Taking Action – Why Gender and Nutrition are Critical for Transforming Agricultural Systems in the Face of a Changing Climate

Thursday, 31 March, 2016 - 08:40

Agricultural growth is a key pathway towards addressing development issues such as food and nutrition insecurity and poverty, which climate change is already exacerbating. And gender may just be the piece of the puzzle that we have been paying ‘lip service’ to for far too long. We simply are not going to see the transformative changes in agriculture and food systems that we need to see without also tackling gender issues.

Rainfall is becoming increasingly variable and temperatures are rising. Thus, most of the world’s millions of smallholder farmers will have to shift what they produce, and how they produce it. This includes putting more time, money and effort into soil and water management practices, planting trees, growing legumes, adopting stress tolerant crop varieties, shifting from maize to sorghum, or from cattle to goats, to name just a few examples of opportunities that will allow smallholders to become more resilient. Women are key to solving the puzzle, and their actions bear important implications for household food security and nutrition.

There are strong conceptual links between climate change and nutrition which need to be understood further. Climate change has an effect on the enabling environment for malnutrition reduction. It influences food consumption through changes in the food environment that affect prices, supply and quality of food; it has an effect on the health and living environment through the emergence of new health stresses and impacts on health and sanitation systems; and lastly, it modifies the work/social environment through changes in workloads and time allocations of members of farm households.

New research is showing just how grossly neglected and under-served smallholders, especially women farmers, within food systems in lower-income countries have been. They don’t receive the agricultural and climate information they need, and have much less access to inputs, credit and services as compared to men. These women not only produce food, but they also prepare it and are responsible their families’ nutrition. Its time to start looking at this as an opportunity and not just a problem, and address the huge ‘so what do we do about it’ question.

At the farm-level, farmers recognize and are trying to cope with changing climates. They are trying, or want to try, practices that will reduce their vulnerability to climate shocks. This includes tasks such as planting fruit, fodder and fuel trees on farms. These can save much time and effort for those women who go out to collect fodder and fuelwood, for example. They also can include soil conservation efforts, which in some circumstances may greatly increase women’s time spent on weeding and other tasks. Thus, we need to understand the costs and benefits of these practices, not just for households, but also for individuals and the environments in which they live. Nutrition is one of the outcomes that a change in workload could impact as time spent in agriculture could reduce time spent on resting, childcare and food preparation.

Turning these challenges into opportunities however, is easier said than done. How can we best tap into the potential of women farmers? How can we keep young people interested in farming and create good jobs for them elsewhere in the food system? And how can we do this while ensuring there aren’t any unintended effects on women’s time burden and consequently on nutrition? We now recognize why we need to do this, so it’s time to put more resources into figuring out the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.

Gender and nutrition need to be recognized as critical components in the transformation of agricultural systems across the world. The following actions are needed:

  1. Invest in 'action research' initiatives that are testing new farming practices and value-added activities with women as well as men. We need to learn together what works best, and how to support all those producing food in different environments, in a wide range of farming systems;
  2. Catalyze and support strategic and structured partner engagement efforts, with local governments, private sector, and civil society organizations working closely with women, as well as men farmers and other food system actors;
  3. Strengthen the capacity of these partners in gender-disaggregated data collection and analysis, and forward-looking and inclusive, evidence-based local adaptation planning efforts;
  4. Test innovative communication strategies, together with private and public sector partners in many countries, to reach more women and youth with much needed information on exciting new options and opportunities in agriculture.
  5. Recognize potential trade-offs on outcomes such as women’s empowerment and nutrition by ensuring policy measures that are taken at all stages of the project cycle are gender-sensitive and nutrition-smart.
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