Gender impacts of globalizing agriculture

For small scale farmers, the benefits of agricultural commercialization can carry "significant economic and social costs"

A farming woman and daughter in Honduras [FAO/G. Bizzarri]

by Zoraida García

Small farmers in developing countries – and women farmers in particular – are increasingly excluded from the emerging globalized food economy.  Smallholders are typically among the poorest of the rural population. Constraints historically faced by rural women (usually among marginalized groups in rural areas who lack access to productive resources), hold them back from adopting new technologies, increasing their economies of scale or more fully participating in marketing channels higher upstream.

Trends indicate that smaller farmers in developing countries are increasingly abandoning or selling farms, leading to land concentration and expanded commercial crop production. Two recent examples from Latin America point to ways in which the concentration of production and processing tends to exclude smallholders from agriculture. More than 60 000 small dairy farmers in Brazil have abandoned the sector, unable to lower transaction costs and remain competitive under consolidated retail and processing outputs. In Guatemala, where glutted wholesale vegetable markets are giving way to an emerging consolidated food service, one successful farmer cooperative experienced a severe reduction in tomato producers, from 330 down to six in just one year. Cooperative members surviving the consolidation purchased land from those forced to exit.

Competition from cheap imports

A strong gender imbalance is fostered by this process of agricultural transformation and concentration of production and resources, as most women farmers tend to hold small-scale and family farms while men, more likely to own medium-sized or large scale commercial farms, are in a better position to capitalize on the expansion of agricultural tradable goods.

Although increased trade may promote investment, and the development of large-scale commercial farming and cash crops for export, it threatens household subsistence farming and small-scale production systems. The rapidly changing international environment has pressured farmers in developing countries into adapting and introducing technological improvements in their farming techniques in order to be able to compete in the domestic market with cheap agricultural imports and the large-scale production units of transnational corporations (TNCs).

Farmers unable to survive in this environment generally abandon agriculture. Women, usually in the majority among small and subsistence farmers, are not able to take advantage of the opening of new market opportunities for agriculture. As indicated by FAO, women's agricultural activities are limited by a lack of financial capital as well as constrained by inadequate access to productive resources. Women tend to present low levels of mechanization and technological inputs, which translates into low productivity.

The intensification of agricultural trade fosters the commercialization of small farms. Integration with the market tends to generate broader changes in rural livelihoods and usually includes diversification of household income, and engaging in off-farm activities or migrating to areas in which waged labour is required. This change in income source affects all types of household capital assets, from the physical and financial to the social and environmental, and interacts with other components of the livelihood system. Household resources tend to be reallocated in favour of cash crop intensification, which may undermine household food production and the role traditionally held by women in being primarily responsible for family food security.

The cost of "household well-being"

An FAO survey of 16 small-farming commercialization (SFC) projects in 14 developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America found that, in most cases, increased income entailed losses in the human economy and social reproduction. The cost of buying replacements for household food production, child care, social activities, leisure, education, creative expression and so on, may outstrip the purchasing power of the extra cash.

Women had a double economic disadvantage, compared with men. They continued to be fully responsible for "reproductive" work such as pregnancies, child care and housekeeping. Second, men controlled the income generated by SFC, even if women had invested an equal or higher amount of labour in its generation. In about half of cases, SFC's impact on women in terms of household decision-making and status in the community were considered neutral or negative.

As FAO's research shows, rural households bear significant economic and social costs to attain the benefits of small farm commercialization (SFC) and the expansion of tradable goods. The increased income generated by commercialization requires a parallel increase in household workload. Findings suggest the ambivalence of this impact on rural livelihoods: monetary income brings purchasing power but entails losses in the human economy and social reproduction.

Household tasks and off-farm employment

As agriculture becomes progressively more market-oriented, rural households can find themselves dependent on monetary income to fulfil family food basic needs. Women in rural areas are traditionally responsible for providing food for the family and may be forced to diversify their livelihoods, seek off-farm employment or emigrate. As a result, rural women find themselves with an increased work burden. They continue to have their traditional primary responsibility for household tasks while integrating into the labour market.  

Moreover, the switch over, in market-oriented economies, of agricultural land use to cash crops and exports appears to impinge on food growing; the new land use and management strategies do not attempt to sustain household and community livelihood strategies as a safety net and solely reflect a short-term economic profit-oriented focus.

Expansion in commercial crop production may have an adverse impact on smallholders and local domestic markets but, at the same time, export-oriented production may help to increase off-farm employment opportunities for women in the short term. Although wages are low, off-farm sources of employment for women in Ghana and Uganda seem to play an important role in yielding the lowest and most rapidly declining rural poverty rates for female heads of households.  Women who have traditionally grown their family's food and move out in search of off-farm employment may suffer from a shortage of food supply from the family plots, with implications for the family's nutritional status.