Food Is A Feminist Issue

Update: there is growing mainstream recognition of the problem. Via Rawstory.

This is a global distributional issue. This is about getting enough to eat. (I make no claim to originality here: several women* are writing on this issue right now.)

Women are roughly 50% of the world’s population, do two thirds of the work, but earn 10% of the income and control just 1% of the world’s wealth.

The price of food everywhere is going up. The major rises in agricultural yield came about because of mechanization and petrochemical fertilizers, both of which become more expensive when energy prices go up. Worse, politically attractive but resource-stupid forays into ethanol have pushed the prices of some food crops higher.

The New York Times this week said that in Peru, women urge action on food prices:

More than 1,000 women protested outside Peru’s Congress on Wednesday, banging empty pots and pans to demand that the government do more to counter rising food prices, which are squeezing the poor worldwide.

The women, some toting small children on their hips, run food kitchens, known as eating halls, for the poor.

… the women say they are struggling to provide enough food and want the government to increase financial aid so they can cover their costs.

Hundreds of thousands of people rely on the eating halls each day in Peru, where about 12 million people, or 42 percent of the population, live in poverty.

The rising cost for basic foods sank President Alan García’s approval rating to 26 percent this month, the lowest level since he took office in 2006.

***

“Food prices keep on rising, and the government doesn’t pay attention to the eating halls,” said María Bozeta, director of one of three associations that represent eating halls in Lima.

All modern famines are failures of entitlement, not of food production. There’s enough food, but some people due to poverty or other barriers cannot get it. That’s the conclusion of Bengali genius and Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, and the subject of his 1981 book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation — but the conclusion will not be surprising to anyone who knows the history of the Irish potato famine, when due to English policies, Ireland was a net exporter of food, keeping food prices high, while its poor starved to death because their own potato crops failed and they could not afford to buy food.

If, as seems inevitable, energy prices continue to rise, the result will not just be an increased cost to drive or transport goods. The result will be that women with dependent children living in poverty around the world cannot afford to eat. This world, taken as a whole, is wealthy enough to apply a number of solutions to that. But history suggests that women are and remain so disempowered globally that nothing much will be done.

The interplay between energy, food and poverty is complex (for example, food charity can depress local farmers’ income, preventing some hard working folks from moving up out of poverty by their own hard work); and a book-length treatment is both beyond my expertise and beyond the scope of this medium. So I’ll leave it like this: when talking about energy policy, let’s not just talk about how and where folks in wealthy countries drive, or power our televisions. Let’s remember that the policy choices that affect these things also affect whether a mother of four young children living on $300 a year, or even less, can feed herself and her kids, and let’s insist that the policy issue be framed to include her.

*The simplicity of the title is powerful, and I picked it before I found ABW’s post, where she apparently came to the same conclusion.


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42 Responses to Food Is A Feminist Issue

  1. Sepra says:

    This famine is – wow, I can’t even begin. It is totally a feminist issue when women and children are starving because our food distribution system is messed up. I have been following these events with absolute horror, and am still waiting for it to impact us even more here at home.

  2. ThePakistaniHereticalGirl says:

    I already know that this issue is hitting hard, women in Pakistan are struggling to cope with food prices, including basic staples like rice. This is cos of increase in gas costs, this is passed on to the consumer in increased prices. Everything is going up, PK is a huge energy importer, and women and children are the first to feel the strain as food becomes less affordable. As social instability spreads, domestic abuse and child abandonment increase. This intersects with delayed marriage cos no one has no money leading to even more harassement on the streets. Islamists are on hand to offer an alternative solution, MORE REPRESSION and a return to medieval feudalism. The more America drops ure bombs, oil prices jolt, now over $122 pb- up to $180 if u attack Iran, but the more Islam spreads in society, feeding on our poverty and desperation, and the more women are margianilzed. Americans should be the fist to know therefore that this is a feminist issue for a wide range of complex reasonings.But I think you got no interest to listen. Another, no need for American feminists to support Islam, cos CENTCOM is doing agreat job of spreading theocratic patriarchy all on its own, u drop the bombs and ure Gulf Arabi friends keep the oil price high. This is we was happy when you invade Afghanistan first time, but now we do not believe no more (don’t trust also).

