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The triple challenge: Zero hunger, gender equality, and climate action

When considering the best way to nourish our nations for a food secure future, there’s one area where we should be sowing the seeds: Women’s empowerment.

Sustainable food security is a gendered challenge. Closing the gender gap in agricultural productivity could have an enormous impact. The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems report by FAO estimates that if female farmers had the same access to productive resources as men, their productivity could increase by up to 30 per cent, reducing the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 per cent.

It is both important in its own right– to ensure the principle of gender equity and “no one left behind”– and important as a crucial pathway to agrifood systems transformation.

Addressing the gender gap in farm productivity, as well as the wage gap in agrifood systems, would reduce global food insecurity by 45 million people
(FAO, 2023).

This economic empowerment gap, both in yield and monetary terms, is largely explained by the disadvantages that women face across the agrifood systems, including access to and control of land; access to inputs such as high-quality seeds, fertilizer, and farm equipment; access to hired labor; inclusion in and appropriateness of agricultural extension programs; access to credit; and access to markets. These issues are largely driven by social and cultural norms and may explain women farmer’s tendency to specialize in lower-value crops.

Understanding norms and patterns in particular contexts is crucial to designing effective gender-sensitive interventions. A systematic review on digital agriculture services led by Hesat2030 co-chair Jaron Porciello and team identified that nearly 60% of digital service use—any type of service—is associated with being able to use the service in collaboration with networks such as farmer groups, co-operatives and family and friend networks. This was especially true for women, who face additional and specific barriers for women that need to be taken into consideration, such as consistent access to a mobile phone.

The importance of this cannot be overestimated, and the Ceres2030 project found that the absence of consistent sex-disaggregated data, including better knowledge of intra-household allocation of food and other resources, presents many challenges. Cornell University scientist and gender in agriculture expert Dr. Hale Tufan has worked closely with the Ceres2030 team to identify major shortcomings across agricultural research, including a significant finding in a 2020 Nature Plants article. Tufan and team found that across most of agricultural research, women’s views are only officially included when they are household heads. The definitions of household headship are variable, and when women are only included as household heads, their views do not necessarily represent the views of women who live in male-headed households. Given that a large majority of women live in male-headed households, and their views are rendered invisible through this practice. The gender in agriculture community has consistently highlighted the lack of sex-disaggregated data for years—and gone beyond ringing the alarm bells to build high-quality tools and platforms that can help researchers in any field change behaviors. The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index has paved the way for governments and organizations to gather standardized and high-quality data on female inclusion in the agricultural sector. Importantly, information is acquired from the self-identified primary male and female adult decision-makers in the same household, ensuring that the views of both men and women are captured within the same household.

Maternal and early childhood health

Another reason that sex-disaggregated data is so important in the field of food security is the link between maternal and early child nutrition, and the opportunities to support whole-family nutrition and dietary diversity.

Currently, a quarter of the world's death is caused by dietary risk factors such as low intake of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and higher intakes of sodium, sweet, and sugary beverages, and low physical activity.

While the issues of nutrition and dietary diversity are critical for every demographic, children remain a highly vulnerable demographic. Current nutritional inequalities are largely driven by rural status, where one-third of children in rural areas are stunted compared to a quarter of children in urban areas, and where children in rural areas have less diverse diets that rely on stable cereals.

A recent AI analysis of 6 million scientific papers led by the Juno Evidence Alliance has found that research on the poor nutrition of children, infants, and breastfeeding and lactating mothers remains scarce: 20% of scientific research focused on nutrition and diets over the past 12 years, with an average breakdown of 30,000 articles per year focusing on the nutritional impacts of this critical demographic.

The end of hunger for all cannot be accomplished without the end of hunger for women. The Juno Evidence Alliance research found that eight out of every ten articles published in food and agriculture focuses on issues surrounding economic growth and food security, while just two out of ten articles focus on opportunities to support resilience, gender, and policy transformation. And only one-quarter of the world’s scientific literature focuses on people-centric solutions, with less than 10% of scientific research focusing on mothers and children in the most vulnerable regions in the world

The gender-climate collision

Climate-sensitive interventions in the agricultural sector may unintentionally widen gaps between men and women. For example, subsidizing fertilizers could be biased towards men in a context where intra-household decisions result in fertilizer being allocated primarily to farm plots operated by the men in the household. Similarly, pro-livestock policies, especially for cattle, would mainly benefit male farmers in countries where large animal assets are owned mostly by men. (Beuchelt & Badstue, 2013)

Researchers have also documented the climate-gender collision in climate-friendly ICT and UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) interventions, which mainly benefit men due to gendered access to technology. (Wamukonya & Skutsch, 2002). The climate-gender trade-offs signal the need to anticipate gender differences. Mitigation initiatives could benefit from explicitly capturing gender differences, and future efforts should consider interventions that may positively affect both climate and gender.

For example, agricultural extension programs on conservation agriculture that are inclusive of women could both help women adapt farming practices to the effects of climate change. For instance, the Ceres2030 team found when women are given access and education regarding new climate resilient crop varieties, they were more likely than men to adopt the recommendations.

Improving women’s access to seeds for climate-resilient staple crops could improve female farmer’s yields in the face of changing climate conditions and improve their household food security status, all while reducing GHG emissions by ensuring that agricultural land remains arable and minimizing global deforestation to expand agriculture. (Cairns et al., 2013)

Improving women’s land tenure rights could provide them with the stability and incentive to increase their investment in the productivity of their land, including investing in climate-adaptive agricultural practices that could boost their resilience to the effects of climate change. (Goldstein & Udry, 2008)

These are examples with partial evidence – the full implications of such interactions require more evidence and analysis as new interventions are designed and implemented.

Achieving triple win policy outcomes – zero hunger, gender equality, and climate action –will only be possible by combining and balancing interventions across different areas. As part of Hesat2030, economists and evidence synthesis experts hope to bridge some of these data gaps to present fuller qualitative and quantitative guidance.

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