How Women Farmers Feed The World

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Now that the science about climate change is undeniable, the conversation is finally shifting to how we transition towards more regenerative living. Food is at the center of it all. The solutions are already out there if we know where to look, and Ashoka Fellow Beth Cardoso does. Brazil’s women farmers, she says, can show us the way.

“Women are the world’s greatest guardians of biodiversity”, says Ashoka Fellow Beth Cardoso, of CTA … [+] Zona da Mata.

CTA Zona da Mata

Andrea Margit: You work primarily with women farmers in Brazil. How are their agricultural practices different from men’s?

Beth Cardoso: Most women farmers grow food on small plots in their backyards or around their house, for their own consumption. Their work and economic contributions are completely invisible. What they produce and sell is not recorded by anyone, which means it’s not included in the agricultural census or the country’s GDP. Most often, the women themselves and their families are not even aware of the income they generate or save through their food production.

Margit: How do you bring visibility to these contributions?

Agroecological logbook

CTA Zona da Mata

Cardoso: At the Center for Alternative Technologies, we created a “agroecological logbook, which is both a political and pedagogical tool. It’s a simple notebook with four columns, where each day, women record the food they consumed, donated, exchanged or sold from their backyards. And then, they write down the market value for each type of transaction. For the first time in their lives, women farmers start seeing the value of their production. And this changes something in them. It’s empowering. It helps them see and value their contributions to their families and communities. Suddenly, they realize that they are autonomous.

Margit: Can you give us an example?

Cardoso: One of our female farmers came to me after recording her production data for three months and said: “That’s it! I’ve learned what I needed to learn. I can stop taking notes now.” So, I asked her: “What did you need to learn?” And she replied: “My husband says that I have to obey him because I eat his food. And in the past three months I have been able to prove to him and to myself that he is actually the one who eats my food.” She always thought that her husband was the provider and that she depended on him to eat but her perspective had changed completely! This new awareness of her own autonomy and contributions is very powerful.

Margit: You’re not only making women’s work more visible (and valued), but you’re also showing that small holder farming is a viable, sustainable alternative to monoculture.

Cardoso: Yes, exactly. The pandemic and now the war in Ukraine ahave shown just how resilient agroecology is in Brazil. Even though our current government has cut all subsidies for family agriculture, this kind of production has continued to thrive. This has a lot to do with the fact that women are growing food for their own consumption. That’s what is keeping family farming and agroecology alive in Brazil. Family agriculture is responsible for producing 70 percent of what we eat in this country. If women decided instead to grow only coffee as a monoculture following the dominant agricultural model, they would have to buy all the food they eat. So this kind of agriculture is much more sustainable economically and environmentally, and it’s more biodiverse. I always say that women are the world’s greatest guardians of biodiversity.

Margit: What would a just transition look like when it comes to our food systems?

Cardoso: To speak about a just transition, we have to first understand how unsustainable our current systems are. Industrial agriculture relies on monoculture, heavy machinery and chemicals that degrade our soil and our health, and it concentrates huge expanses of land in the hands of few agribusinesses. Let’s not forget that this is a very recent model in the history of humanity that dates back only to the 1950s and 1960s.

To me, a just food system is one that works the way nature does: cultivating a diversity of products on small plots of lands. If we go into a forest or a jungle, we never see just one kind of tree, just one kind of plant. Diversification protects nature from diseases. But monoculture attracts a lot more pests and diseases, which leads to the use of cancerous pesticides and chemicals. So, a just transition is one where we are healthier because we consume less poison, and where land isn’t concentrated in the hands of a few people. One where indigenous farmers and traditional communities get to stay on their land and care for it.

Margit: What role can everyone play in making this just transition happen?

Cardoso: We can all start by making slight changes to the food we eat. Agroecology is a model that is capable of sustaining and feeding the world. But we need everyone to rethink their consumption habits. We don’t need to eat tomatoes every day if they are not in season. We don’t need to have a wheat-based diet in a tropical country if that means importing the vast majority of our wheat, like we do in Brazil. If we go back to smaller production models, we’ll also be creating a lot more jobs for people who need them. Food is so important for our wellbeing and our planet. I always say that everyone should produce at least some of their own food, and everyone should cook.

Follow Beth Cardoso’s work on CTA Zona da Mata’s website and on Instagram. Learn more about Ashoka’s work on Planet & Climate.

This conversation was condensed and translated from Portuguese.

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