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Women and Globalization

Grocery aisleGlobalization & Food

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?

Jump ahead to:

The industry of food
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.

Women workers in the global food chain
Guadelupe Martinez is a single mother with five children. Guadelupe worked at a banana plantation in Honduras. She describes work at the plantation:

Bananas in grocery store"It 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 own.

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.3Grain elevator

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.

Profits over people
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 be.

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.

What can I do?
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!

Cans of food and coinsDo you have a story?
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 stories@unpac.ca

For more information:
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.


1 1999 World Survey on the Role of Women in Development: Globalization, Gender and Work. UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs, 1999.
2 Guadelupe Martinez. "Being involved in the women's committee changed my life." Women Behind the Labels: Worker Testimonies from Central America. Maquila Solidarity Network, 2000. To order a copy go to www.maquilasolidarity.org.
3 Egla Martinez-Salazar. "The Poisoning of indigenous migrant farm workers and children: from deadly colonialism to toxic globalization" D. Barndt, ed. Women working the NAFTA food chain: women, food, and globalization. Toronto: Second Story Press, 1999.

4 Ingeborg Boyens. Another Season's Promise. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 1999.


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