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Why should women own agriculture? 

BY Vidura Prabath Munasinghe 

A total of 49.6% of the world’s population, and 52% of Sri Lanka’s population, are women. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), women produce 45% of the world’s agro food production. According to the Census and Statistics Department of Sri Lanka, 30% of the female labour force in the country is engaged in agriculture. However, women in agriculture are not recognised as farmers in Sri Lanka, and in the world in general. Although they play a significant role in food production, they do not receive the due recognition and respect for it. Moreover, constant attempts are made to exclude women from agriculture. The global reality as well as the Sri Lankan situation are not very different in this regard. The purpose of this article is to explore the underlying causes for this exclusion, and to discuss the alternatives to the existing problematic condition. 

Women are not defined as farmers 

The draft of the National Agricultural Policy 2005-2012 is the first agricultural Bill in Sri Lanka that mentioned women specifically. There too, women farmers are considered to be engaged in home gardening and play a supporting role in the family’s food supply. Occupied in a profession that employs 30% of the female labour force in the country, why does she lose the recognition as a farmer, by being called a home gardener? 

As a result of this, women farmers do not receive the benefits of the agricultural extension services that are available to their male counterparts. Consequently, she misses opportunities for training and improvements on new farming methods and modern technology that are required for agriculture. She is only entitled to agricultural services that are related to home gardening. 

Further, women are never involved in the decision-making process in agriculture. The farmers’ organisations level is the primary level in this. Members of farmers’ organisations have the opportunity to participate in seasonal meetings and to be involved in decisions related to farming and water management. 

However, land ownership is crucial to be a member of a farmers’ organisation, and to take decisions on farming and water management. Women are particularly discriminated against in land ownership in the country. More than 90% of the agricultural lands in the country are state lands and they have been given to the people for cultivation and residence under land permits and land grants. 

According to Schedule Three of the Land Development Ordinance, inter-state succession of a land permit goes to the eldest son of the family. Even in an instance where a daughter of the family cultivates such land alone, she does not inherit the land. Due to this, the vast majority of agricultural lands in the country are under male ownership. Consequently, the vast majority of members of farmers’ organisations in this country are men. 

Accordingly, men have the full power to intervene in decisions on agriculture and water management at the village level. Access to credit for landless women is also impeded, as banks and financial institutions almost always require a deed of a land as a collateral when obtaining loans. The woman who has been deprived of land ownership has thus also been deprived of access to capital. 

Women farmers face great injustice in cultivation as well as in the market. Purchasing and distributing agricultural produce is entirely a male dominant space. Economic centres are always very far from the farmlands. The bargaining process of the market is also dominated by men. Having limitations in mobility, and being responsible for care work in the family, women farmers have to enlist the help of men in this process. Simply said, she has almost no access to the market. The end result is that she is unable to influence the price of her produce. 

A deliberate discrimination and exclusion 

Women farmers continue to engage in agriculture while they are deprived of land ownership, decision-making power in agriculture, the support of agro extension services, and access to the market. They face considerable discrimination even in situations where she has minimal access. They continue to contribute to agriculture while carrying out unpaid care work (thus men, who have the identity as farmers, are released from care work to engage in farming). 

None of these barriers are natural. They have been deliberately created to discriminate against women in agriculture and to exclude them from it. These obstacles have been deliberately created by the state, and it tells the woman whose production process has thus been severely affected, that the state refrains from intervening in the process, in order to ensure free trade within a neoliberal economic system. 

Accordingly, women farmers who have been deliberately crippled have to compete with large-scale companies that are engaged in the field of agricultural production. Although it is said that the state’s approach in a neoliberal economy should be to avoid interference in these activities, the state has actually interfered to create the necessary structural conditions for large-scale corporations to take over the agricultural sector. Thus, conditions have been created to exclude women from agriculture. 

To whom are women a threat? 

