Written by Princess Mukuka

The current era of global climate change and population growth has led to humanitarian disasters such as droughts, famines, global warming, and food insecurity. As a result, governments, non-state actors and communities are all working to find ways to tackle such crises. This involves the need to restructure and/or eradicate certain traditional practices in several industries and sectors that have proven to be detrimental to the environment. 

The agricultural sector, being one of the largest industries in the world, is one example of this, and shifting to sustainable practices in this sector is fundamental to alleviating hunger and poverty. However, achieving the full potential of agricultural sustainability goes beyond readjusting practices. It also means implementing and enforcing equality and equitable measures that focus on women, as they play a crucial role in successfully achieving sustainable agriculture, yet they still face high levels of inequality worldwide. Tackling this issue in Europe is essential to tackling climate change and food insecurity both on a European and a global level, as ‘EU policies have a real role to play in improving global food security and feeding the planet in a sustainable way’ (Gotev, 2015). However, what is sustainable agriculture, and what role do women play in achieving this transition?

The shift from unsustainable to sustainable agriculture

“Sustainable agriculture is indeed more open and less patriarchal.” (Bas-Defossez and Pagnon, 2021)

One link between agriculture and climate change is that the growth of crops is highly dependent on factors such as soil fertility, seasonal temperature, and water. A change in some of these factors could affect the levels of crop production. Secondly, some agricultural practices involving, for example, pesticides contribute to air and water pollution, soil infertility, and health problems, including the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions produced by livestock, thus accelerating climate change (EEA, 2015). There are many other agricultural practices that, for decades, have been causing severe damage to the environment and contributing to climate change (see WWF, n.d.). However, it is not just practices that have been unsustainable. Some policies have also played a role in encouraging unsustainable agriculture. For example, within the supply chain, even though EU member states have agreed on sustainability policies, they still run the risk of importing unsustainable products from “third countries” which may be cheaper in the short term, but more costly in the long run due to their impact on climate change (Fortuna, 2020). This also raises the issue of ensuring that sustainable policies do not disadvantage farmers regarding market prices and competitiveness. 

Furthermore, statistics indicate that the effects of climate change will lead to lower crop yields by 2050, alongside doubling population growth. This result will potentially lead to a tremendous amount of food insecurity (World Economic Forum, 2022), with the agricultural sector having contributed to the effects of climate change through unsustainable practices. Agricultural practices are unsustainable if they contribute to land, soil, and natural resource degradation, leading to a devastating outlook for global food production. There is therefore an urgent need to change the current agricultural system as it is actively worsening the effects of climate change which in turn is contributing to humanitarian crises (IFRC, 2022). 

The definition of sustainable agriculture is quite ambiguous (Siebrecht, 2020) and has been interpreted differently by many governments and organisations – this could be because many factors need to be considered to avoid unjustified exclusions. The US farm bill (1990) provides one clear example of an attempt to broadly define sustainable agriculture as an ‘integrated system of plant and animal production practices… that will, over the long term: (i) satisfy human food and fibre needs; (ii) enhance environmental quality and natural resource; (iii) make efficient use of… on-farm resources and integrate appropriate natural biological cycles and controls; (iv) sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and (v) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole’. This illustrates how the challenges that the agricultural sector faces do not just stem from its need to address population growth by achieving maximised crop production. 

Some challenges also include the need to ensure that productivity does not further damage the environment by implementing and upholding the use of green farming techniques, regulating the consumption of food, addressing the existent power and privilege dynamic among actors in all agricultural stages, and not neglecting the role that farmers play – both men and women. Thus, in addition to environmental degradation and human rights breaches, agriculture should also be deemed unsustainable if there is a continuous widening of the gender pay gap, unequal employment and technology opportunities and a failure to eradicate the glass ceiling. Therefore, many factors still need to be addressed to ensure that agriculture is sustainable, going beyond most of its current interpretations. Finding a uniform definition is quite complex due to many of the above factors that need to be considered. Hence, careful attention must be paid to ensuring that each aspect is tackled adequately, as limiting its definition risks the exclusion of empathy, fairness and equality. 

The role of women in agriculture

“Many development policies continue to wrongly assume that farmers are men.” (World Bank)

Globally, almost half the land is being used for agricultural activities, and an average of 41% of Europe’s land, specifically among the EU member states, is used for these activities (World Bank, n.d.). Such statistics single out Europe as one of the world’s leading producers of agricultural products. Hence, the EU’s approaches to issues in this sector have the power to either negatively or positively impact the global landscape. One issue to address is the level of inequality that women working in the agricultural sector face. This sector is said to be underperforming, partly because in many countries, women face several barriers that prevent them from being as productive as they could be, even though they are ‘a crucial resource in agriculture’ (SOFA and Cheryl, 2011). 