  3. Rebecca says:

    hey, I’m not trying to be rude here. I’m a feminist all the way. But some citations would make this website a lot more valuable to me. If it’s not backed by facts I can’t hold it as my own opinion. For instance, you said women make two thirds of the work force? Wow, that’s really interesting. Can we get citations on those kinds of things in the future, please? thanks.

    -R

  4. Just Saying says:

    Potential remedies:

    — End all agricultural subsidies.
    — End corn ethanol subsidies.
    — Increase food aid.
    — End all policies designed to keep the “family farm” in place; the family farm is an anachronism, and the sooner we recognize it the better off we’ll be.

    Those four things would go a long way, although there would still be more to do.

  5. Pingback: Side Effects of Gentrification: Lack of Accessibility to Affordable Quality Food « Under Construction…Until I Say So

  6. Thomas says:

    By the way, the commonly quoted but about “two thirds of the world’s work” is generally sourced (including by Human Rights Watch) to Richard Robbins:

    At the same time that women produce 75 to 90 percent of food crops in the world, they are responsible for the running of households. According to the United Nations, in no country in the world do men come anywhere close to women in the amount of time spent in housework. Furthermore, despite the efforts of feminist movements, women in the core [wealthiest, Western countries] still suffer disproportionately, leading to what sociologist refer to as the “feminization of poverty,” where two out of every three poor adults are women. The informal slogan of the Decade of Women became “Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 percent of the means of production.”

    — Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), p. 354

    I have not read the book and I don’t know the methodology underlying the assertion.

  7. Entomologista says:

    It’s not just about distribution, although oil prices do make things worse. The major problem right now is that more and more land is given over to ethanol production. But food supply isn’t really a new problem – it’s just that ethanol production has increased the problem and brought it to the attention of the public. Yields have increased more than 300% during the 20th century to meet the demands of an exponentially increasing population. My professor says we’re at the level of food instability right now that we were at right before the Green Revolution. 85% of future growth in food production will have to come from land already in use.

    You forgot one very important reason why yields have increased: pest control.

  8. Jill says:

    hey, I’m not trying to be rude here. I’m a feminist all the way. But some citations would make this website a lot more valuable to me. If it’s not backed by facts I can’t hold it as my own opinion. For instance, you said women make two thirds of the work force? Wow, that’s really interesting. Can we get citations on those kinds of things in the future, please? thanks.

    This is a blog not a research paper.

  9. Mike says:

    This is a blog not a research paper.

    True enough… But if you’re presenting your opinions as even vaguely authoritative based on what you claim to be facts (which we all are, intent or not; it’s a consequence of the medium, IMO), you kind of owe it to your readers; and to yourselves, really.

    The price of being credible is having to be credible.

  10. Thomas says:

    Source supplied, Mike. You want to read Robbins’s book, all the info is there.

  11. ThePakistaniHereticalGirl says:

    I don’t think that we need academic citations when we got the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, just last week warning about global famine. And yes, the most vulnerable will be the first to suffer, this is women and children. One of the reasons General Musharraf is so unpopluar is not cos of his ideas, no, it’s cos people are very very starving and can not live in 2008 like they was in 2005, for example. Pakistan needs from America:
    1) US wheat
    2) Cooking oil
    3) Oil deliveries
    If you do not assist to offset the huge cost of oil imports, we are going to have a Islamic-Taliban state, this is what I think. People do not want this, but they are hungry.

  12. Mike says:

    Yes, I saw. It was really more about credibility in general, leading on from Jill’s post, than this specific instance. Thanks, anyway.

  13. Jill says:

    True enough… But if you’re presenting your opinions as even vaguely authoritative based on what you claim to be facts (which we all are, intent or not; it’s a consequence of the medium, IMO), you kind of owe it to your readers; and to yourselves, really.

    The price of being credible is having to be credible.

    Well, except the source was supplied — just not meticulously cited.

    And yeah, I get irritated when people show up here and start making demands of the bloggers. It happens a lot — “You should be writing about this!” “You need to cite this!” “You should do this!” — and it’s really annoying. Google is a great tool, and I think it’s a little silly that we should have to formally cite every claim we make — especially when we consistently do link the sources we draw from, and where in this case, Thomas both linked to articles and mentioned a book he got this information from. Yes, we have an obligation to give the source of factual claims. Of course we do. But Thomas did source his factual claims with a link, which is the standard for blogs. What he didn’t do is spend hours upon hours meticulously researching this issue and creating formal citations. But that’s not how blogs work, and that’s not our obligation. To read this post and then show up saying you want citations, when the links are all there, is a ridiculous standard.

