajadores Agricolas (CATA), and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Continuing a Longstanding Tradition
WFAN’s history with and participation in the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women is long, and a key part of WFAN’s origin story. The idea of WFAN was born in 1994, when Iowa organic farmer Denise O’Brien and New York state food justice advocate Kathy Lawrence organized a women in agriculture working group for the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing. They were passionate about addressing the absence of women’s voices in agricultural policy in the US and abroad. They wanted to empower women as champions of healthy food and farming systems, food justice, and food sovereignty within their own communities.
After the international conference, working group member Denise O’Brien organized the Network to build a national community of interest linking women, food systems and sustainable agriculture. In 1997, a group of Iowa women began to work with Denise to formalize the group as a Tides Foundation project.
Women have always played a critical in role in agriculture, and The Women, Agriculture, and the vital (R)Evolution of US Farming panel at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women explored the role of women in today’s US agriculture—and how women are key to its transformation. As panelists, we illustrated that small farms and rural communities snuggled in rolling hills are not the reality of US agriculture. Instead, farming is big business. From confined animal feeding operations, to the pesticide treadmill, to underpaid farmers and laborers. While this model is promoted as “feeding the world,” it leaves rural communities in decline.
Revitalization and transformation of the corporate-dominated industrial system must start from the ground up.
The creation of an alternative—by women—is already underway: farm workers struggling for fair labor conditions, landowners requiring conservation practices on land leased for mono-cropping, and commodity farmers demanding price floors, are a few examples of necessary changes. Parity prices for farmers and government food reserves to ensure supply management are crucial components of policies needed for secure rural communities and livelihoods that foster the health, safety, and well-being of women and girls.
Our individual perspectives and comments from the panel are outlined below.
Panelist Patti Naylor’s Comments
My portion of the discussion focused on corporate-dominated industrial agriculture that has systematically and at an accelerated pace made rural Iowa into a sacrifice zone by extracting wealth from our human and natural resources and leaving behind decimated rural communities, polluted water, degraded soils, and family farms struggling to survive. Local, state, and federal policy makers ignore the environmental, social, and economic consequences as our land, natural resources, and communities are sacrificed for private profit and greed. I also outlined why parity prices for farmers and government food reserves to ensure supply management are crucial components of policies needed for secure rural communities and livelihoods that foster the health, safety, and well-being of women and girls. Fair prices for farmers, government food reserves and other forms of supply management are crucial components of policies needed for secure rural communities and livelihoods that foster the health, safety, and well-being of women and girls.
Neoliberal ideology of globalization and imperialism has encouraged the extractive agribusiness industry to gain power with the promotion of free markets, a reliance on trade rather than production for domestic use, privatization of state institutions, and deregulation. Corporations are gaining control of knowledge, seeds, production, and marketing of our food in today’s version of colonialism. In essence, they are shaping our food and its production to fit the model of industry. This industry gives the majority of Iowa farmers little choice but to farm with long stretches of single crops, a rotation that only includes genetically-engineered corn and soybeans, and livestock crowded into confinements and feedlots. Iowa has become a comfortable home for this extractive industry that is promoted by scientists, economists, researchers, university professors, politicians, journalists, and some non-profit organizations.
In contrast, the many positive examples of ecological and economical farm systems in place here and around the world are needed more than ever to ensure that we have diverse farmers, communities, and ecosystems in the future. To farm is a political act. That is, to farm in an ecological way is in direct contrast to the political structure that supports and promotes corporate industrial agriculture with its global power and influence. If we do not change the course of agriculture, corporations will capture the resources and expertise through technology and a convincing public narrative to take complete control of our food and farming system with no need for farmers at all.
Panelist Ahna Kruzic’s Comments
In my portion of the panel, I discussed how globalization of the food system has resulted in fewer farms and farmers — but the number of women farmers is increasing – and they’re fighting against a system that fails to serve them and their communities. Women are taking control of their food systems by farming, organizing in their communities, and advocating for systemic policy change that can create food systems that are better for farmers, workers, their communities, and our planet.
However, despite an increase in the number of women farmers, structural, gender-based oppression, or patriarchy, characterizes the food system. Patriarchy is a system that socially, politically, and economically values men and masculinity over women and femininity.
Women’s earnings are lower than those of men in all sectors, but the agricultural wage gap is among the worst of any industry. But it’s not just that women need to “catch up” with men. The inequitable position of women in the food system is actually part of what makes the food system work. Even the much heralded family farm is in many cases entirely dependent on the unpaid or underpaid labor of women—including sexual reproduction and the feeding, clothing, health and maintenance of households, in addition to the direct planting, harvesting, and caretaking of crops, livestock, and land. The unpaid and underpaid value of women’s work subsidizes the lucrative profits of the $6-trillion-a-year industrial food system. It’s not that women aren’t farming or producing food, it’s that their labor is not economically valued in our industrial food system.
Even the much heralded US family farm is in many cases dependent on the unpaid or underpaid labor of women—including sexual reproduction and the feeding, clothing, health and maintenance of households, in addition to the direct planting, harvesting, and caretaking of crops, livestock, and land. US women farm operators as a whole receive 61 cents to the dollar made by men. Thus, when controlling for farm assets, work time, age, experience, farm type, and location, women generate nearly 40 percent less income than men—among the largest wage gap for any occupation. This US data is reflective of the wage gap is a whole, where a gendered and racialized wage gap persists. Latina women are paid just 63 cents for every dollar men are paid, Black women are paid 70 cents for every dollar men are paid, and white women are paid 84 cents for every dollar men are paid.
The Panel’s Hope for the Future
Despite these injustices, the number of women farmers and farmland owners in the United States is rapidly growing. In fact, since 1978, the number of U.S. women farm operators has grown by nearly 300 percent, and the number of women farmland owners has grown as well. These numbers mean women are critically important to the dismantling of our current industrial food system – and to the construction of a more just, sustainable food system. Although women are often in precarious locations of the food system, it has not inhibited their leadership of food and agriculture activism. This is visible in the movement for a more just, sustainable food system, where women work to grow food, organize their communities, and change policy in order to build a food system that works for all of us — a movement WFAN has been a part of since the early 1990’s.
Patti Naylor farms with her husband in west-central Iowa, growing non-GMO and organic corn, soybeans, oats, hay, and cider apples. She is a board member of Women, Food and Agriculture Network. Her advocacy focuses on transforming the industrial model agriculture to a resilient and community-based agroecological model of farming grounded in food sovereignty principles.
Ahna Kruzic is from southern Iowa, and is a Food First / Institute for Food and Development Policy Fellow and Communications Director at Pesticide Action Network North America. She is a board member of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network. Ahna’s areas of interest include farm and rural justice, the intersections of gender and capitalist agricultural production, and the dismantling of white supremacy in food movement spaces. Ahna’s contributions to this piece are based on an excerpted and modified version of the original Food First publication Cultivating Gender Justice (2017).