What is the significance of women staying in the agro value chain? How can their presence be an obstacle to large-scale companies in taking over the agricultural production and distribution sector? After World War II, especially with the green revolution, the food industry was recognised by large multinational corporations as an extremely lucrative sector. Accordingly, the food industry was developed into highly lucrative global businesses similar to the arms trade and the pharmaceutical business. 

Thus, all necessary steps were taken to get hold of the entire food system by large-scale agro companies. The food system here refers to all the activities and relationships associated with the food value chain. These include seed production, crop cultivation, agricultural inputs, harvest, harvest transportation, harvest processing, market services, wholesale and retail trade, food processing, and food consumption. 

New varieties of seeds were introduced, large quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilisers were produced to be used for the newly developed seed varieties and industrial mono crop agriculture was promoted as a way to alleviate world hunger. In order to promote, legitimise and justify this new trend, billions of US dollars were invested on opinion makers, international organisations and researchers. As part of this operation, these companies continue to create large-scale, single-crop farms that span among thousands of acres using mechanised harvesting, and distribution and marketing networks. 

Thus, small communities, which had hitherto played a major role in the food system, were removed from it and large-scale capital investment started to dominate its every aspect. This process was promoted by donor agencies and international organisations as a model for agricultural development in the future, and it was facilitated by neoliberal states. 

It was imperative that some of the most crucial elements of the community’s food system be removed from the community and be transferred into the hands of the companies. Two of the main elements were primarily carried out by women: storage and the conservation of seeds, and the preservation of food. 

Seed security in the country has traditionally been maintained by women. Women played a major role in the storage of seeds. According to the well-known Indian eco feminist Vandana Siva, the person who controls the seed, controls the whole food production. Women hold the traditional knowledge on various methods of food preservation which they pass on and down from one generation to another. Small-scale farms that are run by women are also a crucial factor. It laid the foundation for food diversity and food sovereignty in the community. 

Women had to be excluded from these functions in order to control all aspects of the food system, from crop production to consumption. In this context, conditions are created for women to be banished from playing a critical role in the food system, forcing states to create the structural conditions discussed above. 

What is the end result? 

While experiencing exclusions and discriminations, women farmers face extreme difficulties due to the activities of large scale companies. The threat was so severe that once it was even planned to introduce legislation, making the production and storage of seeds for the next season a criminal offense. This forced women farmers to compete with large-scale companies amid most unfair conditions. 

The only option offered to women who were deprived of access to credit was the microfinance loan trap, which operated on extremely unfair credit terms and interest rates. It played the final and decisive role in excluding women from agriculture. The last option she was left with was to either become a daily wage labourer in agri enterprises or other businesses run by companies, or to commit suicide (more than 200 women have committed suicide so far due to the inability to repay micro credit loans). 

As a result of this operation, the entire food production process in the world today is controlled by a handful of companies. Four companies own 67% of the world’s seeds. Four companies own 70% of the world’s agro chemicals. Five companies own 18% of the world’s fertiliser production and five companies own 41% of the farm machinery. Four companies own 90% of the total grain sold in the world. A total of 10 companies own 37.5% of the food and beverage processing and 85% of the food retail market is controlled by four companies. 

All decisions regarding our food production, trade and consumption are made by these multinational giants today. They control our diet, health, and lifestyle. The farmer is merely a market for their produce and to maximise their profits. Companies are engaged in large-scale mono crop farming throughout the world and are causing massive destruction to the environment. They are forcing the use of pesticides, which are highly needed for their seed varieties, and are highly harmful to humans and the environment. 

Production is being increased incessantly for the sake of profit, and over consumption is promoted for the sake of increasing production, while the market continues recreating new consumer desires. This whole process is irreversibly changing the natural environment, which is a finite resource, and it has now developed into a problem that is threatening the very existence of all living beings. 

Limitless profit or life? 