    And yes, to earn credibility, you have to credible. But I think Thomas has certainly established the credibility of his claims here. I suspect what’s going on is that Rebecca wants more information, and is too lazy to google it herself, and would like it all provided here. That’s not our job.

  14. SoE says:

    Another point about the food crisis and one that makes me really sick: Big food companies doubling/tenfolding their profits “thanks” to the scarcity.

  15. sophonisba says:

    But that’s not how blogs work

    Ha ha, no. What you mean is,

    that’s not how we run our blog.

    Which is fine. You want to be conversational, not academic, fine, go nuts. No problem. But blogs work however you want them to work. They are a medium, not a genre. You might as well say “that’s not how written communication works.” Come on.

  16. Pingback: Food is a Feminist Issue* « Feminist Philosophers

  17. deviousdiva says:

    I am continually surprised at how defensive people are about this blog. It is after all just a blog. If people are making a living from it then it is rather deceitful to say (Jill) “I get irritated when people show up here and start making demands of the bloggers. It happens a lot — “You should be writing about this!” “You need to cite this!” “You should do this!” — and it’s really annoying”

    If you are earning money from this, I assume that’s because WE read, then we have the right to ask questions don’t we?

    If you are not making a living from this, why are you so upset about people criticising the posts? It’s just a blog. “We’re sorry for not citing work etc etc ” and move on ?

    I hardly ever comment here for fear of being boiled alive but enough is enough. I am bored of this “holier than thou” attitude. After all, you wouldn’t be there without us right?

  18. Thomas says:

    I hardly ever comment here for fear of being boiled alive
    If you are not making a living from this, why are you so upset about people criticising the posts? It’s just a blog.

    I see some tension between these two statements.

  19. Toni says:

    DeviousDive, your last sentence makes me think you should go and read this: Entitlement and The Modern Fandom.

  20. Toni says:

    Sorry for the misspelling, DeviousDiva! I haven’t finished my morning coffee yet.

  21. Jill says:

    If people are making a living from it then it is rather deceitful to say (Jill) “I get irritated when people show up here and start making demands of the bloggers. It happens a lot — “You should be writing about this!” “You need to cite this!” “You should do this!” — and it’s really annoying”

    I make exactly $0 from Feministe, FYI.

    If you are not making a living from this, why are you so upset about people criticising the posts? It’s just a blog. “We’re sorry for not citing work etc etc ” and move on ?

    Because it’s constant, and it gets really draining. Criticism is one thing; demands (especially demands for information that is essentially already there) are another. This kind of stuff happens in emails, comments and trackbacks all the time — people feel entitled to tell you everything you should be doing, from how you should cite to what you should be covering if you really cared and on and on. If you think I’m being defensive, that’s fine. But yeah, one out of every 50 times this happens, it’s going to annoy me enough where I respond.

  22. Jill says:

    Ha ha, no. What you mean is,

    that’s not how we run our blog.

    Which is fine. You want to be conversational, not academic, fine, go nuts. No problem. But blogs work however you want them to work. They are a medium, not a genre. You might as well say “that’s not how written communication works.”

    Fine. But no, it’s not that we want to be “controversial, not academic.” I think we are more interested in disseminating information and having conversations than starting controversy. While blogs can certainly be whatever you want them to be, what I meant was that there’s a generally accepted standard in the blogosphere for linking and citations — you link to wherever you found a fact or an article or a piece of information, or if it’s from a book, you say so and give the title and author. What I meant was that Feministe fits this standard. I don’t know of any blogs that formally cite sources. I’m sure they exist, and that’s fine, but I was simply trying to make the point that most bloggers do things this way.

  23. deviousdiva says:

    Thomas, why do you see tension ? One is about my feelings about commenting here and the other refers to the blog authors ?

  24. Thomas says:

    I see tension in that you’re reluctant to comment for fear of criticism, though it costs you nothing to be criticized — yet you expect Jill not to care about criticism of her or the other bloggers here because she’s not paid, so it doesn’t cost her anything. She’s not a robot.

    You know what? This has become a thread derail.

    This post is about the interplay between energy policy and the ability of women everywhere to buy enough to eat. Even the specific point about women’s proportional share of the world’s work is rather peripheral to the rise and volatility in world staple food prices. This is not a thread about whether or not there is an accepted standard for citation format in the feminist blogosphere, or whether not-for-profit bloggers owe a particular amount of research to the readership.

