Women and Agriculture: A Conversation on Improving Global Food Security

On September 19, 2011 Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States, was the keynote speaker at a conference entitled: “Women and Agriculture: A Conversation on Improving Global Food Security

Following are some excerpts from the talks moderated by NY Times columnist Nick Kristof, who alludes jokingly at the end to Kathy Spahn, president and CEO CIP’s partner organization Helen Keller International about Vitamin A-rich Orange-fleshed Sweetpotatoes.

Full text and videos here:


Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States:

SECRETARY CLINTON: As we respond to this and other immediate crises, it is imperative that we stay focused on the long-term goal of strengthening global agriculture in order to produce more food, more nutritious food, and reduce hunger. The United Nations estimates that we need to increase global food production by 70 percent by the year 2050 in order to meet growing demand. That is a very serious challenge.

So what are we going to do to meet it? Well, one way that we know would yield significant results is investing more in women. This comes down to a simple matter of numbers. Women make up the majority of the agricultural workforce in many developing countries. They’re involved in every aspect of agricultural production, from planting seeds to weeding fields to harvesting crops. Yet women farmers are 30 percent less productive than male farmers, for one reason: they have access to fewer resources. They certainly work as hard and they, like farmers everywhere, are at the mercy of nature.

But these women have less fertilizer, fewer tools, poorer quality seeds, less access to training and the ownership of land. As a result, they grow fewer crops, which means less food is available at markets, more people go hungry, farmers earn less money, and we’re back in to that vicious cycle. The production gap between men and women farmers disappears when that resource gap is closed.

If all farmers, men and women, had access to the same resources, we could increase agricultural output by 20 to 30 percent. That would feed an additional 150 million people every year. And the incomes of women farmers would increase, which means more financial security for their families and more money circulating in local economies, which in turn will help other businesses grow.

Furthermore, because women tend to devote more of their money to the health, education, and nutrition of their children, a rise in their incomes pays off over generations. In the report provided to you today, you will find several examples of the progress that can be achieved by supporting women farmers. In Ghana, for example, if women and men held equal land rights, and if they both had the ability to use land as collateral to make major investments like irrigation systems or draft animals, women farmers would double their profits from farming.

Multiple studies in places from Honduras to Nepal, from the Philippines to Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia, find that when women are involved in the design and field testing of new technologies, those technologies are actually adopted more rapidly, which increases productivity and incomes faster.

Nick Kristof, moderator and columnist for The New York Times:

MR. KRISTOF: …And it truly is sort of extraordinary for a Secretary of State to be hosting an event focusing not only on agriculture and food, but on a gender focus to improve that. This is really something very new it seems to me. And so, Secretary Clinton, maybe let me start with you, and you’ve made the economic case for investing in women to improve agriculture.

You also just gave an important speech a couple days ago for APEC on the same thing, but there’s still this gulf between this research, the evidence that you cited, the economic case, and the actual investments that happen and what actually happens on farms around the world.

So – and also I think that there’s – everybody in the room probably frankly agrees with you, but there are an awful lot of skeptics out there who think this is just kind of the latest politically correct fad. So how do we go from bridging that evidence, that economic case into actually having an impact on the ground?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Nick, I think that’s the stage we’re at, and I’m very pleased we are at that stage because up until now, many of us have been making the case. We’ve made it on moral grounds, on cultural grounds, on social and political grounds, and we’ve seen progress, but I think making the case on economic grounds is what finally begins to open minds and change policies.

It is clear to us who are in this room – this is like preaching to the choir because I look out and I see so many leaders from around the world who have been working on agricultural and food issues, on gender issues, on poverty issues – it’s clear to us that the case now can be made. We didn’t even collect data for decades. We had no way of knowing what additional inputs provided to women farmers in Tanzania or Brazil or Bangladesh or anywhere else would actually mean. And therefore, it was a harder case for us to make.

But since we’ve been gathering such data – and I thank FAO and other organizations that have been leaders in doing this – we can now put this movie together and talk about what happens when you have a leader like President Kikwete, who focuses on agriculture, creates corridors for agricultural productivity, and further focuses on making women more productive. It works. So you’ll hear from the champion architect of the Zero Hunger Program in Brazil. It works. So now when we go to heads of state or parliaments or international bodies and we make the case, it’s no longer that we’re making a case rooted in our sense of equality and justice and morality; we’re making an economic case that it’s going to raise incomes, it’s going to increase productivity, and given the economy in the world and given the severe challenges our food systems face, this is now an argument that can no longer be ignored.

Kathy Spahn, president and CEO, Helen Keller International:

MS. SPAHN: …And yes, we do need to take a broader view. Calories are important. They provide energy, but that’s not enough. We need to ensure that foods are nutritious, and there’s a difference between food and nutrition. You need to have food that has vitamins and minerals in it, what we call micronutrients. A lot of staple crops that we’re talking about growing in larger quantities – maize, rice, cassava – they provide energy in their calories, but they are lacking in the micronutrients that are essential to meet the nutritional needs of very young children, and also to meet the nutritional needs of women of reproductive age.

Micronutrients like vitamin A, iron, zinc – they’re essential for physical and cognitive development. They’re essential for the immune system to function properly. So children who grow up deficient in those micronutrients can have really negative consequences in terms of their survival, in terms of health, in terms of growth, in terms of productivity.

Take vitamin A, which is at the core of our work, and it’s found in dark green, leafy vegetables; in orange fruits, the really good ones like mangoes and papayas; in egg yolks; in liver, vitamin A is essential to prevent blindness in young children, but it is also essential for child livelihood and child survival because vitamin A is necessary for immune system function. So a child who gets calories that don’t have vitamin A in it is not going to be able to fight off common illnesses, whether they get a respiratory illness, they have diarrhea, a child who’s vitamin A deficient may die because their immune system can’t fight that off. And in deference to the Secretary’s remark about the need for research and an evidence base, there is a solid evidence base about this.

MR. KRISTOF: Thank you. If Kathy had her way, you would all come up and go away with a little pack of micronutrients or orange-flesh sweet potatoes or something as you left. (Laughter.)

Food, GLOBAL, Security