Participation People

Towards sustainable food security

Women and the Green Revolution

Prepared by the Women in Development Service (SDWW)
FAO Women and Population Division Division

THE GREEN REVOLUTION of the 1960s and 1970s, with its package of improved seeds, farm technology, better irrigation and chemical fertilisers, was highly successful at meeting its primary objective of increasing crop yields and augmenting aggregate food supplies. In Asia, where the Green Revolution package was the most widely adopted, food production increased substantially in those decades. Yet despite its success at increasing aggregate food supply, the Green Revolution as a development approach has not necessarily translated into benefits for the lower strata of the rural poor in terms of greater food security or greater economic opportunity and well being. Under-nutrition and poverty are still prevalent and the distribution of food remains skewed with families in landless, small-scale farming households and general labourers as high risk groups.

Studies of impact have shown that the better off strata of rural society have gained access to better incomes generated by the introduction of technology whereas the poorest stratum have tended to lose access to income that was available before its introduction. This has led to the recognition by development agencies, including FAO, of the need to formulate a more equitable and sustainable Green Revolution aimed at improving food security for the hard-core poor in rural areas. Much of the success of this new approach will depend on its ability to respond to the realities of the critical people involved in producing, providing and managing food supply within the poorest rural households - women farmers.

The impact of technological change in agriculture

The rapid modernisation of agriculture and the introduction of new technologies such as those which characterised the Green Revolution have had a differential impact on rural populations by both class and by gender. How the Green Revolution affected rural people depended on whether they are wage earners, cultivators, or consumers, whether they come from landed or landless, rich or poor, male or female headed households. However, two general trends are apparent: the wealthy have benefited more from technological change in agriculture than the less well off and men have benefited more than women.

Studies on the impact of the Green Revolution have shown that technological change can generate major social benefits but at the same time generate significant costs for particular categories of rural women that are different in kind and in intensity from those experienced by men. For example, the introduction of high-yielding varieties of rice in Asia has had a major impact on rural women's work and employment, most of it unfavourable by:

The effects of the adoption of high-yielding varieties (HYV) of rice and wheat in India provides a good example of how particular categories of rural women have been affected differently by technological change in agriculture. For the poorest women from landless or near landless households who rely on agricultural wage labour for survival, the data from India implies that although agricultural modernisation has increased the demand for agricultural labour, wage rates remained static or were depressed by an increasing supply of the work force. Not enough employment has been generated for all who are seeking work nor has the relative increase in employment opportunities necessarily resulted in an increased standard of living. Within this bleak employment scenario, women are paid lower wages than men and are often assigned the more labour- intensive tasks such as weeding, transplanting and harvesting.

Moreover, women labourers have clearly lost out from mechanisation of post-harvest activities - a traditional area of female wage employment- which may have offset any gains made by increasing employment due to the introduction of HYV technology packages. Low wages and displacement from work means that the majority of rural women in South Asia have insufficient income to improve their diets by taking advantage of the substantial increases in output for irrigated rice and wheat.

Employment consequences of technological change in agriculture

One of the most dramatic macro-level consequences of modernisation in agriculture has been the loss of wage labour opportunities for poor rural women due to the introduction of technology that mechanises tasks they traditionally perform. The clearest example of this situation is found in the mechanisation of post-harvest practices which has reduced the availability of wage work for women. The introduction of rice mills throughout Asia has made women labourers who were formerly involved with the winnowing, threshing and hand-pounding of rice redundant. In Bangladesh where manual de-husking of rice is the most important source of female wage employment in rural areas, and often the only source, modern mills employ men. The introduction of a subsidised scheme for motorised rice hullers in Java (Indonesia) is estimated to have thrown 1.2 million landless women, who were employed the in the handpounding of rice, out of work.

Agricultural modernisation in India appears to have had mixed effects on women in small-cultivator households. For many, the financial intensiveness of adopting the HYV package has increased the need for cash incomes with two effects on women; either forcing them to work as agricultural labourers or increasing their work burden for farming activities in an effort by the household to avoid the use of paid labourers. In households that have been able to take advantage of the technology package, women have generally benefited from the increased income to the household which means that they can withdraw from agricultural labour. The withdrawl from field work, however, has often translated into heavier work in the household compound (for example, cooking for hired labourers) rather than leisure.

Settlement schemes for irrigated rice production, which attempted to replicate the Green Revolution experience in Africa, rarely recognised the importance of women's independent farming and income-generating activities to meet family food requirements and cash for the purchase of goods vital to family well-being. Targeted at male household heads, these schemes introduced land reform and a heavy focus on cash crops which eroded female rights to land without easing their responsibility to feed the family or their need for cash income. The failure to perceive and/or respond to differential allocation of resources and responsibilities between men and women in farming households meant that women's labour requirements for cash crop production were increased although control of the income remained in the hands of men. Moreover, women were allocated small plots of marginal land for food production which resulted in insufficient food for the family and increased pressure on fragile environments.

These examples illustrate that most of the negative affects of agricultural modernisation on rural women are indirect consequences of the introduction of technologies which are rarely targeted at them or designed specifically for their needs. Rural women are rarely considered as clientele for agricultural research and development programmes or users of improved technology. Technical training and extension programmes are almost exclusively targeted at men thereby denying women opportunities to improve their skills and access to important channels of communication and state-sponsored support services. Moreover, when fed through traditional systems which limit women's access to resources and impose a sexual division of labour that allocate to women the most tedious, labour intensive and poorly rewarded work, the introduction of technology has the tendency to increase the labour burden of some of the poorest rural women without necessarily increasing their gains. It is clear from an examination of the gender related impact of technological change in agriculture that one needs to bear in mind intra-household allocations of labour, income and access to land as factors constraining women or affecting their ability to benefit from change.

Whose criteria matter?

The major technological thrust of the Green Revolution was the development by agricultural research centres of high yielding varieties of rice and wheat which under favourable conditions increase grain yield considerably over indigenous varieties. But increase in grain yield is not the only desired criteria of preference for women farmers who also value biomass and other components of the crop or plant. To a small producer, rice is not just grain: It provides straw for thatching and mat-making, fodder for livestock, bran for fish ponds, and husks for fuel. These products not only have a role in the domestic economy but are often a valuable input to other income-generating enterprises which provide a livelihood for many of the rural poor, especially women.

Closing the gap between scientists' priorities and those of women farmers will need to be an essential strategy for a more equitable and sustainable Green Revolution in order to design technologies that match the realities experienced by the majority of poor producers in non-irrigated, environmentally fragile areas. This can be brought about by creating channels of communication through participatory research and extension so that farmers can signal their technical requirements to breeders and breeders can learn from the experience of farmers in the optimal management of local varieties under restrictive environmental conditions.

Agricultural research and technology development programmes can assure responsiveness to gender equity issues by:

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