Women's work and women's lives all
over the world have long been intertwined with food. In every
country on every continent, it is women who assume primary
responsibility for preparing and serving meals for themselves
and their families. Not only do women prepare and serve food,
in many parts of the world women also grow food. In Sub-Saharan
Africa women contribute 60-80% of the labour required for
food production both for household consumption and for sale.
In Asia women account for 50% of food production overall.
In the Pacific women play a dominant role in fisheries and
food marketing as well as in labour-intenstive production
of cash crops such as palm oil, vanilla, and cocoa. Women
make up a substantial part of the unpaid agricultural labour
force in the Near East and are increasingly employed in production
of non-traditional export crops in Latin America and the Caribbean.1
And in Canada, women are farmers, grocery store cashiers,
and meat packers. It's clear that women have a lot to do with
food. But do they really?
Indian feminist Vandana Shiva calls
women the "world's original food producers." But over time,
women have become a little-recognized force in the series
of processes that moves food from fields to tables. Much of
women's work around food has been labelled 'unproductive.'
Because it is unpaid, it does not count as being part of the
monetary economy. But not all
food production is unrecognized.
Farmers in Manitoba produced nearly $2.7 billion worth of crops in 2009 and $1.6 billion worth of livestock. Fields of wheat, canola, potatoes, barley, flax, and sunflowers are a large part of our province's geography. So are pig and poultry barns. When food production is geared towards the market instead of one's own family and when there's money moving between hands, it's worth something according to economists.
Economic globalization - the process
of opening up regional markets for global consumption - has
played a large role in the transformation of agriculture from
family gardens to a huge industry characterized by agribusinesses.
Globalization has stressed production for export
and free trade agreements
have encouraged this export. Commercialized agriculture relies
just as heavily on the work of women as did the family farm.
Women are cogs in the machine of a globalized agriculture
industry: picking tomatoes in Mexico, harvesting rice in India,
planting tea in Uganda, packing peaches in Ontario and fish
in Nova Scotia. But while women still play a role in agricultural
production, women's control over the means of food production
has been significantly weakened. The forced migration, environmental
contamination, and hunger that have resulted from this transformation,
have been devastating.
Guadelupe Martinez is a single mother
with five children. Guadelupe worked at a banana plantation
in Honduras. She describes work at the plantation:
was gruelling. We worked 12 hours straight, from 7 am to 7
pm, with only two 15-minute breaks, an hour for lunch and
a half-hour for dinner. If we had food, we ate. If we didn't,
we watched everyone else eat. After I finished work I would
go home and make dinner for the children and do some housework.
I had to prepare food for the children's breakfast and lunch.
We worked six days a week.
Then on Sundays, I would get up very early in the mornings
and wash clothes and clean the house all day because there
was no time during the week. There
were many Sundays when I'd still be washing clothes at 7 at
night. Then I'd have to be up by 4 the next morning to make
breakfast for the children."2
Unfortunately, there are many stories
like Guadelupe's. Women's work in the global food chain is
chronically undervalued and underpaid. Guadelupe's work may
have provided bananas for lunches in Canada and the United
States. It didn't always give her enough for a lunch of her
Originally from Guatemala, Egla
Martinez-Salazar's family is one of many Indigenous families
who lost their own land and were subsequently forced to migrate
from Mexico to Guatemala to work on coffee and cotton plantations.
Egla describes conditions in the camps where migrant workers
live: few latrines if any, dirty water, little space for cooking
and living, dangerous shelters or none at all, no electricity,
and an environment that breeds disease without recourse to
health care. Wages are low and hours long and while in the
fields, workers and their families are exposed to another
danger: pesticides. Children as young as nine years old work
in these fields and those too young to work accompany their
mothers. Egla herself lost a sister to pesticide poisoning.