  25. Mike says:

    Points taken, Jill and Thomas – I therefore won’t post my reply to Jill here, recognising that it would be a further bunny trail…

    The primary issue is a good one for discussion and activity, and people’s awareness of it needs to be raised generally, in order that something be done about it.

    So. What do we do about it? Like, what charities are appropriate points to donate to, and so on?

  26. Thomas says:

    Mike, charities have a complicated relationship to the issue. Giving food away depresses food prices, which has the dual effects of a) making it easier to feed one’s family; and 2) making it tougher for local farmers to make a living. Since I’ve seen statistics (in fact in the sources above) that say that an overwhelming portion of the world’s food crop is produced by women, women are likely both the winners and the losers from charity. My gut tells me that the people with the most local knowledge are the ones who best know how it plays out on the ground. If folks know this side of the issue better, information would help us all.

    Regarding energy policy, I think we need to move away from biofuels — every gallon of fuel we grow is that much land out of the business of producing food. Energy is not quite fungible, but it is convertible. We need to pursue sustainables.

    There’s a whole interplay between transport costs and food, too. As transport costs rise, food produced in less wealthy nations becomes less competetive in wealthier nations, which again has a dual impact. Less demand means that more local produce is avialable cheaper to the local populace, but it also means that the growers get less.

    This is an area where I simply don’t have a good grasp of the model, and I have not yet had the time to absorb it and form a detailed policy opinion. I like the idea of moving to a world where more food is eaten where it’s grown, but I don’t want that to mean that folks trying to claw their way to a better standard of living slide backwards as the West stops importing their crops.

    Any food supply economists or wonks want to help fix my ignorance?

  27. Rachel says:

    All modern famines are failures of entitlement, not of food production. There’s enough food, but some people due to poverty or other barriers cannot get it.

    Is this really “just” a distribution problem? It seems to me that the whole tangle of issues includes also overpopulation. Since Amartya Sen’s book was published in 1981, world population has increased by about 45%. What might have been true prior to 1981 might no longer be true now.

    Certainly as SoE (# 14) points out, the food companies are making things worse because they smell money but I don’t think that’s the end of the story. At some point, this planet will no longer be able to sustain everybody. It feels rather arrogant for me to write this from the comfort of my US cube: Who am I to point out that there are too many people to feed? But I think we need to also face this reality as dire and depressing as it is. Not facing it will just make things worse and avoid us from coming up with solutions, which most definitely need to include better distribution and more responsible eating by us in the rich nations (like eating less meat).

  28. exholt says:

    Regarding energy policy, I think we need to move away from biofuels — every gallon of fuel we grow is that much land out of the business of producing food. Energy is not quite fungible, but it is convertible. We need to pursue sustainables.

    I’m dismayed, though not too surprised at how corn is being centered as the source of ethanol biofuel when I’ve heard and read that it is not very efficient once the energy costs of converting corn to fuel is taken into account. Though this is not an efficient energy source, it is a big bonanza for corn farmers who already receive large agricultural subsidies from the Federal government.

    Personally, I’ve been a big fan of solar power technologies and have hoped since high school that solar power will become a viable sustainable alternative energy source.* Unfortunately, even with the high oil prices, far more funding seems to be going towards biofuels than solar…..and other sustainable sources have location limitations and/or are obstructed by various forms of political NIMBYism, especially among the upper/upper-middle class as the contentious case of placing wind power turbines off the distant shores of Cape Cod would indicate.

  29. Entomologista says:

    What can we do? There are ways in which research and extension work needs to be improved – not enough extension education targets women. More research needs to be done to find ways to help women farmers improve their yields. One really good example from FAO is that women were reluctant to adopt the new shorter but higher yield rice because it’s harder to harvest with a baby on your back. We need to make sure everybody is benefiting from agricultural research. But I’m not sure how to do that.

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  31. Mike says:

    If folks know this side of the issue better, information would help us all.

    So… Basically, we blog? I don’t want to be snarky and unhelpful here, but circumstances force it on me. That seems like a perfect way of avoiding the issue while reinforcing one’s “progressive” credentials.

