Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Agriculture vs. gender culture

This story is the second in a monthly series that explores the impact of Feed the Future Food Security Innovation Labs (formerly CRSPs) on food systems. This month we take a look at the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Innovation Lab, housed at Virginia Tech, and how its gender research is helping to combat food insecurity by uncovering gender-based constraints to adopting conservation agriculture.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), conservation agriculture (CA) is defined as the combined use of three simple techniques:

  1. Low- or no-tillage to ensure minimal soil disturbance
  2. Use of cover crop residue to provide nutrients to the soil and maintain moisture, and
  3. Crop rotation to deter pests and avoid depleting nutrients from overharvesting.

These methodologies are seen as the keys to promoting soil fertility management for smallholder farmers who are increasingly affected by climate change, political strife and pests.

These three tenets seem simple enough to follow, but in developing economies the ability to farm land in a sustainable way often poses challenges in the form of drought-ravaged soils, difficulty in obtaining inputs such as fertilizer or mechanized seeders, or merely the lack of labor to work the land. 

On average 43 percent of farmers in the developing world are women, and the historical challenges of land cultivation become even greater when cultural traditions preclude women from owning land or limit access to resources or extension knowledge based on gender.

Counteracting hundreds, if not thousands of years of cultural tradition, can be a daunting task, but that is exactly what the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Innovation Lab (SANREM IL) is doing in countries around the world in an attempt to close the gender gap among smallholder farmers.

“We involve women in research projects where they often are not,” said Dr. Maria Elisa Christie, director of the Women and Gender in International Development program (WGD) at Virginia Tech and also principal investigator of the Gender Cross-Cutting Research Activity (CCRA) for the SANREM IL. Her research has helped uncover gender-based constraints to adopting and adapting CA in the Philippines, and has also successfully given women farmers access to knowledge and discussions they previously had no part of.

The FAO places the yield gap among men and women farmers between 20 and 30 percent, and it is estimated that closing the gender gap could decrease the 925 million who are currently classified as undernourished by 100-150 million. Gender studies aren’t new, but the current climate change crisis and its effect on food production has allowed the discipline to enjoy more attention among development practitioners. Making the connections between the social science of studying gender roles and the hard science of evaluating soil health are allowing researchers to study how the gender gap affects food systems more effectively.

“Our research in the Philippines is important for capacity building because we found that women’s roles outside of farming such as running small stores out of the house provides opportunity to involve them in CA by increasing their ability to play a role in managing the household budget and understand long- and short-term impacts of adopting new technology components on their farms,” said Christie.

SANREM IL graduate student Mary Harman concurs. “There is so much more to farming than digging in the dirt,” she said of the gender research she conducted this past year at SANREM sites in the Philippines.

“There’s farming in the field,” says Harman, which men are primarily responsible for. “Then there’s the harvesting, and the selling, and buying the inputs,” all tasks which are largely performed by women.

Uncovering connections to agriculture-related activities is important, but the capacity building research conducted by Christie and Harman can legitimize glaring discrimination as well. “We found that women are not invited to [farmer] trainings. Things like that can shut women out,” said Harman.

Even when gender is considered as part of the conservation agriculture equation, constraints to CA adoption and adaption can be as obvious as the dry cracks of earth in water-deprived fields or as mysterious as the microbes in soil itself.

Said Harman, “women play a huge role in the household and farming and the community and it’s not always acknowledged. The SANREM research and presence there allows us to highlight women’s involvement in agriculture in a way that’s undeniable.”

Watch this video featuring Mary Harman and research conducted in the Philippines.

The previous story in the series featured the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Innovation Lab and how the IPM IL’s funding is helping two African scientists achieve their professional goals of studying plant pathology to fight pests in order to improve food security in their home countries.