Indigenous women workers in Guatemala are women whose "priority
is to put food on the table." Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction
of that food arrives on their own tables.3
In Canada, the situation is not
quite so stark yet there are incongruities. Aboriginal peoples
lose control over their food supply as their traditional diet
is destroyed by development: hydro-electric dams in northern
Manitoba, oil-drilling in northern Alberta, and forestry in
British Columbia. The family farm is in crisis as farmers
try to survive in a global economy (see Celia's
Story). Although farm production has increased 10 fold
over the last 100 years,4
hunger is still a concern in Canada and nutritional deficiencies
have increased as food has become more packaged and refined.
At the same time shoppers discover
that even food grown in Manitoba has made a trip to Toronto
between the field and the grocery store. And many grocery
cashiers face low-pay and irregular hours.
When a woman has her own land, she
can always grow a few vegetables for her family. She may be
poor but she and her children will still eat. Large-scale
agricultural production requires a lot of land, land that
was often once-owned by families who used it to satisfy their
needs. When families like Egla's lose their land, they also
lose their livelihoods and are forced to migrate to places
where they can find work, often on land that has been taken
away from other small farmers. In their new jobs farmers are
working for corporations, not themselves, and their earnings
may or may not provide enough for them to survive.
Many countries produce only a few major
crops: bananas, coffee, rice. This means that they are completely
dependant on market prices and extremely vulnerable to market
collapses. It also means they are subject to environmental
hazards of large-scale agricultural production like pesticide
use. Citizens of countries like Mexico and Honduras who have
less strict environmental regulations, risk their lives in
order to grow crops for export.
Sometimes when rich countries like Canada
have too much food they will sell their exports below cost
to poor countries. This is called dumping.
Dumping policies can have devastating impacts on farmers in
the regions where this food ends up because local producers
cannot compete with these cheap imports. For example, when
Canadian wheat, grown with subsidies
by our government, is given to a country like Kenya, Kenyan
farmers have a difficult time earning money for their own
wheat. This creates yet more instability and vulnerability
for already vulnerable countries and their citizens.
The push for production encourages new
technologies like genetic-engineering.
While companies argue that being able to produce more food
will allow countries to feed more of their people, genetic
manipulation of agriculture often results in just the opposite.
Many genetically-engineered crops do not produce a seed that
can be saved for the next planting season. This means that
farmers need to buy new seed each year, an expense they often
cannot afford. Genetically-altered seeds often have strict
pesticide requirements, another expense for a farmer with
limited funds, an expense that often threatens the health
of the farmer, her family, the community, and the earth. Genetic
manipulation of agriculture also reduces the number and variety
of seeds which form the very basis of life on this planet
- no one yet knows what the impact of this massive loss will
In the end, globalization stresses profits
over people, production over care of workers. Women and children
are often the most vulnerable members of society and are the
most exploited; in many countries Indigenous women are at
greatest risk. Like the globalized garment industry, the globalized
agriculture industry survives on women's hard work and nimble
fingers yet is unable to provide for or protect them.
While women bear the brunt of difficulties
that come with a globalized food source, women are working
hard to challenge this system. In rural Manitoba women are
choosing to grow organic vegetables without pesticides, which
they sell directly to people in towns and cities (see Charlene's
story). Women like Guadelupe in Honduras are organizing
unions to demand fair working conditions and pay. People who
live in inner-city Winnipeg are growing food on abandoned
lots. In Peru and Canada and Bangladesh, women are gathering
together for community kitchens, cooking large meals which
are shared among the group. And in Mexico women are forming
bulk buying groups and credit cooperatives in order to survive.
Visit Alternative Food Systems
to hear more about how women are creating change!
Have you worked as a grocery store
cashier, served hamburgers at MacDonald's, or picked fruit
or vegetables? Have you had difficulty affording enough food
for your family? Are you a farmer experiencing the farm crisis?
What's your story about women and food in the global economy?
Please write to us at email@example.com
A good book to read is Women Working
the NAFTA Food Chain: Women, Food and Globalization, edited
by Deborah Barndt and published in Toronto by Second Story
Press in 1999.
Also be sure to check out our Links
page for more information on globalization, agriculture, women,
and food security.
Globalization & Food
& Women's Work