    Having looked further into it, I suppose the best possible things I can do on a personal level, as a relatively poor person, are to buy FairTrade goods wherever possible and support organisations like Oxfam, Send A Cow and OLPC wherever I can. Yes, some charity might well be harmful, but that doesn’t mean it all is; if a charity teaches or provides a large (relatively-speaking) asset like a cow which keeps giving or a laptop for 3W children to be better educated, then I’d say that is pretty worthwhile.

  32. Go Vegetarian or Vegan To Help Solve World Hunger says:

    On a personal level, you can do more than what Mike suggests. You can go vegetarian or vegan.

    Sending a cow isn’t a good idea. The poor people are already going vegetarian because they know it’s a cheaper, more sustainable way to eat. Do you think people would rather grow grain for their cows to eat or grow grains to eat themselves? Think about it. Corn and wheat feed people and cows.

    A “cow keeps on giving” only after you buy or grow grains to feed her, inseminate her, take her milk, and slaughter her baby (because you can’t afford to feed the baby and yourself at the same time). She’ll dry up eventually and then you’ve got to inseminate her again, kill her baby, and so on…. Overall, it’s a much less efficient method of food production that simply growing plant foods and eating those yourself.

    Giving poor people cows will NOT solve the food crisis. The food crisis is due to a shortage of GRAINS (that have been diverted to feed livestock and produce biofuels instead of feeding people) and unethical commodities trading that has unfairly increased the prices of grains so that poor people can’t afford them any longer.

    Think about it: what can you do? You can’t easily slow population growth. You can’t easily reform commodities trading. But you can easily change your own diet.

    Read more here:
    http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/04/food-riots-begi.html

  33. Mike says:

    A cow is a working animal in a lot of the world, rather than simply a food animal, and may or may not be slaughtered or used for milk at all. The point is that it is a means to help grain and rice farmers, rather than getting them onto another form of farming; not every country follows the same food patterns, as you should know.

  34. Laura says:

    Sharon Astyk, over at Casaubon’s Book, has a great post – heck, an entire great blog – about the current food crisis, how it affects women in particular, and what concrete steps each of us can take to help.

    I agree that buying Fair Trade is a good first step, as is staying away from biofuels (seemed like a good idea at the time, but we can’t afford the market consequences). We’re going to have to go farther than that, though, and really start eating locally and lower on the food chain. I’m not convinced that veganism or vegetarianism is necessary – if you live in the Midwest, some organic, grass-fed beef is entirely ecologically appropriate every once in a while – but reducing our energy consumption, Sharon argues, is how we contribute to solving the distribution problem. (Tons o’ links and citations over there.)

  35. Matt says:

    Be careful on advocating vegetarianism and veganism to everyone out there. Not everyone’s body works in the exact same way.

    There do exist people with allergies to soy and diabetes (like me, for example). Do you have any idea how hard it would be for me to maintain a vegetarian diet and die of malnutrition?

    However, points about grain (and corn!) being used to feed livestock are spot on. Animals such as cows are healthiest when the graze on grass (which cannot be consumed by humans. Meat coming from cows which feed solely on grass is food that would not have existed without the cows themselves). Feeding them corn causes bloating first, and infections later, which has cattle farmers feeding their cattle lots of antibiotics with their daily feed. Cattle consume antibiotics on a staggering level… and this is contributing to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

  36. Becci says:

    Matt–

    I have allergies to soy, wheat, and nuts. I have been vegan for 4 years and am in great health, at least according to my doctor.

    You can be vegan if you really want to. :)

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  38. Mike says:

    […]reducing our energy consumption, Sharon argues, is how we contribute to solving the distribution problem.

    Which is why my employer is running this program, of which I am a representive. It’s not much per person, but across 19000 employees, it can add up.

  39. Mike says:

    Sorry, in something of a rush with that last comment. I should be clear that while the FF program’s stated “official” goal is a reduction in emissions, most of the people involved are very committed to green and progressive issues.

  40. Allison says:

    I don’t object to your general point, but that statistic about women owning 1% of the world’s wealth is almost 30 years out of date. Here’s one citation that the site you link to could be drawing on: “While women represent half the global population and one-third of the paid labor force and are responsible for two-thirds of all working hours, they receive only one-tenth of world income and own less than 1 percent of world property.” It’s from J. Ann Tickner’s Gender in International Relations (which is brilliant, by the way) published in 1981. I know we haven’t made as much progress as we should have, but I know a few things have changed!

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