Some questionnaires on gender equality in agriculture, for example, were conducted by Corteva (2018), involving 806 women in Europe, specifically from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain. 68% of them expressed that they experienced discrimination in the agricultural sector, which was partly active (i.e. unequal opportunities) and partly institutional (i.e. being disadvantaged in agricultural technology advancements). Additionally, female farm and agricultural workers tend to be ‘undervalued and under-recorded’ (Beijing Conference, 1995) in their performance at work. Society often portrays men as stronger (Agerholm, 2019) and as being in a much better position to handle farming activities than their female counterparts. This gender bias prevents women from playing an equally active role in the sector. 

The idea of agriculture as male-dominated is still prevalent, meaning that global agricultural policies, agri-tech investments, profits made from farm production, and farm ownership and management are still disproportionately controlled by men. As a result, most women are not offered the same opportunities as men because of their gender (Agerholm, 2019). If they are included, they tend to perform less visible labour as statistical information of their contribution within the sector is not well recorded, and these inaccuracies mostly affect rural women (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2016). There is also a lack of recognition they face with regards to their agricultural work, an example of this is reflected by the low wages they receive. Women are also underrepresented, with only about 27% of EU farms run by women (ibid). Such inequalities negatively impact the progressive steps required for the long-term success of the agricultural sector. 

Subsequently, women’s engagement with the local community proves to be an ‘added advantage’ to agricultural work (European Parliament, 2017). This could be applied to several new agricultural strategies that need to be implemented because the level of women’s concern about and actions on environmental issues compared to that of men indicates that they are more likely to incorporate sustainable farming practices (Sachs et al., 2016) . Research also indicates that women can potentially develop ‘new activities, products and services’ (Ramona and Tihana, 2019) because of their creative and innovative skills. One example is the recent global increase of female innovators and leaders in the agri-food (production and processing) sector.  

Nurturing women’s role in agriculture would not only lead to agricultural sustainability but also create more green jobs, more successful policy implementations through the integration of gender equity measures, and the promotion of social inclusion. Additionally, it would address the difficulties of adequately researching and sampling evidence of specific impacts and influences of women’s activities in agricultural sustainability both in Europe and on a global scale (FAO, 2011). For example, little to no access to resources and equipment for women means lower productivity levels. More statistics are needed to demonstrate the contribution that women could make if they were provided with the same amount of tools and resources in agriculture as men.

Gender inequality in agriculture is one area ‘that has not been well documented’ (FAO, 2016) compared to other sectors or industries. Moreover, there has been more research and focus on the role of women in agriculture in developing countries and minimal research on women in developed countries. This is not meant to relativise the disproportionate disadvantages women in developing countries face. But it highlights the importance of addressing global gender issues using an equity lens in all sectors because the challenges that women face with regards to inequality are different, hence, they need to be understood and addressed differently according to their needs. 

Therefore, it is fundamental to establish in-depth assessments and statistics that could measure the impact women in Europe have towards agricultural sustainability – country specifically. In Lithuania for example, two of the main inequality issues in the 20th century were poverty and income inequality (Beijing conference, 1995). The approach in this situation was to ensure that women were given equal employment opportunities whilst addressing the gender pay gap. In Germany, young farmers face high competition costs with minimal profit made, so many are discouraged from working in agriculture (Euractiv, 2019). Another challenge in Germany is that women only manage 10% of farms (European Commission, 2021) which points to an issue of unequal opportunities that needs to be addressed.  

Country-specific investigations create more opportunities to understand the challenges that women face in agriculture while also increasing the chance of further development of agricultural sustainability, as previously discussed. Hence, there is a need to implement equitable policies and regulations to provide the necessary tools, resources, and programmes to support women in this field as this could ‘increase their participation in sustainable development’ (Beijing conference, 1995). Not only would the points mentioned above target gender equality and equity by addressing historical and present barriers in the sector; to an extent, they would also contribute to a reduction in poverty and the risk of food insecurity because of the global influence of Europe’s agricultural productivity. 

Addressing current agricultural issues such as gender inequality is a crucial element that needs to be attended to quickly, not only through words but also through action.  If the level of inequality in the agricultural sector persists, its current underperformance will inevitably worsen. Therefore, transitioning to sustainable agriculture is essential in tackling the effects of climate change and women play a central role in introducing and implementing such practices. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: ‘women can push countries to address the climate crisis… we need to turn the clock forward on women’s rights. The time is now’ (UN, 2022).


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