Food and Faith is a blog of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.
Friday was International Women’s Day, a global celebration of women past, present, and future. I’d like to extend the holiday and reflect on the ways in which women affect and are impacted by our food system. Like many of you who are reading this, I am a woman and I eat. Sometimes I eat well, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I prepare my own food, sometimes I eat what others have prepared. Sometimes I know exactly where my food comes from, but much of the time I do not. I have a long way to go in understanding the complexities of who grew the wheat that was in the bagel I ate this morning and where it was grown, using what pesticides and with the help of what government subsidies, transported how many miles and using what equipment and labor for processing before it was handed to me wrapped neatly in wax paper. It’s a lot to think about over breakfast! Recently, I’ve been trying to digest the many aspects of our food system in terms of simply how we treat each other and the Earth.
Last week I went to hear Vandana Shiva, an ecofeminist and leader in the environmental justice and human rights movements. Part of her talk addressed what she calls the “care economy” or the “sustenance economy.” The care economy is that in which two-thirds of the world’s population, a large part of that being women, engage in craft production, peasant agriculture, artisanal fishing, and indigenous forest economies. It includes all spheres in which humans produce and trade in balance with nature through partnerships, mutuality and reciprocity (“Living Economies”, Earth Democracy). She discussed the work that is performed by women every day in communities and homes across the world, childcare, for example; work that is of utmost importance but that is not formally recognized because it is not based on monetary transactions. Seed collecting, farming and food preparation have been carried out by women as well as men for 12,000 years, but the patenting of seeds by multinational corporations has made it increasingly difficult—impossible, in many cases—for small farmers to survive. Vandana explained how the care economy suffers terribly under the patriarchal model that dominates economics today. As an ecofeminist, she endorses a way of understanding the world that could steer us away from the exploitation and abuse that the dominant, patriarchal economic system relies on. Ecofeminism strives for “a democracy of all life.” I think the tenants she lays out in Earth Democracy are a great guide for eating and living in general:
To be honest, I didn’t take to ecofeminism right away. When the theory was first presented to me in an anthropology class, it didn’t make sense to me why we would counteract patriarchy with the equivalent system, favoring women? Shouldn’t we all just see each other as equals? I came to see ecofeminist action as more of a means to achieving the balance and harmony between men and women, between humans and nature. Vandana described the tragic suicides committed by Indian farmers who were forced to grow genetically-modified seeds designed for one-time usage. Deeply and inescapably indebted to companies like Monsanto, 217,000 Indian farmers found themselves with nowhere to turn. Their wives, having been deprived of their husbands and their seed knowledge, are seen as having no worth. Vandana has written extensively disproving the theory of a need for industrial agriculture and monocultures, particularly in her article “Health Per Acre.”
Women comprise 43% of agricultural labor forces on average in the developing world, and account for about two-thirds of the world’s 600 million poor livestock keepers (source: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations). In many countries women are still not allowed to own land, and have more limited access to inputs and technologies, education, and credit (source: FAO, http://www.farmingfirst.org/women/). Although I may be pretty removed from the women farming in India and their husbands, and from the Burundi woman who has been denied equality her whole life, I can’t help but see their problems as my own. Vandana Shiva poetically said that we must “cultivate the quality of ‘enoughness’—a perfect mantra for myself and anyone who generally has more than they need.
The problems seem endless and insurmountable, but I think the more we become aware of the women and men trapped in unjust food systems and the angrier that injustice makes us feel, the faster we will begin to change our own habits. Last week I attended a workshop on community organizing led by Reverend Trey Hammond. He articulated the power of harnessing anger in a positive, productive way. I think he’s onto something. Here in the US we are seeing a tremendous increase in the number of women operating farms with small acreage. Farmers markets are gaining in popularity and first-time farmer training programs are cropping up across the nation. Let’s make it our priority that the care economies, as well as local food economies in the US and abroad, are embraced—for the sake of women and every other living thing. Happy belated International Women’s Day!