The failure of this process was evident in the breakdown of food supply chains due to the lockdown of countries with the Covid-19 epidemic. Global supply chains of companies were thus interrupted, and had to turn to the abandoned and discouraged community-level food production, and related networks. 

The past two years have evidenced the significant role played by the weakened and discarded food supply chains in ensuring our food security. During this period, Sri Lankan communities were saved from starvation, not by the large-scale agro production process promoted by the state policy, but by the relatively more sustainable small farms. 

Once again, the role played by women in the process stood out. In fact, the answer to the food needs of the majority of the world cannot be found in the large-scale agricultural inputs, capital investments, and extremely environmentally destructive industrial agriculture that is taking place in the vast majority of the world’s arable land. Most of the world’s food needs are still produced by small-scale farms of less than five hectares. 

Women play a key role in these farms. In fact, large-scale industrial agriculture exists for the profit making of a handful of companies, and not to produce food for the world population and to free them from hunger. According to them, people and the environment exist only as a consumer and a resource for the production of their profit generation. In the economic policy promoted by Sri Lanka as well as most countries in the world over the past decades, the food production process only exists for endless profit. Despite its repeated failures, we are still on the same path. 

A policy that encourages community interventions to promote small-scale production, or that includes the women who are excluded in the food production process, was not followed during or after the Covid-19 travel restrictions. Although constant efforts were made to maintain global supply chains, there was not enough interest in strengthening the rural economy by maintaining food supply chains. 

For example, although transportation was provided to keep the garment factories functioning, farmers were helpless without transportation facilities to bring their production to the market. Instead of removing the existing structural barriers for women who play a crucial role in food production, and to get them more effectively engaged, there have been shortsighted attempts to temporarily close the gap in the monopoly of large scale corporations, by militarising the agricultural sector and replacing certain roles of companies with the military. 

The promotion of organic fertiliser was so shortsighted that its end was merely a shift from the companies that were in the chemical fertiliser business to those in the organic fertiliser business. None of these measures seemed to have a broad understanding about the people’s right to food. Now that the epidemic has subsided somewhat, the profit driven corporations are back on track, reestablishing global supply chains. In the midst of all this, our food systems are in grave danger because we have failed to learn from the experience of the systemic breakdown in the face of a global epidemic. 

It is important to understand the people of this country as a group who has the right to the environment, land, resources, food and a sustainable living, not as a mere market for the profit accumulation of multinational corporations. The only way to secure those rights is to free our food system from the clutches of multinational corporations. 

The first step is to grant the people the right to seeds again. It is imperative to end the unjust restrictions imposed on women who produce our food, even in the midst of extreme injustices encountered in seed conservation, storage, food preservation and small-scale farming. In the absence of such unfair structural conditions, they will be able to assert their role in the food system by reaching higher levels in the food supply chain. 

Women have now shown that their approaches to food, nutrition, environment, and sustainable living are successful. Their ability to avert their communities from starvation during the Covid-19 epidemic is the most recent example of this. Therefore, bringing women to the center of food production is a key condition for ensuring food sovereignty in the country, eradicating rural poverty and building a sustainable world. 

Structural alterations that have been implemented against her should end. It should be noted that this is a collective sociopolitical struggle, and the existence of an informed agrarian feminist movement against corporate oriented neoliberal agricultural policies, is extremely crucial in this respect. 

(This article is based on views expressed at a public discussion entitled “Our Food System in Crisis: Can Women Farmers be the Solution?” organised by the Law and Society Trust [LST] and the Savisthri National Womens’ Movement, to coincide with the World Rural Women’s Day on 15 October, the World Food Day on 16 October and the World Poverty Alleviation Day on 17 October. Sarojini Rangam, Vimukthi de Silva, Kokilarani Thiruchelvam, Sandun Thudugala, Dr. Sepali Kottegoda, Suganya Kandeepan, Thirugnanamoorthy Megala, and Nedha de Silva were among the key discussants. 

(The writer is a Senior Researcher at the LST) 

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.